The ancient Roman seaside city of Rimini, about 75 miles southeast of Bologna and birthplace of legendary film director Federico Fellini, evokes la dolce vita in more ways than one. If Bologna is dubbed “Bologna la grassa,” or “Bologna the fat,” for its celebrated cuisine, the ancient road from Bologna to Rimini, once a vital trade route through Emilia’s rich plains, is today the nerve center for the artisanal gelato industry.
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So when the Italian Trade Commission recently invited me to join the jury for the Gelato World Tour Finals in Rimini, I accepted gratefully. Over three days in September, I watched 24 gelatièri, small gelato producers, from around the world, make about 14,330 pounds of their nominated recipes in Piazzale Fellini. The frenzied contestants from three continents gathered in Rimini to churn out their entries under big tents, whipping up fresh batches throughout the day to keep up with a crowd of 70,000 that was slurping its way through the expo. They were breaking all the flavor rules which, when it comes to cuisine in Italy, can be unbending. “It’s about inclusion,” said James Coleridge, a Canadian from Vancouver who won the 2014 Gelato World Tour North America title. “People are using Persian ingredients like saffron and rosewater and Japanese salted cherries; [vendors from] the Philippines are making gelato with purple yams.”
On the final day, “Drowned Almond” was declared the winner. The champion, John Crowl of Sydney, Australia, announced that his shop already had “a huge line out the door and down the street following the news,” and that his winning flavor, a fusion of Madagascar vanilla bean gelato, roasted caramelized almonds, Kenyan coffee and salted caramel sauce, was being made nonstop all day to keep up with the demand. “This award proves that even a foreigner can be a great gelato artisan if he or she studies hard and works with passion and tenacity every day,” he said.
The judging wasn’t easy. “Grumpy’s Heart” (Italy), a revelation of Sicilian pistachios that are considered princely even in Italy, placed second. “Hazelnut Heart” (Italy), a blissful delivery of toasted Piedmont hazelnuts, took third. Other juror favorites were “Texas Pecan Pie” (from Austin, Texas), based on Texas pecans, Texas whiskey and caramel; and Sollér Orange Sorbet with Mint and Cardamom (Spain). Gelatière Salvatore Versace, who emigrated from Italy to the U.S., won hearts with his rags-to-riches tale about making it big in Miami with a string of gelato parlors. He captured a “People’s Honorable Mention” with his “Scents of Sicily,” which reproduced authentic flavors of the Sicilian confection using tangy sheep’s milk ricotta and blood oranges.
With nearly half of the finalists from countries outside Italy, it became clear the taste for gelato, which began its journey in an 18th-century Italian pushcart, is circling the globe at a dizzying pace.
How this happened to an artisanal food is, ironically, a function of industrial history.
Gelato is at least as old as Mesopotamia, but its modern history began in Bologna in 1931, when Otello Cattabriga pioneered the first machine that could scrape, stir and incorporate air into a liquid gelato base to create its characteristic structure and creaminess. In 1934, he added an electrical motor, creating the first vertical batch freezer. In 1946, Poerio and Bruto Carpigiani, two brothers from Bologna, patented the first automatic machine, making it possible to produce gelato in larger quantities. The equipment was designed for small-scale gelato production. In just a few years, gelaterias proliferated in Italy and throughout the world.
Today, Carpigiani, sponsor of the Gelato World Tour, is said to be the largest artisanal gelato machine company in the world. A gelato school and museum are integral parts of its headquarters on the outskirts of Bologna. Unlike the training of a chef, which takes years of grueling experience, initiates can study gelato at the Bologna school and come out with a toque in four weeks.
Not to say that making gelato is quick and easy. Even when using specialized dairy bases, fruit, nut and chocolate pastes manufactured for gelatièri, gelato producers have to transform the ingredients into a finished product. They can make their gelato using these bases, or they can make it from scratch. Some combine the bases with fresh ingredients. “Gelato isn’t made like paint-by-number because it’s made by hand,” said finalist Matthew Lee of Tèo Gelato, Espresso and Bella Vita, of Austin, Texas, “but the best ones are made from scratch.” Like Lee, Coleridge uses only raw, unprocessed ingredients daily. “Maybe three people out of 500 are making truly artisanal gelato,” he said.
True gelato: It’s artisanal, it’s fresh
You might ask, just what is meant by “artisanal,” or handmade, in the world of gelato? In nearby Parma, cheese artigiani still make their 800-year-old Parmigiano-Reggiano by hand using state-of-the art stainless-steel vats and temperature-controlled storage rooms. Likewise, gelato makers today practice an ancient craft with the benefit of modern equipment. True gelato must be made fresh daily, ideally several times daily, to preserve its flavor and silkiness and avoid crystallization into hard ice cream. Genuine “artisanal” denotes an entirely handcrafted product working with raw, unprocessed natural ingredients every day. “It’s about making the best, not the most,” said Coleridge, a former baker, mountain climber and the first non-Italian to win the title, International Gelato Master of the Year, at Florence Gelato Festival in 2012. “We’re custodians of an old world process, protecting it against the industrialized world.”
However, unlike Italian producers who have to fight foreign imitators of their old cheeses, salumi and such, gelato needs no specific terroir. It requires only a willing entrepreneur with a sweet tooth.
Main photo: Gelato World Tour winners of the “world’s best gelato” category: John, left, and Sam Crowl of Cow and the Moon in Sydney, Australia. Credit: Dino Buffagnani, Gelato World Tour