August 2, 2016
Gelato is one of the best-loved Italian exports in the world: everyone “knows” it originated in Italy (or did it …?), but many may not be aware that it walks hand-in-hand with many centuries of history. Stroll down an Italian strada and you may realize, not only does Italy specialize in gelato, but granitas, sorbetto, and “Italian ice”, too. All of these icy delights have intertwined and fascinating stories.
You may be surprised to hear that the origin of these icy treats is not Italian. Some records state that the first appearance of gelato may have been in the second century B.C., although no exact date or name is credited with the dessert. We know that Alexander the Great enjoyed something similar to sorbet, and King Solomon took breaks from the hot weather to enjoy snow flavored with honey and nectar (similar to granitas). But where and when can we document the first appearance of gelato, and how did it get to Italy?
To understand gelato’s role in Italian history, we must first look at where the idea was created. China and Persia were said to take ice and snow, grind it into fine crystals, and add sweet juices and fruits. This was a luxury enjoyed only by the wealthy, so many knew nothing of it. Texture was achieved by adding chunks of salt, or rock salt, to achieve the desired thickness. The shaved ice was not like gelato at all; in fact, it was very similar to what we would call a snow cone. Marco Polo was finally said to bring the dessert to Italy, but Roman emperors enjoyed the “snow cone dessert” even before then. In the 1600s, King Charles I of England was said to have enjoyed “cream ice” so much that he paid his chef to keep the recipe a secret from the public, believing it to be solely a royal treat. However, the validity of these stories remains a mystery, because many of them only appeared in the 19th century.
It would take many centuries before any kind of dairy product was added to the ice desserts, creating what we know now as ice cream and gelato. The name “ice cream” comes from the original creation of the treat: sweet creams, along with thick custard, were cooled down with ice. The chillier the cream, the thicker and more solid the product, thus creating the name “ice cream”. Just as with pizza and pasta, the Neapolitans are credited with creating the first true ice creams, which originally appeared in an 18th century cook book. Once dairy was added, each country put its own spin on the dessert, but gelato remains the most popular in Europe. The first ice cream shop was Cafe Procope, in France, which is still there today. At that time, ice cream and gelato were available in the US and throughout Europe, but it was still only available to the upper class and on special occasions.
A bit of trivia: As ice cream and gelato became more readily available, problems seemed to emerge. Soda fountains came about in 1874, and with them came the creation of the ice cream soda, a popular treat for all ages. Many religious leaders shunned indulging in ice creams on Sundays, so they encouraged “blue laws” banning the treat. This is thought to be where the term “ice cream sundaes” came about. Some believe that to get around these strict laws, shop owners served the ice cream with syrup and none of the carbonation of the soda, calling them “ice cream Sundays.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the name was later modified to “sundae” to avoid association with the Sabbath. Many cities claim to have created ice cream sundaes, so it is hard to verify whether the blue laws actually led to the creation of the popular treat.
Although Italy may not be able to take credit for inventing gelato or ice cream, it boasts more icy treats than any other country. Through Italy, ice cream and other favorite cool treats leaped national boundaries and have spread worldwide. And gelato innovation continues in Italy: even smaller cities like Sorrento feature gluten-free shops like Raki, as well as shops like Momi where single origin chocolates and amazingly flavorful local fruits are employed.