History suggests that human beings have been inventive enough to create the coolest and most refreshing drinks for the hottest seasons simply by using fruits, flavors, and, if possible, ice or snow. Even in the Bible, Issac, while offering to Abraham some goat’s milk mixed with snow, said: “Eat and drink, the sun is torrid and you can cool down.” We can deduce that it was a kind of sorbet with iced milk, otherwise he would have used just the word drink. Was Abraham, therefore, the first to taste gelato? Maybe.
In later times the snow was collected and compressed in special winter constructions so that it could last until summer. It appears that even King Solomon consumed quite a lot of this “fresh fruit snow.” When there was not snow, man still managed to “make” ice, discovering a way to obtain it in rooms where steam could freeze on rocks. In Egypt, the Pharaohs offered to their guests silver chalices divided in two parts – one with snow, and the other with fruit juices. During the Roman Empire, General Quinto Fabio Massimo wrote the first recipe of a sort of gelato that became very popular.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of Middle Ages, many delicacies that had been common to many different people were lost. “Iced fruit juices” disappeared too – but not in the East, where the invention of iced drinks continued to be developed. It is said that Chinese taught Arab traders how to combine syrups and snow, the first version of sorbetto. Then Arab traders showed Venetians and southern Italians how to make this new frozen delicacy.
It was in Sicily that sorbetto was born (from the Arabic, scherbet = sweet snow, or from the Turkish, chorbet = to sip). It was made with sugar, new fruit juices (mainly citrus fruits), and snow. The history of gelato, made not only with fruits but also with different creams and flavors, dates back to the 16th century. Where or who really invented gelato no one knows, but as most stories go, Bernardo Buontalenti, a native of Florence, delighted the court of Caterina Dei Medici with his creation.
A Sicilian, Francesco Procopio Dei Coltelli, was one of the most influential individuals in the history of gelato; he was the first who sold it to the public, introducing gelato to Europe. Summoned to Paris in 1686, he opened a café named “Café Procope,” which quickly became one of the most celebrated haunts of the literary establishment in France.
Meanwhile in Italy, the art of traditional gelato making was handed from father to son. It continued to be improved and perfected right up to the 20th century, when many gelato makers began to emigrate, taking their know-how to the rest of Europe.
Gelato in Italian literally means “frozen,” but it is used to indicate the Italian type of ice cream. One of the basic differences between gelato and the ice cream is that there is less air in gelato, and therefore the flavor is much more intense. Gelato is a healthier product, as it is made daily with fresh and all-natural ingredients, and contains 70% less fats (and subsequently fewer calories) than American ice cream.