A while ago someone wrote to me asking about the origins of Neapolitan ice cream – the kind with vanilla, strawberry and chocolate all in one pack. I have memories of those ice cream bricks that came wrapped in cardboard and would just fit in the tiny freezer compartment of my mother’s 1950s refrigerator. Strawberry was my least favourite flavour and vanilla was a bit meh, so it was always a race with my siblings to score as much of the chocolate as possible.
But why Neapolitan and when did the idea of layering three flavours of ice cream together emerge? Many early references aren’t about the multi-coloured version at all. Recipes for making Neapolitan ice cream declare that “this is just a simple thick custard, frozen in the usual way”. In Western Australia, in 1888, there was an ice cream manufacturer that called itself the Neapolitan Ice Cream Company. They competed with Mrs Wood, of Hastings Street, Fremantle, who claimed that her recipes were “obtained from the Italian who made ice cream for the kind of Italy and the elite of Naples”.
There seemed to be a general recognition that it was the Italians (and perhaps the Napoletani) who had developed ice cream making into a fine art. Indeed the first modern recipe for ice cream as we know it came from a chef named Antonio Latini in Naples in the late 17th century.
The chocolate, vanilla and strawberry combination we now know seems to have come to us via America, although it may well have originated in France. Larousse Gastronomique says:
Neapolitan ice cream consists of three layers, each of a different color and flavor (chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla), moulded into a block and cut into slices. Neapolitan ice-cream makers were famous in Paris at the beginning of the 19th century, especially Tortoni, creator of numerous ice-cream cakes.”
The tricolour treat may have originally had some relationship to the red, white and green Italian flag, with a pistachio layer instead of chocolate. It seems the multi-layered ice cream “cake” was well-known in the USA by the 1870s. And by 1894, at least, it was here in Australia.
The making of ice cream relied on a supply of ice and, by this time, artificially-made ice was readily available in Australia’s major cities. An article in the Australian Town and Country Journal in November of that year gives details of how ice cream was made.
The ice cream now in general use is manufactured from a combination of milk, pure cream and gelatine, flavored with different extracts, such as vanilla, lemon, strawberry, &c, the ingredients being first mixed up together and placed in circular metal vessels or runners which revolve around in side of circular wooden tubs, the runners being surrounded by a quantity of cracked ice and rock salt. Each runner is furnished with a beater having a number of blades which revolve around on the inside, beating up the material, the ice and rock salt causing it to thicken and form itself into ice cream.
The ice cream was packed into cans or formed into bricks in metal moulds. The article explains that “Neapolitan bricks of ice cream are made by placing one layer of cream over another, such as vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, & c.”
We don’t buy ice cream bricks any more, but most major brands still offer a Neapolitan variety in a tub. And, no doubt, kids still scramble to see who can put dibs on the chocolate.