As the weather warms up, almost every Italian begins thinking of ending their dinner with a stroll down to the local gelateria, a sun-soaked ritual which no doubt goes back to their childhoods. My mother in law recalls Sunday afternoon treats when her father would take her to the gelateria to choose from one of the two handmade gelato flavours on offer: plain cream or chocolate.
In Artusi’s much-loved cookbook, he has two menus suggested for the month of June and both happen to include a gelato to finish the meal – strawberry or visciole, a sour cherry also known in Italian as amarene. Artusi uses the word “gelato” to describe these recipes that we would actually today call sorbet. Gelato literally means “frozen” and today it implies that the mixture has been made with dairy products (usually milk) or egg whites. Sorbetto is made with fruit only – this is a technicality that must have not been important in 1891.
Either way, this irresistible frozen dessert has been tempting humans for thousands of years, going back to Ancient times, where snow mixed with fruit was a prestigious and entertaining dish for pharaohs and emperors. In Artusi’s chapter of gelato recipes, he ponders the origins of the favourite Italian ice. His research leads him to Florence’s own Catherine de’ Medici, whose band of Florentine pastry chefs and cooks followed her to Paris in 1533 when she married Henry II of France. She served gelato to astounded Parisian guests and, according to Artusi, the recipe was then held secret for at least another century.
By 1660 a Sicilian chef who had trained in Florence, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, opened a Café in Paris (named after himself, no less) and found huge success selling gelato and flavoured ices (granita) to fashionable Parisians. His new improved gelato-making machine made it possible for him to produce large quantities of sorbet and gelato to the public for the first time: it had previously only been known to royalty. The recipe was copied and eventually spread to England and the rest of Europe. The world never looked back.
The gelato craze spread throughout Europe, but it was not until 1770 that a Genovese entrepeneur, Giovanni Bosio, travelled across the Atlantic to open the very first gelateria in America, in New York City. It was not long before America found a way to begin industrialising gelato and gelato makers and before long every household had access to ice cream. In Tuscany, up until the 1800s the ancient traditions of gelato making were still being practised using snow. Pressed into tight, compact blocks, the snow was stored in holes carved into the rocky hills, protected from the sun and kept cool, so that it could be enjoyed in the warm summer months. Italy only began to industralise gelato less than 50 years ago.
Sour cherry and cinnamon sorbet
As Artusi suggests, June is the perfect time to devour a fresh and fruity sorbet made with the best of the end of the strawberry season or the beginning of the cherry season. I happened to visit the Cherry Festival in the pretty town of Lari in the province of Pisa last weekend and couldn’t pass by a box of sour cherries without taking them home with me. Smaller and with a thinner skin than the plump, black cherries I love eating, sour cherries are a light red, vibrantly vermilion – the exact colour I dream of finding in a lipstick – and they certainly live up to their name, as even very mature amarane are as sour as lemons. Like lemons, they also make gorgeous, mouth-watering desserts.
This sour cherry sorbet takes just minutes to make, then you only have to wait a few hours for the sorbet to freeze before promptly devouring it. What I love best about this sorbet is the irresistible addition of a stick of cinnamon, which gives the sour cherries a background note of spicy sweetness.
Sour Cherry & Cinnamon Sorbet
- 1 kilo of sour cherries
- 250 grams of sugar
- 200 ml of water
- 1 cinnamon stick
Take a handful of the cherries and gently wash them and cut them in half to take out the seed. Place them together in a small pan with the cinnamon stick and about 50 grams of the sugar and gently heat for about two minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved and the cherries begin to cook slightly, creating a syrup. Take them off the heat and set aside to cool.
With the rest of the cherries, place them in a sieve or colander sitting over a bowl and squeeze or pound the cherries with a pestle to separate the skins and seeds from the juice, which will collect in the bowl below.
Place the juice, the water and the rest of the sugar in a saucepan and, stirring often, let the mixture come to the boil. Add the cinnamon stick from earlier and allow the mixture to boil for two minutes. Take off the heat, remove the cinnamon stick and let cool. If you have an ice cream maker, you can now place the cherry mixture into the ice cream maker until done. Without an ice cream maker, simply place the mixture into a plastic container with a lid in the freezer. When frozen, use a fork to loosen the sorbet (it will be quite soft).
Just before serving, stir through the halved cherries from earlier to get a ripple effect and serve as Artusi suggests in small glasses.