The topic of Gelato has been on my horizon for a while, I just needed to work my way towards it. But I got here faster than I thought because this week a friend treated us to lunch at a favourite restaurant and between us we sampled three types of ‘ice-cream’. There was a sorbet of yuzu with desiccated orange, a passion fruit ice-cream with a coconut tuille, and a black sesame seed ice-cream with a sesame seed shard. All were totally moreish and delicious and all related to but different from Gelato.

So how did the modern world get to Gelato – here comes the history bit. I guess we have to start with the coldness since the earliest frozen offering, snow, can be dated, anecdotally, to the Bible, with Isaac offering his father Abraham snow mixed with goat’s milk. The Pharaohs would offer guests snow and fruit, the snow collected from Mount Etna and Vesuvius, with the snow trade providing a profitable business for many centuries.

The invention of nascent refrigeration systems brings modern day Gelato production closer. Thus, says Luciano Ferrari, in his 2011 book Gelato and Gourmet Frozen Desserts – a professional learning guide:

‘A disciple of the Prophet Mohammed is said to have perfected a system to freeze down fruit juice by pouring it into a container surrounded by crushed ice. The Arabs named this product ‘sherbat’ from the verb ‘to drink”.

These sherbat’s or sorbets were common throughout eastern Mediterranean cultures and included Turkey and Greece, making their way eventually to southern Europe. But it is the Renaissance period which sees the geographical expansion of ‘frozen desserts’ and the addition of custard to frozen desserts. The first resulted from Florentinian Ruggieri’s famous award-winning sorbet being taken to France with Catherine Medici when she married Enrique Duke of Orleans in 1533. Ruggieri was Catherine’s chef. The addition of custard to ‘frozen desserts’ is attributed to Bernardo Buontalenti, also from Florence, who, circa 1565, held ‘sumptuous banquets ending with delicious frozen desserts based on custard and fruit’. And so, one more step on the way to the development and dissemination of Gelato.

It is speculated that Italian Gelato, or the French Creme Glace, jumped the channel and became English Ice-Cream when Henrieta Maria, grand daughter of Caterina de Medici, brought her chefs with her when she married Charles Stuart to become his queen.

But it is not till 1686 that Gelato in its modern form is produced. Italian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened his Cafe Procope in Paris right in front of the Comedie-Francaise and it became famous for its Gelato and frequented by the then locally famous and infamous (e.g. Voltaire, Balzac, Hugo, Diderot, Robespierre among others). Procopio’s replacement of honey with sugar, the addition of salt and the use of his grandfather’s machine, allowed the ice to melt more slowly. The Sicilian Post tells us that the quality of his ‘lemon and orange gelato and strawberry sorbets… allowed him to obtain French citizenship, and also to get a royal licence issued by the Sun Ling Louis XIV, making him the sole producer of the dessert’.

19th c interior of the Cafe Procope

During the 18c frozen desserts were introduced to the USA by colonists and immigrants and the first Geleteria was opened in New York in 1770. It is during the following century that the differences between American Ice Cream and European Ice Cream (Gelato) begin to emerge.

So what makes a gelato a gelato and not an ice-cream or a sorbet. Why Gelato produced a tidy table to get me out of writing a long explanation, and here it is:

So, Gelato contains less fat than ice-cream, using mainly milk where ice-cream uses mainly cream. Similarly, it uses less egg than custard-based ice-creams. Since gelato is churned at a slower speed than ice-cream there is a denser texture to gelato. Finally, gelato is served at a warmer temperature than ice-cream. These elements allow the tastes to be brighter and more intense and the texture to be softer and silkier.

The very best of gelato in Auckland is from Giapo. Some would say this is the very best parlour in the world, since, in pre-virus days, it was common for Hollywood to fly in to sample and swoon over Giapo’s ‘modern parlour featuring handmade ice cream, gelato & sorbet in traditional & adventurous flavours’.

But I am afraid I cannot offer such sumptuousness. Rather, here is a recipe for a Classic Vanilla Bean Gelato