Perhaps the gods punish us for our shallowness. We assume the beautiful stranger will be charming (he won’t), that the stylish chair will be supremely comfortable (it isn’t), that the vibrant heaps of gelato will taste as good as they look.
Ada Palmer knows better. A professor of Renaissance history at the University of Chicago who moonlights, simultaneously, as an author of science fiction and a gelato aficionado, Palmer can spot good gelato from five metres away. And, as the click-baiters say, the secret may surprise you.
For a start, those teetering towers are already a bad sign. “They’re mouth-watering,” Palmer acknowledges, but they’re made possible by stabilising additives that spoil the taste. Natural, unadulterated gelato “is fundamentally a liquid, a slow-moving liquid. At a really good gelato place, gelato will never be more than an inch or two over the top of the bin.”
While we’re at it, the glossy colours are also ill omens. “The best fruit gelato is made of nothing but crushed fruit, milk and sugar,” says Palmer. The colour of the fruit gelati should therefore be close to that of the crushed fruit, which isn’t always appetising: at its best, banana, for example, should be “a nasty greyish brown”.
One of Palmer’s top tips is to order the purest, subtlest flavour available. The ideal here is the Italian fior di latte, which is nothing but milk and sugar. Subtle flavours reveal the true quality of the gelateria’s milk, and leave no way to hide the use of additives. (Consequently, outside Italy, the mere availability of fior di latte signals great confidence and so, presumably, high quality.) This does not detract from the flavour’s excellence in its own right. “In an odd way, milk is very viscerally delicious,” says Palmer. “The very first positive feedback we learn from our brains in life is milk equals good.”
Palmer’s qualms about additive-heavy gelato are not ideological, but related to the properties that differentiate gelato from standard ice cream. Ice cream is made with salt, and is typically 14-25% fat; gelato has no salt, and is only 4-9% fat. The consequences of that small difference for gelato economics – gelatonomics – are surprisingly radical.
“Fat and salt hide other tastes really well,” explains Palmer, “hence we put them in everything.” That’s why additives that would spoil a gelato can’t be tasted in your ice cream. “Gelato is naked ingredients instead of clothed ingredients, so you can see all the imperfections in it.” More broadly, “mediocre milk, mediocre taste can be covered by the flavour elasticity of ice cream’s ingredients.” Ice cream, then, has its own area of excellence: loud, complex concoctions, where “one of the goals is to seem decadent and overwhelming.”
Due to the lack of salt and fat, gelato doesn’t keep. Both ice cream and gelato are made of liquids melded into “millions upon millions of tiny shards of ice”, says Palmer, “so tiny that they form a soft mass when they are together. Over time, those tiny shards of ice change shape and form larger shards, which is why ice cream and gelato become gritty. The process is slowed down by fat molecules and salt, so gelato will go through that process much faster than ice cream.”
That is why a good gelateria needs to start from scratch each morning, while ice cream can be kept and sold more slowly and why gelato needs to be made in or near the gelateria, while ice cream can be produced at a central location and distributed to multiple outlets. In economic terms, the fixed costs for gelato are high – entire batches of multiple flavours need to be made daily, whether or not they sell out – so more customers are needed to achieve profitability, which can be hard outside Italy. Americans, says Palmer, “associate ice cream strongly with childhood, indulgent outings, summer. We don’t think of it as an ordinary thing we would stop and go to, like going to a coffee shop.”
Sadly for American gelato lovers, there’s one more way that national economic conditions are stacked against their access to lactic happiness. “Our grocery-store models are so different,” says Palmer. “In Europe they have tiny stores on every corner that you go to every day, while the American model is giant grocery stores where you buy a gallon of milk” once a week. The entire dairy agriculture system is geared around those retail differences. “Can you get superior milk in the US? Absolutely, but you have to get it from farms or community-supported agriculture. It’s five times as expensive as equivalently good milk in Italy. That drives up the cost of producing good gelato.”
But there’s no cause for despair. The good news from Palmer is that even second-rate gelato can be delicious – as long as you make the right choices. In the same way a low-quality burger can be made satisfying by smothering it with tasty garnishes, the trick to a happy experience at a bad gelateria is to plump for strong, shelf-stable flavours – chocolate, lemon – that can mask the milk quality and additives. It might not be the crème de la crème, but even a bad gelato can sweeten up your day.
Perhaps the gods take pity on us, after all.