By Stefano Becheroni
The good season is getting closer. Time for sun, cold drinks, light clothes and, of course, gelati! Any tourist wondering through the Florentine beauties will soon discover that the Tuscan summer can be hot, really hot. This is how he will probably start looking -pretty desperately- for something refreshing, and this is how he'll reach the closest gelateria. If he is staying in an apartment, he will buy the biggest gelato cup available and will run to chuck it straight into the freezer. You wouldn't want to run out of gelato on a hot, Florentine summer night, would you?
Whatever his tastes, any tourist who is really interested in discovering the real Florentine traditions will choose the famous 'buontalenti'. This way, he will not only be refreshed, but he will also enjoy one of the tastiest inventions of the Florentine renaissance. As surprising as this may sound, the history of Florence and of gelato are strictly connected to one another. We are not so patriotic to say that gelato is entirely a Florentine invention. We are well aware that the Chinese, centuries before us, had already discovered how to keep and make ice, and that even more ancient populations, such as the Romans and the Greeks, used ice and snow to make fresh fruit squeez. These recipes became more complex over the centuries. The Greeks and the Persians used to make refreshing drinks based on honey, fruit and lemon. These recipes disappeared after the fall of the Roman Empire and appeared again in Europe thanks to the Arabs who had preserved them. This is how gelato (or better sorbetto, from the Arabic word sherbet, meaning sweet snow) arrived in Sicily and spread across Europe.
This is where the Florentines come into play. Thanks to their contribution, gelato reached its largest diffusion in the XVI century. A Florentine named Ruggeri was probably the first Italian gelataio to become an international star. This is how the story went. The Medici, the lords of Florence, decided to organise a competition amongst the Tuscan cooks to award the most talented one. They would award the cook who would create the most original dish. Ruggeri, a poultry merchant whose 'hobby' was cooking, won the competition with an ice cream-based dessert that drove the Florentine court literally crazy. The poultry merchant became so popular that Caterina de' Medici, who was about to get married, wanted him at her wedding banquet.
This is also how the recipe invented by Ruggeri, simply called 'sugar-flavoured and scented water', conquered the French. After a few years of glory and gelato in all flavours, Ruggeri decided that he had had enough. The Parisian cooks were jealous and he missed his previous, simple life. So he revealed his very secret recipe to Queen Caterina and went back to his poultry. There is no need to say that, thanks to Ruggeri's recipe, the gelato fashion spread all across Europe.
Florence had just begun producing its very famous gelatai. The most popular one, which is also known for other duties, was certainly Bernardo Buontalenti. Buontalenti lived between 1536 and 1608 and was a painter and a court architect who, amongst others works, completed Palazzo Pitti, the Uffizi gallery and the Boboli gardens, were he built the 'Grotta Grande', a masterpiece of painting, sculpture and architecture of the 'manieristic' period. Buontalenti, in perfect accordance with his surname (whose translation in English could be something like 'greatly talented' ) was so multiple-skilled that he was successful in many different disciplines. He was a urbanist as well as a court event manager, a plumber, a goldsmith, a ceramist, a scenographer, and theatre dresser. Amongst his many works, the Grotta grande is certainly one of the most famous.
Bernardo was a really great personality in the Florentine court life of that period and, amongst his many jobs, he was also a popular court banquet organizer-and we are talking about banquets attended by the most important people of that time. On one of these occasions he created something very special: a cream made of egg white, honey, milk, lemon and a drop of wine. The invention of this Florentine cr�me represented the birth of the modern gelato and distinguished it from the less tasty 'sorbet' or icicle.
Once in heaven, the eclectic Florentine artist must have smiled when, in 1979, the gelateria Badiani invented a new, tasty gelato flavour called... Buontalenti! The sweet memory of Bernardo's invention, preserved for over four centuries and until our days, still reminds us today of one of the most important talents and discoveries of the Florentine Renaissance.
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