Easy to obtain, given that it floats to the surface of milk left to rest, it is likely that cream first appeared during the beginnings of farming some 10,000 years ago. There is evidence of this in a Sumerian fresco dating from 2,500 BC.
It was little used in the Middle Ages, and for a long time cream was only used for making butter.
By the 17th century, it was being used by chefs of noble kitchens, by La Varenne in particular. The creation of Chantilly cream is attributed to Vatel, steward working in the chateau of the same name.
The use of cream became the norm in the 18th century, with the ice cream and Chantilly cream served at Café Procope, and the ice creams made by Massialot and Menon. It was also used in forcemeats, sauces, omelets, and desserts.
It was widely used by Carême in the 19th century to finish sauces, and for cooking potatoes. The invention of the centrifuge for separating cream in 1879 contributed to its growing popularity. Cream became an essential element of the cuisine of certain French regions, particularly that of Normandy.
A good cream has a slightly acidic, hazelnut flavor. A rancid smell or taste means the cream cannot be used.
Pasteurized creams are better than sterilized creams. Raw cream is naturally the best of all.
Crème fraîche is sold in tubs, liquid cream in cartons, and whipped cream and Chantilly cream in cans.
There is also freeze-dried crème fraîche powder (this should not be confused with the French product poudre à crème, which is a starch-based thickener).
The duration and methods for storing cream depend on its quality. The use-by-date is established from the date of processing and is mandatory on the packaging.
Raw cream: 7 days in a cool room or refrigerator at 3–5ºC.
Pasteurized cream: 30 days in the same conditions, 48 hours after opening.
UHT cream: 4 months at ambient temperature, keep refrigerated after opening.
Sterilized cream: 8 months in the same conditions.
Although it is often classified as a dairy product because it is made from milk, cream is actually a fat. But it has the lowest fat of all fat-rich products.
Because it is of animal origin, cream obviously contains cholesterol, and its fatty acids are mainly saturated. It has a small amount of minerals and B group vitamins. However, its often significant content of carotenoids, vitamin A, and vitamin D depends on the season and the cows' diet.