A common belief is that Marco Polo brought ice cream back to Italy from his adventures in China. However just like the story of his introduction of pasta to Italy, there are problems with the story. It is generally assumed that either China or ancient Persia were among the first cultures that developed a dessert made from fruit and either shaved ice or mountain snow. However similar discoveries must have been made by numerous cultures that had access to ice and something sweet to add to it.
Evidence does suggest that is was in fact China that made the first so-called Ice Cream makers, using rock salt to increase the hardness of the dessert. These first ice creams were not ice cream at all since there was no milk or cream in it and more resembled sorbet or Italian Ice. Roman Emperors were known to have enjoyed these types of desserts centuries before Marco Polo. So the great explorer may not have introduced ice cream, but Italy does play an important role in introducing frozen desserts including ice cream, to Europe.
Ice Cream: Sorbetto, Granita and Italian Ice
All three are more ice and flavorings rather than real ice cream, but have a long history of enjoyment in the ancient world. It is most likely that these desserts were introduced to Southern Italy by the Arabs, who also brought sugarcane. The Arabs used mountain snow and fruit juice to make Sharbat, the ancestor to Italy’s Sorbetto and known elsewhere as sorbet or Sherbet.
In Sicily, a dessert made of course ice, sugar and flavorings known as Granita is probably the closest to the original Sharbat as it has a more slush-like consistency than Sorbetto. Today commercial Sorbetto and Sherbet can contain small amounts of milk, but many are still made with only fruit juice or syrups and ice, known to Americans as Italian Ice. These frozen desserts became very popular throughout Europe by way of France, and the arrival of Catherine de Medici’s troupe of Italian chefs. However there would be one more innovation before these Sorbets became true Ice Cream.
Ice Cream: Gelato
It would take a few centuries before milk or cream started to be added to these ice desserts, thus creating what we now know as Gelato and Ice Cream. Just as with the Pizza, it is the Neapolitans that are credited with creating the first true ice creams, which appeared in an 18th century cookbook. Once dairy had been introduced, each nationality put their own stamp on Ice Cream, with Italy creating the flavor explosion known as Gelato.
The differences between Italian Gelato and Ice Cream are slight, but make all the difference in flavor and texture. Gelato is made with milk, sometimes skim-milk as opposed to cream which gives Gelato a much lower milk fat content. Less milk fat allows the flavors of Gelato to really stand out compared to the more blended flavors of Ice Cream. Gelato’s flavor is helped by the fact that it has less air whipped into than Ice Cream, making it much denser. Even the serving of Gelato is different than Ice Cream since is served with a softer consistency, more along the lines of soft-serve Ice Cream. Fans of Ice Cream are often surprised as just how flavorful Gelato can be and the ultimate chocoholic might find themselves in love with one of the vibrantly colored fruit flavors.
While Italy cannot take credit for truly inventing Ice Cream, it has arguably done more for the evolution of iced desserts than any other culture. It was in Italy that the ancestors of Ice Cream and Gelato transformed into more than just regional treats. With such a history of Ice Cream innovation, it is doubtful that Italy is done creating frozen masterpieces yet.
By Justin Demetri
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