A clear, cold morning was revealed as the sun rose brightly above haze-obscured Bologna.
Over a leisurely breakfast of fruit, yogurt & cheeses we debated whether to attend the tour of Carpigiani’s factory or drive to our favourite vineyard, Castello di Brolio, a short distance away in Tuscany. However we were keen to immerse ourselves completely in the world of artisan ice cream; & concluded that seeing the equipment we would be using on the course actually being manufactured would give us a more holistic picture of gelato’s fine provenance.
We were delighted to meet up with one of Carpigiani’s UK-based staff, Richard, who had flown out to join us for a couple of days. Accompanying us on the tour were also two other course attendees – Will, who is opening his own gelateria in the near future, & Bran, who is already employed as a gelato chef. Coincidentally they are both from Wales; thus proving it’s a small world!
The tour of Carpigiani’s factory proved fascinating – even for us rurally-impassioned farmers. The shop floor occupies such a vast expanse the employees travel around it by bicycle. But why does it take up so much space? Not because of the technical, automated equipment lines required to build the machines; but because to our pleasant surprise they are still, amazingly, all hand-built. In this world of mass production it is refreshing to see such care taken over the construction of artisan apparatus – after all, the gelato is hand-made by people who care passionately about their art; it’s only right that such values translate into the craft of the contraptions themselves.
Manager Lorenzo’s tour was hugely informative, comprehensive & especially entertaining for Tony, having as he does a background in mechanical & process engineering. The enthusiasm & dedication of the staff was clearly evident, coming across in the attention to detail & rigorous testing procedures. And we were amazed at the technology behind the company’s product development, with equipment for more industrialised markets reaching unparalled heights of sophistication.
A hooter blasted, signalling lunchtime on the factory floor. Bicycles bowled past, their riders with one simultaneous destination – the company canteen. And with the Bolognese passion for all things edible, it was hardly surprising to discover that this was no typical factory canteen. For a start, employees are permitted to enjoy a glass of wine with their leisurely lunch – unheard of in the UK. Massive pans of perfectly cooked, al dente pasta were proffered with a variety of delicious basil & tomato or meat sauces; fresh Parmesan was liberally sprinkled; & salads were dressed with balsamic vinegar, extra-virgin olive oil & other such fine condiments. Meats, vegetables, potatoes & rice were available for those still sufficiently hungry to tackle a second course; & fresh fruit, cheeses or cakes were also available, the meal then completed with a cup of double-strength espresso – seemingly strong enough to make your hair stand on end!
Our appetites suitably sated, we enjoyed a leisurely break before heading to the University & into the spacious lecture theatre. To our surprise there were only fifteen students on this internationally-acclaimed, English-speaking course: although from as far afield as Greece, Germany, Sweden, the USA – & even Nottingham!
Our instructor, Gianpaulo Valli, has been a Master Gelatiere for almost thirty years; & for a man who has made gelato for most of his life he does not have the expansive waistline one would expect! This however, is down to the fact that gelato – as opposed to ice cream – is only 5-8% fat; unlike the so-called ‘super premium’ varieties back in the UK, which rather than the term denoting a luxury product, actually means it contains a minimum of 18% fat, & often far more. As we soon discovered a truly good gelato gives an immediate, intense burst of fresh, natural flavour; followed by a light, luscious creaminess rather than that claggy mouthfeel suffered by consuming higher-fat products. And of course sorbetto – which tastes almost as creamy as a gelato – contains no fat whatsoever; consisting simply of fruit, ice & sugar.
Gianpaulo immediately plunged enthusiastically into the subject of his art, first explaining the history of ice cream, which began in Egypt 4,000 years ago & was created using fruit, snow & (ironically for us) goats’ milk.
Then we began to turn the key which unlocks the secret of the very best of the world’s best ice cream (aka gelato), which it transpired is a comprehensive knowledge of top quality, fresh, natural ingredients – & the ability to balance a potential recipe when it is still only a flavoural & textural concept, to the point you can almost taste it before the ingredients have even been peeled, zested or blended.
As he calmly made them, Gianpaulo explained the different base mixes which can be used: white, containing skimmed milk powder, sugars & milk; yellow, containing egg yolks; & 70% cocoa, essentially a finished, rich chocolate gelato but one to which other flavours can be married.
And then came the bit I’d been dreading – mathematics….
I may have a heart for art but I’d never profess to having a head for figures; numbers – & adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing them, has always filled me with a sort of pathological, gut-wrenching fear. And now I would have to learn how to do just those sort of calcuations, which I have largely managed to avoid since ‘skool’, all over again.
That said, the first day’s maths were mercifully straightforward; & with Tony patiently supervising my attempt at the day’s homework I gained substantially in confidence. And yes, I did say homework, even with a 6.30pm finish each evening – but then it is a remarkably comprehensive & intensive course!
Our evening meal was quite simply, superb. Gianpaulo hosted us for dinner, taking the UK contingent along with Richard & the other ‘Brit’ on the course – Emily from Nottingham – to a wonderful trattoria in a village near Bologna. The first course consisted of cold meats, cheeses served with a dish of pickled vegetables & olives served with hot, deep-fried puffed-up pockets of flatbread: quite delicious. For a second course we enjoyed four different types of pasta – a spaghetti served with tasty sauce; cheese-filled, plump parcels of tortelloni; exquisitely tasty little tortellini; & a rich lasagne, washed down with excellent glasses of robust red wine from the local vineyard.
Tony & I, naturally opted to sample a simple plate of Italian cheeses as our final course. We revelled in a fine, pineappley Grana Padano; a type of Parmesan which when lightly sprinkled with a good balsamic vinegar, is truly a taste marriage made in organoleptic heaven. Its brittle, close-grained texture belied the intensity of its rich creaminess, bursting with the sweet, intoxicating flavours of fresh milk & lush grass. There was an exquisitely ripe Taleggio, its citrussy, fruity aroma permeating the pink-&-orange blush of the rind whilst the almost-oozing, ivory interior melted on the tongue with lingering, luscious creaminess. And a plump portion of piquant Pecorino Toscano – the best I’ve ever tasted – was the final member of the cheesy triumviate to grace the plate; its sharp, salty flavour tingling the tastebuds & bringing the edible part of the meal to a wholly satisfying conclusion.
A slug of typically alarming, double-strength espresso with a warming measure of mature grappa spirit, woke us up to the reality that it was in fact now late in the evening, & it was time to hasten to the hotel for the reward of a good night’s sleep, secure in the fact that for once we’d been good children & had done our homework.