The real boom of ice cream as a dessert occurred around the year 1500 in Florence at the court of the Medici. In fact, ice cream as we know it today was quite similar to what was served at the wedding feast of Catherine de Medici, queen of France and a distant cousin of Cosimo I, patron of the world-famous Uffizi Gallery.
Ancient sources on ice cream
To go back to the true origin of ice cream is quite complicated, and often legend and historical truth are confounded.
In a passage in the Old Testament, Abraham turns to his son Isaac, urging him to cool off by drinking juice made of goat’s milk mixed with snow. A greek poet who resided in Athens around 500 BC relates how the Greeks liked to prepare refreshing drinks made with lemon, honey, pomegranate juice, and of course, snow or ice.
Even Alexander the Great, during his conquests in India, demanded a continuous supply of snow to be consumed with honey, and that designated holes be dug in the ground for the purpose of preserving the snow.
The first to come up with a kind of ice cream like today’s version were the Romans: a recipe by Plinio il Vecchio shows how to mix crushed ice with honey and fruit juices.
According to some scholars, ice cream originated in the East, in China, about 3,000 years before Christ. During the Middle Ages, the recipe was perfected by the Arabs and in Sicily, famous today for its sorbets and ices.
Ice cream and Catherine de’ Medici
The real triumph of cold dessert occurred in the sixteenth century, after the discovery of America and the arrival on the continent of new varieties of fruits, spices, tea, coffee, cocoa. At the Medici court in Florence drinks similar to sorbets were served to guests.
Two Florentines changed the course of history and the recipe for ice cream. The first was Ruggeri, a Florentine seller of chickens, who once participated in a competition called “the most unusual dish you ever seen,” organized by the Medici, and won with his “frozen dessert.” From that day on Ruggeri became famous throughout the region.
It is said that when Catherine de’ Medici married Henri d’Orleans, the future King of France, she wanted Ruggeri to move with her to Paris to show French chefs that Italians were better at cooking.
It so happened that while many of the nobles wanted him in their palace, he was hated by the other cooks. Ruggeri could not bear this stress and decided to return to his first job at the chicken coop. Before leaving, however, he left to Catherine de Medici his recipe for ice cream.
Bernardo Buontalenti, the inventor of ice cream in Florence
Around the same time, Bernardo Buontalenti, an architect, sculptor, painter, and designer, worked at the grand-ducal court in Florence. One day, Buontalenti was tasked with organizing celebrations in welcome of Spanish guests of the Grand Duke. He staged theatrical performances and fireworks, but most importantly prepared a cream flavored with bergamot, lemons, and oranges, and chilled with a mixture of his own invention.
Historical records indicate that it was Bernardo Buontalenti who came up with the invention for keeping snow. They were underground rooms filled with cork and wood to collect water. From then on came the famous Florentine cream made with egg, the Buontalenti, and even eggnog.
The contribution of Buontalenti forever revolutionized the course of ice cream. In fact, thanks to milk and eggs, the taste of sweet cold suddenly became velvety, and ice cream was spread around the world in a thousand and one variations.
In honor of Bernardo Buontalenti an original ice cream flavor was invented and even named after him.
In fact, in 1979 the Florentine merchants organized a competition to remember Bernardo Buontalenti. The ice cream shop Badiani won the competition with a new recipe for ice cream. Since the name Buontalenti corresponds to a particular flavor of ice cream made from egg cream, the exquisite taste became famous with the locals and tourists.
Pictures by Gelato Festival.it and Wikipedia