Gelato is one of the best-loved Italian exports in the world: everyone knows it comes from Italy, but not many may be aware it is a product with a long history, intertwined with the very history of Italian cuisine. A common belief is that Marco Polo brought ice cream back to Italy from his adventures in China. However, just like the story of his introduction of pasta to the country, there are problems with this story: if it is generally assumed that both China and ancient Persia were among the first cultures that developed a dessert made from fruit and either shaved ice or mountain snow, similar discoveries must have been made by numerous cultures that had access to ice and something sweet to add to it.
However, evidence does suggest that it was, in fact, in China that the earliest ice-cream making practices were developed, by adding rock salt to the mixture to increase its hardness. These first ice creams were not ice cream at all, since there was no milk or cream in it, and resembled much more sorbet or Italian Ice. Roman Emperors were known to have enjoyed these types of desserts centuries before Marco Polo: the great explorer may not have introduced ice cream to the country, but Italy does play an important role in introducing frozen desserts including ice cream, to Europe.
ICE CREAM: SORBETTO, GRANITA AND ITALIAN ICE
All three are more ice and flavorings rather than real ice cream, and have been long enjoyed in the ancient world. Very likely, these desserts were introduced to Southern Italy by the Arabs, who also brought sugarcane to the country. The Arabs used mountain snow and fruit juices to make Sharbat, the ancestor to Italy’s Sorbetto and known elsewhere as sorbet or, indeed, sherbet.
It is in Sicily that a dessert made of ice, sugar and flavorings, known as Granita, was created. Popular in the whole country now, granita is probably the closest thing to the original sharbat as it has a more slush-like consistency than sorbetto. Today, commercial sorbetto can contain small amounts of milk, but many are still made only with fruit juice or syrups and ice: this is what in America is known as “Italian Ice”.
We’ve said how iced desserts were popular in antiquity, but what about modern times? During the Renaissance, frozen desserts became very popular in Europe by way of France, although it is, once again, an Italian we must thank for it: Caterina de Medici, a lover of good food, brought along her troupe of chefs from Florence to Paris and it was they who began to offer sorbets at dinners. However, there was still one more step to take to make these –already delicious– sorbets into real ice-cream.