What kind of ice cream was served to Nicholas II?

Ice cream in its modern version first appeared in Russia, in the 18th century, its recipe, published in Новейшая и полная поваренная книга / The Newest and Complete Cookbook (1791) by Nikolai Maksimovich Yatsenkov.

Mention of ice cream was not only recorded in the memoirs of members of the Imperial Court, but also in the works of poets and writers. The great Russian Romantic writer, poet and painter Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841), obliged his home cook to serve ice cream daily. Another Russian writer Thaddeus Bulgarin (1789-1859) writes about Venetian ice cream in his novel Ivan Vyzhigin (1829). The poet Gavriil Derzhavin (1743-1816), in honor of his name day, every year arranged a gala dinner, at the end of which ice cream was served in the form of an ancient temple or castle.

One of the scenes that struck the French aristocrat and writer Marquis de Custine (1790-1857) in the summer of 1839, was Muscovites eating ice cream in the Alexander Garden.

“Muscovites: shaved, curled, in tailcoats and white pantaloons, in yellow gloves, sit at ease in front of brightly lit cafes, eat sweet ice cream and listen to music? In the summer this can now be observed in Moscow every evening,” he wrote.

PHOTO: early 20th century Russian ice cream vendor

Expensive pleasure

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Russian people were content with traaditional folk dishes: cheesecakes and pancakes, syrniki [sweet cheese pancakes], topped with delicious sour cream and jam. Meanwhile, ice cream had acquired the status of a popular, fashionable and incredibly expensive dessert among Russia’s nobility. The new-fashioned cold treat was present at every social event, ball, and lavish feast.

At the time, sugar was in very short supply and was very expensive, which is why the old ice cream recipes, were considered an expensive pleasure, one which was only available to the very rich. Nevertheless, ice cream was already gaining popularity at Russian tables. By the end of the 18th century, they began to complete dinner with this cold treat more and more often.

The Court cooks slowly and masterfully coped with the whimsical melting product, creating new cold desserts, which included “Vesuvius on the Mont Blanc” – ice cream set on a platter, doused with rum or cognac and set aflame.

The production of ice cream by hand was a time-consuming and small-volume business. The amount of product directly depended on refrigeration equipment, which helped with the process of creating and preserving these cold delicacies.

The full-fledged and well-established production of ice cream in Russia began in the 1830s, when a shop was opened at a Moscow dairy plant, equipped with all the necessary equipment.

By the beginning of the 19th century, ice cream continued to gain popularity and more widely available, including fairs. Writer Pavel Efebovsky wrote in his essay Petersburg Peddlers: “Ice cream is sold by a Russian peasant in a huge tub filled with ice. This tub alone weighs at least three pounds . . . Only it’s expensive: a glass in three sips costs as much as two silver kopecks”.

Up until the middle of the 19th century, ice cream in Russia was prepared exclusively by hand. It was only in 1845, the Swiss-born restaurateur and confectioner Johann-Lucius Isler (1810-1877) patented a machine that made it possible to produce this delicacy mechanically. Isler opened one of the most popular St. Petersburg cafes on Nevsky Prospekt, where they served ice cream with unusual ingredients for that time: fruit liqueur, ground coffee, infusion of orange flowers, pistachios, walnuts. At the same time, three main varieties of cold desserts appeared: sorbetto (or sherbet) – a heavily chilled fruit drink; granito made from frozen fruit juice and ice cream – a dense mass of milk or cream with sugar and various ingredients, similar to modern ice cream.

PHOTO: this richly decorated Coronation menu indicates that ice cream was served at the Gala dinner in the Alexander Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace, Moscow, dated 23rd May 1896

Ice cream at the Imperial Court

During the reign of Empress Catherine II, when various overseas amusements and dishes were very fashionable in Russia, recipes for ice cream made from cream and egg whites, included such ingredients as chocolate, lemon, currants, cranberries, raspberries, cherries and oranges.

During the reigns of her successors, ice cream continued to be popular at the Imperial Court. Emperor Alexander I had a French chef named Carem, who invented new types of this dessert to surprise the monarch. Emperor Nicholas I, on the other hand, refused ice cream: based on his solidarity with his brother Michael, who was on a strict diet on the advice of doctors. But the emperor’s wife Empress Alexandra Fedorovna ordered two portions of ice cream from the pastry shop every day for the amount of 1 ruble 72 kopecks.

Richly decorated menus confirm that Мороженое [ice cream] was served to guests at elaborate State Banquets. In particular, ice cream was served to members of the Imperial Family, Russian nobles and visiting foreign delegations, at the Gala dinners held over a three-week period in the Great Kremlin Palace in Moscow, during the festivities marking the Coronation of Emperor Nicholas II in May 1896.

PHOTO: Maria Grigorievna Rasputina with a portrait of her father Grigorii Rasputin, in exile, 1972

Ice cream was especially popular at table of the last Emperor and his family. The recipe for “Romanov ice cream”, which was invented specifically for Nicholas II, has been preserved to this day. It included sugar, 10 egg yolks, heavy cream, whipping cream and vanilla. “I remember ice cream, the like of which I have never eaten anywhere else,” wrote the daughter of Grigorii Rasputin, Maria (1898-1977).

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© Paul Gilbert. 2 August 2022