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La Gelatiera and the Renaissance Ice Cream Men

31 Mar

The origins of ice cream can be traced back to the Tang period in China 618-907 AD where the Chinese heated buffalo, cow and goat milk along with grounded rice, allowed it to ferment and then buried it in snow. Some accounts suggest that the Chinese taught Arab traders how to combine syrups and snow, which morphed into an early version of what we now know as the sorbet and it was then the Arab traders who taught Venetians and Romans how to make this novel frozen delicacy.

It is also widely believed that the tradition of Italian gelato began during the Italian Renaissance. The famed Medici family in Florence sponsored a contest, searching for the greatest frozen dessert. A man named Ruggeri, a chicken farmer, happened to win the contest for his tasty frozen dessert of sweet fruit juice and ice. Other popular accounts suggest that gelato was infact invented by Bernardo Buontalenti, an Italian architect who was hired by the Medici family in 1565 to cater banquets. He created frozen desserts from a mixture of frozen sweet milk with egg yolks and other flavorings, which became widely popular but mainly among the elite.  Meanwhile, in the South, the frozen rendition was lower in fat, predominantly water-based, slightly higher in sugar content due to the intense flavourings and was called Sorbetto, known today as Sorbet.

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Let’s come back to 5 centuries later. My mother is the sort of person who will skip a meal just to be able to eat double the amount of ice cream you should typically have as one helping of dessert. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit her passion for this frozen treat.

But that didn’t deter me from discovering La Gelatiera, an artisan gelateria in Covent Garden, through a Chocolate Walks deserts tasting event in February. Ever since, I have returned every week, sometimes even more frequently not just to enjoy the delectable range of inventive flavours that never cease to surprise me but also the conversations with the friendly staff and owners.

Opened by three friends; Antonio, Simona and Stephane, La Gelatiera is truly a labour of love. Antonio’s paternal grandfather was a gelato maker in Calabria, southern Italy and this new venture is his homage to the tradition of gelato-making that he fondly remembers from his childhood.

One can sense the owners’ passion and dedication towards their craft and the choice of name (which literally means the machine that churns gelato, photographed below) embodies their desire to share the gelato-making process with those who visit. You can also peak into their lab through its transparent roof to catch a glimpse of the gelato churning process.

La Gelatiera

Co-owner Antonio spent a year researching and carefully studying books on gelato-making and he describes the process as being somewhat mathematical since it involves meticulously balancing the sugar, water and fat content in each of the ingredients that is used. It’s as much chemistry as it is an art. This approach lies at the heart of artisanal gelato-making and lends La Gelatiera’s products the depth that communicates the effort and love that went into creating them. 

The owners are inspired by the Slow Food movement, which originated in Italy to preserve traditional cuisine and agricultural biodiversity. La Gelatiera is committed to sustainability not only in the use of fresh, seasonal and organic ingredients but also by using reclaimed wood for the stools and small tables and using a water recycling machine. The milk is locally sourced, organically certified and pasteurized on premises.

With flavours such as black sesame, saffron, prosecco and peaches, wensleydale cheese and blackcurrant, La Gelatiera is pushing the boundaries of creative experimentation. My favourite is the salty caramel that is nearly as good as the salted butter caramel ice cream I had at Berthillon in Paris in January.  The mango gelato is also delightful especially since they clearly know that the best mango gelato can only be made with Pakistani mangoes! The flavours change on a daily basis so there may be days on which your preferred flavour is not available.

I was curious to know whether innovation in gelato flavours is also taking place in the Italian foodscape. According to Antonio, experimentation in avant-garde gelato flavours is not very common but it is taking place largely focused in the North of Italy in cities such as Milan, Florence and Bologna. Antonio draws inspiration from Japanese and French cuisine and he recently collaborated with a French chef to develop a savoury gelato flavour – Delice des Cabasses provencal goat cheese with real truffle & honey. He hopes to continue the practice of collaborating with other chefs to merge flavour profiles and influences. In addition to gelato, you can’t escape the aromas of La Gelatiera’s home-made cakes and desserts such as panettone and tartufo, which are freshly baked on premises and inspired by co-owner Simona’s family recipes from Modena.

Panettone

La Gelatiera

27 New Row

Covent Garden

WC2N 4LA, London

Can Good Food Lead to An Existential Crisis?

20 Jan

“I would like a large carafe of ennui with some angst on the side” – Bourdain

In the Rome episode of “No Reservations” (aired in Summer 2010), food and travel writer and critic, Anthony Bourdain ponders over the question “can good food lead to an existential crisis?” His beguiling culinary experience in Rome leads him to question why he hadn’t been born there, why he hadn’t visited it before and why he didn’t speak the language (Italian in this case). While many regard Bourdain’s opinions and critiques as self-indulgent there are some including myself who may not even buy into this existential crap. Let’s just eat our food and get on with it. Why intellectualize the experience of eating food?

What we perhaps don’t realize is that it’s not even really about intellectualizing – we are subconsciously asking ourselves or are at least faced with similar questions as the ones Bourdain poses when we travel to different cities.

Bourdain in Rome - Source: http://www.photographymojo.com

Existentialism per se not withstanding, after watching this episode, which by the way I did enjoy, I was motivated to think of experiences in my own life where I visited a place and asked myself the same questions. While I have certainly enjoyed foods in most places I have visited, I have, quite truthfully, not been overcome with a strong sense of why I had not been there before with food being the stimulus. Yet I can relate to the transformational quality of food not because food magically changes the way we perceive things but because it embodies traditions and relationships. Can I really claim to have enjoyed food in Italy in its essence without acknowledging the contributions of countless mothers and grandmothers who have perfected recipes over generations. Can we ever really appreciate and understand something including food without knowing the story it tells? Moreover, can we understand that story without being from that society?

For tourists it’s common not to have much knowledge of the local cuisine of flavours and feel a sense  of alienation with something as basic as food. The sense of isolation that food may create is not a product of taste or flavour being different to what we are used to but rather a result of food being a cultural symbol. Indeed, food can be equally isolating as a language you don’t comprehend, a religion whose beliefs and traditions you are unfamiliar with and a land whose geography and history you are unaware of. At the same time food can also serve as a wonderful cultural icon that you fall in love with, that you can be nostalgic about, whose aftertaste tingles your taste buds even months and weeks later. It depends entirely on the perspective.

Another aspect I have often wondered about is the medium of language and whether it can ease or exacerbate the sense of isolation that food itself can create. Language can be a huge barrier to understanding local menus as well as communicating what you would like to eat. I realized over multiple trips to Latin America where although Spanish is the language widely spoken, there are local variations that extend particularly to food and drink often making it difficult  even for those who do speak Spanish to decipher the ingredients and ultimately decide what to eat. I recall that during a trip to Istanbul the best meal we had was with my friend and her parents who ordered exactly what we would have wanted to eat without us even letting them know our choice. We had constantly tried to order similar dishes when we would go out ourselves but would either end up ordering what we were familiar with based on dishes from Turkish restaurants in New York or the ones in which the ingredients were seemingly familiar. The language barrier limited our ability to try the best that Turkish cuisine had to offer.

Has the food in a certain country inspired you to ask yourself similar questions or created a sense of “IwishIwasfromhere”? Please do share your experiences and thoughts!

When in Rome…..

22 Dec

Penna all'Arrabiata | Rome, Italy | July 2010

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