Gelato is one of the foods unmistakably associated with Italy. The delicious taste of cold ice cream on a hot summer day next to one of the many Italian “must see” tourist gems, like the Colosseum, Ponte di Rialto, the Leaning Tower or temples of Paestum is one of the postcard cliches of holidays in Italy.
Where was ice cream created? How was it made before refrigerators were invented? What’s the difference between a gelato and and ice cream? What’s the most popular taste of gelato? Who eats the most ice cream in the world? Which is our favourite gelateria? You will find answers to all these questions and in our today’s blog entry.
Where was ice cream invented?
This is a tricky question, as there is no single answer to it. According to archeologists, it is likely that the very first ice cream was eaten at the court of the Egipitan pharaohs of the II Dynasty (2700 BC), as a silver probably ice cream cup was found in one of the tombs. It consisted of two cups – one to consist snow or crushed ice, the other – cooked fruit.
Other archeologists show evidence that it was discovered in Mesopotamia and Persia, where sweetened water was iced, grinded into little pieces and then decorated with various tasting toppings and fruits.
This tradition of making ice cream reached Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. In Ancient Rome special wells were used to store ice and snow which slaves brought down from to mountains to luxurious villas. Some shops in Pompei specialised in selling crushed ice (from Vesuvius) sweetened with honey.
Roman emperors, especially Emperor Nero, are supposed to have sent slaves to mountain tops to bring back fresh snow which was then flavoured and served as an early form of ice-cream.
Sadly, after the fall of the Roman Empire, organized ice transport from mountains to the cities below stopped. Little changed in the 800 years following the fall of Rome.
Milk enters the stage
A kind of ice-cream was invented in China about 200 BC when a milk and rice mixture was frozen by packing it into snow. It further developed during the reign of king Tang of Shang (seventh century AD), who loved ice cream so much that he had 94 ice men who worked on making dishes of buffalo milk, flour and camphor.
Marco Polo, is believed to have seen milk-based ice-creams being made during his trip to China and introduced them to Italy. This is how gelato was born.
Origins of gelato
According to a legend the Medici family organised a competition for the most original culinary ice cream recipe. This competition was won by a certain Ruggeri (a chicken seller), who had submitted a composition of water, sugar and fruit, probably similar to a granita, an “ice with sugared and perfumed water”.
Another gelato story mentions an architect Bernardo Buontalenti who invented an iced dessert for Charles V of Spain. This was served at a famous inaugural feast for the Belvedere Fort of Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1559. Thanks to this event, some people consider Buontalenti the true inventor of ice cream. His recipe is recorded as a cold cream made of milk, honey, egg yolk, a sprinkle of wine, aromatised with bergamot, lemon and orange. This is certainly the basic recipe for the “Florentine Cream” or “Buontalento Ice Cream” which the best ice cream makers in Florence still serve. Buontalenti even had an ice cream machine built. It consisted of revolving slats driven by a handle to beat the mixture. It also had a cylinder in the center filled with ice.
Gelato crosses the Alps
The international career of the gelato started when duchess Catherine of Medici married Henri de Valois, future king of France Henri II. She brought Ruggeri (the chicken seller) and his ice cream arts across the Alps. This became a huge hit on the French court and soon the luxury of eating ice cream spread around the European courts.
Gelato in its modern form is credited to the Italian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. Procopio opened his “Cafe Procope” in Paris in the late 1600s. He introduced gelato in his café, earning notability first in Paris and then in the rest of Europe. Thanks to his gelato, Procopio not only obtained French citizenship, but also got an exclusive royal licence issued by the King Louis XIV, making him the sole producer of the frozen dessert in the kingdom.
However, until late 19 century, ice cream was a rather expensive delicacy which was eaten by few. It all changed with the invention of the refrigerator which allowed its storage in a much easier and often cheaper form. Ice cream and gelato could go global, even to the hot areas of the globe.
What’s the difference between gelato and ice cream?
Gelato and ice cream share three main ingredients — dairy, sugar, and air. The difference lies in their proportions.
Dairy (milk, cream, or both) and sugar are combined, mixed evenly, and pasteurized. Natural or artificial flavors are then folded in. Next, air is incorporated by churning the mix before freezing it. Traditional ice cream has way more air in it than the Italian gelato.
In addition to containing more air than gelato, ice cream also packs more cream. This translates to a high fat content. What’s more, ice cream typically includes egg yolks, whereas gelato rarely will. Instead, gelato usually contains more milk.
Gelato is much silkier in texture and a bit denser than ice cream. This denseness allows gelato to pack much more flavor than traditional ice cream. Additionally, gelato also usually takes its flavors from natural sources.
Gelato is traditionally served about 6–8°C warmer than the ice cream. This helps the flavors in gelato to bloom, as your tongue isn’t as numb as it is when eating ice cream.
The traditional flavors of gelato consist of vanilla, chocolate, hazelnut, pistachio, cream, and stracciatella. More modern flavors consist of fruity ones such as raspberry, strawberry, apple, lemon and pineapple.
Other interesting ice cream trivia
The King of England, Charles I offered his chef £500 a year to keep his ice-cream recipe a secret from the rest of England.
Ice Cream sundaes were invented in the late 19 century, when it became illegal to sell ice-cream sodas on a Sunday . They were invented in the American town of Evanston (IL). To get round the problem some traders replaced the soda with syrup and called the dessert an “Ice Cream Sundae.” They replaced the final “y” with an “e” to avoid upsetting religious leaders.
A Syrian called Ernest E Hamwi is believed to have invented the ice-cream cone. In 1904, during the St Louis World’s Fair in the United States, his waffle booth was next to an ice-cream seller who ran short of dishes. As a favour, Hamwi rolled a waffle to hold his ice-cream and the ice ceam cone was born.
United States is currently largest producer and consumer of ice cream in the world.
Which is our favourite gelateria?
We have been to Italy many times and during each trip we have eaten gelato on a several ocasions. And yet, if someone asks us what is our favourite Italian gelateria – we will have only one answer: gelateria Linus Jazz in Faenza (Emilia-Romagna). It is a special place for us and the taste of their gelato will stay with us forever.
It is a magical place, where the owner creates masterpieces made of ice and cream. His gelato made of buffalo milk with figues and apricots was one of the best ice cream flavours I’ve eaten in my life. His pistachio ice cream is legendary too.
We discovered this gelateria when we were on holidays in Emilia-Romagna. Faenza is not a major destination in the region. It is clearly in the shadow if its more known cousins, like Bologna, Modena, Ferrara and Parma. It is mainly known as the birthplace of faianse (maiolica), the cousin of porcelain. And that was our initial aim of the visit. But it all changed once we entered this gelateria.
When we discovered how delicious the ice cream here is, we kept ordering more and more, savouring new flavours. It was like a being in an ice cream paradise. We loved it!
We did manage to see the old town and its charms, but the impression the gelato of the Linus Jazz had on us, dwarfed the impression of the Piazza della Liberta and the duomo. For us Faenza became the gelato town.
Midnight gelato feast
We loved this gelato so much, that during our next trip to Italy (this time to Campania) on the way back we made a special detour just to come to Faenza for the ice cream. We arrived there close to midnight (yes, it was still open!) and had a delicious gelato feast. The kids were thrilled, cause it’s so great to eat heaps of ice cream in the middle of the night, isn’t it?
Dislaimer – this article is not sponsored. We simply love this place and next time we will be in the vicinity, we will visit it again for sure!
Where is Linus Jazz?
Bibliography & further read
Did you know there is a special website dedicated to the history of ice cream?
If you want to know more about gelato, you can read about it on the Lifegate or Healthline websites.
Our favourite gelateria Linus Jazz in Faenza does not have its own website, but it does have a Facebook page.
We have a special entry dedicated to the maras ice cream. Have a look and compare it with the gelato!
If you like to read about food, we recommend you to visit our blog entries about Neapolitan pizza or about Malaysian food. Bon apetit!