In the ranks of English nobility, the Montague family may have just been earls. But in the kitchen, they were kings.
A historian has stumbled upon the first English recipe for a frozen chocolate dessert — think chocolate sorbet crossed with a Slurpee. Even in 17th century speak, it sounds simple:
Prepare the chocolatti [to make a drink] ... and Then Putt the vessell that hath the Chocolatti in it, into a Jaraffa [a carafe] of snow stirred together with some salt, & shaike the snow together sometyme & it will putt the Chocolatti into tender Curdled Ice & soe eate it with spoons.
But in 1668, these instructions for "Curdled Ice" were revolutionary. They married two culinary innovations of the time — chocolate and ice. And they offered a glimpse at the frozen desserts on the horizon — sorbet, gelato, ice cream and even the Starbucks frappuccino.
Guess who wrote the recipe? The Earl of Sandwich.
No, not the guy credited with inventing the hand-held meal so he didn't have to leave the gambling table, but his great-grandfather, Edward Montague, the first Earl of Sandwich.
Frozen drinks and sweets were rare, exotic treats in Sandwich's day. They were even thought to be potentially dangerous, says historian Kate Loveman, who found the 350-year-old recipe in the elder Sandwich's diary.
"But Sandwich knew a way to counter the harmful effects of eating ice chocolate," she says. " 'Have a hot chocolate afterward,' he wrote in his diary."
Sandwich probably got the idea for his icy pudding from the chemist Robert Boyle, who had just published a book, New Experiments and Observations Touching Cold, which explained how to freeze mixtures.
"Sandwich knew you needed to add salt to the snow," to make a frappe, Loveman says, which lowers the ice's melting temperature and coaxes the fat and sugary mixture to crystallize.
So where did Sandwich get the hankering for the chocolate? Probably from Spain, Loveman says, where he served as an ambassador.
Chocolate was the cronut of the day in Spain, and it was enhanced with pepper and spices. It was so popular that making and drinking the trendy beverage in public even had its own name: La Xocolatada.
Loveman tried making the frappe with Spanish chocolate. "The drink looked a bit nasty, like a dark, frozen liquid," she says, "But it tasted OK. It definitely froze, and you could eat it with a spoon."
In London, chocolate was just starting to catch on, Loveman says. A wealthy earl like Sandwich could have picked up a chocolate drink at a major coffeehouse in the mid-17th century.
But the price for a cup back then makes Starbucks look like a bargain. "It was very expensive — 2 or 3 pence for one drink — which was a portion of a laborer's daily wages."
Although the English liked to put milk and eggs in their chocolate at the time, Sandwich's recipe doesn't call for dairy. "So he technically wasn't making ice cream, " Loveman says.
That gastronomical achievement was first documented in English around the same time by Lady Ann Fanshawe, the wife of another Spanish ambassador.
"Her recipe for 'Icy Cream' was roughly equivalent to Sandwich's," Loveman says, "except she left out the salt in the snow. So it wouldn't actually freeze. In the 17th century recipes, it was common to not mention things that are actually quite important."
It would take 25 more years before similar icy desserts made their way into an official cookbook: Treatise on Various Kinds of Sorbets, or Water Ices, published in 1792 by the Italian Antoine Latini.
But thanks to the culinary genius of the Sandwich family, it looks like the English were ahead of the Italians in the kitchen, at least one time in history.