Empress of ice cream
An interview with Anthony Capella
What made you decide to write about ice cream?
It was pure coincidence, really. I was researching a different story entirely when I happened to read Elizabeth David’s book ‘Harvest of the Cold Months’, a history of ice cream and ices that she was working on when she died. It was published posthumously, almost as she left it, so it’s a curiously structured book in places, but it contains several chapters on the development of ice cream.
Like many people I had a vague idea that ice cream was brought to Europe by Marco Polo from China, or alternatively that it had something to do with the Arabs who conquered Sicily, but Elizabeth David does a very good job of debunking all the myths and showing that, prior to the 1660s, all that existed were flavoured water ices – what Italians now call granite. The development of sorbets, and then eventually ice creams, was part of the process by which the freezing technology – that is, adding saltpetre or salt to ice to make a mixture cold enough to freeze liquids – gradually moved north through Europe.
Louis XIV, it’s known, loved ices, and had a ‘limonadier’ at his court who made sorbets and chilled cordials. But, remarkably, the first recorded mention of ‘ice cream’ anywhere in the world is in England, at the court of Charles II. During the years of the English Civil War he had spent time in Europe, both at the court of Louis XIV and elsewhere, and when he returned to England he made a point of bringing the country up to date, as he saw it, with French fashions in clothes, theatre – and food. Unfortunately he also brought back the French idea of the king as absolute ruler, which put him on a collision course with Parliament. Anyway, he started building ice houses – his royal ice house was in what is now Green Park, near the Ritz: you can still make out the mound where it stood. And from that, of course, came the ice for his ices in summer – and for the frozen creams that some clever confectioner or chef devised from them.
I like the idea that this essentially foreign, indulgent novelty of ice combined with the native English dairy tradition – custards, possets, eggnogs, creams and so on – to make something which was better than either.
Ice cream in this book seems to have a different role from the food in your other books.
Yes – with each book I write, I try to take a different aspect of food and use it to tell the story. In ‘The Empress of Ice Cream’, ice cream is first and foremost a political weapon – a way of demonstrating the wealth and status of a ruler, or a mark of royal favour. For Louis XIV, the gift of an ice cream maker to Charles II is essentially a little extra bribe to add to the millions of crowns they had already promised him in return for war against the Dutch. And, of course, it was accompanied by the gift of a potential French mistress, Louise de Keroualle.
Louise seems like an interesting character. Do you think the real Louise was anything like the woman you describe?
Well, all I’m doing is joining the dots between the known facts. It’s certainly true that she resisted Charles for over a year before finally becoming his lover. Yet she had agreed to go to the English court within weeks of her own patroness, Charles’s sister, dying in France. What could have made her so eager to place herself in that position, yet so reluctant to take the final step that had so obviously been planned for her by those who sent her? There must have been some kind of inner struggle going on there.
Later on, she certainly became ‘corrupt’, in the sense that she took bribes and used her sexuality to get her own way. But before we judge her too harshly, we should remember that her lover, the king himself, was also taking bribes; that she was sent to England penniless, yet was expected to run a grand court-within-the-court, and that corruption was regarded in a different light then – even Samuel Pepys wasn’t above taking the odd backhander. Post-civil-war England was a more lawless, more unstable, more entrepreneurial place than it was in later centuries: more like post-communist Russia or post-colonial Africa, perhaps.
Is it true that Louise’s parents cut her off when they realised what she had done?
Yes. Discovering that – that they came to England, but didn’t visit their own daughter at court – was one of the things that gave me an insight into the complexities of her position.
You’ve mentioned one way in which this book is different from your others. Are there more?
Certainly. For one thing, it’s less comedic than, say, The Food of Love. And the love story takes a less central role. In that sense, it’s closer to a ‘historical’ novel than a romance. What my existing fans will make of that, I don’t know. But I am certain I couldn’t have told this story in the same style as ‘The Food of Love’.
But there are some deliciously comic moments? Such as Louise and Carlo’s early antagonism?
I tried to make the comedy appropriate, both to the story and the period. The relationship between Louise and Carlo, for example, is in some ways reminiscent of those sparring couples you find in Restoration comedies such as Congreve’s ‘The Way of the World.’ I assume that, in turn, was a reflection of the way men and women actually were with each other then.
And – without giving too much away – the ending was a surprise.
Was it? Well, again, I wanted to be true to the known facts. But it was something more than that… My overall impression of the period, from my research, was just how overwhelmingly cynical it was. Kings bribing each other; men and women viewing each other with distrust…. alliances and double-dealing and dishonesty… you can hear it in those comedies I mentioned; you can see it in the letters I quote between the French diplomats, laughing about Louise’s predicament behind her back; you can see it in the lofty, amused tone of the libertines of the day; you catch it in Rochester’s bilious satires. You even find an echo of it in Marvell’s wonderful poem, ‘Had we but world enough and time / This coyness, lady, were no crime…’ It was an age when cynicism was celebrated.
So that seemed to me to be both a problem, and an opportunity: a problem, in that many of these people can seem to us pretty unlikeable, and an opportunity, in that I can show my hero being both touched by that cynicism and, ultimately, rejecting it.
Cold and warmth are themes that crop up again and again.
Yes. And there are, undoubtedly, some chilly characters. Ice is not just a fashionable foodstuff: ice stands for a whole approach to life: cold, glittering, insubstantial, showy, privileged, and detached.
Yet our idea of ice cream today is that it’s a simple, harmless pleasure – an everyday indulgence.
Exactly, but that wasn’t always the case. I want to show how it got there, and how it might easily have stayed the preserve of royalty – as swan, say, still is.
You say you’ve been true to the historical facts. But there also seem to be echoes of fairy stories in ‘The Empress of Ice Cream’.
I think all my books have echoes of fairy stories. Partly, it’s because any story about food automatically taps into those ancient stories of our culture – magic porridge pots, apples of temptation, trails of breadcrumbs, gingerbread houses…. But partly it’s because I am definitely interested in myths and how they give weight and structure to a story.
Even as I wrote ‘The Empress of Ice Cream’ I was struck by how certain fairy-story elements were there in the actual, historical record. For example, one of the oldest myths of our culture is ‘the wounded king’, about a ruler so disabled by grief, or desire, or greed, that he’s unable to govern. At certain times Charles II was certainly like that – it is absolutely true, for example, that he was incapacitated with sorrow after his sister’s death.
Another potent myth is the story of ‘the frozen land’ – a king, and a kingdom, in the grip of a beautiful but cruel princess, which as a result can’t struggle out of winter. England at the time I write of was in the grip of the ‘mini ice age’: almost every year the Thames froze over, and towns were cut off by snow and ice for three or four months. I wanted to set Carlo’s journey towards self-knowledge against that backdrop.
And the title? Where did that come from?
The Wallace Stevens poem ‘The Emperor of Ice Cream’ has long been one of my favourites. At first reading, it’s quite baffling. An old woman is dead, and the speaker is apparently organising her funeral. He appears to be a neighbour, or possibly the undertaker. Every so often, though, he repeats the odd phrase ‘Let be be finale of seem: / The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.’
I take it to mean that, when all is said and done, life boils down to the here and now, to just ‘being’ – that simple pleasures are all we really have; that power and politics and ambition eventually melt away to nothing, and that every attempt to ‘seem’ what we are not is doomed to failure. It is, perhaps, quite a cynical perspective; but in the face of death, also an honest one.