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Italian gelato, history, and interesting facts of a sweet revolution

From artisanal ice cream to the modern cuisine artists’ versions, the history of Italian gelato spans the centuries and is a true ‘made in Italy’ excellence.

Who wins the title of inventor of gelato? Figuring out who created the iconic dessert is as difficult as figuring out who invented pizza: everyone is after the primacy and the most interesting story.

So let’s set off on a mouth-watering historical journey across the boot of Italy, amidst stories, legends and curiosities surrounding the world’s best-known and most consumed Italian dessert.

One of the first historical documents to mention ‘gelato’ comes from a Greek poet in 500 B.C. in Athens, where it was common practice to make drinks with lemon, honey, pomegranate juice, snow, or ice. Not very different from the Arab custom of mixing snow from Mount Etna with fruit juices during their centuries in Sicily. In the Middle East, there has always been an icy drink called sherbet (‘sweet snow’), from which the Italian word ‘sorbetto’ derives.

But these are only inaccurate ancestors of our modern gelato, which has much more recent origins.

The origins of Italian gelato

Well, if we must give someone a patent, we need to divide the credit among three prominent figures: Ruggeri, Buontalenti and Coltelli.

Ruggeri was a humble livestock dealer (indicatively in the first half of the 16th century) in Florence who took part in a competition organised by Caterina de’ Medici that called for ‘preparing a singular dish never seen before’. He won with a dessert made of ice and fruit: this triumph brought him to the French court, where Caterina herself was Queen Consort, among the excellence of the renowned French chefs.

As for Bernardo Buontalenti, who in the second half of the 16th century also made a name for himself as a painter, architect, and engineer, he is definitely remembered in history for adding milk and eggs to the recipe of this primordial ice cream, creating a mix that can still be enjoyed today under the name of Crema Fiorentina (in Florence it is actually called Buontalenti).

Third but not least in importance is Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, an absolute symbol of Italian entrepreneurship who, exhausted from being a fisherman in Sicily, took over an old sorbet machine inherited from his grandfather, a legacy of the Arabs’ time on the island. He started experimenting, replaced honey with sugar and made a creamier sorbet.

After perfecting the recipe, he moved to Paris, where he opened the Café Procope in 1686 (still located at 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, now a restaurant but still preserving its origins), which became the first real ice-cream parlour worthy of the name, where intellectuals of the likes of Voltaire and Victor Hugo were likely to be spotted. And it seems that Napoleon was also a regular.

procope.com
procope.com

But, if we would like to understand how ice cream became so incredibly popular and appreciated, we would have to travel to another unexpected area of Italy, the Belluno and Zoldo Valleys, which were undergoing one of the blackest crises in its history in the mid-19th century. So, its inhabitants, forced to migrate due to the shortage of iron mines, crossed the border in the direction of Vienna, with the hope of making a living selling roasted chestnuts and cooked pears, but some clearly knew how to make ice cream as well. More and more street vendors with their carts and crank-operated ice cream machines began to be seen on the streets of the city, and soon more and more Italians opened permanent premises and became small entrepreneurs. This is how Italian ice cream parlours spread throughout Austria and Germany, to the extent that today, there is a room in the Haus der Geschichte in Bonn, the museum that tells the history of modern Germany, set up like a 1960s ice cream parlour, with posters of Venice on the walls. It is interesting to discover that this is no ordinary ice-cream parlour, but a reproduction of one of the many eiscafés opened by Zoldo and Candorini people in Austria and Germany. 

The passion for ice cream: facts and figures

The popularity of ice cream is definitely a story of an Italian virtuous passion and entrepreneurship, with a thousand curiosities: for example, who are the biggest ice cream eaters in the world? You literally must travel to the other side of the planet, to New Zealand, where they eat almost 29 litres of ice cream per person per year, which is almost three times the amount average Italian eats. 

And while Italians often prefer the three most popular flavours (chocolate, hazelnut, and lemon), many ice cream parlours offer extravagant flavours like pizza, violets, or Parmesan cheese… to be enjoyed only with pear ice cream.

Some have tried to make a census of all the ice-cream flavours and seem to have counted 600… far too many to put on a single cone!

What’s more, there is no climate that prevents people from eating ice cream (in the United States, the greatest ice cream eaters are incredibly the Alaskans!) and consumption drops only slightly in winter.

Needless to say, the world of artisanal ice cream touches excellence that reaches as far as the kitchens of starred chefs, like the Italian Davide Oldani, who has always used ice cream as a cold sauce and as a contrasting element for crunchy consistencies in his pop cuisine.

Versatile, with an intriguing history and simply delicious: this dessert definitely has plenty of reasons to be so popular in every corner of the globe.

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