Meet Agnes Marshall, the ice cream “dynamo” who used liquid air a century before Heston Blumenthal

The Victorian “Queen of Ices” has a good claim to have invented the cornet.

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Think of ice cream magnates and Ben and Jerry, or even, for those of us of a certain age, Signor Gino Ginelli, are more likely to spring to mind than Mrs Agnes Bertha Marshall. Yet though she’s all but forgotten today, this Victorian “Queen of Ices”, a self-made woman from Walthamstow in north-east London, founded a hugely popular cookery school, wrote four best-selling cookbooks, and launched a magazine and a range of spin-off products (that feature prominently in her recipes: you don’t get to own the first electrified house in Pinner by being backwards at coming forwards).

Heston Blumenthal calls Marshall “one of the greatest culinary pioneers this country has ever seen” while Robin Weir, an expert on ices, tells me she was “a dynamo – no one else has been anything like as successful as she was”. Sadly, after her death in 1905 at just 49, her estate was sold to Beeton’s publisher Ward Lock, which had little interest in keeping her recipes in print.

Marshall has a good claim to have invented the ice cream cone, the first recorded mention of which occurs in her 1888 work, Mrs Marshall’s Cookery Book, while 1894’s Fancy Ices boasts several different cornet recipes, including one flavoured with vanilla and orange flower water and coated with chopped pistachio nuts. Marshall was a food hygiene campaigner, and would no doubt have considered a cornet far more sanitary than the “penny lick” glasses that were rarely cleaned between customers and, thanks to their part in spreading tuberculosis, eventually banned.

She was also, according to Weir, the first person to come up with the idea of making ice cream with liquid air, not long after the process of liquification had been discovered, writing in 1901 that “persons scientifically inclined” might like to amuse their guests by allowing them to make their own ice cream at the table by “simply stirring… the ingredients… to which a few drops of liquid air has been added by the servant”. Blumenthal may have been widely credited as a pioneer in this department, but as I imagine he himself would readily admit, Marshall got there a century beforehand.

Currently on display in “Scoop: the Wonderful World of Ice Cream” in London’s Kings Cross is some of Robin Weir and his wife Caroline’s enormous ice cream-related collection, including one of Marshall’s patented ice cream machines, which made the dessert in three minutes rather than the 20-40 usual today. For cooling, modern electric equipment is rather less efficient than ice, while Marshall’s Brand Freezing Salts, promoted in the back of her Book of Ices, are said to produce a “more intense cold than any other”. The endpapers feature a beautifully illustrated catalogue of Fancy Moulds kept in stock at the Marshall empire’s HQ, 32 Mortimer Street, London – including a pewter rabbit, an 11-inch cucumber and a bunch of grapes labelled “very bold and handsome”. She would surely have cleaned up on Instagram.

The Book of Ices has just been reissued by Grub Street Publishing. Among its recipes – vanilla, chocolate and strawberry; mulberry and marmalade – are cucumber, and curaçao and iced spinach à la crème, to say nothing of the horribly intriguing Soufflés of Curry à la Ripon, which contains stewed fish, curry paste, “cocoanut” and whipped cream – and, sprinkled with parsley “and a little finely chopped aspic jelly”, is served as an “entree for dinner”. Beat that, Blumenthal. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special