The old stones of the city – the palazzi, the piazze, the cobbled streets – warm up like a pizza oven throughout the day, radiating heat, even at night. If you were to plant yourself on a stone bench in Piazza della Repubblica at midnight (gelato in hand because gelaterie are open until midnight in the summer and besides, there’s no way you can sleep in this heat), you would find yourself with a gently roasting backside. To make matters worse, the valleys surrounding the city trap the heat in, blocking any whiff of a welcome breeze. And to top it all off, air conditioning is rare.
The best time of day, the only time of day, that feels comfortable in Florence in the summer is somewhere around 5am. But since getting up at that hour is rarely anybody’s favourite activity, the next best thing to feeling normal in the summer is a gelato. A cool, refreshing, delicious, delightful gelato. It just takes the edge off. It’s the perfect foil for a too hot afternoon when getting anything done seems impossible or for escaping a stuffy apartment after dinner with a passeggiata to the nearest good gelateria.
This month’s Italian Table Talk takes a look at Italy’s food icon, gelato, in all it’s various forms. Valeria made peach and amaretti popsicles, Jasmine makes pinguini, chocolate-covered ice cream sticks (think Magnum, but home made) and Giulia does a classic gelato flavour, crema fiorentina.
Gelato (or ices, like granita) has been made in Italy since the times of ancient Rome, but like most brilliant inventions, can be traced back further to Chinese and Arabic cultures – sorbet or sorbetto comes from the Arabic word scharbat. These initial frozen desserts may have been basic (the Emperor Nero served his guests honey and fruit-flavoured snow cones), but the creamy gelato that we know today probably dates to the Renaissance.
In his 1891 book, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Artusi includes recipes for 24 gelato and sorbet recipes (such as this sour cherry and cinnamon sorbet or this almond milk gelato), which can easily be made at home with or without an icecream machine. His own research of the history of this irresistible dessert goes back to Caterina de’ Medici, who took her Florentine chefs with her to Paris in 1533 when she married Henry II of France. She served gelato to impress her French guests but the recipe remained secret for another century, Artusi says.
The connection with Caterina de’ Medici is a well-known one and legends abound that credit Florentines with creating the first modern gelato. There’s the one where the Medici court held a contest for “the most singular dish that has ever been seen”. Famous chefs from all over the region submitted exquisite, opulent Renaissance dishes, but it was a humble poultry vendor known as Ruggieri, who won with a simple dolcetto gelato, as he named it.
The story continues that Caterina, with a desire to prove Florentine superiority in the kitchen, had Ruggieri accompany her to Paris to create his gelato for her court guests. But the simple farmer had no desire for the fame and problems that came with it in Paris and returned to his chickens, leaving the recipe in Caterina’s hands.
Another popular legend, which I have always loved for its connection with art, is that gelato was the invention of Bernardo Buontalenti, Renaissance man and one of the favourite architects of Grand Duke Cosimo I, Caterina’s cousin. The mutli-talented architect even designed the wedding banquet of Maria de’ Medici to Henry IV in 1600. He served “Crema di Buontalenti”, his famous gelato – some say it was a recipe borrowed from Ruggieri, others say he has been known for it well before.
In any case, around that time, frozen desserts were being recorded in notable cookbooks. In 1570, chef to the Pope, Bartolomeo Scappi included sorbetti in his Renaissance cookbook, Opera, for example his marasche sorbetto – a semi-frozen grape jam-like sorbet. Antonio Latini, in the late 1600s, created a recipe book dedicated to sorbet and granita. But it may have been a Sicilian-owned cafe in Paris in the mid-1600s that set off the trend for gelato.
Francesco Procopio trained in Florence before heading off to Paris with a new invention for his cafe – a gelato-making machine. Previously only known to royalty, gelato could now be served to the public for the first time.
Fast forward 350 years and gelato-making has been honed to a fine artisan activity and a favourite food icon of not only Italians but of the entire world. In a line-up of frozen desserts, Italian gelato is unanimously seen as superior for its creamy, soft texture and brilliant flavours bursting with fresh ingredients.
I’ve written before about gelato, its history (including how it went from an exclusive nobility-only dessert to a household item) and the rituals associated with it in this post, which includes a recipe for my favourite, simple gelato flavour – fior di latte (this one infused with rosemary) – and a list of my favourite gelaterie in Florence. Check out that post here.
I’ll leave you with a recipe – well, more than a recipe, it’s a preparation, for affogato. Affogato, which means “drowned” in Italian, is a scoop of gelato drowning in a freshly made shot of hot espresso. It’s drunk/eaten as the ice cream and coffee melt together into a glorious, bittersweet puddle, a fantastic way to finish a meal. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t love affogato.
- 1 scoop of gelato (fior di latte, vanilla or crema are best)
- 1 shot of espresso (made at home in the moka, machinetta or percolator will do)
Place a scoop of ice cream in a tumbler or latte glass. If making several of these, it can handy to do this in advance and store the glasses in the freezer, allowing the gelato to harden a bit. Make an espresso and pour over the gelato. Serve immediately. Just an idea, but if you are so inclined, why not make it a caffe corretto and spike your coffee with some spiced rum or frangelico, perhaps even a bit of nocino?