When the livin' is easy 

Early summer means more gelato

click to enlarge SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO - easy living The history of gelato, like the history of most foods we eat, is complicated.
  • shutterstock photo
  • easy living The history of gelato, like the history of most foods we eat, is complicated.

Spring — did you say spring is in full bloom? Nope, look at these temperatures! It's summer already, a month ahead of schedule. So get out the hammock and fire up the bar-b. But don't forget the best part of Easy Street — gelato.

There was a time, long before gelaterials sprang up like dandelions across the country, when Canadians usually had their first encounter with this luxurious health food (I swear it's health food) on holidays in Italy or maybe the French Riviera. It might have felt inauthentic or weird eating gelato in France, but actually it's where this amazing treat first became popular.

The history of gelato, like the history of most foods we eat, is complicated. But many food historians lay the start of gelato's popularization at the feet of Caterina de' Medici of the great Medici dynasty of Florence, Italy. As wife of King Henry II of France she wanted her gelato wherever she lived, including Paris of the 1530s.

But the Florentine chefs and pastry makers and chillers in Caterina and Henry's royal palace, the Louvre, were so secretive about the mysteries of making this delightful food that gelato (ice cream) recipes never reached the public until about a century later. That's notwithstanding the fact that chilling, icing and making delectable cold treats ran for centuries through a host of ancient cultures: Greek; Roman; Arabic. (The first sorbets, writes Colman Andres in The Country Cooking of Italy, were liquid like slushies, which, like the word "syrup," came from the Arabic shariba meaning "he drank." Remember that next time you're in a 7-Eleven.)

In the end, it was the famous Café Procope in Paris, opened by a Sicilian and still located on the rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, that introduced gelato/ice cream to the modern world, at least the modern Western world, in the 1660s.

"Gelato," the past participle of the Italian verb gelare (to freeze), simply means "ice cream." But despite the synonymous translation, anyone can tell you there's a glacial difference between the two.

First, while production of both is essentially similar, gelati (plural for gelato) are made using more milk and less cream, although some recipes demand cream. Gelato is also churned more slowly than ice cream, so less air is whipped in, producing more flavour, concentrated goodness and a creamier, more satisfying mouth feel.

Every gelato maker has his or her own tricks but, ideally, your gelati and sorbetti (sorbetto, singular; sorbet, French; all made without dairy) are produced in small batches daily with natural flavouring and ingredients and no added chemical preservatives, stabilizers or emulsifiers. Compare that to today's average ice-cream label.

As for when to enjoy gelato, it's customary in Italy not to snack between meals. However, writes Elizabeth Minchilli in Eating Rome, gelato falls into the category of merenda, or late afternoon snacks. Heading out for a gelato anytime from 4 to 7 p.m. is pretty much standard operating procedure.

But don't let tradition confine you. Especially with Whistler's own Kathryn Shepherd now pumping out 300 litres a day of delicious gelato and sorbetto a week for her label, Lucia Gelato.

It all started in the family — as a dare.

A former ski patroller, Kathryn and her husband, Tony Horn, were surfing in Australia after their daughter, Lucy, was born. This was after three previous trips to Italy. "We were at this gelato place where we would go every day after surfing and I was, like, how come there's not good gelato in Whistler," she says. "Like, that's crazy — we're a resort town. They should figure it out."

Tony's response: "Why don't you do something about it?" So she did.

Even the brand name has a family tie. Lucia for Lucy, now 10, of course. But also for Santa Lucia (Saint Lucy) celebrated Dec. 13. Purity and light are the festival hallmarks, "and that's the difference between gelato and ice cream for me," says Kathryn.

On the "purity" side, Kathryn definitely tries to "make as much as I can from scratch. So, like, if we're making espresso gelato, I would pull 20 cups of espresso to put in that gelato for a 10-litre batch."

Along the same lines, they buy raw pistachios, roast them and make pistachio butter for the Pistachio Ernesto. For the maple-pecan gelato, they candy all the pecans themselves. They make their own homemade chocolate sauces, and local fruits in season are preferred. No artificially coloured bright-green "mint" or blue "raspberries" here. Like I said: health food.

As for recognizing good gelato when you meet it, here's the scoop from the maestra herself.

"I really like it smooth and velvety, so that whole velvety thing," says Kathryn. "It shouldn't feel too cold on the top of your mouth and the aftertaste shouldn't feel too waxy." (Waxy means too much cream or lots of preservatives.)

Plus the flavours should be balanced — not too sweet, not too anything. Just honest flavours treated respectfully: chocolately chocolate; espresso gelato just like "your morning cup of coffee, but in a gelato," Kathryn says.

So do we have you converted?

If you don't catch Lucia Gelato at the Whistler Farmers' Market (now their ninth year) you can also find it at all Whistler grocery stores, Mount Currie Coffee Co. in Pemberton, Nesters Market in Squamish, and more. (Luciagelato.com has a full listing).

After all, summertime is a full month early this year, so get started with the gelato.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who just finished some Lucia salted caramel and sliced bananas.


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