29 Nov 2013 The Ice Cream Trail
The images of Julia Roberts enjoying an ice cream in Piazza Navona during the filming of “Eat Pray Love” traveled all around the world: Rome and ice cream, two undisputed symbols of Italian-ness.
But ice cream cannot only be found in Rome: if we allow ourselves to be seduced by this Italian delicacy it will take us on an unusual journey of discovery of some of the “sweetest” places on the Italian peninsula.
Nero would surely have given himself indigestion eating snow just like Emperor Heliogabalus at whose court enormous quantities of iced drinks were consumed.
With the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the Middle Ages, ice creams disappeared but not in the East where the invention of cold drinks continued to be perfected. They returned to Europe from the East during the Renaissance, starting in Sicily, a land rich in fruit and snow.
The Sicilian ice cream-makers learned their craft from the Muslims, perfecting the recipes using their own inventiveness, thus beginning a confectionery tradition filled with true delicacies, including water ices, probably the product most similar to its ancient predecessor.
From Sicily, ice creams began to move up the Italian peninsula: from Naples to Florence, Milan and Venice, continuing up into Northern Europe.
It was a Sicilian, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli (some say he was from Palermo, others that he came from Acitrezza), who invented the ice cream business on an industrial scale. Francesco was a fisherman who inherited an ice cream-making machine invented by his grandfather and decided to go in search of adventure. After many failures and subsequent improvements, he arrived in Paris where he was greeted as a brilliant inventor. In 1686 he opened the “Café Procope”, which became the most famous meeting place in France and was frequented by Voltaire, Napoleon, George Sand, Balzac and Victor Hugo; today it is still one of the pride and joys of Paris.
Along with Procopio dei Coltelli, another two Italians compete for the honor of being the inventor of ice cream, Ruggeri and Buontalenti, both of whom came from Florence.
According to legend, Ruggeri was a poultry vendor and chef in his spare time. His “sorbet” won a cookery competition at the Medici Court dedicated to “the most unique dish”. “We have never tasted such an exquisite dessert”, said the judges, and thus began Ruggeri’s period of fame which took him to France, in the wake of Catherine de’ Medici who wanted him to follow her when she married Henri, Duke of Orléans and the future King of France, in 1533.
In Marseille, at the wedding banquet, he pulled out his recipe for “sugared and perfumed water ice”. Catherine refused all gifts and offers of money in order to keep the good Ruggeri to herself, but for him, his fame became a nightmare: he was hated and boycotted by all the capital’s chefs and, one evening, he was actually attacked, robbed and beaten with a stick!
After that episode, he left Catherine, sending her a message, along with the recipe for his invention: “with your permission I am returning to my chickens, hoping that people will finally leave me in peace and, having forgotten me, that they will be content just to taste my ice cream”.
Also in Florence, in the 16th century, Bernardo Buontalenti, the famous architect, painter and sculptor, whose hobby was cooking, was given the task of organizing sumptuous feasts guaranteed to leave both Italians and foreigners open-mouthed. Buontalenti presented his “fabulous iced desserts” created from his own personal experiments with zabaglione and fruit, which were a great success.
In Florence it is still possible to find a particularly tasty Crema ice cream flavorthat is named after him.