Alec Torelli goes to the 2012 Gelato Festival to learn more about the culinary art of making gelato.
By Alec Torelli
What is Gelato? How is it different than ice cream? Most importantly, why is it so much better?
It wasn’t until I lived in Italy and witnessed how integrated gelato is with the heart of Italian culture did questions like this consume me. Last weekend I attended the 3rd annual Gelato Festival in Florence, Italy, a five day (May 23-27) event dedicated to exploring the art of hand made gelato, in search of answers.
The word “gelato” in Italian does not translate to mean “ice cream” but “frozen”. “It is more than just ice cream,” James Coleridge, owner of ‘Bella Gelateria’ in Vancouver, Canada and winner of the 2012 Gelato Festival told me, “it’s a culinary art.” He was happy to elaborate when I asked him the difference between ice cream and gelato. “Ice cream has four times the fat of gelato (28% compared to 7%), is made with more air (60% air and 40% liquid), and, finally, ice cream is cold and hard whereas gelato is warm and soft.”
What he neglected to say, perhaps because it’s obvious, is the difference in taste. The reason, James told me, is “gelato uses only fresh hand made ingredients, where as ice cream is mass produced. Gelato is about giving people “experiences and memories. If its rainy I do chocolate, cremes. If it’s sunny I do fruit.”
“The common mentality today is faster, quicker, cheaper. Italian gelato is about finding our love. It slows us down.” Even more telling was the differences in the cultural approach to quality. A curiosity arose: does real gelato exist outside of Italy? James has proven it does. “In this country it’s part of the culture because they’re born with it. The rest of the us are still learning about it.
“Gelato is Italy,” Achille Sassoli, Carpigiani’s Event Manager said. Simple, but true. For most Italians anything less than pealing fresh peaches in the morning and grinding them to make a sorbetto is considered blasphemy. When I explained to the gelato makers the differences between their hand made artistry and our mass produced mediocrity, they were disgusted. “It sounds terrible,” Vincenzo Pace, a gelato maker from Il Pinguino, Turin told me.
Although there is much debate about the discovery of gelato, common belief credits Bernardo Buontalenti, a versatile 16th century artist who worked closely with the royal Medici family. In 1559 he concocted a frozen cream made with milk, honey, egg yolk, wine, lemon and orange. Nearly five hundred years later, his creation has evolved to gelato, as integral to Italian way of life as wine, coffee and olive oil.
In Piazza Santa Maria Novella, the hot Florentine sun didn’t stop me from tasting every stand, each with their own flavor. Some were conventional: Nocciola (Hazelnut), Pistacchio, Stracciatella. Others experimental: ‘Lemon Caviar‘, a white peach base with mint and ginger and a citrus glaze, ‘Oro Verde‘, olive oil ice cream seasoned with pepper, poppy seeds, and salt, ‘Saffron’, and perhaps the most peculiar, ‘Pane e Cioccolato‘, a bread base with cherry and chocolate. If you don’t mind waiting in line, there is a bar that features ‘gelato cocktails’, a blended drink made with ice cream and alcohol. If you take a stroll around Florence, you can stop in one of the other 24 gelaterias that participated in the festival without a dedicated stand. At Perche no!, a fresh Ginger gelato blended with cream and topped with a garnish of ginger honey was worth the walk. Mordilatte boasted two of the most decadant orange and cherry chocolates, bursting with of candied, carmelized pieces; an overwhelming sensation of rich and sweet. Il Procopio, winner of the 2011 Gelato Festival featured a Sacher Torte remake of the famous Austrian dessert, a chocolate sponge cake, apricot glaze with waves of dark chocolate, that deserved another title.
In addition to trying eclectic flavors, a 15 euro ticket gets you a complimentary hour long instructional course provided by Caprigiani’s University of Gelato. When I arrived to the festival at noon, class had just begun. I took a seat and listened to Gianpaolo Valli, who taught both the owners of ‘Grom’ and James Coldridge. When I asked him what it was like to teach two equally successful, yet different businesses he said, “I teach people the basics, it’s like learning how to write. Once you know the grammar and rules, each person has to develop their own writing style.”
In class, Giampaolo gave an overview of gelato, from the history to the process of making gelato to opening a gelateria. (For more eager disciples, the Gelato University offers courses and internships around the world where graduates will receive a diploma). At the end, he asked for volunteers. I was selected. Giampaolo oversaw four of us while we hand cut fresh banana, kiwi, strawberry and lemon to make a fruit sorbetto, the most basic gelato made by mixing fresh fruit, water and a simple base into the machine, pulling the lever and letting it freeze for five minutes. When we were finished, we got to eat our creation. With Giampaolo as my guide it was hard to make a mistake. Mine, the lemon flavor, was tart and refreshing, like a frozen lemonade from an amusement park.
What I like about the festival is experimenting with new flavors, so I always go for whatever is the most creative. Unfortunately when I tried Oro Verde, the olive oil doused with seasoning, I coughed, mistaking pepper and salt toppings to be bits of chocolate. Its creator laughed at me: “pepe” means “pepper’!
Among the many flavors I tried that day, several stood above the rest. The most refreshing was the Lemon Caviar from Vivoli, one of the most famous gelaterias in Florence who has been making ice cream for nearly 80 years. In the gelateria, you can still find sisters Silvana and Patrizia hand making gelato, and their mother working the counter.
The other, a chocolate sorbetto from Il Pinguino, Turin, made of 100% cacao and water, tasted like cold chocolate drink and was both light and satisfying. I had two cups.
‘Noce Pecan e Sciroppo d’Acero Canadese‘, a walnut, pecan gelato with maple syrup, made by James Coleridge was the last flavor I tried. “It has four distinct flavors,” he told me, “designed (as it melts) to hit different parts of your mouth through salt, sweet and nut, and maple syrup as you breathe.” It did all that, and more. With large chunks of salty nut in every bite and a dazzling glaze of syrup, my only regret was that I didn’t have a second cup. After I was done, I felt confident in giving him my vote.
Much has changed abut the gelato festival. Because of it’s expansion, it has relocated to Piazza Santa Maria Novella in the heart of the city center. In the previous years, it was held in Piazza Pitti, the famous square which Buontalenti constructed. “We had over 200 applicants this year, and we chose the best 60”, said the 28 year old Gabriele Poli, who founded the festival three years ago. “My goal is to spread the word about gelato and create new jobs in Italy and abroad.” His plans for the future are equally ambitious. “Next year we hope to have a gelato festival tour with stops in every major city in the world, featuring the best of their local gelato.”
“The food industry is the only one that emerged in the time of crisis”, explained Achille Sassoli, specifying that it’s “the one who will lead Italy out of their current recession”. And the winner of this edition seems to exemplify that ideology: “to me winning means that I’m doing something right,” he told me. “When it comes down to it, I’m just a custodian who protects the world of hand made gelato. There’s been people before me. There will be people after me. This is just my time.”
It all started when he was 10. He was distraught about moving, but the man next door welcomed him with a huge styrofoam box of ice cream. Fourteen years later, he moved to Italy and fell in love with gelato, which inspired his first writings about food. Since then, his passion for culinary art has done nothing but grow. On a mission to find the world's best gelato, he travels, eats and writes for Still Served Warm.