I found myself nervously chewing at the end of the already flea-bitten pencil.
Checking & re-checking the previous evening’s homework, & doing some ‘prep’ for the day’s impending exams, I found my anxiety levels rapidly rocketing: an already sleepless night compounding classic symptoms of a dry mouth, bumping heart, wobbly knees etc etc.
I’d even attempted balancing one of the examined recipes to calm myself down – a Gianduia: that lusciously, seductively rich hazelnut-&-chocolate gelato; however I’d only provoked myself into feeling even worse as I was missing essential values for some of the key ingredients, thus my results had proved frustratingly inconclusive.
After a cheery but sadly final, leisurely continental breakfast with our fellow UK coursemates, on returning to the University we first ploughed through some last-minute but very useful tidbits of information: the Gelato Base Abaci; with a different abacus for each of the three important essential mix combinations, demonstrating how much surprising potential flexibility there is to each basically pre-prepared mix.
Gianpaulo solemnly handed out our ‘workhorse’ aprons, ready for the first exam – sorbetto. The tension in the classroom was almost unbearable as he painstakingly considered which recipe to allocate to each group, playing with his anxious students as a cat would a mouse – but also, we appreciated, as a Master Chef who knows his art, his ingredients & their ultimate potential. After many moments of nail (& more pencil!)-biting tension, we were allocated a big bowl of freshly-peeled & squeezed Blood Orange fruit & juice (which could be a delight or a nightmare, depending on how we handled it – & we were rightly given no clue as how to do so) using just the fundamentals of ripe, fresh fruit.
I have to say, I do heartily approve of the Italian practical exam system! Before even donning said aprons, we tensely relaxed with a cup of coffee before rolling up our sleeves & bravely balancing our recipe attempts.
Then it was a question of judging the strength of the fruit we were using – was it strong, medium, or light in flavour? It’s crucial to get this right, because it affects the relative proportions of liquid to fruit pulp & can lead to either triumph, or disaster.
Having drawn our conclusions we rapidly balanced the recipe; after which Tony was all for pressing on ahead & immediately weighing the ingredients to make our sorbet. However; to me, this wasn’t a race to see who could produce their sorbet in the shortest time; but rather, who could craft the finest taste, texture & overall edible pleasure.
Long experience in kitchen & dairy has taught me that Tony’s wholly vigorous, no-nonsense, science-based approach is not necessarily the wisest: as I’d pointed out to him, regardless of the maths which Gianpaulo has painstakingly drilled into us, the ‘maestro’ himself was alive with sensory receptors: throughout the course constantly sniffing, prodding & tasting the fruit & other ingredients he would be using; & actively encouraging us to do just the same. So I insisted that once we’d blended the fruit pulp, we should at least taste it in its’ raw form if not even earlier (unfortunately we had no peel available for full organoleptic assessment).
Thankfully Coursemate Ina, a budding Gelatiere from Greece who was appointed third member of our modest triumvirate, entirely agreed with my ‘syrupticious’ (ho ho) surmising: thus Tony’s scientific vote was thankfully overruled; & the female instinctive taste perception thankfully won over as the order of the day.
After all, our ultimate goal was to produce a sorbet as faithful to the fruit’s original flavour as we could manage. On slipping a spoon into the unctuous, titian-tinged liquor we found that the pulp was superbly sweet with a wonderful, citrussy tang that delicately balanced the fruit’s fragile sugar. We concluded we would have to be extremely cautious when & if we added any sort of sweetening, in order to ensure we didn’t overdo it & insult that lovely, lusciously ripe fruit.
Following the balance we’d theorised, natural sugar & natural stabilisers were added & blended; concluded of course, by another thoughtful tasting session in spite Tony’s irrepressible enthusiasm to whallop the whole mix straight into the batch freezer.
Thank goodness our caution had proved the overwhelming order of the day! To our immense disappointment, our mix was slightly but neverthless definitely more sugary than we’d anticipated; & whilst this would certainly pass muster in the Italian market which accepts a sweeter tooth, it probably wouldn’t enjoy such favour in either UK or Greek markets.
So, how could we remedy the situation? The squeezing of a couple of fresh lemons later, we tasted the mix again – thankfully, this time, deliciously perfect; with just the right balance of acid to sweet that you’d desire in a classical sorbet. We poured it into the batch freezer, & I tentatively pressed the freeze-churn button….& away our examination ‘paper’ went.
A few minutes later Tony was carefully & artistically scooping the resultant, beautiful sorbet into a pre-chilled Napoli pan; ensuring it looked utterly, irresistably, gorgeous – because taste is not the only sense with which people purchase: after all, you see the product before you sample the flavour!
The colour was amazing: a deep, coralescent pink; reminiscent of the magnificent sunsets we enjoy over the mountains across which our lovely Ffarm gazes to the Western coast of Wales. And then – ooerr – came the critical taste test……
Wow. Nectareous, honeyed orange fruit burst onto the tongue & tingled the tastebuds, making the palate thirst for more of the sweet citrus; yet so creamy it could almost be mistaken for gelato though with that true taste of the pure fruit, to which we had so longingly aspired to do justice. We could hardly believe we had created such a wonderful sorbet, & Tony’s eyes shone with excitement & delight at this culinary triumph.
Other flavours appeared in the cabinet: pear; grapefruit; marinated strawberry; pineapple; & melon. The sorbets’ effervescent tinctures were dazzling; a vibrant rainbow array which when you consider not one flavour contained any artificial additives or colouring whatsoever, was wonderfully amazing. Will’s melon sorbet had a delicate, pale-apricot blush; whilst the pineapple blazed sunrise gold in the far corner of the cabinet. And Bran’s grapefuit was almost ghostly in its’ pearlescent hue.
All were of superior taste & texture, far better than any sorbet we’d ever sampled at home. But not only were the flavours, tantalisingly toothsome; it was the seductively silken sorbetto texture which singularly impressed me; with its light, luscious creaminess – no hint of the crunchy, sub-standard & almost granita ice that we now resignedly expect in the UK. So I’m delighted to report we all passed the sorbet exam with above-average scores…..which is no mean feat in Italy, home of the world’s finest iced desserts.
Lunch was something of a quasi-celebratory affair; as we approached the now not-so-dreaded gelato exam with a sense of growing confidence: spirits were high, & the water flowed like wine (it was still an exam after all – & we weren’t chancing anything!). Plump parcels of cheesy, handmade fresh tortelloni were dressed with a rich tomato sauce although for the coursemates at least, portion control was the order of the day – we were already waddling with the vast quantities of sorbet we’d consumed!
Back at the Lab, I caught up with Carpigiani’s Floor Manager, Lorenzo, whom we’d met earlier in the week; & who had been escorting visitors around the premises. He excitedly advised me he’d tried our Blood Orange sorbetto – & thought it was wonderful. From a man who really knows his stuff, this was praise indeed – from this alone, Tony positively bounced into the cloud of the challenging Gelato Exam.
Back in the lecture theatre, Gianpaulo allocated gelato flavours to the groups of nervous students. Our anxious huddle was given hazelnut: deceptively simple, if you literally do just what it says, ‘on the tin’ – but a potential disaster if you are that innocently naïve!
Sturdy tins of thick umber, pure paste of hazelnut are used to concoct the confection; however, the freshly-pulped nuts are high in fat; & if we’d literally just applied the recommended amount along with only the sugars in the white base mix we were using, we’d end up with a gelato with the scoopable qualities of the rock which our on-site team were still grimly gouging from the ground back at our much-missed Ffarm.
Being pulped from young, tender nuts from Italian hazel groves, our paste proved already surprisingly sweet. The only way to balance the high fat was by adding sugar, which would make the resulting gelato unpalatably sickly. So on tasting the mix, we opted to use dextrose as a softening balance – which would not increase the overall sweetness. I blended the ingredients using the ultimate in supported stick blenders; surely one of the best in its’ class with touch-sensitive controls, three heads for loose pulping, fibre extraction & fine blending; & able to reach speeds of 1200rpm. Even with the mounted support it was quite heavy & took a fair bit of ‘welly’ to operate – but well worth every penny (not that we can afford one, alas!) – another bit of excellent Carpigiani kit.
Once again the gelato mix was poured into the newly-cleaned batch freezer; & again it churned away for agonizing minutes until the finished gelato was ready. And it was lovely: again, the pleasing burst of flavour on the tongue, followed by a lingering, luscious creaminess without ‘clag’, & no unpleasant excessive coldness in the mouth. The delicious taste of sweet hazelnut was complemented by the rich, pale-chocolate colouration; I’m really looking forward to trying this recipe at home using fresh, pulped hazelnuts from our own hedgerows next Autumn. And with our own lovely goats’ milk spared grudgingly from my cheesemaking, I’m sure a toasted hazelnut flavour would be sheer gelato heaven…..roll on the days of mists & mellow fruitfulness.
However, for our highly critical tastebuds, this gelato proved just a little to sweet; not that we could have added lemon juice to this mix, as the acid would have curdled the milk. Gianpaulo was genuinely disappointed that we were not entirely satisfied; because in any Italian Gelateria, this would apparently pass muster alongside with the best.
We concluded that in future it would be the amount of sugar in the original white base which would have to be dropped, putting this morning’s abacus lesson to good use; or alternatively we would need to use a paste which was made with larger, older nuts containing a lower percentage of natural sugars. So we were thankfull that Gianpaulo was full of praise; delighting us with his comment that it would be wholly at home in the cabinets of Italy’s top Gelateries. But there again, we have been trained by the best….so all credit due to Master Gelatiere Valli.
The other examined groups’ flavours were mint; coffee; Gianduia (hazelnut & chocolate); & yogurt banana. The latter was especially impressive as only the previous day we’d learned how to conjure up a delicious, full-fruit basic banana gelato; this exam however took considerably more skill but with all due credit to Bran & Emily, they crafted a superlative result: good, fresh banana flavour but with much more body & texture than the basic gelato (chef’s tip – using more mature bananas; or especially the small, Sri Lankan red bananas, would yield not only exceptional taste but also health benefits for you consummate foodies out there!).
The coffee gelato, produced by the German Gelatieres who’d sadly had to leave early to catch their flight home – proved absolutely gorgeous; yet ridiculously simple to make (once the recipe has been properly balanced, as they did, that is). It’s a shame that coffee is a less-favoured flavour in the UK; considering how much caffeine we consume with the ever-growing popularity of Italian-style coffee houses. So hopefully the trend will improve……
Meanwhile, back at the University’s ‘Examination Lab’, the resultant Gianduia Gelato certainly tasted utterly sublime; but became over-soft, quite quickly; however this could perhaps have been remedied with a spell in the blast chiller & the Napoli pan in which said gelato resided, allocated a suitably chillier position in the display cabinet. But its’ rich colour, & the balance of hazelnut & chocolate, were art to discerning tasebuds.
The mint however, proved excessively sweet; & although of good texture & excellent scooping quality, it had an extremely cold mouthfeel – difficult problems to overcome.
After getting stuck in to help faithful ‘sidekick’ Lorenzo clean up the laboratory, the fateful hour had arrived to discover whether or not we’d ‘cut the mustard’ & could graduate as fully-qualified, professional Gelatieres Artigianales; or whether any dreaded resits were required; or – heaven forbid – there were any failures…..
Thankfully, we were all overjoyed to learn all our course members had romped home with well above-average scores; so we could now hold our heads high amongst the finest Gelatieres Artigianales in the world – what an accolade.
We received our graduation certificates, feeling justifiably proud. It had been a fantastic course; not only had we learned & mastered the art – & science – of perfect sorbetto & gelato (the Rolls Royces of frozen desserts); we’d also made many, lifelong friends with whom we mutually share this hot passion for living in the freezer!
On returning to the hotel, it was decided that a graduation party was surely the order of the day! Day Four, & the Coursemates en masse retired to the bar….to pass an evening of lively convivality together; before bidding each other farewell & going our seperate, international ways. But the world is such a small place, after all – especially when you share such devotion for the art of finest food.
Too euphoric & too exhausted to head into the previously unchartered territories of Bologna’s suburbian trattorii at this late hour, Tony & I opted for a modest Valentine’s Day celebratory meal in the adjacent restaurant: to be honest, after all that fine gelato, we only had sufficient stomach to tackle a simple but delicious dish of spaghetti served with fresh-cooked clams & mussels; followed by a pleasing platter of fresh fruits & local cheeses.
Sleep came as such a relief after such a stressful, intensive course: but oh, it was so very, very, worthwhile: I cannot begin to express how much it has expanded my knowledge & appreciation of dairying; & especially Tony’s overall enthusiasm for, & involvement in, our cherished business. We owe the staff at Carpigiani UK; those at Bologna’s Gelato University; & especially my Mum & Dad who made it all happen for us, a huge debt of wholehearted appreciation.
“Thank You”; “Grazie Mille”; or “Diolch am Fawr” could simply never express enough, our heartfelt gratitude to you all.
And now Tony is waxing lyrical about attaining the intensely gruelling, ultimate accolade: that of eventually gaining his qualification of Master Gelatiere….phew.