x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Ice can be pretty cool

Ice may not always be nice but it is essential and, at times, stunningly beautiful.

Astronomers have started reporting mile-high tsunamis of icy particles, at one time too small to see, circling in Saturn's rings. The thought, which gives me chills, brings back memories of ice at its most majestic and magical; glaciers in the Canadian Arctic, scintillant against the horizon where divinity slips in; an ice church in Transylvania, whose abject glory and desolation might have broken my heart if techno music hadn't begun blaring from the nearby ice hotel; ice fishing on a great, frozen lake after I harnessed my paranoia that the fourth pancake I scoffed for breakfast would challenge the lake's breaking point, plunging me downward, my legacy of gluttony immortalised by the frigid black water. Ice's purpose is to conserve, to cool, to hydrate and to refresh. The polarity of the ice crystal, the nature of polar axes, and the topographical necessity of the North and South Poles are keeping us alive.

Before the arrival of artificial refrigeration technology, ice had to be harvested, transported, delivered and stored. More than 2,000 years ago in Iran, when ice was used to chill special foods for royalty, Persian engineers designed insulated underground refrigerators for ice storage. The thick walls were made from a mixture of egg whites, clay, lime, ash and goat hair. In the early 19th century, a Massachusetts entrepreneur, Frederic Tudor, known as Boston's "Ice King", made a fortune after discovering how to harvest ice blocks from New England ponds and then sail them around the world. By the 1930s and 1940s, ice harvesting had grown mechanised. The rumble of my refrigerator's ice machine procreating is background noise I've grown to love. Although water freezes at 0°C, the best ice for use in drinks is frozen well past freezing point. The ideal ice cube is easily made at home in ice trays; heavy and solid with a dry, sticky coat of frost. Unfortunately, many home freezers are packed with the malodorous memories of frozen foodstuffs that can impart a nasty taste to ice. If you have this problem, try sticking an open box of baking soda in the freezer to absorb some of these smells and hermetically seal your frozen foods. Better yet, just keep your freezer clean and clear of frozen foods. Although undesirable and unpalatable, food tainted with the dreaded freezer burn isn't a safety risk or a sanitation issue. Like frostbite, it's best avoided but is usually not as bad as it sounds.

When a woman is in labour, the drinking of water - as primal as the urge may be - is often frowned on, and so she might be given ice chips to suck on instead. Outside the delivery room, ice chips are limited in their usefulness and versatility. Tragically, many restaurants unable to produce large quantities of good, fresh ice end up filling beverages with cracked or broken ice chips that are slippery and on the verge of melting.

Those who take beverages seriously, or who have made a career out of producing them, may be equipped with picks, mallets, scoops, tongs, and special bags for crushing ice. I have a fridge that dispenses big cubes and can also crush them into jewel-like pellets of ice bling, but my ultimate fantasy is someday to own the ice-making machine made by the Pennsylvanian company Kold-Draft, which turns out perfect, uniform one-and-a-half-inch cubes.

Just up the street from my place in Santa Fe is a cafe that makes iced coffee with coffee ice cubes, so that it's never watered down. Every now and then, I'll have an iced coffee, if only to remind me why I prefer it hot. As ice melts in a drink, it cools it, but melted ice is water, and water changes a drink (provided there's more to it than water itself). Increased water content and lower viscosity make drinks especially refreshing, and are what make lemonade more refreshing than mango nectar, or iced tea more refreshing than a milkshake. They resuscitate.

In the US, water is generally served with ice chips floating in it. In the UAE, we're usually served ice cold bottled water without ice. Whether ice-cold water is detrimental to health remains a matter of some debate. There's an erroneous urban legend that drinking iced water, especially after eating, will lead to cancer, because cold water solidifies ingested fats causing toxins to build up more readily in the gut. Most clinical research shows that it's not harmful to drink ice-cold water, and some believe it's good for you. Cold liquids leave the stomach and thus rehydrate the body with greater speed. Also, the body burns calories while warming cold water to body temperature, so ice water is sometimes prescribed as part of weight loss regimens.

On the other hand, it's worth mentioning that the energy expended to heat cold water leads to a small amount of water loss. Ultimately, there's probably no right answer. People need to drink more water, and will drink more of it if they enjoy the temperature at which it is served. I prefer it at room temperature, partly because I don't like the sensation of ice knocking against my teeth, but also because if I don't sip it slowly, it brings on an acute, obnoxious headache.

As a force of nature, ice isn't always nice. The roof of my car is pockmarked where the stormy monsoon skies hurled hailstones the size of gumballs against it. After an epic blizzard followed by sleet and sea squalls, my dog and I, snowbound and without electricity, subsisted on cereal and milk for three days while snow piled higher than the doorknob trapped us indoors. Slicks of black ice on mountain roads and interstate highways have sent me fishtailing into snowbanks, and in whiteout conditions careening off-road so violently that something in me was rattled loose; a humbler, quieter and more grateful person emerged from the experience.