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Did you know that in Florence we invented ice cream?

Joy for adults and children, ice cream is one of the spearheads of Italian gastronomic art and the king of summer street food. However, who did we owe the invention of ice cream? As often happens when it comes to inventions, everyone is ready to take credit and since ancient times, many people claimed the authorship of the invention of ice cream. Let us try to make some history!


Article by Free Tour Florence - Another Florence


Girls enjoying an ice cream in Florence

From China to the Middle East, to Europe

It seems that in China, already in the 500 B.C., they had found the way to make ice by heating the water and then taking it to very cold undergrounds where the water vapour froze on the rock.

According to many scholars, however, ice cream was mentioned for the first time in the Bible. In fact, it is said that Isaac offered Abraham a drink prepared with goat's milk and snow. We also know that Egyptians used to offer their guests a silver chalice divided in half, one containing snow and the other fruit juice.

However, that many ancient peoples refrigerated the juices obtained from squeezing the fruit is documented. The Ancient Greeks, for example, prepared refreshing drinks with lemon, honey, pomegranate juice and snow, which were stored in special holes dug in the ground.

The Ancient Romans later adopted the revolutionary method of using snow and ice to preserve food, and an ancient recipe found in Rome describes a drink made from finely crushed ice and honey with fruit juice; a sort of iced cream, which could be tasted not only by the rich people but also by everybody in the Roman Empire.

Thanks to the Arabs, sorbet was born with the addition of sugar cane

With the fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of the Middle Ages in Europe, were lost the traces of almost all the delights that had become the common heritage of many ancient peoples. Fortunately, the Arabs did not abandon the preparation and improvement of iced drinks, and in the ninth century A.C. they brought them back to Sicily.

The primordial sorbet was therefore born in Sicily, a word derived from sharbat that in Arabic refers to a cold and syrupy substance based on cane sugar, flower petals and fruit. The big news was the addition of sugar cane that the Arabs brought first to Spain and then to Sicily.

Did the first edition of MasterChef in Florence take place during the Renaissance?

It took several centuries before the sorbet in its new formula began to spread from the south to the north of Italy and Europe. The fact that sparked its popularity was a culinary competition held by the Medici court in Florence during the Renaissance.

The competition with the theme: “The most unique dish that has ever been seen” was a challenge worthy of MasterChef! The progenitor of Gordon Ramsay who won it, was a Florentine named Ruggeri with his "frozen dessert" that he defined as the "sweetened and perfumed iced water".

From the Medici court to the Versailles court

Caterina de' Medici was so enthusiastic about Ruggeri's "frozen sweets" , that on her trip to Paris, where she would have married Henry II and become Queen of France (and later mother of three French sovereigns), she decided to bring him with her with the task of serving his sorbets at her wedding banquet.

Thus, the "frozen sweets" also conquered the court of Versailles, and Ruggeri's fame grew so rapidly that it enhanced the envy of French chefs. In the end, in order to leave France and return to his Florence, Ruggeri decided to reveal his secret recipe that later made the fortune of the French chefs and pastry chefs of the time.Wedding of Caterina de’ Medici by Jacopo Chimenti - Gallerie degli Uffizi

The qualities of the sorbet

Even today, sorbet is a very popular dessert and you can enjoy it in the best ice cream shops. Restaurants also often serve sorbet mid-meal as an interlude between courses with too different tastes, such as meat and fish, or at the end of a meal.

The remarkable refreshing effectiveness of the sorbet, represents a valid alternative to ice cream even for those who are lactose or gluten intolerant. It is also less caloric than ice cream! There is certainly no lack of sugar but it is still devoid of the fat component usually given by the presence of milk, cream and eggs.Various flavours of sorbet

Please do not confuse sorbet with granita!

While travelling, you may have seen transparent containers with rotating blades filled up with coloured ice (see photo). Its name is “granita” and is made with crushed ice, flavoured with various fruit syrups, mint or coffee. It is certainly a pleasant and refreshing product, especially in the summer, but sorbet is another thing!

Actually, sorbet can be considered halfway between “granita” and ice cream. It has a soft texture and is free of ice crystals. The main ingredient for a good sorbet is fruit puree that, as a rule, must be at least the 20% of the final mixture. Only for the citrus sorbet a lower percentage is allowed.

A separate discussion deserves the "Sicilian Granita" which is really a delicacy but you can only taste it in Sicily! In the rest of our story we will also talk about this.A typical granita dispenser

However, let us go back to our story, who invented ice cream, then?

As you can see, it is difficult to attribute the invention of ice cream to a single person, a population or a specific era. However, the invention of ice cream that we all know today, and the most similar in taste and shape, is due to the intuition of another Florentine: Bernardo Buontalenti.

Buontalenti was a man of a thousand qualities: architect, sculptor, painter, military engineer and set designer of sixteenth-century Florence. His art could range from art to the invention of new weapons and even to culinary science. In Florence, there is no doubt: he was the inventor of ice cream!

To the Florentines the invention of ice cream...

The occasion was given by an official Spanish visit to the Florentine court. The Medici commissioned Bernardo Buontalenti to organize the banquets, and he gave vent to his creativity by inventing a new recipe for a dessert based on milk, honey, egg yolk and a touch of wine.

Thus was born that taste that still bears the name of its creator today: an ice cream with ancient origins, where cream and milk blend harmoniously. Subsequently Buontalenti developed a machine made up of rotating blades and a cylinder, in which the ice was inserted and around which the ice cream was made.

Despite the rudimentary techniques of refrigeration and preservation of the time, the ice cream invented by Buontalenti, was extraordinarily similar to the one we eat today. The new ice cream formula quickly spread all over the world and, with the exception of small variations, has remained substantially unchanged to this day.The Buontalenti grotto inside the Boboli Gardens in Florence

... to the Sicilians the invention of granita!

Later, also the Sicilian chef Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli (we are already at the end of the 17th century), developed a machine that was able to create a perfect blend for packaging ice cream. Francesco Procopio opened the Café Procope in Paris, where you could find frozen waters, granita, fruit ice creams and sorbets of the most varied tastes.

Café Procope was the place where famous intellectuals of the time, including Voltaire, George Sand, Balzac, Victor Hugo and even Napoleon, hung out. They said that Napoleon once left there his famous headgear as a pledge, because he did not have the money necessary to pay for the ice creams he offered to his friends!

Café Procope (photo by Jean-Marie Hullot from France, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Nowadays we can find good ice cream masters all over the world.  Together with the classic chocolate, pistachio and fiordilatte ice cream, there are now flavours of all kinds, because the imagination of small artisan companies in this field has no limits.

However, if you want to taste the Crema Fiorentina (or Gelato Buontalenti), you have no choice: you must visit Florence! It does not matter if the ice cream was invented by Buontalenti or by someone else, it is important that you can enjoy this indispensable delicacy, which is still produced today more or less by using its original recipe.A typical artisan ice cream shop in Florence

How to choose where to eat a good ice cream?

Not all ice cream shops are the same.The first piece of advice we can give you is to choose "artisan ice cream shops", (Gelateria artigianale), places where they produce ice cream on their own (usually in the back room of their shop). However, even in this case the offer is very wide and as it happens in all sectors, there are better and worse ones.Different flavours of ice cream - Photo by jéshoots from Pexels

Anyway, if you visit Florence and join one of our free tours, the Another Florence tour guides will not fail to show you the best ice cream shops , even the most hidden, where you can taste the best ice cream in Florence, including of course the crema Fiorentina created by Buontalenti! We are waiting for you in Florence!


Thank you for reading the article. For more travel tips from our local guides around the world check the blog section of our website! We release unique travel recommendations every week. If you like this article or have any question, feel free to leave us a comment below!

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