The Quest for Cool


Cooled dairy desserts have been known for millennia, but gelato is the child of refrigeration. Who invented it? Nobody and everybody. It’s a testament to the uncanny appeal of frozen cream that so many people made the effort to develop it further.

Before refrigeration, of course, there was ice and snow: Emperors of the Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC) kept a court iceman to provide for cooling summer drinks. The Tang Dynasty emperors (AD 618 – 907) ate a concoction of water-buffalo milk mixed with flour and camphor that was cooled by ice. The archaic Greeks added snow to their drinks, and the imperial Romans sprinkled snow on their desserts. But this couldn’t calm the craving for real cold.

Over the centuries, various experimenters discovered that dissolving salts in water produced cooling. But in 1589, Giambattista Della Porta, a scientist from Naples, reported that much greater cooling could be achieved by mixing salt and ice. The first reports of seriously chilled desserts produced using this method began to appear in the 1620s. But these still were not gelato.

Some maintain that gelato was invented in Florence toward the late 1500’s, by Bernardo Buontalenti, but there are no written sources that confirm it. Studies have shown that something like sorbetto was produced in Sicily under the influence of the Arabs who occupied the island much earlier (827 – 1091 A.D). Medical literature from the 1500’s mentions that sorbetti were sold in pharmacies in Messina as palliatives for people suffering from fever or malaria, and as a protection from the plague.

In 1676 Pierre Barra described freezing a mixture of fruit, cream and sugar by using snow and saltpeter, so I suppose he deserves the “Eureka!” Prize, but his discovery seems to have remained in his laboratory or kitchen as he isn’t heard from again.

This meandering path concludes in 1686 in Paris, where Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli (from Sicily) founded his soon-famous café, “La Procope,” and regularly served what would now be recognized as gelato.

For the next 150 years or so, gelato continued to be made in hand-mixed batches of only a few quarts. What launched the frozen wonder into the world at large was, first, the invention of the hand-crank ice-cream maker by Nancy Johnson in Philadelphia (1840’s); and second, a dazzling concatenation of technological discoveries and innovation. In only a few decades between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ice cream could, and did, become an industry. Commercial production of electricity, the development of mechanical refrigeration, and the invention of the continuous freezer (Clarence Vogt, Chicago, 1927 and Otello Cattabriga, Bologna, 1927) made ice cream—and gelato—the $54 billion commodity it is today.

© 2020 Erla Zwingle, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: December 1, 2016