The precise origin of this dish is unclear, but in ancient times it is known that people would preserve snow, compressing it and covering it with grass and soil, to use it in the summer months, adding their own fruit juices.
In more recent times, after discovering the cooling properties of adding salt to ice, people started using stored snow mixed with salt as a refrigerant for making granitas by directly cooling a mixture of fruit juice and sugar.
Over time, two different products emerged: the “granite sorbet”, which became our modern granita, and the “gelato sorbet”, which today we simply call sorbet.
It is a widely-held belief that granita reached its peak in Sicily, thanks to the inventiveness of the gelato-makers and to the snow from the slopes of Mount Etna and the Peloritani mountain range. The percentage of sugar in a granita can vary between 15 and 20 percent, taking into account the sugars already present in any fruit used and the temperature of the granita, as the colder the product the less sweet it will taste. Moreover, sugar plays a vital role in getting the right consistency for the granita: sugar dissolved in water disrupts the formation of a crystal lattice, so that ice crystals can only form at very low temperatures. The more sugar is used, the lower we have to make the temperature. For this reason, sugar cannot be replaced with a sweetener, neither in liquid nor in powder form, and for the same reason the less sugar there is the larger the crystals.
Below -14°C the granita becomes completely solid, because all the water has been transformed into ice.
Different types of sugar (glucose, fructose, etc.) have a different ability to bind water and so will affect the degree of freezing. Another factor that affects the size of the crystals is how fast the mixture is cooled: the quicker the cooling, the smaller the crystals will be.
Many old recipes suggested boiling the sugar in water. This was needed when the sugar sold by traders was full of impurities and the crystals were rougher. When sugar crystals are very big, they can be hard to dissolve in water at room temperature, so boiling was probably a way of preventing sugar crystals from being found inside the granita.
In any case, boiling large amounts of water and sugar to mix with the other ingredients can speed up preparation.
Granita and brioches
Whether it is served in tall glasses or in convenient takeaway packages, granita should traditionally be accompanied by fresh bread or by tuppu, the typical Sicilian leavened pastry in the shape of a bread roll with a little “tuppu” (the Sicilian word for hat). Granita with brioche is still the favourite Sicilian breakfast, especially in summer.
Granita is also a multipurpose ingredient in the cuisine of the island, being added to iced tea, mineral water or iced coffee.
The classic granita flavours are lemon, cinnamon and jasmine, with variants such as strawberry, almond and coffee. But there is also pistachio, black mulberry, peach, mandarin and pineapple, depending on the season. Another very popular flavour is the so-called “chocolate granita”, which is actually made with cocoa.
Plants and herbs can also be used in the gelato parlour to make original granita flavours for a niche market. So consider introducing no more than 2 or 3 flavours at a time, which can then be rotated with other flavours, according to how popular they are with customers or according to a pre-set schedule.
Without doubt the most versatile of the many possible herb flavours (and probably the best known and popular with customers) is granita made with mint. You can make it either with the dried leaves or by making an infusion, but the tastiest and most practical results come from using either commercial syrups or essential oil of mint. You only need a tiny amount (5 to 10 drops per kg of finished product) to get a smooth, firm taste.
Other essential oils such as sage and rosemary can also be used to season the more traditional flavours!
Of course in such cases you would get a "white” granita, which you might want to make more colourful with a few drops of chlorophyll (for mint) or other vegetable-based juices.
A very iced tea ...
Teas and infusions can be a very welcome addition to a gelato parlour! Especially when it comes to making exotic granitas. In this case, use the infusion obtained from the leaves. The finest quality is Darjeeling, grown in the Himalayan foothills in the Darjeeling district of north-west India. But green tea from Sri Lanka is also excellent, Ruhuna (Ceylon green tea), which is known as Arabian tea, because of its thick strong taste, much appreciated by Arab sheikhs. The varieties of tea of interest to gelato-makers are as follows: Indian or Chinese green and black teas; the Chinese green tea known as Gunpowder, dark green with small leaves rolled up into a pellet shape resembling gunpowder; Earl Grey, another interesting product from Sri Lanka, flavoured with bergamot. Simply decide how strong you want the flavour of the tea to be.
Herbal teas are also very good: the excellent refreshing flavours and delicate crimson colour of hibiscus tea (known as Jamaica or red sorrel), Yerba Matè tea, as well as various mixtures of berries and flowers on the market.
Add to that orange zest and liquorice root, and you'll be quite spoiled for choice!