Always a favorite during the Summer, gelato has come a long way since its beginning in the – or so historians think – exotic lands of the Chinese emperors, more than 3000 years ago
Whether you are an Italian “gelato” or American “ice cream” lover, Summer must be your favorite season. Cool creamy desserts become so ubiquitous and so much more flavours and options are available it is hard to resist the temptation to skip lunch and just have a big bowl of them instead.
Gelato, with its light texture – it is made with milk rather than cream like ice cream– and more intense flavor, is known as a true symbol of the Italian culinary tradition, so it is not that surprising to know many believe, in part rightly, the Bel Paese is its birthplace.
In truth, food historians and curious stories lovers may like to disagree, as it appears the original gelato comes from much further east than Italy, and that it was created a long, long time ago.
Rice, spices, milk and a bit of snow: the first gelato recipe?
According to some, the true home country of iced desserts is China: apparently, sometimes around 4000 years ago, the Chinese would freeze in snow a concoction of overcooked rice, spices and milk, the first variety of historically attested gelato. Later, other versions made with iced fruit juices and milk became popular, so much so that, even before Marco Polo arrived in China, people could easily buy frozen treats from carts in the street of beautiful Beijing (which, by the way, was known then as Khanbaliq).
Speaking of Polo, many think he is to be credited with bringing the idea of gelato to the west, upon his return in 1288, yet, they are mistaken.
The Pharaohs, the Romans and sweet ices
In truth, the Pharaohs of the Second Dynasty – we are talking about around four to five millennia ago here – were already known to serve snow or shaven ice and fruit juices to their guests in, as demonstrated by archaeological finds, specifically made silver cups divided in two sections. The ice or snow was kept in deep ground holes where they could be kept at an ideal temperature.
Second to none when it came to war, literature and culinary pleasures, the Romans, too, counted snow mixed with honey and fruit among their favorite treats. Once again, archaeology helps us know more: xcavations in Pompeii revealed the possible presence of kiosks around the city selling snow mixed with honey, a forerunner of modern ice cream carts. Just as in Egypt, the ice or snow were kept in deep wells, filled with the snow of mount Vesuvius carried to town by local slaves. A tad later, iced sweets made their appearance among the Caranqui, an autoctone people of modern Ecuador.
The Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the birth of modern gelato
Admittedly, things get a bit blurry during the Middle Ages, as many of the Ancients’ traditions and habits were dismissed. According to many, however, the habit of mixing fruit juices and ice was once again brought into Italy by the Moors, who made their “scherbet” (from it come the Italian sorbetto) popular in Sicily. This is why Sicily is sometimes considered the birthplace of Italian gelato.
Others, however, point out how the true, life-changing events in the history of gelato took place later and further north, in the beautiful Medicean Florence of the 16th century: it is said Caterina de Medici was so besotted with the fruits, sugar and ice dessert created by chicken farmer Ruggeri, to bring him along with her to France in occasion of her nuptials with the Duke of Orleans, so that he could prepare it for all the guests. Others mention the figure of another Florentine, Bernardo Buontalenti, creator of an iced cream dessert offered to Charles V king of Spain in 1559: this iced cream made with milk, honey, egg yolk, a dash of sweet wine, bergamot, lemon and orange is by many considered the first, true gelato made in Italy.
Today, hand made gelato, known as “gelato artigianale,” is a gem of Italian tradition, with specific rules to be followed when making it: only fresh and natural ingredients should be chosen for the basic creams, whereas more creativity can be used when it comes to flavorings, even though the more natural the ingredient is, the better. In spite of the ubiquitous popularity of industrially produced gelato, its handmade counterpart reigns sovereign in the heart and stomach of Italy’s “buongustai”, who consume an average of 6 kg (that is around 12 lbs) pro capite of the stuff each year.