It didn’t look like the Wonka Factory. That’s what I imagined a Gelato University would look like. Giant heaps of ice cream and other fantastical delights to entertain and bring joy strewn about like a moving feast. Executives jumping into giant vats of ice cream, eating their way through the dense, yummy goodness. No, the modern factory just outside the city limits of Bologna, Italy was a lot more businesslike and factoryish than I had hoped. But hidden within the bowels of the massive building I managed to find that sense of Wonkan wonder and happiness I was looking for.
In 1944 the brothers Carpigiani started producing ice cream freezing machines that would eventually become the gelato device used in countries around the world. The machine ensures a high quality dessert no matter where you live, as long as you know how to use it. That’s where Gelato University comes in. Carpigiani runs classes throughout the year for all skill levels for anyone who wants to learn how to be a gelato master. Most of their students own their own gelato shop, but anyone is welcome.
As we were walking through Gelato Central, I noticed in the middle of the test kitchen and model shop a shiny display case full of dozens of different kinds of gelato. Our guide asked if we minded trying the students’ latest creations, which elicited a look of pure befuddlement from me. I have never turned down gelato and I wasn’t about to start.
If those were the reject batches, I’m not sure if my palate could handle the expertly made gelato. The students had outdone themselves serving up some standard favorites like cookies and cream and Nutella, but also some new flavors involving figs and drunken cherries. I’m a little embarrassed at the heaping scoops we practically inhaled, watching the students through the open door as they learned all about the art and business of gelato making. Well not that embarrassed clearly because I still managed to eat everything put before me.
I have to admit that the business sounds like a good one. For a relatively low investment, about $100,00, anyone can purchase the supplies and machines necessary to start creating their own morsels of frozen delight. Plus there’s the fact you can eat all the gelato you want. Not a bad business if you ask me.
Somehow our guide managed to wrestle the little plastic gelato spoon from my hands and led us to the newly opened Gelato Museum. The museum is the result of years of work and collection and is meant to not just highlight the Carpigiani brand of machines, but to share with the world the entire history of gelato production. Since it’s new everything is still shiny and bright, well organized and interesting. Frozen treats started thousands of years ago, but it has only been in modern times that ice cream and gelato became popular amongst the masses. Be careful though, ice cream and gelato are not interchangeable terms – there is a very real difference between the two.
The milk-cream ratio in gelato is much higher than in ice cream and the fat content is lower. This means that the flavors in gelato tend to be more pronounced and the final result is much richer and creamier than ice cream. There’s also less air in gelato, which creates a dessert that is denser than ice cream. More than these bland facts the real difference between gelato and ice cream for me is the artistry and workmanship involved. Making the perfect batch of gelato is about being creative while technical, it’s both an art and a science and the best in world walk this fine line with remarkable ease.
Next to the main Carpigiani factory is a small gelato shop, the public gelato face of the company. Anyone can visit for a quick scoop or two of traditional favorites as well as seasonal specialties. It was also in this small shop where we learned how to make gelato from one of the company’s expert instructors. The target flavor was a play on the Christmas favorite panettone.
The process was simple, a sugar and cream base to which we added other ingredients, including heaps of delicious looking mixed fruits. The liquid concoction was mixed, poured into the machine and before I knew it we were scooping out huge helpings of freshly made gelato. I asked the experts how the layman can identify quality gelato and it turns out there are several key hallmarks.
First, look around the shop to see if they have a gelato machine. If they don’t then they aren’t making the product on site, which means it’s frozen and not fresh. Great gelato should always be fresh, very fresh. That freshness is also seen in its texture. Finished gelato should have a matte finish, not shiny and it shouldn’t be pilled up high screaming, “Look at me! I’m not quality gelato!” Color is also a good hallmark of real gelato. The colors of the flavors should be natural and not embellished. But nothing beats the taste of real gelato. It’s not frozen so the huge scoops should already be gently melting by the time you take your first bite. The first sensation should be the creamy texture followed by an explosion of taste. There’s nothing quite like a well-done, fresh gelato so make sure you choose wisely.
After my gelato lunch and more samples than I care to admit to enjoying, we left Gelato University well sated and knowing a lot more about this popular dessert than I thought possible. The experience was about a lot more than simple ice cream though, gelato itself is all about enjoyment, happy memories and a certain way of life. Now how can you say no to that?
*Anyone can visit the free Gelato Museum, but reservations must be made in advance.