Most agree that it's delicious, but the origins of Sicilian gelato (ice cream) have been debated for many years. Some theories support a Greek or Roman creation, others an Arab one. First, let's consider what separates gelato from other frozen desserts.
Ice creams are usually made from fruit, nuts (pistachio is shown here), or even flowers (jasmine is a classic Sicilian flavour). Ice cream of the kind usually served in France, England and Russia is usually made with cow's milk or cream, and that's also true of many gelati. Sorbet is made without milk, and many fruit-based gelati (as opposed to those made from chocolate, coffee or nuts) fall into this category.
So why does Italian ice cream taste different from other ice creams? Even the creamiest gelati are rarely more than six or seven percent cream, while those of other countries may contain as much as twenty percent cream. In its most traditional recipe, the whipped American product known as "frozen custard" (ancestor of "soft" ice cream) may contain more than twenty percent heavy cream as well as eggs.
Gelato usually contains less emulsifier than other ice creams. Unlike other ice creams, gelato is not mixed at high speeds, and it is cooled differently. This creates a softer texture. Nowadays, the distinctions between one frozen dessert and another are often quite subtle. Certain English ice creams taste like Italian gelato and vice versa.
Several other chilled or frozen desserts are traditionally popular in Sicily. Granita is made from fruit and sugar mixed with water and slowly mixed as it is frozen, resulting in a texture of flaked or finely crushed ice. Semifreddo and parfait are similar to gelato but softer and not served as cold. Gelo di melone is a sweet watermelon gelatin.
Where did gelato come from? Based on historical records, it is believed that in ancient Greek or Roman days foot runners brought snow from Mount Etna to Taormina or Catania to be flavoured with nuts or berries and honey. It was a treat reserved for aristocrats. In the ninth century the Arabs introduced sugar cane, and this revolutionised Sicilian cooking. Before the ninth century local honey was used to sweeten Sicilian ices and sorbets. Sicilian gelato (ice cream), as it has come to us, is probably an Arab invention based on sorbet made with cane sugar, though its earliest origins, like that of torrone, are clearly Roman.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.