Nymphs and sherbets come away

Drink - Victoria Moore experiments with some fizzy white powder

There is a kind of sorcery in foods from the Middle East. Pomegranates swollen to full term ready to disgorge their lucent red seeds. Vine leaves. Soft-skinned figs that split open almost at a touch. Savoury dishes flavoured with honey, spices and rose petals. Aubergines cooked until the flesh yields to the fork.

C S Lewis makes use of this natural exoticism in his Narnia Chronicles. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the White Queen lures Edmund on to her sled and enchants him with Turkish Delight. Edmund cannot eat enough of it: "Each piece was sweet and very light to the centre."

"In my house there are whole rooms full of Turkish Delight," promises the Queen silkily.

In Lewis's The Horse and His Boy, dear Mr Tumnus the fawn gives Shasta (who is trying to recover from being mistaken for a prince) another form of Turkish treat - a sherbet in a golden cup - to revive him. Shasta is in heaven. "Nothing like this had ever happened to Shasta in his life before. He had never imagined lying on anything so comfortable as that sofa or drinking anything so delicious as the sherbet."

Now we can scarcely remember what a sherbet is. The first thought is of the fizzy white powder into which we dip licked sticks of liquorice. But Alan Davidson, the author of The Oxford Companion to Food, tells us that sharbat is an Arabic word for a non-alcoholic sweetened drink, and it is from this that our word sherbet derives. Sherbets, Davidson instructs, are made from two or three ingredients: fruit or vegetable juice, a sweetener ("originally honey, although even in medieval times the then more expensive sugar occurs in some recipes") and maybe spices, too.

Perhaps because the southern European corruptions of sharab (the earlier Arabic word from which sharbat derives) gave us the Italian sorbetto and thence the French sorbet, we imagine sherbets to come with ice crystals like granita. But this is not necessarily the custom, although they are sometimes cooled with ice or, in the Narnian spirit, handfuls of loose-packed snow. "Persian sherbet is served very cool, or iced. Blocks of snow or lumps of ice are dissolved in the sherbet - unless the water has been previously cooled," according to C J Wills in Persia As It Is (1887).

Elizabeth David recounts the adventures of the English physician John Fryer in Persia in the 17th century. On his arrival, the local Khan sent by overnight messenger, to welcome him to the country, "apples candied in snow" and ice.

Our doctor is not quite approving. "They [the Persians] mightily covert cool things to the palate," he wrote. "Nor can I excuse that destructive custom of drinking ice with their liquors. Cold things such as snow and ice are enemies to the stomach and lungs."

In Turkey, too, they preferred to drink their sherbets cooled. The ice or snow would have been carefully preserved from the winter blizzards and stored away so that it lasted through the heat of summer. Remains from ice houses built as long as 4,000 years ago have been found beside the Euphrates in Mesopotamia, and snow was sold on the markets in Athens in the fifth century BC. In the 16th century, the Florentine gentry dug pits in the ground, filled them with snow and topped them with a thatched wigwam. All summer long, they would use the snow to cool their wine, a practice that would horrify us now.

The Turks looked after their frozen precipitation with equal care, stacking it firmly together so that the snow wall would sometimes endure as long as two years without melting.

They also had a very curious way of preserving sherbets, boiling down the flavoured syrup until it resembled a jam that could be kept in jars and then dissolved into water like cubes of jelly when a drink was required.

Elizabeth David quotes Pietro della Valle who, in 1615, wrote from Constantinople: "Unlike ourselves, they [the Turks] do not use water boiled with citron or coriander, but mix ordinary clean water with serbet, a certain composition which they make sometimes liquid, sometimes solid, if they wish to preserve it for a long time and carry it with them, without running. All kinds of things were used to flavour these sherbets: roses, violets, ambergris and lemons, to name but a few."

There are plenty of fables of frozen, as opposed to iced, sherbets: that, in 1194, Saladin sent them to Richard Lionheart on his sickbed, for example, and that Marco Polo learnt how to make ices at the court of Kubla Khan and brought the secret with him to Venice. David says that this is all tripe, and that it was not until the 1580s that Italians began to transform the syrups used to make classic sherbets into something approaching a sorbet. And, as we now know, these ices (made in India, as well as in Europe) eventually became far more popular than the sherbets from which they are derived.