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The Sicilian way of thinking about ice cream

Updated: May 29, 2022

Imagine living on a beautiful island. You see a lot of ripe berries and fruits around you, filled with juice in the bright sun, you have a tasty milk of numerous sheep and cows, knowing that the milk spoils quickly ... Well, some of the milk turns into cheese. But you also want to keep the milk fresh, at least until the evening, when the whole family gathers around the table. You see numerous hens laying eggs, a wonderfully valuable product, but which can also quickly lose the desired properties in a hot weather. You have three or four types of sugar, such as honey and cane sugar, that are in Sicily but aren't found in Europe. And it turns out that sugar can preserve foods. Sea salt also preserves food.

But what to offer to the family in the warm season when they need something refreshing? And Etna-mama, fiery and snowy at the same time, gives a great idea to use the snow and ice that is upper on the slope of the mountain and in the recessed areas, preserved even in summer. You can bring the ice home from the mountain, mix it with milk and fruit. The Sicilian's natural train of thought leads him to the creation of ice cream. God and nature gave all the conditions, the Sicilian gave a careful and inventive mind - so ice cream was given to the world. To me, it's as clear as day, and thank God. No matter how hard I try, I can't solve some psychological problem when someone tries to attribute the invention of Sicilian ice cream to the Arab invaders, who only lasted 100 years on the island.

The invader always has temporary residence psychology that is not organic to the culture of the locals, blessed by God to live in this land. Sicily, by the time almost 1000 years was Orthodox and Byzantine, and for 12000 years a natural culture of attentive connoisseurs of nature and life. OK, the invaders have come and gone, Sicily always remains the open heart of the earth. Just compare the numbers and let's not distort the truth. I prefer to believe that the Arabs were amazed at the luxurious possibilities of reaching the snow vaults on Etna, which have always been there.

So we won't try to confuse the year's natural ways of feeding the people of Sicily and the invaders' desire to quench their thirst for a short time - very different views and attitudes to things. We know that when people are at home, they thank God for giving everything to live and thrive in a paradise earth, think about the future and get it.

So today we are dealing with ice cream, a natural product for Sicilians. We ask Nicolò Reina, an expert on Sicilian life and employee of the Custonaci tourist office, what ice cream means for him and for Sicily.

- Hi, Elena.

- Hi, Nicolò.

- Elena, you got things right, I have to say. The childlike sincerity and creativity of the Sicilians are well known, as is the effort to do the best they can. Naivety is really out of place in today's world. For a Sicilian, ice cream is a natural, comforting and nutritious food that contains all the healthy gifts of the beautiful Sicilian nature: milk, eggs, cream, curd, fruit and berries, almonds, pistachios, honey, sugar and snow, helping sea salt. Ice cream is great for breakfast with a pastry, especially. Sicilians eat ice cream all year round because the climate is hot in winter and very hot in summer. I think Sicily was naturally the birthplace of ice cream because ice cream gives simplicity and convenience on the one hand and an opportunity for creativity on the other. They are all components of the Sicilian culture. I believe that about 70% of the ice cream requested in Sicily is artisanal, this figure, in my opinion, is higher in Sicily than in mainland Italy (55%) or in Europe. As all tourists admit, ice cream in Sicily means much, much more than "just ice cream". It is something nutritious and refreshing. You can eat ice cream often, and you will be satisfied. Each Sicilian restaurant provides a unique and special combination of ice cream ingredients, flavours and aromas.

- Yes, I know that some famous and not famous people eat ice cream as food. But of course, it can only be done with artisanal ice cream and appropriate composition.

- You are absolutely right, ice cream should only be considered a healthy and precious food, especially in Sicily. We need this food due to the hot climate, in Sicily, it is vital to have refreshing food in the summer. And so, I see ice cream as a value created by the genius of Sicily for the benefit of all humanity, thank God. Remember that the climate is getting warmer on earth. The tradition of healthy, simple, affordable and wholesome food is having a new life.

- I agree. I also noticed that people who organize events like festivals or fashion week actively include ice cream on the menu for attendees and guests. Ice cream can be a personalized dish because you can make any shape with the ice cream and include different ingredients. People may have a wide variety of food preferences, but everyone eats ice cream. And even those who can't tolerate dairy have their own special ice cream varieties these days, with fruit juice rather than dairy.

- A fair point - ice cream is more of a basic universal ancient product that has a wealth of possibilities to bring ideas to life. This is why ice cream is probably loved by everyone, and ice cream is a healthy dish for which we can have any level of communication. In Sicily, we tend to eat homemade ice cream because our whole food culture is built on communication between close people who trust each other. People who come to Sicily feel our attitude, and this changes them for the better. They get a firework of flavours and aromas from the hands of the Sicilians, it's Etna on your plate. Artisan ice cream is less fat and more natural and mellow. Industrial ice cream has more air. Basically, artisanal and industrial ice cream are two different products, and everyone chooses for himself what works for him or her.

- Let's briefly recall the whole history of ice cream and build a phylogeny, considering everything and the most ancient origins of ice cream on earth.

First, the versatility and usefulness of ice cream are confirmed by the fact that in ancient China they served a plate of ice, milk and fruit, this began 3,000 years BC. Fruit juices chilled at harvest time are described by the ancient Jews of Solomon's time. Alexander the Great's army consumed frozen fruit and snow, milk, wine and honey during its campaigns in India and Persia. In ancient Rome, cold desserts based on ice, snow and fruit were used to finish meals, special ice deposits were built, written sources mention it in the 1st century AD. In ancient Siberia, they also froze milk and added honey to milk shavings since ancient times. In ancient Iran, apparently, they also knew how to store mountain ice and snow up to summer in storage. There, they made a blend of spaghetti, fruit, pistachio, rose and lemon syrup with crushed ice and snow. The Arabs in the 8th century AD learned to conserve the snow and ice brought by the camels from the mountain tops.

In Sicily, the variants of the predecessors of modern ice cream are known in the form of granita and ice cream that use milk, eggs, cream, ricotta, honey, pistachios, cocoa and almonds. The method of whipping a mixture of eggs, milk and sugars was developed in Sicily. This slow cooling method of the blend was first associated with sea salt and the replacement of honey with cane sugar, which grew in Sicily. Sicilian ice from the Iblei, Nebrodi, Madonie and Peloritani mountains was supplied throughout Italy and Malta. Sicilian sea salt is also a precious product, known since ancient times.

In the 14th century, Marco Polo described the use of saltpetre to cool ice cream. In the 16th century, Catherine de Medici brought a dish to France that consisted of ice balls and fruit. In the 17th century, the Palermo fisherman Francesco Procopio Di Coltelli took the ice cream whipping machine invented in his family and opened a literary café in front of the Comédie Française theatre in Paris. I think, it was a brilliant decision of the Sicilian because this café attracted many actors, poets, critics, who became famous by describing, among other things, the ice cream café, which still exists under the name Procop.

Procop served 80 kinds of ice cream. It began the development of the ice cream industry, since 250 Parisian confectioners very quickly came together to form an ice cream corporation. In the 17th century, they learned to add vanilla cream and whipped cream to ice cream, calling it "Neapolitan ice cream". In the 17th century, ice cream arrived in England thanks to the royal marriage of Henrietta Maria de 'Medici and Charles I. European ice cream arrived in America with the English colonists in the 18th century. Also, in the 18th century, European ice cream arrived in Russia.

In the 19th century, liqueur, coffee and chocolate were added to ice cream. In the 19th century, new machines appeared to simultaneously whip and cool ice cream, giving growth to the ice cream industry, and the first factory was built in America. Ice cream thus helped invent refrigerators.

In the 20th century, people learned how to make ice cream with chocolate glaze. They began to add nuts, green tea, wild herbs, blackberries, pineapples and yoghurt to the ice cream. In the 20th century, a group of British developers, including young Margaret Thatcher, learned to add one and a half to two times more air to ice cream, making it softer. Thicker ice cream also appeared. The fat content of industrial ice cream varies from 15 to 3%.

Once again, all of this has only a little to do with Sicilian artisan ice cream. Sicilian artisanal ice cream is made with the freshest local products by your acquaintances from the next door, whom you have been visiting for many years, and they know everything you need. It is not the same as buying industrial ice cream at the supermarket. Artisanal ice cream is made up of 70% milk, cream and curd and only 20% sugar. In factory ice cream, the opposite is true. About half of the handmade finished product consists of fresh fruit and nuts. Instead of milk, there can also be fresh fruit juices, yoghurt. It can also be rice milk for those who are intolerant to milk. For the factory ice cream, the processes are structured differently and with different products.

- Yes, today Sicilian ice cream is an art of high style that allows you to work with dozens of ingredients for each variety in order to obtain the maximum balance and complementarity of the composition elements. Today not only almonds and pistachios are used, but also pineapple and walnuts, a wide selection of berries and fruits, including strawberries, for example, different types of sugar, different types of dairy products, chocolate and cocoa, cinnamon and candied fruit, liqueurs and citrus fruits. The exterior design of the ice cream is a work of art every time. More importantly, ice cream is a product that connects us during the holidays, people of different ages, status and education. In Sicily the recipes were kept in the monasteries, the ice cream was prepared for the feasts of the saints, such as Santa Rosalia in Palermo, when all people can share a dish among themselves and be together. In my opinion, this spiritual meaning of food makes it the value of people thanking God for love.

- Thanks, Nicolò, I absolutely want to appreciate Sicilian ice cream in practice.

- Thank you, Elena, the Sicilians are happy to share their joy with all those who come to Sicily.

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