Creamy, cold, and churned up into myriad flavours: you might be forgiven for thinking that ice-cream and gelato are the same. Surely, “gelato” is just Italian for ice-cream, and a word that infuriating foodies throw about to seem in the know. But you’d be very, very wrong. It’s infinitely better.
Just like Italians have trumped Brits when it comes to better cocktails, salads and mastering practically every carbohydrate in existence from bread to potatoes, they’ve even had it right all along when it comes to churned up milk and cream. The Romans did, after all, invent the stuff. And as more and more gelatarias pop up across the country and Waitrose – where else? – has become the first UK supermarket to stock Italian gelato in its stores, it’s just a matter of time before the dessert will be something as familiar as our old friend Mr Whippy. As Alex Beckett, global food and drink analyst at the Mintel forecasting agency who is an authority on ice-creams and its sub-categories like gelato and sorbet, excitedly confirmed to The Independent: gelato is set to topple ice-cream as the UK’s favourite frozen treat.
So, here are the key differences between the two, which are important to know if you want to enter the year of the gelato like a true pompous foodie.
Gelato contains more milk than cream, making it freeze at a lower temperature and taste cooler, lighter and, arguably, more refreshing. Churned slower than ice-cream, it is more dense and has a more intense flavour. According to Maggie Rush, the president of the Ice Cream Alliance, the ingredients and the fact that it contains less air than ice-cream means it also has a short shelf life and generally must be sold the same day that it is made. As gelato must be produced in smaller batches, this makes it ripe for experimentation with the highest quality ingredients, from sweet lychee, to figs, black olives, and wasabi.
It’s this combination of gut-busting variety and powerful flavours brought together in a cooler, denser dessert, that has me so hooked that I’ve found myself shunning a crisp glass of white wine in a dimly-lit bar for the bright lights of dessert parlours and their dinky tubs of gelato. Just last week on a balmy July evening at the food market near my house, I passed the bar and headed straight to the gelato stand without a second thought, as if pulled to it by an invisible force.
Intense pistachio. Moreish black sesame. Bitter coffee. Creamy stracciatella. My head was swimming with the possibilities. Two hours later, my friend and I left. But I hadn’t even had a snifter of wine, and she, disappointed by the knock-off Aperol spirtz she was served, abandoned the full glass on the table. The gelatos, on the other hand, were demolished in minutes, in a flurry of groans, moans and eye rolls.
And I’m not alone in forging a new love affair with the dessert. Gelatos beautifully presented like roses or pressed into gourmet waffle cones are popping up across social media, gelatarias are opening up across the country from Swoon in Bristol, to Badiani at the Mercato Metropolitano in London, and the newly-refurbished Unico in the capital which offers delicious vegan takes on favourites like moody dark chocolate. Google searches for the term have reached their highest ever point in the UK. All of this is great news for someone like me who has a habit to prop up.
“The quality of the gelato on offer in the UK is increasing and people are enamoured by the discernible flavour of gelato, which is less ‘diluted’ than ice-cream,” says Charlotte Vile, a spokeswoman for the Nationwide Caterers Association.
This, says Beckett, taps into the overall demand for healthier, artisanal, “craft” foods containing ingredients with an engaging story of provenance… and all the other buzzwords that make something a surefire hit these days.
“We are on the cusp of gelato becoming mainstream,” says Beckett. “There is a latent understanding that it is high quality. It’s just that supermarkets are so competitive it’s hard for brands to break through into retail.” He says once a global manufacturer like Unilever takes the plunge, gelato will be everywhere.
“We know that alcohol consumption is declining and people still want their treats. Ice-cream is one of the biggest treat foods out there. Millennials want to pay out for quality and authentic foods that have a clean label with fewer ingredients,” he adds. “Ice-cream struggles in UK, but in the US gelato has been its saviour. We expect to see the same thing happening here.”
For Jacopo Cordero di Vonzo, the founder of Remeo, the Italian gelato snapped up by Waitrose and Ocado, it’s not just data that plays into why he decided to bring gelato to the UK, but a bit of raw, carnal desire.
“We are convinced that Gelato is a better product than ice-cream – tastier, healthier, sexier,” he tells The Independent. “In the last five to ten years gelato has grown enormously in US and Brazil so we expect this to happen in the UK as well, and we are seeing this already.”
Established gelaterias are already noticing a difference in sales. “Our sales continue to grow year on year and if you needed any evidence to support that you just have to look at the queues that form outside our shop,” says Owen Hazel, the co-owner of Jannettas in St Andrews, which has been open for over 100 years. “Where once our customers waited perhaps five to ten minutes they sometimes, during peak periods, have to wait 40 minutes.”
“I think the Brits are now embracing gelato,” adds Jon Adams, who founded Brighton’s Gelato Gusto in 2012. “I think in general people today are more discerning about the food they eat. Brighton in particular is a very foodie city and people appreciate the fact that we are an artisan producer making small batches of fresh gelato and sorbetto each day above the shop and they are willing.” Meanwhile, Swoon in Bristol says it has seen as 43 per cent rise in sales up on last year.
Gelato, it seems, is set to explode in popularity across the UK. But there’s just one small problem to solve before it becomes embedded in British culture like it is in Italian, says Adams: “it would also be helpful if we had a little more sunshine.”