Legend has it that Marco Polo brought the first ice cream recipe back to Europe after his lengthy jaunt on the far side of the great wall, but he needn’t have bothered, because it was already there– in one form or another anyway. Rather then spreading out from a single point in time and space, ice-cream as a family of allied ideas evolved independently in many far removed places over a long period of time. Basically, every culture with access to ice or brief bouts of subzero temperatures found a way to turn it to their delectable advantage. Wouldn’t you?
The Persians were flavouring snow (harvested by slaves, sent way up in the mountains) with fruit syrups two and half thousand years ago, the Romans -history’s greatest appropriators- took the idea to the furthest reaches of their shiny red midlife-crisis of an empire, while over in China, something very much like modern ice cream (thickened with rice instead of egg), had been an official, and exclusively royal, dish since way back when. Fact is, by the time the not-entirely-plausible Signor Polo got home in 1269, ice cream or its various kin had been licked and savoured across Europe for over 1000 years. And no, he didn’t introduce pasta to Italy either, nor noodles to China.
Today, most of what we call ice cream is a frozen blend of milk, cream, eggs, sugar and more E-numbers than you can shake stick at. The proliferation of additives in modern ice cream is an alarming trend. Most of them are there to either temper the texture and firmness of the finished product, or to extend its shelf life. In their natural forms, ice cream, gelato, semifreddo et al are best eaten within a few days. Any longer and they become overly crystalline and freezer burnt. The main reason gelato tastes better in Italy is that it’s rarely more than few hours old.
Know your ice creams…
The classic Italian ice cream, and at its best is worthy of every accolade. Gelato is essentially rich custard, flavoured with just about any kind of fruit, nut, chocolate or coffee, then frozen and churned. Once upon a time there were regional variations within Italy, with the affluent north favouring a base of pure cream thickened with lots of eggs, and the impoverished south thickening their thin local milk with corn flour. But nowadays the northern approach, or variations on it, has become the norm – both at home and abroad. Sadly, even in Italy artisan gelato makers are a dying breed, rapidly being replaced by industrialised pretenders.
Another Italian classic, and probably far closer to whatever Marco Polo did or didn’t bring back from China. Semifreddo (meaning half-frozen) is basically an un-churned ice cream or gelato, often minus the egg yolks. It’s usually quite firm and crystalline in structure. Not so much to this punter’s gelato-spoiled tastes, but a good option if you don’t own an ice cream maker. Usually rested at room temperature for about 10-15 minutes before serving.
There isn’t a whole lot of difference between ice cream and gelato, not on paper anyway. Most modern ice cream recipes probably evolved from gelato-style desserts by way of Italian, Greek and French immigrants to Britain and the US during the 1800s.
Rather like an Indian riff on the semifreddo (or vice versa as the case may be), kulfi is often made with evaporated or sweetened condensed milk, thickened with cornflour and flavoured with rosewater, cardamom, tamarind or various tropical fruits. Although un-churned, kulfi is typically very smooth, with a distinctive silken texture from the cornflour. Unfailingly luscious and perfectly pitched for the subcontinents ferocious summer heat.
Dondurma is an unlikely hybrid of ice cream and chewing gum, found only in Turkey. The custard is thickened with a powder called salep, which is made from the rhizome of a rare native orchid, and often flavoured with mastic (the resin of a kind of pistachio tree). Once frozen it can be stretched and pulled into elaborate forms for display. Because of its dense elasticity, dondurma melts very slowly, making it well suited to the scorching Turkish summer. In an effort to protect the now-endangered salep orchid, the Turkish government has banned the export of salepi flour, making dondurma a rare and highly localized treat. Not to be missed if you’re in the neighbourhood.
Also known as ‘snow freeze,’ and very popular with fast food chains, this stuff only barely counts as ice-cream because it happens to contains both ice and cream (well, milk anyway). Contrary to popular and rather stupid belief it does not contain chicken fat, bull semen or any strange by-products of the dairy industry. Mostly it just contains milk, sugar, various thickeners and air. A LOT of air. Despite my cynicism, I’m still a sucker for a van piping Greensleeves in reedy tones.
Good ice cream or gelato is not hard to make. All you need is an inexpensive ice-cream maker (you can get by without one, but its hard work) eggs, cream, sugar, milk and whatever flavouring floats your boat. My personal favourites are pistachio (made with ground nuts soaked in the cream for 24 hours), coffee, chocolate (made with Valrhona cocoa), Durian, Strawberry, Raspberry, Bacio (Nutella & chocolate), Salted caramel, Lemon, Saffron and Blood orange. Any one or several of these would be a good place to start
Allergies and arteries permitting, don’t shy away from dairy, sugar and fat when it comes to ice cream. Life is too short for monastic treats.