Il Gelato a Lecce
I was recently interviewed for a book about gelato, the author’s voice coming out my end of the receiver breathy, as if we’re discussing something sacred and intimate, say, like The Northern Lights, or new form of tax evasion.
‘So, tell me’, she confided, a pause set up for dramatic effect: I heard her shift her weight in her chair. ‘…What’s the real story. Tell me. I have my pen ready’.
‘It’s ice cream’, I said.
‘But it’s different’, she said, ‘at least stylistically’.
‘You might want to get comfortable’, I said, shifting my own weight. ‘This is likely to get messy’.
Linguistically, ‘gelato’ translates into English as ‘ice cream’. Yes, when you think of ‘gelato’, you mean something very specific, but that’s simply not how Italian works, a language that refers even to the factory-made, paper-wrapped version as ‘gelati’.
(The plural confuses many English speakers even more so, as many refer to a single ‘gelato’ as ‘gelati’, the same you might referring to a ‘panino’, as a ‘panini’, or ‘biscotto’ as a ‘biscotti’).
The shortest non-pedantic answer though, would be this: Gelato tends to be served warmer than ice cream, thus allowing for the service with a paddle, which gives gelato it’s ‘wet cement’ spackle texture. But it’s not only the texture that’s influenced by the warmer temperatures.
Cold deadens our tongue’s ability to sense flavour. Doubt it? Buy two packaged ice creams and allow one to warm for a few moments, then compare it to the one most recently retrieved from the freezer. By serving it warmer, both texture and flavour are amplified.
Another claim is that gelato is either more milk-based (versus cream) or less milk-based (lots of cream). The truth though is that so many frozen things are called ‘gelato’ that you can’t talk universal truths: Sorbetti (sorbets) often sit side by side with gelato, right in the case, sometimes marked as ‘sorbetto’, but most often not.
And some just contain no dairy whatsoever, further complicating gelato’s slide into an equivical form in the English language.
Here in Lecce, few argue Natale’s merits as the city’s best ice cream parlor (gelateria). That they are also the city’s premier baker of cakes and tortes should come as no surprise, as so many of the ingredients are the same.
Without a doubt though, the most pristine food experience that I can think of is watching children eat gelato.
Someday when I have my own children, I’ll take great pleasure in introducing them to each of the flavours, observant of each’s effect on the unformed mind: the crinkle of the forehead at gelato’s first chill, the sense of wonderment on the child’s face, the first time a human soul experiences the depth of ciocciolato, the pale green almost Arabesque-ness of pistacchio. Can we even remember what our lives were like before we had ever tasted ‘fragola’. I think it’s impossible, so built in is the concept into who we are.
You won’t believe me when I tell you this but I almost always forget to eat the stuff, often going weeks or months without stepping inside.
Unless I’m out with a woman. If I happen to be in love, I’ll even suggest it.
I’m currently in a ‘frutti di bosco’ (wild berries, no dairy) phase but that could give at any moment. I could easily return to my former green apple epoch. Or the era of yoghurt that lasted the two years I taught highschool in Bologna. Or the mango mania three summers ago. Pistacchio got me through my student years, almost single-handedly.
Like a gambler I tend to make my pick and then ride it long after others would have moved on.
‘I really, really need to hang up now’, the writer said, just as I launched into the flavour that I still firmly associate with Berlusconi’s first term.
Apparently she wanted a shorter answer.