Gelato Festival 2018

Gelato Festival 2018

By nature, I’m not a huge sports fanatic. Sure, I enjoy an occasional live sports event, like an action-packed basketball game. And of course I religiously attend my daughter’s soccer games, sitting quietly on the side line whispering to my neighbor “what does off-sides mean again?” But here is a competition I can really wrap my head around. Not to mention my tongue.

Last month was the opening of this year’s European Gelato Festival. Naturally, it took place in Florence, the birthplace of gelato. This isn’t just your typical Italian festival with revelers in the streets celebrating a patron saint, or a religious holiday, or the fact that it’s a Tuesday (I’m exaggerating, but there do seem to be plenty of excuses to celebrate in Italy). This festival is no mere party. The Gelato Festival is a serious competition.

Each year, the contest begins and ends in Florence’s picturesque Piazzale Michelangelo, an outdoor space up on a hill overlooking the city’s skyline. From there, the contest moves on to rounds in Rome, Turin, Milan, Berlin, Warsaw, London and Vienna before returning to the Renaissance city for the finals in September, where the top two from each city’s contest compete for the title of Europe’s best gelato maker.

Through the course of the contest, creative and talented artisans compete fiercely for our (the tasters’) approval. That’s right, we amateur gelato snobs get in on the action. The winners at each round are chosen by two panels, each with an equal voice: a panel of experts such as food critics and chefs and a panel consisting of whomever from the general public bought a ticket to attend that day. Though I’ve never attended, this sounds like a great deal. For about $10-15, you can sample several flavors of gelato, many of which are invented specifically for the competition, vote on your favorite and even learn about the secrets of this famous dessert in a gelato-making class.

The first ever Gelato Festival was held in Florence in 2010, drawing its inspiration from Ruggeri, the chicken farmer who is credited with inventing the sweet, frozen dessert. Although the European festival began only a few years ago in 2010, its success has inspired expansion elsewhere in the world. There’s now an American Gelato Festival, which runs largely the same way. And plans are underway for the Gelato Festival World Masters in 2021. As regional festivals act as playoffs for the World Masters event, the stakes have never been higher for the artisans who began their journey in Florence just a month ago.

We’ll have to wait until September to see who takes the European title this year. The 2017 top spot went to Massimiliano Scotti, an artisan from a parlor called Verolatte in the town of Vigevano near Milan. His flavor is called il mio primo vero latte (my first real milk). His ingredients are simply milk fresh from the cow, honey and rice from the Po Valley plantations in the hills of Northern Italy. His creation is described as “ice cream that takes you back to the gentle embrace of your mother’s arms.” Second place went to a flavor called “About Strawberry and Red Pepper” by Vincenzo Lenci of the Bar della Darsena ice cream parlor in Fiumicino. His wife is English (hence the English name), and the flavor was created for and dedicated to her because, apparently, “strawberry and peppers, in a harmonious contrast, are just like the personality of a woman.” I’m not sure what more to say about either of these flavor descriptions, so I’ll leave it there.

This next flavor didn’t win, but was an interesting finalist that proves this contest indeed is an international venture. The flavor is Creme dela Baklava by chef Akash Vaghela of London’s Creme Glacee ice cream parlor. I read that he created an ice cream that tastes of Baklava, a luxurious sweet dessert originating in Tunisia, enriched with decadent pistachio grains.

From the racy Italian creations to the exotic entry of the Londoner and beyond, all of the flavors I read about from last year’s festival sound amazing. I fully intend to be in the right place at the right time someday to catch a day of the annual traveling contest. In the meantime, I’ll just grab a scoop of my favorite peach flavor the next time I’m in Florence.

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