The very first Italian gelato portal, for both gelato makers and gelato lovers
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From the Ancient Egyptians to the recipes of Pliny the Elder, to today’s gelato in a cone: a wonderful story combining legend and popular beliefs with hard facts and historical sources bearing witness to an ancient tradition.
We all know what hand-made gelato is.
When we use words like cone, flavours, scoop, tub, there is no question that everyone knows what we are talking about.
But have you ever wondered whether the first gelato was like the stuff we love today? When and where and why was it first invented?
Eat and drink, in the Bible
To find out about the origins of gelato, we have to go back to the dawn of time, and as for every important invention, there is much dispute over the people, the time and the place.Some people claim that where there was no snow, Man had to find a way to “make” ice, heating up water and then storing it in extremely cold places underground, where the steam froze on the rocks. The Ancient Egyptians offered their guests silver chalices divided into two, snow on one side and fruit juice on the other. But even in the Old Testament there is a scene with Abraham and his son Isaac which suggests that the idea of gelato was already around, when the father says “Eat and drink: the sun is burning and this will refresh you”, referring to a drink made of goat’s milk mixed with snow.
The first gelato carts populated the street of Ancient Rome One of the first historical documents which speaks of “gelato” comes from a Greek poet who lived in Athens around 500 BC, who told how much the Greeks loved making refreshing drinks with lemon, honey, pomegranate juice, and of course snow or ice.
Even Alexander the Great, during his campaign in India, insisted on having a continuous supply of snow to enjoy with his honey, so his men dug special ice cellars in the ground. The first to come up with a dessert resembling today’s gelato were the Romans: the recipes of Pliny the Elder indicate how to mix crushed ice with honey and fruit juices, and he mentions a thriving snow trade from the Terminillo mountains in the Apennines, from Vesuvius and from Etna. The main roads were dotted with Thermopolia, the equivalent of our gelato carts.
Ali Baba and the 40... sorbets With the fall of the Roman Empire, fell nearly all of the gastronomic refinery, but gelato survived and was improved in the Arab world, returning to Europe through Sicily, dominated for centuries by the Moors. The word “sorbet” comes from Arabic, either from the word sherbet (sweet snow) or, according to who you believe, from sharber (meaning to sip).
Mediaeval times The Crusades also helped to spread the concept of gelato which they introduced to the courts of Northern Europe where of course there was no lack of snow. But these were simple preparations, lacking the fruits and typical aromas of the Mediterranean.And that is why Sicily excels in the art of gelato-making: fruit and snow from Etna were the inexhaustible resources needed to perfect and invent new flavors. Sicilian gelato-makers exported their “sorbetto” first to Naples, then to Florence, Milan and Venice, and later on to France, Germany and England. Spain was introduced to gelato much later on, thanks to the Portuguese, who had discovered it in the East Indies as they successfully traded in that part of the world.
Ruggeri, Buontalenti and Procopio, the fathers of modern gelato
The history of gelato is not just the stuff of legend – there are some hard facts too:in Florence, there are two contenders for the title of father of gelato, Ruggeri and Buontalenti.
Ruggeri, a poultry-seller and part-time chef, went in for a competition held by the ruling Medici family to find the best chefs in Tuscany, calling his entry “the most incredible dish ever seen”. Ruggeri decided to take part in the competition and prepared a “dolcetto gelato” using recipes that are now almost forgotten: his “sorbet” won the hearts of all the judges, instantly turning him and his recipe into stars throughout Tuscany, where they quickly became the centre of attention.
Buontalenti, an architect, sculptor and chemist, was given the task in 1565 of arranging a sumptuous feast in honour of the Spanish guests of the Duke of Tuscany. The many different dishes on his menu included gelato (the famous “Florentine cream”) which was hugely successful, so much so that the Spaniards spread the word throughout Europe.
The gelato trade, meanwhile, owes its origins to Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli: born in the eastern Sicilian village of Acitrezza, he tried out one of his grandfather’s inventions and, after much experimentation, set off to seek his fortune in Paris. Using sugar instead of honey and mixing the ice with salt to keep it frozen for longer, he arrived in France, where he was welcomed with open arms as a genius. In 1686, he opened Le Procope and following on from its enormous success, moved on to bigger premises today in rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, opposite the Comédie Française. Here he served “frozen waters” (water-ices) and fruit-based gelati and soon became the owner of the most famous café in France, with illustrious patrons such as Voltaire, Napoleon, George Sand, Balzac and Victor Hugo.
Gelato in a cone
There is also plenty of dispute over who invented the ice-cream cone.Some claim it first saw the light of day at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair: a gelato-seller ran out of containers which he sold his desserts in, and so he tried out some wafers being sold on a nearby stall. It was a huge success!
Others (including the Washington Post) claim that the cone was invented in 1903 by the Italian immigrant Italo Marchiony who, inspired by the ancient Italian art of making waffles, applied for a patent in New York for the ice-cream cone.
Since then, gelato has spread around the world, with a huge range of flavors ranging from fresh fruit to nuts, from creams to yoghurt, from chocolate to coffee, as well as more recent savoury gelato flavors with their tangy cheese and herb flavors, in an attempt to stimulate the curiosity and taste buds of their customers.
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