Ice Cream, Wonder Woman, and Favourite Flavours

  • 2022-23
Ice Cream, Wonder Woman, and Favourite Flavours

Every weekend as a child I would listen out for the ice cream van that would patrol the streets around my boyhood home in Manchester.

Its arrival was signalled by a wonky, tuneless melody, whose flattened harmonies recalled the bright, festive music you might hear when visiting the circus.

It may only have been squirty, whipped cream on offer, but to me at that time it tasted great – sweet, refreshing, and, if topped with a chocolate log - or 99 as it was called in the UK - then the effect was close to luxurious, the best treat of the week. 

At the age of four, I had my tonsils removed, and I remember the therapy leading up to the operation involved eating ice cream, which worked as a soothing balm on my inflamed throat.

The association with ice cream and Italy was forged early, with a TV advertisement you can still see on YouTube for Wall’s ice cream. Using the image of a gondolier in Venice and the operatic music of ‘O Sole Mio…’, the lyrics ran: Just one cornetto / Give it to me / Delicious ice cream / From Italy…

Of course, the Wall’s Cornetto was made outside Italy, but it is only when you come here that you realise Italian ice cream, like the coffee, is incontestably better than any other.

Ice cream enjoys a strong filmic tradition. The 1946 movie, It’s a Wonderful Life sees the young George Bailey meet his future love in an ice cream parlour.

Audrey Hepburn enjoys a gelato on the Piazza di Spagna with Gregory Peck in the 1953 romantic comedy, Roman Holiday. And Forrest Gump recognises that the only good thing about being shot in the buttocks is being fed ice cream, which he gorges on in hospital.

When the makers of Wonder Woman wanted to signal the transition of the heroine to a new world, they chose a shot of her tasting ice cream and being impressed by the ability of ordinary human beings to make such amazing stuff.

But what exactly is ice cream and where does it come from?

Ice cream basically comprises solidified cream or milk (sorbet contains no dairy product), which is then combined with sugar, water and flavouring. It is the precise proportions of these ingredients that can make a difference to the quality and taste.

It is not true that Marco Polo brought the idea back from China to Europe. Nor did Emperor Nero force slaves to bring back ice from the mountains.

The process of making ice was first discovered in China in the ninth century. It then spread to India and Persia. In the sixteenth century, the first published recipe appeared in Europe.

As the role of a dessert after dinner (dolce) became more important, so flavoured ice cream started to appear as a novelty in the experimental kitchens of European aristocracy.

In the eighteenth century there are reports from those pursuing the Grand Tour of Europe, of ice cream being sold on the streets of Naples.

But it was difficult to make and keep. To survive, the ice had to be maintained at less than minus 10 degrees centigrade. Salt was used to help it remain frozen. It required ice houses, protected from the sun, or for snow to be stored in municipal pits.

The first ice cream factory was established in America, though initially they ran into trouble with the church when they tried to sell ice cream on Sundays.

Prohibition laws in America during the 1920s gave ice cream manufacturing a big boost. Instead of selling alcohol, bars converted to soda fountains, with a wide distribution network already in place.

The process of refrigeration then transformed and helped hugely to domesticate the practice of producing and consuming ice cream.

According to the American playwright, Thornton Wilder, ice cream was one of the consolations of a godless universe. ‘My advice to you,’ he said, ‘is not to enquire why or whither, but just enjoy your ice cream while it’s on your plate.’

Vanilla is the most popular flavour across the world. My own personal favourite flavours are pistachio and nocciola. I prefer a cone to a cup, relishing that last biscuity crunch with the final residue of ice cream ensconced at the bottom. 

Aside from the taste, the way to identify a real or authentic ice cream as opposed to one filled with air and water is that you cannot ‘feast’ on real ice cream. You can only eat so much of it, because it is just too satisfying.

The existence of a fine ice cream shop in the piazza close to the school is a wonderful thing. Each year, we treat all our Year 11 students to an ice cream on their last day of school before the beginning of the IGCSE exams.

Ice cream combines science (chemistry and technology) with rich historical traditions to generate a sensual gastronomic delight, making it not just an education in taste but also an object lesson in international trade, and a great subject for cultural study.

In the 2006 movie, Little Miss Sunshine, the daughter – an aspiring Miss America – is warned not to eat ice cream because it can be fattening. But the occasional treat of an ice cream, especially in melting temperatures, is something everyone should be able to enjoy.

Along with school, it is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. Even now, if I hear the out-of-tune melody of the ice cream van in England, I am transported back to my youth and the idea of an ice cream as a just reward for my hard work in lessons during the week – the sensation of a plastic spatula luxuriating upside down on my tongue.


Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

  • Culture