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October 17, 2010

Gelato University

It all started when a few people forwarded me a TIME Photo Essay of Gelato University, probably because I've been joking about abandoning the tech industry and opening up my own ice cream stand for awhile now. I actually love my job at Google, but I think everyone has some outlandish alternate aspiration they toy with, regardless of how happy they are doing what they're doing.

So back in March, I attended 3 days of personal gelato training at Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy with Gelato Maestro Gianpaolo Valli. Because if you're going to take precious vacation time to pay a lot of money to go make gelato, you go to a city that knows what it's doing and you get a man with a fancy Italian name and title to tell you what to do.

Maestro Gianpaolo Valli teaching about sorbettos.
On the first day, I learned about the history of gelato, how gelato differs from ice cream, and then essential food chemistry about how to make a basic recipe fall somewhere in the rich creamy middle between sweet syrup and a block of ice. And then I learned how to actually make it delicious and the perfect consistency. In the afternoon, I put lecture to practice and made 5 milk based gelatos. My favorite was the pistacchio gelato, which was made from a basic milk recipe and pistacchio paste, which has the strongest and most wonderfully rich smell. For homework, I had to create 3 gelato recipes given some ingredient limitations, and also assess the quality of a recipe and fix proportions if something was wrong. This University thing was no joke!

Day 1: Chocolate, Pistachio, Fior di Latte, Torroncino, and Banana gelato. 
On day 2, I learned all about fruit gelatos. The key to the best fruit gelato is to use the ripest and freshest fruit possible. And that my friends, is the secret key to wonderful gelato. There is no special serum or drops of virgin blood; just ripe, seasonable fruit, and as much of it as you can afford. And one takeaway from this trade secret is that if you see gelatos in unnaturally bright colors, there is a good chance something cheap and unnatural is going on. How many bananas have you seen that are actually yellow?

Day 2: Strawberry, Kiwi-Banana, Pineapple, and Lemon gelato.
On my final day, we graded my homework from day 2 (make a watermelon gelato and rewrite two recipes given different ingredient restrictions) and learned about hot and cold flavor infusion. I did a hot infusion on a basic yellow custard base with lemon, vanilla beans, espresso and coffee beans, and nutmeg, and a cold infusion of fior de latte (milk base) with mint and a cold infusion of pineapple gelato with basil. I could definitely detect each of the infused flavors, but the mint was my favorite. I would never order mint from a shop, but the flavor was so subtle and refreshing in the final gelato that I took a scoop on top of my obligatory tasting spoonfuls. The basil pineapple was a bit strange, but also refreshing.

Me binning my mint infused fior de latte gelato.
I was invited to come back on the 4th day to sit in on one of the advanced lectures (making gelatos from alcohols). I also elected to take a final exam for the Beginner and Intermediate course, even though I hadn't technically finished all of the Intermediate material. Each class is supposed to separately take 3 days, but since I was alone, we got through more material quicker. That and I'm a total fraction and chemistry whiz. I was left alone in a room with a pencil, calculator, and a full cabinet of gelato behind me. The beginner exam was simple, but I struggled with a bunch of the Intermediate questions: pasteurization process details for different bases, recipe impacts based on different sweetening agents, serving temperatures, how certain flavor pastes impact the freezing temperature, and more. Gianpaolo graded my exam, and even though I got a few wrong... I passed!

Gelato University gelato cups.
Gianpaolo gave me a refractometer as a gift, and then I took my final cup of gelato and bussed back to Bologna with Loic, who came to taste my creations and take some pictures. Overall, I had a really fun time (more pictures here). I learned quite a bit about the gelato industry intermixed between the recipe lectures and gelato making. Gianpaolo has worked as a consultant to help open gelaterias all over the world, both high and low-end, and adapted to fit the cultural and economic climate of the city. I told him that I wasn't  immediately interested in making this a business, so he kept that part of our class light, but most people that come to Carpigiani are serious about taking their skills into a new career, and I met an Irish man and Brazillian woman taking a semifreddo class that held those ambitions. For me, it was really just fun for a week, but I did get an important glimpse into how hard and tedious it must be to own and run a quality gelateria, where the typical day means waking up at 6am so that your cabinet of flavors will be ready for an early afternoon opening. And then doing that all again every day, forever. It will be difficult to reproduce the recipes or practice the skills I learned in Gelato University because I won't have access to the state of the art, industrial grade, way-too-far-out-of-my-price-range machines. So for now, I'm going to stick to eating gelato, which is a skill I'm keen on perfecting.
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