The association between Italians and ice-cream is the stuff of legend. Marco Polo is supposed to have brought the technique for freezing milk from China. (Nonsense! As is the claim that he took noodles to Italy where they became pasta). The Roman Emperor Nero is supposed to have invented ice-cream. (Not true though some accounts say that he liked pouring honey over snow). Even the French, who claim to have invented most things, defer to their neighbours when it comes to ice-cream. One story has it that Catherine de Medici brought ice-cream from Italy when she married the future French King Henri, in 1533.
All of these stories are made up and have little to do with the real invention of ice-cream which was a long and gradual process, involving Brits, Frenchmen, Americans and yes, Italians. But what is true is this: even today, Italian ice-cream has a distinctive character of its own and is significantly different from ice-cream in the rest of the world.
I was in Italy last week and was stunned by (a) how much ice-cream Italians eat – there was an ice-cream parlour at every street corner and (b) by how good nearly all of the ice-cream was.
As we all know, this is not true of ice-cream in the rest of the world. Until recently, English ice-cream was revolting and full of vegetable oil. Indian ice-cream can vary dramatically in quality and even the so-called home-made ice-creams made by many hotels and restaurants can be terrible.
When we talk of ice-cream, there are three basic criteria, only one of which is ever openly discussed by the ice-cream industry. That criterion is: natural flavour. By now, most of us have twigged that the Kwality vanilla ice-cream or the Joy strawberry ice-cream we grew up with had very little to do with real vanilla or real strawberry. In common, with much of the world, Indian ice-cream companies used synthetic flavours.
Then, the American ice-cream industry launched a back-to-nature campaign. It became illegal to call an ice-cream made with synthetic strawberry flavour ‘strawberry ice-cream.’ The manufacturer had to call it ‘strawberry-flavoured ice-cream’. As a consequence, manufacturers started opting for natural ingredients as consumers wisened up.
In India, the laws are not so strict but there are many artisanal manufacturers (such as Bombay’s Natural Ice-Cream) who use real ingredients (mainly chunks of fruit) as well as expensive international brands like Baskin-Robbins who have made natural ice-cream in America since 1953 and now make the same ice-cream all over the world.
In the process, we have learnt to value real (as distinct from synthetic) flavours and the industry is only too willing to brag about the authenticity of its ingredients. But there are two other criteria that you rarely see discussed. Yet, I would argue that they are more crucial to the taste of an ice-cream than the authenticity of flavours.
In the ice-cream business, flavours are to the product what toppings are to pizzas. You can put anything on a pizza: smoked salmon, white truffle, Beluga caviar even. But if the pizza itself sucks then the topping will make no difference. So the key to a good pizza is the base – how it is baked, the quality of the dough, the ratio of tomato to cheese etc. Everything else is window dressing.
So it is with ice-cream. If the basic ice-cream mixture is rubbish and if the churning is dodgy, then the finest strawberries in the world will not be able to salvage the ice-cream.
The criteria that really matter have to do first, with the mixture – its fat content. And then, with the churning – the amount of air in the ice-cream or what the trade calls over-run.
Fat content is easy enough to understand. When you put a spoon of ice-cream in your mouth, swirl it around before swallowing. If a thin milky taste stays in your mouth, then it is a low fat ice-cream. If your tongue feels creamy then it has a high fat content.
So-called home-made or gourmet ice-creams have high fat contents. The best ice-cream in India is made by Rohit Sangwan at the Taj Land’s End in Bombay. He uses cream and egg yolks to give it the required richness. Other gourmet ice-creams pride themselves on high fat content. For instance, Haagen-Dazs was launched in the Bronx in New York in 1959 as a company that made high fat-content, cream and egg-yolk ice-cream. Later it was bought by a conglomerate and is now an international brand.
In contrast, cheap ice-cream tends to have a low fat content. According to US law, ice-cream must have a 10 per cent fat content (8 per cent if it contains solid additions like fruit or chocolate chips). If the fat content is lower, the term ice-cream cannot be used and such names as ‘frozen dessert’ are employed.
We all know ‘frozen desserts’ – they are the cheap ice-creams with synthetic flavours that are sold all over India. Often, they are coloured artificially to look especially lurid or cast in funny-shaped moulds. Kids like them but adults find them thin and insubstantial. Hence the food industry’s unspoken rule: low fat content equals kiddie ice-cream while high fat content equals adult ice-cream.
In India, we suffer from a disadvantage because most chefs do not understand fat content or even, ice-cream. I have been to hotels where the so-called home-made ice-cream is thinner and far inferior to the Baskin-Robbins stuff they purchase from outside. And even chefs who brag about their ice-creams often confuse flavouring (real vanilla, high-priced liqueurs etc) with the quality of the ice-cream itself.
Which brings us to the criterion nobody outside the business ever talks about: over-run. Over-run is the ratio of air to ice-cream. All ice-cream must have some air, otherwise it would be rock-hard. But how much air is okay? According to US law, ice-cream can have an over-run of 100 per cent. This means it can be half ice-cream and half air. The cheapest ice-cream has a full 100 per cent over-run though some ice-creams can (in theory) have more.
Good quality ice-cream will have a lower over-run, which is to say, it will have less air. One of the intentions of the founder of Haagen-Dazs (an American called Reuben Mattus) was to keep over-run to a bare minimum. Baskin-Robbins will have a lower over-run than your average cheap ice-cream.
Though over-run is crucial to the taste of ice-cream, the industry goes to great lengths to hide over-run statistics: they are not normally listed on the packet. But here’s something to think about: why is ice-cream packed by volume and not by weight? The answer is because the weight of a pint of ice-cream can vary dramatically between brands depending on the over-run or the quantity of air they pack into each packet.
So why was Italian ice-cream so good? What did they do right? I found, first of all, that only the so-called artisanal ice-cream was very good. The mass produced stuff was dire. This had to do with ingredients. The artisanal stuff was made with milk. The industrial stuff was made with milk powder – you get ready-made gelato powders all over Italy.
Secondly, the artisanal gelatos tended to be made on the premises or in kitchens nearby so they were made with attention to detail and were not stored for days or transported over great distances. Moreover, the artisans used only natural ingredients.
The real differences however came in the other two criteria. The key to gelato is the over-run. Most gelato has an over-run of only 30 to 35 per cent which means that it is much denser than commercial ice-cream where the over-run can go to 100 per cent. That accounts for the difference in taste and mouth feel.
The density has one more advantage: you get a rich taste without fat. Gelato can have a fat content as low as four to five per cent. So the traditional rule of ice-cream – more fat equals more taste – is reversed.
I spoke to Vijay Arora who makes Gelato Vinto (winner of the HT Crystal Award for best ice-cream) about the difference between gelato and normal ice-cream. Vijay added one more factor. Normal ice-cream is served at minus 20 degree C so the first taste is extremely cold. Gelato is served at minus 14 degree C so it is not so cold and you can taste the flavour immediately. I discovered also that ice-cream with a high over-run melts quickly which is why kiddie ice-creams seem to dissolve in our hands whereas gelatos stay firm for much longer.
Vijay has had huge success with Gelato Vinto. In just five years, he has opened 35 outlets in North India and launched 300 flavours. He supplies to most top hotels and Italian restaurants in Delhi and makes his gelatos fresh every day. He has had the bright idea of selling gelato as a healthier ice-cream which I guess it is because of its lower fat content.
As for the other manufacturers, I am not sure how well they are faring. I buy Baskin-Robbins myself because it is easily the best widely available brand in India. I like the artisanal fruit ice-creams though I am not sure about the quality of the ice-cream itself (which often seems unstable.) And I gather through a blitz of really bad publicity, that Haagen-Dazs is now in India.
But after that trip to Italy, I am a gelato convert. I like the density and the taste. And as Vijay says, it is the healthier option!