Frozen In Snow: Gelato Is Older Than You Think
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Frozen desserts have been a beloved treat for centuries, with a history stretching back to 3000 BCE, when ice cream was first made in China. In the mid-19th century, both in Europe and America, layered, molded ice cream treats with fruits, syrups, and liqueurs were quite popular. These treats were served in a variety of fun shapes, and people of all ages loved them.

About 1500 years later, the people of Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey) would mix snow or ice from the mountains with fruit juices and honey to create a primitive form of sorbet. This frozen treat was a delicacy reserved for the wealthy and was often enjoyed by royalty.

Over the centuries, the idea of frozen desserts has spread to other parts of the world. In ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle wrote about a frozen dessert made from snow and honey, and the Roman Emperor Nero is said to have had ice brought down from mountains, especially Mounts Etna and Vesuvius, to be mixed with fruit juices and served to his guests.

It seems that even the king of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, enjoyed the ancient ice cream. As his empire expanded and his conquests took him to new lands, he would set up ice houses there so that his subjects could enjoy a wide variety of cold beverages.

Marco Polo, a renowned traveler and historian, documented his incredible journey to China and brought back stories to share with his countrymen. Not shaved ice, but milk was the main ingredient in the Chinese ice cream recipes that he possessed. The ice cream industry as we know it today can trace its roots back to this breakthrough in Italy.

Arabs vs. Sicilians

One legend claims that by the 11th century, the Arabs had developed their own version of the icy, sugary treat known as shrb (sorbet)—a syrup or tisane infused with medicinal herbs, spices, roots, and flowers, which was stored in a container and frozen solid. It was a significant evolutionary breakthrough; the canister served as the first natural freezer, allowing the ice to be separated from the flavoring beverage so that no flavor got watered down.

However, Italians dispute this, pointing to an 18th-century document written by Roman writer Marco Terenzio Varrone that explains how the Arabic word for sorbet came from the Latin verb sorbere, which means "to slowly and leisurely sip" a frozen drink.

The first iced beverages, sorbets, and ice cream were served exclusively at formal dinners and lavish parties for the upper class. Only emperors, royal courts, aristocrats, and monasteries frequented by wealthy pilgrims could enjoy these sweetened, frozen delicacies.

The First Gelato

Gelato is a popular Italian-style ice cream that is denser and more intensely flavorful than traditional American ice cream. It is typically made with fewer egg yolks and more cream and whole milk. The ingredients are blended together, heated, and then cooled and churned. Gelato has a lower fat content than traditional ice cream, and it is served slightly warmer, which accentuates its flavors.

Gelato's history is closely linked to that of Italian Renaissance art, and it has been popular throughout Europe since the 16th century. Gelato continued to evolve over the next few centuries, with innovations such as the use of cream and the development of new flavorings and ingredients. Today, gelato is enjoyed all over the world and has become a beloved part of many different cultures and cuisines.

Timeline of frozen desserts and drinks from around the world

3000 BCE: Asian cultures discovered that putting crushed ice and flavorings in your mouth would taste refreshing.

2500 BCE: A cup of ice sweetened with fruit juices was a common welcome drink for Egyptian pharaohs' guests.

30 CE: The ancient Romans started a tradition of eating honey-covered ice from Mounts Etna and Vesuvius.

1270 CE: While in Asia, Marco Polo witnesses the Chinese consuming milk, ice, and various flavorings.

1550 CE: An easy and basic sorbet, or what the Medici court called dolcetto gelato (frozen dessert), helped Roggieri win a contest.

Bernardo Buontalenti creates gelato with bergamot, lemon, and orange cream flavors and chills it with a mixture of his own invention to impress the King of Spain, a royal guest of the Grand Duke.

1770 CE: Gelato is brought to the streets of New York by Giovanni Basiolo.

1843 CE: In America, a hand-crank freezer is made, which changes the way frozen desserts are made.

In conclusion, the history of frozen desserts can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia and has evolved over the centuries to become the delicious gelato that we know and love today.