The secrets of an Italian gelato master
Gelato, it turns out, is a very different creature from ice cream. And there are reasons that the best gelato tastes so creamy yet somehow still light—and indescribably perfect. In honor of summer, master gelatiere Andrea Soban of Valenza, Italy, tours us through his secrets.
Story and photography by ERLA ZWINGLE
It’s like food from a fable – beguiling, irresistible, working its charms in countries and cultures around the world. Somebody might still be trying to find the secret of turning straw into gold, but transforming milk into bliss is happening every day—a work that seems like magic. Seeing that it’s everywhere in Italy, it seemed fair to conclude that gelato’s magic is well understood here by at least a few people. So I went hunting for a bona fide gelato virtuoso.
There are competitions and prizes, of course, and lots of “best” lists come out every year. Andrea usually figures prominently among them. In February, 2016, he completed an innovative course in tasting which has essentially made him a sommelier of gelato.
“It’s the fault of gelato that I was born,” says Andrea Soban. We were sitting in his family’s gelateria in Valenza, Italy, in the Piemonte Region halfway between Milan and Torino, and he was smiling as he spoke.“My parents met when they were teenagers working in a gelateria in Germany.” Those two years he spent studying law? Futile. Gelato was in his blood.
This little moment introduces the basic keywords to Andrea’s life: “Gelato,” which is not exactly the same thing as ice cream; “Italy,” which is gelato’s homeland; and “family.” Other Italian families might make gelato, but Andrea’s mother comes from the Zoldo valley in the Italian Dolomites. And for reasons that will soon be explained, you can thank the gelatieri of Zoldo that you’ve got that quart on hand at midnight when you learn that your boyfriend cheated on you.
I forgot to include “smiling” on this list. Andrea works hard to make his gelato, and he and his parents work even harder dishing it up when school lets out. I’ve seen confusion in my time, but it’s not often so happy. I watched it for two days. People smiled at the mere sight of the Soban gelato case. A very little girl came in and just began to yell from excitement. “It’s one of the few foods that make you smile instantly,” Andrea says.
Gelato and ice cream are close cousins, but they are not twins; the main difference is their amount of fat, sugar and air (strange as it may seem, your exquisitely creamy cup of gelato has less of all three). In Italy, artisanal gelato is practically a health food. “In Germany today,” one retired gelatiere told me, “plenty of people eat gelato for lunch instead of a sandwich.”
There are competitions and prizes, of course, and lots of “best” lists come out every year. Andrea usually figures prominently among them. He is understandably pleased to have won second place in 2014 and 2015 at the annual “Sherbeth International Festival of Artisanal Gelato,” a big event in the gelato world, and second place in 2014 and 2015 on the “100 Best Artisanal Gelaterie” list sifted out by the food magazine Dissapore. And in February, 2016, Andrea completed an innovative course in tasting which has essentially made him a sommelier of gelato.
The ingredients to his particular form of genius are ridiculously simple: Frozen milk, cream, sugar and, if you like, some sort of flavoring. That’s it. Traditional gelato is so elementary that conflicting claims persist as to who thought it up; it seems to have developed by steps over the years, in the hands of many people. (For the whole history, see our sidebar to the right, “The Quest for Cool.”) It’s beyond dispute, though, that the apotheosis of this humble mixture was achieved several hundred years ago by the Italians, who gave it an equally simple name: “Gelato.” “Frozen.”
Gelato and ice cream are close cousins, but they are not twins; the main difference is their amount of fat, sugar and air (strange as it may seem, your exquisitely creamy cup of gelato has less of all three). Gelato is also softer and even slightly warmer than ice cream. But the biggest difference may be their emotional payload. In America, ice cream somehow carries a vague atmosphere of sin – calories! Fat! Self-indulgence! Bad, but I’m going to eat it anyway! In Italy, artisanal gelato is practically a health food. Articles come out in the paper every summer citing studies that confirm how good it is for you. “Eat more!” they say. “You need it!”
Yet while Andrea scoops up something that sings its way across your tongue and into your soul, somebody else, whose shop sign calls its gelato “artisanal,” gives you a heavy-flavored material that goes down like congealed mucilage. What’s going on?
In a word, chemistry. Gelato contains all three fundamental states of matter: solids (ice and fat), liquids (milk and sugar solution), and gas (air). These elements—specifically, ice crystals, fat droplets and air bubbles—are a lot to keep track of, and to make great gelato you have to know how to manage them. Temperature, sweetness, and the ingredients themselves form a cat’s-cradle of potentially conflicting needs. Whether you “steal with your eyes,” as they say in Italy, or sit down with books, the true artisanal gelatiere eventually acquires some knowledge of physical chemistry, colloid science, materials science, and chemical engineering. Even for plain vanilla.
You also need money, for the best ingredients. The average gelatiere on the street corner rarely has that kind of cash, or sufficient time and knowledge, to seek such perfection. So the industry sells relatively inexpensive shortcuts in the form of packaged products in which most ingredients are pre-measured and mixed. (The Italian term for these mixes is “semi-lavorati,” or half-worked). With kits like these, the gelatiere can just add water or milk, even powdered milk, and churn away. Throw in some emulsifiers, stabilizers, and thickeners and a few shakes of unearthly colors, if that’s what your customers like, and you’re all set. You’ve made a gelato which technically can be called “artisanal” because it didn’t come from a factory in a frozen package, ready to eat. It’s easy and cheap; it’s just that it can taste, comparatively speaking, like sweetened glue from the Arctic Circle.
Andrea Soban is the most recent link in a chain of gelato-makers stretching back at least five generations. He was born on March 30, 1975, in Monfalcone, his father’s home town in the Veneto Region some 100 miles away from the Zoldo valley. His mother, though, grew up in Zoldo, in a small town called Forno di Zoldo, and it is through her that he acquired his genes for gelato.
For something so frivolous, gelato has a weighty backstory. We eat it for fun, but Andrea’s forebears made it for survival. One hundred and more years ago, life in the small settlements of the Italian Alps could be abysmally hard. A woman from another mountain valley once told me that a family might mourn more for the loss of a cow than the loss of a child. “You had a child every year,” she said, “but a cow….”.
So at some undefined moment in the mid-19th century, the men of Zoldo decided to try their luck in the big city. At first, they sold caramellati (caramelized dates, figs, nuts) and also, curiously, cooked pears. My 86-year-old Venetian sister-in-law remembers seeing the men go into the bars in Venice to sell their pears to the drinkers inside. At some point someone decided to try selling gelato, and while there wasn’t much of a market for frozen cream in the mountains, just over the Alpine passes the sweltering city-dwellers of Austria and Germany were panting for refreshment.
From March to October the men left their villages and fanned out to sell their simple gelato from small carts. This annual migration (still going strong today, though the carts are mostly gone) not only supported the Zoldani (the people from Zoldo), it also brought gelato down to earth from the exclusive tables of the rich and royal. “With their little carts, the Zoldani made gelato become something for everyone,” Andrea says. “And they had immediate success.”
Being from the Veneto, the gelatieri gave their carts names like “Dolomiti,” “Venezia,” “Veneta.” Soon they expanded into Germany, and Germany is now the second country in the world, after Italy, with the greatest number of gelaterie. (Narrowing it down only to the artisanal, Italy has roughly 19,000 gelaterie, while Germany has about 6,000, and the U.S. approximately 900.) The Germans immediately understood that this was real food. “In Germany today,” one retired gelatiere told me, “plenty of people eat gelato for lunch instead of a sandwich.”
If it was a hard life 100 years ago, it didn’t get much easier. “My mom went to Germany in 1967 with a cardboard suitcase,” Andrea told me. “She arrived without knowing a word of German.” Like today, during the season the gelaterie in Germany were open all day, every day, weekends and holidays. The employees made and served gelato for up to 15 hours a day, for seven solid months. Suddenly, working in a gelateria sounds less like fun and more like gigantic stress in a cone, not to mention murder on your feet and back.
Andrea’s gelateria might be full of gleaming stainless steel today, but his techniques and his basic recipe, “fiordilatte,” or “milk flower”—made of nothing more than fresh whole milk, cream, sugars, and carob flour (instead of the traditional egg yolks)—would be recognizable to any gelatiere from 200 years ago. And the gelateria’s big, electrically powered freezers churn the liquid mix on the same principle as the old, hand-cranked oak tubs.
“There used to be fewer flavors,” Andrea’s father, Paolo, told me. “We had six in the 1970s: crema (cream), hazelnut, chocolate, strawberry, peach or lemon, and fiordilatte” (the latter being the formula from which all other flavors flow). Today, the Sobans’ gelato case can display up to 32 flavors, which change as the fruit or other ingredients change with the seasons.
Gelatieri have been experimenting (Simple curiosity? Using up leftovers? A twisted sense of humor?) ever since there has been gelato. And the flavors often match their culture. In the West, we lean toward the sweet end of the spectrum. There is also green tea or red bean ice cream in Japan and chili-pepper ice cream in Indonesia. But sometimes they seem to think up bizarre flavors just to see what happens. There is, or has been, gelato made with asparagus, Parmesan cheese, bacon, haggis, horseradish, oysters, crocodile eggs. To name just a few. Andrea once made a wasabi gelato that he says went very well with sushi.
“Try this,” Andrea said, as he handed me a tiny spoonful of a just-made mandarin sorbetto. Sensations of cold, and a smooth wave of extraordinary citrus flavor, blended into a faultless harmony as the whole combination swept up to my brain. It tasted juicier than the juice of the fruit itself. And then it simply disappeared. No loading my tongue with a mass of flavors jostling together, struggling for dominance, leaving assorted clinging aftertastes as my stomach braced itself. It left only the desire for more.
Suddenly I understood the hidden power of fine gelato. It doesn’t aim only for my mouth, and my stomach is really of no interest. It aims for the dopamine reward system lurking in my brain, the part that says “You don’t need this, but you’ve got to have it.” We did these little teaching-tastings intermittently all morning. I paid close attention to everything he said, but the voice in my head kept crooning incoherently about what was happening in my mouth.
I concluded, as I thought about it that evening, that gelato merits the same appreciation that’s given to wine. Nobody analyzes gelato in terms of “top notes,” “body,” or “finish”; nor do we describe it as “plush,” “supple,” “voluptuous,” or “silky.” Not yet, at least. Maybe its transience (gelato will never be aged in oak barrels for years) makes it seem inherently inconsequential. Then again, maybe that’s part of its allure.
Flavor—how it’s made, and how we perceive it—is a complicated affair. Tasting Andrea’s gelato, it struck me that true flavor isn’t something you add, like a coat of paint; it’s part of the core of the creature. Along with density, sweetness, and temperature, flavor forms a partnership that shapes the entirety of our experience—ideally, in complete harmony.
THE SEARCH FOR PERFECT INGREDIENTS
We are in the north, which like every area of Italy has its own climate and gastronomic history. The further south you go, the stronger the flavors become—for a variety of reasons. Out in the fields, the hot, dry climate tends to weed out the weak and intensify the character of the hardy survivors. And Southerners crave sweetness anyway, a proclivity perhaps born of the Greeks and Saracens who once occupied their land, and were known for their honey-drenched desserts. Whatever the explanation, Andrea wants it all. His restraint with sugar may be northern, but no southerner could surpass his fixation on the essence of flavor.
His driving passion, in fact, is the constant search for the ultimate ingredient—an obsession that’s fairly recent in the lifespan of gelato. For example, there used to be just vanilla. “Now,” he tells me as he continues separating the yolks and whites of 150 eggs, “we talk about what type. I was using vanilla from Madagascar, now I’m trying some from New Guinea, and also from Tahiti. Chocolate – it’s a little world. African chocolate is different from South American. There are so many little worlds, and that’s what’s interesting.”
For his mocha ice cream, Andrea buys coffee from a man near Verona who roasts the beans over a wood fire. For his mandarin sorbetto, he squeezes the juice of mandarins from Ciaculli, Sicily, an area of a mere 200 hectares which in March produces a small native fruit with a strong aroma, a high percentage of sugar, and a very thin skin—a fruit that is divine even before it’s frozen.
“My concept is to have few ingredients,” Andrea continued, “all natural, without colors or preservatives or artificial flavors.” Tall and lean, Andrea moves easily around the kitchen as he weighs sugar, beats egg yolks with a monster electric hand-beater, and scrapes the pulp out of vanilla beans. Throughout the process, he talks rapidly about what he’s doing, taking obvious pleasure in explaining why he’s using this instead of that—for some new attempt at perfection, or just for the fun of experimenting. In some cases he uses lemons from Amalfi, not from Sicily, because they’re infinitesimally sweeter. The peppermint leaves are from Pancalieri, the peaches from Volpedo, the strawberries from Viguzzolo, all acknowledged as being among the best of their type and, better yet, from the neighborhood.
Yes, local and seasonal are articles of faith among master gelatieri, just as they are with master chefs. When those criteria can’t be met, he seeks merely the best. He buys his coffee from a man near Verona who roasts the beans over a wood fire, and only sells them in 100-gram packages to protect the freshness. If his mandarin sorbetto tastes like a frozen fruit from the Garden of the Hesperides, that’s because he has squeezed the juice of mandarins from Ciaculli, Sicily, an area of a mere 200 hectares which in March produces a small native fruit with a strong aroma, a high percentage of sugar, and a very thin skin—a fruit that is divine even before it’s frozen.
Or consider his choice of wine for zabaione: “Instead of the usual Marsala we used Moscato, which is local. Or sometimes Vin Santo, from Tuscany.” You can see how this could start to be amusing. “We divert ourselves playing.”
At one point, Andrea pours some thick hazelnut paste out of a large can. Some purists would say he should have roasted and ground the hazelnuts himself. He disagrees, for interesting reasons. For one thing, he likes supporting other artisans; equally important, he respects their skill and experience. “Who’s more capable?” he asks. “Someone who’s an expert? Or you?” This hazelnut paste, for example, comes from a grower a mere hour away who cultivates the “tonda gentile delle Langhe,” a prized hazelnut that’s registered as a protected geographic denomination.
A tub of pistachio nut paste sits nearby. “Twenty years ago, people didn’t know there were different types of pistachio, or hazelnut,” Andrea said. “Someone could say ‘Pistachio is pistachio.’” He wags his finger warningly. “No.” (The best come from Bronte, a small town in Sicily renowned for this particular nut.)
Andrea’s older customers tell him that 20 years ago the gelato was better. He shrugs. “Maybe. Maybe the milk has changed. My mother says it was more fat – the long wooden spoon would stand up in the milk.” I raise my eyebrows. “Anyway,” he says, “I tell them, ‘And you used to be 20 years younger—you had a beautiful blonde on your arm, no problems with the mortgage. Everything was better!’”
To keep gelato fresh, you must keep the tubs in the display case between -10 to -12 degrees C (+14 to +10.4 F). But wait – this is far below the freezing point. Why aren’t you eating a gelato-flavored ice cube? The answer is sugar.
“It’s kind of a game with the sugar,” Andrea says. There are roughly 100 sugars available apart from sucrose, or basic granulated sugar which comes from sugar cane or beets. There’s glucose, the term for many forms of sugar typically found in various starches, primarily corn; dextrose, also made from starches but not as sweet as glucose; trehalose, from mushrooms; fructose, from fruit; lactose, from milk; and the world’s original sweetener, honey, which is, chemically speaking, fructose and glucose. Each of these sugars helps gelato in a different way. Some, for instance, lower its freezing point more than others, thereby governing gelato’s ultimate softness. “If we don’t have something in the mixture that’s anti-freeze,” Andrea says, “it becomes a solid block.”
And last, of course, we can’t forget fat. In gelato, the fat content is a modest 4 to 8%. Ice cream, by comparison, contains roughly twice that amount, at 10 to 16%.
IS THERE MORE TO LIFE?
The Soban gelateria, like most in Italy, is open from March to October. Even bars empty their freezer cases when the weather turns cold. You can buy some sort of gelato from the supermarket all year, but artisanal shops are open only when the weather’s warm or, ideally, really hot.
So the Sobans shut the shop and do other things for five months. Paolo raises an exotic breed of canary, and travels the world, as needed, as an official judge at competitions. Gianpiera, Andrea’s mother, lives the normal life of a homemaker and now grandmother to Andrea’s two-year-old daughter. Andrea, though, does not close the door completely on gelato. He reads about all sorts of things, which he says often produces new inspirations for his gelato. He writes a blog called “the curious gelato-maker” (http://ilgelatierecurioso.com). He contributes articles to Dissapore, the Italian food website; maintains the website of the Gelatieri Zoldani, a group of retired gelato-makers living in their native valley after decades in Germany (www.gelatierizoldani.com); and has just come out with a huge book, Avanguardia Gelato, written with three other master gelatieri. He attends trade fairs, researches suppliers, travels. And – yes – he eats gelato.
“I’ve tried it in Thailand, New Zealand,” he recalled. “I ate a good gelato in Mandalay, Burma. I had a dragonfruit gelato in Vietnam. And in Cuba at the legendary Coppelia. It was good, but… you could do better.” And closer to home? “In London, I know them all,” he says. They’re not all Italian, but almost all have at least Italian origins. Apparently their only significant competitor is Wall’s, an industrial ice cream. “The season is too short,” Andrea says. “The climate is awful. They’d prefer a pint of beer to a gelato.”
You cannot make a case for gelato as something that is necessary. But if pleasure and perfection are necessary in anything we use or consume, then gelato belongs with the greats. I loved to watch Andrea, with his passion and skill, dishing up little glacial masterpieces, and then serving them to people who know nothing about how much thought, how much talent, he put into each of those tubs, and watching them smile.
So I’ve gone back to Venice, three hours away from Valenza, and will have to give up eating gelato. I tried twice yesterday and it was tragic. Imagine someone who has tasted Puligny-Montrachet suddenly being given a paper cup of Thunderbird. It’s like having gone to heaven and then being sent to East St. Louis, gastronomically speaking. Still, if I never get to eat another gelato in my life, I’m glad the last one was a scoop from Andrea Soban.
Erla Zwingle, a Contributing Writer for Craftsmanship, has written for dozens of magazines over the past 30 years, primarily National Geographic, to which she has contributed 25 articles as well as its Guide to Venice.
ADDITIONAL GELATO RESOURCES:
If this story whets your appetite for frozen perfection, and the real thing isn’t in your neighborhood, we have good news: Our ace social media editor, Morgan McLaughlin, has compiled a list of six truly authentic American gelaterie that are set up to ship—in containers that can bring their creations to your door intact. To get at these treats, see our sidebar to the right: “Mail order gelato?”
If you haven’t read it already, don’t forget “The Quest for Cool,” our first sidebar, above, on the history of gelato’s birth.
For more on Andrea Soban, look at his gelateria’s website, which Andrea maintains in English.
Gianpaolo “Giapo” Grazioli is an Italian gelatiere transplanted to New Zealand who makes gelato and also writes a first-rate blog on a surprising variety of topics, many of them not found elsewhere (“How music Influences the taste of gelato,” for example).
If you want to dig even deeper into the fine points of gelato-making, “Jo Pistacchio” maintains a website that is a treasure trove. Jo is an amateur in the best sense of the word; he has a day job in an unrelated field but his real passion is artisanal gelato. He is respected by people from all parts of the business and craft; his observations are unfailingly clear and unbiased, and his knowledge appears to be infinite.
Topics: Food, Travel
Materials: Cocoa beans, Eggs, Fruit, Milk, Sugar
Masters: Andrea Soban: Gelatiere