Ice Under The Volcano | Story

Ice Under The Volcano

Ice Under The Volcano

Mount Vesuvius is the volcano in the Bay of Naples in modern Italy. It erupted spectacularly in 79ap, famously destroying the town of Pompeii, again in 1631, and four times between 1760 and 1794. Young aristocratic men from across Europe on their Grand Tour in the latter part of the eighteenth-century flocked to Naples to see the sights-and to climb the volcano. In the cool evenings after the heat of the day’s excursion, they walked along the seafront, entertained by storytellers, and eating ice cream bought from a street vendor. Naples has a long-standing association with ice cream. One of the earliest European cookery books, from the end of the seventeenth century, called New and Quick Ways to Make All Kinds of Sorbets with Ease was devoted to the making of sorbet or flavored ice. The passion continued to the modern invention of Neapolitan ice cream, and still flourishes today. 

However, recent research has revealed much more about the production, distribution, and consumption of ice cream in Naples, showing the wider significance of this eighteenth-century Neapolitan passion. For example, the popularity of ice cream consumption in the city challenges some of the ideas about luxury in Europe at this time. Eighteenth-century Paris and London were at the forefront of European cultural and economic development, partly as a result of the rising consumption of sugar, then a luxury. As sugar is a key ingredient in making ice cream, it too was a luxury commodity. But in Naples, then the third-largest city in Europe, the availability of alternative sweeteners, such as fermented grape syrup, meant that ice cream was much cheaper to make and so not a luxury at all. 

For this reason, unlike in Paris and London, all social classes in Naples were able to enjoy ice cream. The ice cream was eaten not only outside in city squares, gardens, and shops, but inside the home as well. A Neapolitan cookery book of 1778 reveals an extraordinary variety of ice cream flavors, from fennel to cinnamon. The ice cream was made not only in aristocratic palaces to be eaten off specially commissioned porcelain ice cream plates, but also in middle-class homes. 

A network of ice cream shops in Naples functioned as did coffee houses in England and other European cities in the eighteenth century. The ice cream shops were somewhere to read newspapers, exchange news and socialize. Indeed, in this hotter southern European climate, the ice cream shops or sorbetterie were a place for conversation and debate, just like the coffee house in the cooler climate of northern Europe. A traveler in the 1780s wrote: ‘The passion for iced water is so great and general at Naples, that none but mere beggars will drink it in its natural state; and, I believe, a scarcity of bread would not be more severely felt than a failure of snow.’ Pictures and engravings were made of Neapolitan street scenes showing sorbet sellers which illustrate how common was the consumption of ice cream and sorbets.


Behind the domestic enthusiasm for ice cream eating lay an important industry. Snow, essential for making the ice cream, was harvested in the mountain slopes of Vesuvius. An entire micro-economy was centered around the harvesting of snow and the production and transportation of ice across the bay of Naples to the city. The taxation system showed how important the industry was to the city. It protected ice as an essential commodity and when the tax system was reformed in 1806, its economic value was recognized alongside the staples of grain and oil. The price of ice fluctuated: it was higher in the winter when it was riskier to cross the bay, and it rose during the day as it melted and became scarce. 

Evidence of the importance of ice at that time can be seen today in the churches where sailors prayed before they crossed the bay. The churches are named after Santa Maria della Neve, the Virgin Mary of the Snow. Still today people have memories of grandparents who worked in the ice pits hidden in beechwood forests near Vesuvius. The snow was collected and stored in these pits until the early twentieth century.

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