Frozen treats of one sort or another have been with us for a minimum of 3,000 years. The earliest of these were what we moderns would call “ices”, nothing more than fruit pulp mixed with shaved ice or slush. The cold stuff was either snow that had been brought down (quickly) from a mountain top, or slush shaved off blocks of lake ice stored in caves. Records of that sort of seasonal ice storage date back to at least 1000 BC in China, though it’s well known that the Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Babylonians all enjoyed iced fruit concoctions of various kinds — frequently “kicking them up a notch” (as they say in Emeril-speak) with honey.
Experimentation with ices continued into the Middle Ages, during which time Europeans almost certainly tried bringing cream or milk to the party. The trouble there being that cream, due to all the fat it contains, has a freezing point well below that of water. Thus the best people of the era were able to achieve was a milky slush not all that different from today’s smoothies.
This is the point where the technically-savvy Medieval Arabs enter the picture, for it was they who discovered that by adding various salts to water, a chilling effect was created. Oddly, the Arabs never did much with the technology, mostly using it to make small-scale beverage chillers for the wealthy. Yet that germ of an idea was later capitalized on by Europeans, who discovered that salt added to slush ice actually yielded temperatures well below the freezing point of water. The dawn of the age of ice cream had begun.
First out of the gate were the Italians, who pioneered frozen milks and creams in the mid-1600’s, the forebears to modern-day gelato. The technique soon spread to France, where, despite their notorious love of dairy, the French mostly used salt-and-ice chillers to create water ices, frozen blends of fruit juice, sugar and liquers. It would be another century at least before the French would create what is today known in America as “French-style” ice cream, essentially frozen custard.
Which pretty much brings us up to date. Oh, and all that stuff you’ve heard about Marco Polo bringing the technology for ice cream back from China? Forget it.