Gelato is one of the best-loved Italian exports in the world: everyone knows it comes from Italy, but not many may be aware it is a product with a long history, intertwined with the very history of Italian cuisine.
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 the country, there are problems with this story: if it is generally assumed that both China and ancient Persia were among the first cultures that developed a dessert made from fruit and either shaved ice or mountain snow, similar discoveries must have been made by numerous cultures that had access to ice and something sweet to add to it.
However, evidence does suggest that it was, in fact, in China that the earliest ice-cream making practices were developed, by adding rock salt to the mixture to increase its hardness. These first ice creams were not ice cream at all, since there was no milk or cream in it, and resembled much more sorbet or Italian Ice. Roman Emperors were known to have enjoyed these types of desserts centuries before Marco Polo: the great explorer may not have introduced ice cream to the country, 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, and have been long enjoyed in the ancient world. Very likely, these desserts were introduced to Southern Italy by the Arabs, who also brought sugarcane to the country. The Arabs used mountain snow and fruit juices to make Sharbat, the ancestor to Italy’s Sorbetto and known elsewhere as sorbet or, indeed, sherbet.
It is in Sicily that a dessert made of ice, sugar and flavorings, known as Granita, was created. Popular in the whole country now, granita is probably the closest thing to the original sharbat as it has a more slush-like consistency than sorbetto. Today, commercial sorbetto can contain small amounts of milk, but many are still made only with fruit juice or syrups and ice: this is what in America is known as “Italian Ice”.
We’ve said how iced desserts were popular in antiquity, but what about modern times? During the Renaissance, frozen desserts became very popular in Europe by way of France, although it is, once again, an Italian we must thank for it: Caterina de Medici, a lover of good food, brought along her troupe of chefs from Florence to Paris and it was they who began to offer sorbets at dinners. However, there was still one more step to take to make these –already delicious– sorbets into real 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 pizza, it is the Neapolitans to be 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, yet 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 it than ice cream, making it much denser.
Even the serving of gelato is different from that of ice cream, as it should be consumed while softer in 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 country. It was in Italy that the ancestors of ice cream and gelato turned 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.
An interesting video on the history and production of Italian gelato: enjoy!
By Justin Demetri