In the city of the dessert’s origin, “artigianale” gelato-makers show that gelato is an art, not just a business.
The climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo is steep and long. The city of Florence is nestled among the green hills of Tuscany. This elevated plaza is one of the best vantage points to see the valley and its terracotta roofs and towering Duomo, the cathedral that started the architectural Renaissance. Hundreds of tourists and locals alike make this hike everyday, their calves burning and knees trembling, just to see the view. Today, on this special week in May, another treat awaits them – a festival dedicated to the dessert Florence is famous for: gelato.
Vetulio Bondi, founder of the organization “Gelatieri Artigiani Fiorentini,” which is also responsible for starting the festival, smiles high above his city. “I’m so proud to come back here, one of the most beautiful terraces in the world.” The sun warms the pavement and the gelato-trucks work to keep their precious cargo cold. He opened his first gelato shop in Florence in 1982, and has been devoted to the craft ever since.
He’s standing in the food truck designed for gelato-making demonstrations, wearing his white double-buttoned chef’s coat with an Italian flag poking out of his breast pocket. Here he will show his afternoon-audience how to make true “artigianale” gelato. Artigianale means homemade, which means there are no additives like palm oil or preservatives in his gelato. The same goes for the eight Florentine gelato-makers entered in the festival’s contest for best flavour.
Flavours include ingredients like blueberries (always fresh), and cottage cheese. As a testament to the flavours’ deliciousness, the plaza is packed with people who linger at the festival all day to thoroughly enjoy their taste-testing. A long-haired Chihuahua sneaks underneath it’s seated owner’s legs to lick a discarded gelato cup on the other side of a bench.
Like the gelato-makers, the people in Bondi’s organization and the festival strive to use only fresh ingredients in their products. “It is the most important innovation we’ve founded in Florence,” says Bondi, and he and his team work to keep the artigianale tradition alive by fervently competing against big brands and consumerism in Italy.
The roots of this Florentine tenacity date back to the 16th century…
…from the mountains to the courts of the Medici family. Like the trek up to Piazzale Michelangelo, the journey to make gelato was a long one – ice had to be carried to Florence from the mountain Saltino, above Vallombrosa, where it was collected in the winter. Today this would only take half an hour by car, but in the 1500s horses pulled the ice in covered wagons by night to avoid it being melted by the sun. When it reached Florence the ice would be stored in the royal Boboli Gardens, in iceboxes, with straw for insulation.
Originally the ice was only needed for the preservation of meat and other uses, but famous Florentine architect Bernardo Buontalenti had another idea. He had already done great services for the Medici family, including the sculpting of the grotto in their Boboli Gardens, and like his fellow Italian Leonardo DaVinci, he was a man of many talents. Sugar had arrived in Italy for the first time, and with this new ingredient he mixed together a special frozen dessert that delighted the royal family, and everyone who has had the privilege of tasting it since.
Buontalenti may have used spices from the East, like ginger, in his new concoction. The fresh ginger added to Bondi’s competing flavour, named “Marzocco,” is noticeable because of the simplicity of his recipe.
It’s easy to make gelato,
Bondi says, and he demonstrates this on stage at the festival, mixing a few ingredients together and putting them in his gelato machine. In the 1500s gelato had to be churned by hand for 20 minutes, using salt to get the ice to a lower temperature. Now, “You buy the machine and—“ Bondi whistles, and invites a young boy on stage to press the button that prompts the machine to squeeze out smooth, chocolate gelato.
Despite its simplicity, Jessica Rinaldi, a friend and gelato-student of Bondi’s, says that one of these machines costs upwards of $20,000, so she is hesitant to start a business of her own.
Rinaldi met her newly-wedded husband in Bondi’s shop, and has taken an interest in his artigianale gelato-making ever since. “[His organization] is fighting to preserve the Florentine tradition,” Rinaldi says. “And it’s not just about that. He’s very typical Italian in the sense that he believes in genuine food.”
Many gelato shops are taking the cheapest and fastest route by using pre-made mixes, but these have a lot of preservatives, she explains. Thankfully, this year the Italian government made a law stating companies must clearly label what kind of oil they use in their product, so unhealthy oils such as palm oil can be easily avoided. Palm oil is the second ingredient in one of Italy’s biggest brands, Nutella. This oil is not only high in saturated fat, but it is also playing a part in the endangerment of the orangutang, because of the forests being destroyed for its production.This does not seem to curb Nutella’s popularity, though, and their gelato stand at the festival boasts one of the biggest line-ups.
Nutella’s presence at the festival contradicts Bondi’s organization’s mandate, just like McDonald’s sponsoring the 2015 Milan Expo contradicts their theme of “healthy living for all.”
Despite these contradictions and heavy-hitting adversaries, Bondi gathers the artigianale gelato-makers to defend their frozen art high above its birthplace.
Bondi smiles again, his eyes widening behind his thick-rimmed glasses. “I am the master of selfies,” he says, taking the camera and turning it to face both of us, along with a replicated statue of Michelangelo’s stud David, standing in the middle of the terrace.
In the bible’s tale, David defeats the giant Goliath. This statue, looking over the Gelato Festival and all of Florence, may serve as encouragement to all small gelato-shop owners as they fight against the brand-giant’s of the food industry.