The thing about ice-cream, as any chef will tell you, is that it's a great carrier. That silky, creamy, refreshingly cold substance is one of the most seductive vehicles in the world to transport flavour molecules to our taste receptors. Gelato, being even lighter in texture, is even more enticing.
As a result, our favourite icy treats have become great carriers of trends. Salted caramel is on the up? It's turned into gelato before you can say "two scoops please". Chefs are falling in love with white chocolate and peaches, elderflower, or fennel pollen? Bingo, they're on a cone. Gorgonzola is trending? You'll be able to lick it by end of day.
There's an array of wild and wacky flavours that go way, way beyond vanilla and chocolate, and chart the past, present and future of gelato.
At Il Laboratorio del Gelato in New York City, popular flavours range from rose petal to cheddar cheese. Heather Bertinetti, pastry chef of New York's Marea restaurant, told the Wall Street Journal: "If it can be pureed, it can be made into a gelato flavour."
In Sydney, Gelateria Messina puts that statement to the test every day. If they want to make apple pie gelato, for instance, they actually bake an apple pie, then break it up and churn it, rather than trying to approximate the flavour from bottles of syrup.
Likewise, at the new N2 Extreme Gelato in Sydney's Chinatown, flavours range from banana and peanut crumble to Chinese cough syrup and buttered popcorn, using the genuine articles rather than a laboratory of chemicals.
Gorgonzola is trending? You'll be able to lick it by end of day.
The difference is that owner Min Chai uses liquid nitrogen to blast-freeze the infused flavours to order, so freshness is guaranteed.
But N2 Extreme Gelato is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to gelato technology. At renowned chef Ferran Adrià's beautiful Hacienda Benazuza just outside Seville in Spain (which he opened as a sort of archival restaurant for the late, great El Bulli restaurant, number one in the world for several years), gelato and ice-cream and ice all get turned upside down in the pursuit of technical innovation.
There is a deconstructed frozen, piña colada, a whisky sour ice block, and Adrià's ice ravioli, made by sandwiching a blob of corn caramel between two frozen, transparent sheets of apple water. When held up to the light, it looks like an x-ray of a ravioli. Placed on the tongue, it melts away into sweet nothingness. It's not ice-cream as we know it, but almost a scientific experiment on ice, held by a chef.
But who said ice-cream had to be sweet? Some top restaurants are now serving savoury ice-cream. There's Frank Camorra's smoked tomato sorbet perched on a salty Cantabrian anchovy, on a crisp croute of toast at MoVida (in both Melbourne and Sydney), and Tetsuya Wakuda's cheeky chilled pea soup with bitter chocolate sorbet at Tetsuya's in Sydney.
At Taxi Dining Room in Melbourne, Tony Twitchett tops oysters with baby scoops of ginger, pear and white balsamic sorbet, and Cory Campbell sends out Jerusalem artichoke ice-cream with crisps made of the same vegetable at Vue de Monde.
Alvin Leung, self-proclaimed "demon chef" at Hong Kong's Bo Innovation, recently created a Vegemite ice-cream in honour of the Margaret River Gourmet Escape food festival in Western Australia.
When I asked him if it was designed to be sweet or savoury, he simply answered "yes". The audience was receptive to the idea, but I wouldn't put any Hong Kong dollars on it going on his menu.
Savoury gelato might sound a bit cheffy, but it's a good thing to do at home. Gently float a refreshing cucumber sorbet, for instance, in a spicy, chilled gazpacho soup, or serve a spicy gazpacho sorbet with cucumber and mint on a hot summer's day. (Here's the recipe in case you feel inspired.)
Ice-cream can also be as much a carrier of national pride as flag-waving. Hence patriotic Singaporean gelato-maker Stanley Kwok of Island Creamery came up with a Tiger Beer sorbet and a teh tarik ice-cream inspired by the frothy "pulled tea" of the local Malay-Indian tradition.
In Tuscany, reports Conde Nast Traveller, Ignazio Morviducci of Gelateria Toscana in Siena, wanted to highlight the ingredients that represented his region. Hence pecorino and pear gelato, panforte gelato (mmm, yes please), and a richy-rich gelato made from the area's famous extra virgin olive oil.
Alas, we are coming to the melting, drippy, sticky end of this four-part series looking at the past, present and future of the art and craft of gelato.
We've looked at one Australian's lifetime of icecream, from rainbow-coloured icy-poles to dining on Heston Blumenthal's egg-and-bacon ice-cream; we've used "crowd-sourcing" to compile a list of the best gelato in Australia; and we've explored 20 different things to do with gelato at home.
Now we've time for one last story about this magical icy treat.
In 2011, Brits Neil Peacock, Craig Brewitt and Gordon Fleming, who had all worked in security in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where temperatures easily soar to 40 degrees celsius, pooled their money to buy a second-hand ice-cream van.
They air-freighted it to the danger zone, hired (very brave) staff, and sent it out on the streets in a move Neil Peacock called "sticking two fingers up the Taliban".
The van can deliver up to 9000 ice-creams in a single week. British and US troops pay more than a pound for a scoop on a cone, thereby subsidising the local kids, who get their ice-creams free. "The response has been phenomenal," said Neil Peacock in Britain's Sun newspaper. "Everyone smiles when the van rolls by."
And that's the magic of gelato, ice-cream and all things deliciously icy – licked by millions, but never beaten.
Gazpacho sorbet with cucumber and basil (serves 4)
A refreshing starter to a summer lunch or dinner, teamed here with cucumber and basil. This is also lovely served with avocado, rocket and walnuts – or dropped into a bloody mary.
- 75g caster sugar
- 150ml boiling water
- 500g ripe tomatoes
- 200ml tomato juice
- 2 tbsp picked basil leaves
- half tsp sea salt
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- dash of Tabasco
- half cucumber, stripe-peeled
- freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Bring the sugar and water to the boil, stirring. Boil for a further minute, then allow to cool. Roughly chop the tomatoes and whiz in a blender with the sugar syrup, tomato juice, half the basil leaves, salt, vinegar and Tabasco. Strain through a sieve to catch the seeds and skin.
Churn in an ice-cream maker according to the manufacturer's instructions (usually about 20 minutes) until frozen, or freeze in a shallow container and stir to break up the crystals every hour for 3 hours. Store in the freezer, and transfer to the fridge for 10 minutes before serving, to soften slightly.
Slice the cucumber and scatter casually on each plate. Top with a scoop of gazpacho sorbet, drizzle with olive oil, scatter with pepper and basil leaves and serve.