24 Jan 2021

Scooped: The history of ice cream in New Zealand

From The Weekend with Karyn Hay , 10:08 am on 24 January 2021

New Zealanders are among the biggest consumers of ice cream in the world - each eating an incredible 23 litres per annum on average. And we have a surprisingly long relationship with ice cream in this country too - dating all the back to the 1800s.

iice cream at the beach

ice cream at the beach Photo: public domain

Chris Newey from the NZ Ice Cream Manufacturers Association joined The Weekend to discuss the colourful history of ice cream in Aotearoa.

He says New Zealanders are big consumers of ice cream, even outeating Americans who are supposedly world champions, however, the statistics are hard to prove because of all the different categories for how ice cream can be eaten.

New Zealand can prove a long history with ice cream because the association, which was founded in 1927,  has kept meticulous records as well as publishing journals and magazines. "So there was an awful lot of information sitting in their archives in Wellington."

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Photo: 123RF

Newey says the invention of ice cream is contentious. There is a suggestion that in the 12th century Marco Polo brought back a recipe from China (the Chinese used to bring snow down from the mountains to mix it with ingredients to make a form of ice cream).  The Italians were early fans, as well as the French.   

It is also difficult to pin down the first ice creams in New Zealand. Newey says the early settlers from the UK would have brought recipes with them, and had access to hand-cranked ice cream churns. Sugar was coming from Australia and they had a supply of milk and cream.

"The missing ingredient was ice - you had to either go up to the mountains or find some snow or something to freeze the ice cream. That would have been the difficult part.

"The first evidence we have of somebody selling ice cream was in 1866 when Mr James Osgood of the Empire Hotel in Wellington advertised ice cream for sale at his restaurant."

A surviving advertisement explains that the ice he used came from a lake in Massachusetts. Newey said he was "staggered" to find that in the 1840s there was a thriving industry in lake ice in the US.

"There were several lakes in the eastern states of America that in winter would calve the ice into large blocks, and load it onto wagons and trains and send it to the ports, stack it closely together in ships, packed all around with sawdust  and other insulation. They would ship it to England, India,  and eventually out to Australia and New Zealand. Incredible."

During months of sea travel there would be some melting but ice could be taken out in large blocks at the end of the journey and despite the loss, it was still commercially viable.

Some well-off people had ice houses in their homes so they would have ice on hand to make their ice cream or a cold drink. Ice houses were made from tin or steel with a lining of insulation such as seaweed, cork or sawdust to slow down the melting. A tray underneath caught the melting water.

"The ice lasted for several days and then when you ran out you'd go to the ice shop and buy some more."

In the early days the chilled ice cream mix had to be whipped in an appliance such as a butter churn which had the ice and salt packed around the outside of it.

"They would hand crank the machine which had scraper blades running around the inside of the churn and that would scrape the frozen ice cream off the edges of the inside of the machine   and whip air into it at the same time."    

After an Australian invented a mechanical ice making machine the technology spread to New Zealand and by the 1870s it was possible to buy factory-made ice in this country.

Some of the first uses were sending lamb and butter to England in refrigerated ships and this was also the time the ice cream industry began.

Ice Cream Charlie

One character from ice cream's history is Sali Mohamet who was nic-named Ice Cream Charlie. He possibly came to New Zealand from Iran in the late 1800s. He and his dad were hawkers travelling around the country until in 1903 he settled in Christchurch and began selling ice cream from a cart in Cathedral Square.

"It became very, very popular - he had a great little business."

Eventually, he bought a house in St Albans and operated a small factory there, getting blocks of ice from a local meat works.

"He'd make his ice cream, pack ice around it, put it into his cart behind a horse, take it into the Square and sell it all day and then come home at night and make his next batch for the next day."

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Sali Mahomet at his property in St Albans. Photo: Christchurch City Libraries

Two of his carts are at the Ferrymead Transport Museum in the city, but others have continued the Ice Cream Charlie tradition with their own carts to this day.

Sundaes a substitute for sodas

The ice cream sundae is thought to have come about in the US because an ice cream soda was associated with alcohol and was frowned on by religious people especially if they were consumed on Sunday.

Tropical banana split with chocolate drizzle over three scoops of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream on fresh bananas, yellow background

Photo: 123RF

In New Zealand ice cream was seen as a non-essential activity for years and therefore could not be manufactured or delivered on a Sunday.

Ice cream parlours were established as early as the 1880s and 1890s both in the US and New Zealand and were targeted at adults because it was fashionable to consume ice cream and cold drinks.

Manufacturing takes off in 1920s

Once the proper ice cream churn - a horizontal barrel made of stainless steel - became available the product's cost came down and manufacturing took off in the 1920s.

"New Zealand had a whole host of small ice cream companies pop up all around the country."

 Robert (Bob) Long (right) with family and Ice Cream truck, Mahia, ca. 1920.

Robert (Bob) Long, right, with his family and ice cream truck, Mahia, ca. 1920. Photo: Tauranga City Libraries Research Collection

In 1922 the Eskimo Pie - the first ice cream novelty packaged as a single serve - was invented in the US and became so successful that it was franchised around the world. Tip Top and other companies have recognised that the name is not appropriate these days and there are plans to rebrand it.  

Also in the 1920s the technology was developed so that solid ice cream could be pumped out of a churn and another pipe could be run in with a trickle of a fruit syrup.

"Thus you had the invention of the ice cream ripple and swirls and you could come up with interesting patterns in the ice cream and different layers of the ice cream, for example, like in the neapolitan."

Role of milk bars in NZ

Milk bars played a big part in making ice cream popular. During the Depression in the 1930s milk was viewed as healthy and milk products were promoted in this way in the US.

In 1935 Healthfoods NZ whose brand was Tip Top opened the first milk bar in Manners Street in Wellington.

The company was set up by two businessmen. Their chain of milk bars was so successful they opened up their own factory. At one stage Tip Top split in two, operating from Wellington and Auckland, but in the early 1960s they decided to reunite as a national business.

"They became the largest company in New Zealand by far, a lot of that by gobbling up the smaller companies all around New Zealand."

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An old ice cream car at the Tip Top ice cream factory in Auckland. Photo: Rafael Ben-Ari/Chameleons Eye/ 123rf

During World War II research concluded that ice cream had therapeutic benefits for shell-shocked soldiers.

"It had a great calming influence and also a great impact on morale where the American and even the New Zealand armed forces sent ice cream manufacturing plants into the frontlines to  supply ice cream to the troops to boost morale."

For ice cream obessives, a website nzicecream.org.nz answers all queries and Newey describes it as "a labour of love" that the association has been working on for a while.