Gelato may just be one of the world's favourite inventions. Sun-soaked memories of eating it as a child are certainly imprinted on practically every Italian's mind. My mother-in-law recalls Sunday afternoon treats, when her father would take her to the local gelateria to choose between the two handmade flavours available: plain cream or chocolate.
From the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it may seem incredible that some form of iced delight could have existed before the modern luxury of freezers. But the history of ices and ice cream actually reaches back beyond ancient Rome (Roman emperor Nero served his guests snow flavoured with honey and fruit) to ancient Chinese and Arabic cultures, which understood how to use salt with ice collected from mountain tops to create freezing temperatures. The word sorbet, in fact, comes from the Arabic word scherbet, meaning ‘sweet snow.'
But the gelato that we know and love today-rich and creamy, bursting with flavours of fresh fruit, nuts, chocolate or spices-comes from Italy.
In his 1891 cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Pellegrino Artusi includes a chapter listing no less than 24 gelato recipes(on this page I offer a recipe adapted from that chapter). In discussing gelati, he ponders the origins of the irresistible sweet. His research led him to Caterina de' Medici, whose band of Florentine pastry chefs and cooks followed her to Paris in 1533 when she married Henry II of France. She served gelato and sorbet to astounded French guests and, according to Artusi, the recipe was kept secret for at least another century.
It was in 1660 when a Sicilian, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, opened a café in Paris and found huge success selling gelato and flavoured ices (granitas) to fashionable Parisians. The recipe was copied, spreading eventually to England and the rest of Europe.
But where did Caterina de' Medici get her gelato recipe centuries before?