Cold Comfort

13th June 2021

In Georgian times, offering your guests a delicious frozen dessert was the height of decadent hospitality – and Goodwood’s icehouses were the pride of the estate.

 

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Words by Luke Sargent.

 

Much to the chagrin of Roman author Pliny the Elder (who thought chilling summer wines with winter snows to be degenerate and unnatural), people have been refreshed by a cool summer tipple for millennia. Ice gatherers would harvest snow at the mountaintop by night and trundle back downhill in time to reach the market before sunrise. Where access to ice was less regular, ancient civilisations would shovel and compact winter snowfall into deep pits and cover it with straw, conserving the ice for the warmer months to come.

Throughout the Middle Ages, these pits were entirely function over form – utilitarian structures that stored ice not just for dunking into wine, but for preserving meats and soothing fevers. The practice of using ice for more indulgent purposes first appeared in fashionable 16th-century Italy, chiefly thanks to the lavish parties of the staggeringly affluent Medici family and their Florentine confectioners, who were famed for their delicious sherbets and ices.

An early plan of the estate showing the original icehouse’s position in relation to Goodwood House.

An early plan of the estate showing the original icehouse’s position in relation to Goodwood House.

It is said that Catherine de’ Medici and her talented artisans brought the art of creating decadent frozen desserts to France, and from that initial spark the craft flourished, with ices becoming a centrepiece of French high society.


During Charles II’s (the 1st Duke of Richmond’s father) exile in Versailles, he became enamoured with the palace’s icehouse and its ability to “conserver le gibier du roi” (preserve the King’s game). On his return to England, he immediately had plans drawn up to put an icehouse in London’s newly created Green Park. Coincidentally, the diarist and horticulturist John Evelyn had just ended his Grand Tour, bringing back notes on many continental icehouses, and he soon found work designing these as landscape features. Ranging in depth from eight to thirty-three feet, these well-like structures were often placed in a prominent position, complemented with walled gardens or a ring of trees, as they exuded an air of wealth and status.


Goodwood has two icehouses. One is a Georgian garden feature occupying an eye-catching position in the park, while the remains of another lie in the private gardens of High Wood, close to The Dairy. An icehouse-like structure appears on the earliest of Goodwood plans (possibly a timber building used to preserve the game hunted from the deer park), and the 18th-century icehouse that exists today is designed around a garden seat that offers a vista across to the cricket pitch and beyond – and would almost certainly have been used for entertaining.

The 18th-century fashion for eating ices, as shown in a Gilray cartoon of the era (Library of Congress).

The 18th-century fashion for eating ices, as shown in a Gilray cartoon of the era (Library of Congress).

For the Georgians, eating and drinking often centred around a garden building, as walking, talking and consuming were common leisure pursuits. Goodwood had several eye-catching garden features that provided both interest and respite during a morning or afternoon promenade, including the banqueting house, Carné’s Seat, and the exquisite Shell House. Social gatherings usually happened in summer, coinciding with the ripening fruits the estate provided, such as strawberries and peaches, all of which were kept fresh with ice from the icehouse. Milk from the estate’s cows became ice-creams, bombes, and the popular syllabub: a mixture of cream and wine whipped to a froth.

Sadly, use of icehouses began to decline in the 19th and early 20th centuries as gas-powered refrigeration technology became more widespread and affordable – and many icehouses were closed up and forgotten. In 2018, for example, a vast underground icehouse dating from the 1780s was discovered by workmen working on the Regent’s Crescent development in London’s Marylebone. By the time of the great Edwardian house parties and the era of French chef, Monsieur Rousseau, servants no longer had to dash across the park but had the luxury of the latest refrigeration gadgets nearby.


Today, the legacy of Goodwood’s icehouses is somewhat neglected, so if you are lucky enough to be seated in the sunshine with a bowl of pistachio gelato this summer, do spare a thought for these forgotten former superstars of delicious cold confection.

 

This article was taken from the Spring 2021 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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