A Roman Column
I Scream Gelato!
I am in shock! Since this morning, I have been with my Sicilian friend Mimmo, in the underworld of… no, not crime, but something equally sinful! Well, let's start again.
I am reeling from post-ice cream shock! Since 9 o'clock this morning until about noon, I have been in the basement kitchenette of Mimmo's Bar-Gelateria, where for three straight hours I have watched him make from scratch the most delectable ice cream in Rome. But what weighs on my conscience as well as my waist-line is the fact that I have also tasted generous helpings of each of the ten different flavours as they emerged fresh from the creator's inspired hands.
To have been steeped for hours around the fragrant amalgamation of fruits, nuts, eggs, vanilla, cream, cocoa and caramel, is to have undergone the most exquisite torture, and lived to tell the tale. I'll just say that I may not eat another Italian gelato for the rest of my….for the next month or two.
It all started last week, when I entered Mimmo's Bar for an ice cream. On my way out, I noticed the door on which it proclaimed that this Bar served Gelato Artigianale, or handmade ice cream. Right below it, my eyes stopped at another sign. This was a piece of paper with small print--- obviously a legal permit, which read in its special convoluted legalese: 'it informed the respectable clients that the ice cream served on the premise would be composed only of the following natural ingredients: milk, milk powder, cream, sugar, eggs, water, fruits or fruit and nut pastes, and flavouring, and colouring that are based on natural or certain permitted elements.'
My curiosity was aroused. I had to know exactly how strict these injunctions and standards really were. I approached Mimmo, with whom I had a nodding acquaintance, and asked him who made the gelato and how often. To both questions he was almost indignant. "Io! I make them myself, and everyday when necessary."
I told him that I was a journalist researching the art of ice cream making in Italy. Then, quickly, I asked whether I could watch the great master at his work. Mimmo melted like a cone of ice cream in the sun. So we set the date, and this morning I walked into the Bar with a note pad and an empty stomach.
As we went down to the nether regions of his work place, I was disarmed to see that my own kitchen is far better organised and professional looking than his. And yet, at the end of the day, I would be impressed to see how he reached for all his scattered ingredients and tools with ease and grace as he single-handedly whipped up concoction after concoction. As he talked and joked with me, he worked continuously, stirring, measuring, cooking, pouring, washing and cleaning as he went along. He was an absolute magician, a cheerful conjurer of creams.
To start with, he led me to the freezer where he kept all the leftover ice cream from the day before. As he lined up all the stainless steel containers of ice cream onto the table, he said, “The first thing to appreciate about the ice cream business is that, there is no wastage. Ice cream doesn't spoil. If there is any leftover, it can be mixed into the fresh supply made and be refrozen." Thus everyday he does not need to make the same quantity of all ten flavours served at the Bar. Today, for example, some Pistacchio ice cream was left over, but none of the chocolate flavour. The fruit ices were gone, but there were some each of the Nocciola (Hazelnut), Noce (Walnut), Caffe and his special Zabaione laced with brandy and raisins. The flavours that were really depleted were used to make layered ice cream cakes and frozen desserts garnished with nuts, chocolates and cherries.
Mimmo reached for some hefty looking pots and pans, turned on the stove, and opened up ten cartons of one-litre packs of milk, and some cartons of cream. I asked him if the Italian ice creams contained any butter. He looked askance and said that only the Americans would use butter, while the Italian gelato was lighter being milk and cream based. He started to crack 50 eggs, separating the yolk for use and throwing all the whites into the garbage can. Looking at my pained expression, he shrugged genially saying, “What to do? Egg whites are useless. At one time, we used them as thickeners for our fruit ices, but now we use powdered Carob seed, which is more efficient.” Clearing my head of visions of the giant cholesterol-free omelet's I could have made for my health conscious friends, I turned my attention back to Mimmo who was now opening up packets of sugar.
A stirring spoon in hand, Mimmo lectured me on how he was about to put on the stove three different kinds of bases. The first was a simple white one with milk, cream, vanilla, carob and sugar. The other was a richer base with six litres of milk and some cream put to heat with the thick rind of one large lemon and some sticks of cinnamon! To this was added egg yolks, milk powder, sugar and vanilla. This would be used to create all the nut and rich tasting ice creams. Without allowing these liquid bases to boil, he heated them through and let them cool. Then he started the chocolate, milk, egg, carob and sugar mixture, which required constant stirring.
At this point Mimmo cleared up the counter for the next stage. Taking down from the shelves, huge tins that looked like cans of paint, full of pastes of different nuts, Mimmo explained that these were the most important and expensive part of the ice cream making process. These pastes were what turned the bases into the flavoured ice creams. For fruit flavours, one could use fresh pulp of fruits, but the tinned fruit-pastes were stronger in aroma and more efficient. I glanced at the tins lined above, labeled 'pasta di melone', 'pasta di banana', 'pasta di ananas', also those of peach and apricots etc. But for strawberry ice, Mimmo used frozen strawberries and for the lemon ice cream, fresh Sicilian lemon juice frozen in slabs.
Finally, he introduced me to the machine in the corner. This was the Prima Donna of the whole ice cream making drama. In less then five minutes of churning, any mixture poured into its innards comes out as thick ribbons of chilled froth into stainless steel containers readied under the nozzle.
Before starting, Mimmo reminds me that the important thing at this juncture is the sequence of the flavours, so that one kind of ice cream mixture does not absorb the taste and scent of the preceding one. Compatible tastes go first, then a rinsing is required before the next flavour goes in. Today, the sequence would be, Vanilla, Nocciola (Hazlenut), Noce (Walnut), Pistachio, then a rinsing, followed by Chocolate and Coffee, then another rinsing before the fruit ices i.e, lemon, melon and strawberry would be put in.
Now came the most arduous part of the entire proceeding--- as far as I was concerned. As each frosty mass swirled down, Mimmo filled a cup of the concoction for me to taste. By the third cup, I begged Mimmo to reduce the tasting to a spoonful. The last flavour, the conclusive, palate-cleansing lemon ice cream now poured forth, pristine as snow, and Mimmo rushed with the newborn tub of gelato, upstairs into the light of day. I followed him throwing away my unlicked spoonful and started to stagger out of the Bar.
I said to myself, if anyone so much as mentions the 'g' word today, I'll scream! The person brushing past me smiles at Mimmo: "One scoop of Nocciola…." I scream.
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