Gourmet gelato, a return to grass roots
The ice-cream of yesterday and today, interpreted in the form of a wonderful story that mixes legends and popular beliefs with real details and the tales of an ancient tradition.
The forefather of ice-cream as we know it today was a dish made with over-cooked rice, flavoured with spices and doused in milk, which was then frozen in the snow. It made its debut in China in the year 2000 B.C. or hereabouts.
Then, it was the turn of desserts made with frozen fruit juices to shine.
From the Egyptians to Pliny the Elder, these were the delicacies - literally- on everyone’s lips.
And it was thanks to Marco Polo that they appeared in Italy in the fourteenth century.
Caterina de’ Medici was the first to popularise a semi-frozen dessert made with sweet cream that closely resembled the modern-day ice-cream, prepared with milk and honey.
As it was difficult to store in summer, it was initially deemed a delicacy for the rich. However, around 1560, a Spanish doctor, Blasius Villafranca, discovered that, by adding saltpetre to snow and ice, one could freeze anything much more quickly. This discovery was a revolution that gave ice-cream production a huge push, to such an extent that in the 19th century it spread to England and America too, thanks to the Italian emigrants who sold it there on the streets.
And the story goes on with Artusi, who made an iced cream and Ferran Adrià who, in the 90s, proposed a Parmigiano Reggiano flavoured ice-cream, in one of the first experiments to play on the balance between sweet and savoury.
Contrary to popular belief, the roots of ice-cream can be traced back to the kitchen, and not to the pastry-shop. The gelataio was a chef who we could find in the hierarchy of the brigade and he was the one
responsible for cooling things down. Cold, frozen things which have evolved over time, passing from the savoury concept, which involved freezing masses of foods high in fat, such as cheeses, to a mainly sweet concept, but one which is now returning to its grass roots with gourmet ice-cream.
I decided to discuss this with the pioneering fathers of this ice-cream which we will not refer to as a savoury ice-cream, but instead as a differently sweetened product, an element that has been stripped of any excess sweetness. I took up the subject with Filippo Novelli and Marcello Trentini.
“Italy is the homeland of gelato in the world but between north and south we already have two completely different products. In the south gelato contains more added sugar, something considered unpleasant in China.
Today the spotlight is focused more clearly on ice-cream than it was in the past thanks to gourmet gelato, which has been fashionable in haute cuisine for many years. But whereas before it was seen as something special and could only be found in the kitchen of restaurateurs with a particularly far-sighted vision, today we can find it in any “medium to high class” restaurant” explains Novelli.
Filippo was not born with a dessert spoon in his mouth. He followed the classic career route, beginning his education in a professional hotel and catering high school, then spending 15 years in the kitchens of many great restaurants before joining one with a Michelin star. Having always been a fan of the sweet side to every dish, he set his sights on the most prestigious world competitions for pastry chefs.
Marcello Trentini, also known as “il Mago” (the Magician) after the name of his Restaurant, the “Magorabin” in Turin, has had a Michelin Star since 2012 and is the Vice President of the JRE association in Italy. His philosophy in the kitchen is based on offering zero mileage products at a global level and focusing on a seasonality that is intrinsically linked to the local geographical limits. He channels all of this into his dishes starting from the very basics, by favouring local products and offering a new take on traditional classics.
For him, ice-cream is the cherry on the cake of a gourmet philosophy that aims to alter well-known textures and flavours to create a “wow” effect in certain dishes. Back in 2003, for a Slow Food dinner, he prepared a ice-cream made with artichokes and for years his menu has included a dish featuring baby cuttlefish, lightly sautéed and served with ice-cream, and a prawn bisque.
And it was precisely in 2012, an important year for the careers of both chefs, that their paths crossed. Now, the chef prepared the bases and the ice-cream maker prepared the ice-cream.
Picking up the history of ice-cream and giving in a bit of a twist. Now, following on from those who had used it,
those who had forgotten it, those who had believed in it and those who had given up on it altogether, along came our two culinary heroes with their first creations, which included ice-cream of foie gras, peppers, and anchovies and red onions cooked in vinegar.
They took it round the world with them during a string of events (in Canada, Australia, Shanghai and Taiwan).
And it was only by travelling the world that they realised that one of the biggest limits in Italy is linked to the idea that the ice-cream is simply a snack, typical of a country that is too closely bound to tradition, and too fundamentalist.
And this is also why soft ice-cream is misunderstood in Italy, with people remaining tied to the classic tub, while in the rest of the world soft ice-cream has not only cleared the first hurdle but is now taking ice-cream production by storm.
There are a few things that can be considered ideal candidates for inclusion in snack ice-cream. These must be sweet, but have different features, such as the cherry tomato or the cucumber which have the same value as fruit, give a pleasant flavour and maintain the fresh feel of the newly harvested treasures of nature.
In a world full of cones and tubs, where the ultimate example of exuberance is the stick or the wafer, Filippo Novelli has tried to create something new: the sushi ice-cream, applying the idea of the ice-cream in a different form, an Oriental form that resembles sushi in how it is prepared and how it looks, with simplicity and elegance, form and flavouring. And it is based on this same daring concept that we venture to go further, with cardamom and wasabi ice-cream, with jellies that remind us of tuna and salmon.
“You have to create the desire to have that thing” said Steve Jobs. And the two chefs have no doubts about that. The public don’t know what they want, so it’s up to us to awaken their desire for what we are presenting. If you continue making the same old ice-cream with the same old flavours, nothing will change in the feedback you receive from gourmet fans Gourmet gelato will continue to ride this rocky road with all its ups and downs: but this might be its boom and perhaps in a few years it will begin to make a real impression or two, but everything depends on who believes in it.
So, having established the worldwide phenomenon of the ice-cream, with its vast selection of flavours spanning from fresh fruit to nuts, from creams to yoghurts, from chocolate to coffee until they reach the brand new “savoury” ice-cream concept, offering exciting cheese or herb flavours, all rousing the curiosity and satisfying the
palates of the most demanding customers, are we now ready to give the concept of “ice-cream” yet another makeover?