Thursday, 10 November 2011

La Gelateria Scappi - è un bidone!

Signor Scappi, vogliamo gelati, confettura non!!
Mr Scappi, we want ice cream - not jam!!
Today, I will deal with an Italian fairy story. There is an enormous amount of nonsense posted on the internet at the moment about the origins of ice cream. A large number of websites are stating that the celebrated sixteenth century papal cook Bartolomeo Scappi included a recipe for sorbet in his 1570 Opera. Just try googling Scappi sorbet or Scappi gelato and you will see what I mean by this. If what these sites claim is true, it would mean that Scappi was the first European author to give instructions for making a frozen dessert. 

However, these assertions are all total balderdash and are based on an entirely ignorant reading of Scappi's text. In reality the recipe in question is for making a kind of preserve from morello cherries, not an ice. It does not require freezing and Scappi never ever calls it a sorbet, or gelato, as some of these sources claim. As far as we know the earliest Italian instructions for freezing sorbetti do not appear in print until the 1690s, over 120 years after the publication of Scappi's book.

Here is the original recipe. From Bartolomeo Scappi. Opera. Venezia 1570. Libro II. Cap. CCLXXX 

Here is my rather over literal translation. 

To do morello cherries in jelly.

Get ten pounds of fresh morello or sour cherries gathered the same day; they must not be bruised, and leave half the stalk on them, and fashion them into small bunches with ten to the bunch, have a casserole with a pound of clean water, and put the morellos into it, and as it begins to simmer, put in ten pounds of finely ground and sieved sugar and allow it to boil slowly, skimming it with a spoon, and when the morellos have burst, and are all of a colour (meaning same colour), take them down and put them in a plate and allow them to drain, and allow the decoction to boil by itself until it starts to cook, not failing to skim it, and do the test on the plate, and if it forms a morsel (globule) that does not spread when you touch it, take it from the fire, and unbind the bunches of morellos, and arrange them in cups, or in dishes of silver, with the decoction, which should be warm, over them, and put them in a cool place to set. In this way you can do sour cherries (visciole), and in the same decoction you can cook some fresh damsons.

Anyone who has made jam or conserves, will recognise the technique which Scappi describes here (underlined text), of putting a little of the 'decoction' on a plate to check whether the cooked fruit and sugar will set properly. Of course this is as far away from the technique used for making sorbet as you can possibly get. What the recipe makes is a very pleasant dish of lightly cooked cherries in a pectin-rich fruit jelly - in other words cherry jam! This is what  Scappi's marasche in gelo really looks like. I have served it here on a silver dish as he suggests. How can anyone think that this is a sorbet or gelato? See what I mean - another stupid fairy story. 

Scappi's marasche in gelo - 1570
In fact this dish is what later confectioners would come to call a compote of cherries. In The Italian Confectioner (London: 1820), the Georgian confectioner Giuliamo Jarrin (like Scappi a native of Northern Italy) gives a recipe that is almost identical to that of his Renaissance predecessor:  

Jarrin's 1820 recipe for a cherry compote. Note how both Scappi and Jarrin cut the cherry stalks in half.

All of this confusion has been caused by a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of two words in the original Italian text - gelo and congelare. In the early modern period the word gelo could mean two things - either frost, ice, freezing, but also jelly. The word gelato, meaning a type of ice cream did not come into usage in Italy until the nineteenth century. In the context of this recipe, the word gelo without doubt, means the pectin-rich jelly of the kind created when you boil fruit with sugar. Here are some early definitions of gelo and related words from John Florio. Queen Anna's New World of Words, or Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues. London 1611. Note the double meaning.

So, it is being assumed that the title of the recipe - Per accommodar marasche in gelo means 'to do morello cherries in ice', when the whole sense of the recipe clearly tells us that the use of the word gelo in this case indicates jelly. Some of the sites claiming that this is a recipe for sorbet or gelato translate Scappi's words 'et mettanosi in loco fresco a congelare' as 'put in a cool place to freeze', when the meaning of congelare here is clearly 'to set' or 'to gel'. Scappi describes no freezing equipment or freezing method. I am afraid that it is impossible to freeze anything by simply putting it in a cool place; especially in Italy during the hot weather experienced during the cherry picking season. What has amazed me is that most of this utter nonsense has come out of Italy. 

If I am wrong and Scappi did really serve ice cream at the papal court in Renaissance Rome, we may have to reassess the significance of the wonderful illustrations of culinary equipment in his magisterial book, like those examples reproduced below.

Scappi's little helpers frantically lifting the Baked Alaska off the fire for the Pope's dinner
Gelati misti à la Rinascimento
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