Italian ice cream

Food Explorer #5: A South African food scientist explores things Italian

Lisa Ronquest is one of South Africa’s top young food scientists, now transferred to The Netherlands in a global food R&D role by Mars. She’s been sharing her impressions and insights with FOODStuff SA readers in a regular column, and we’re proud here to publish the fifth of her essays on her big move. This time, Lisa enjoyed a late summer holiday in Northern Italy and all things prosecco, pasta, prosciutto and gelato…

WE decided to spend our first European summer in Italy – Lake Como and San Gimingano, Tuscany. It was a sensorial experience to remember from the sights and sounds of the gorgeous views across the lake, the majestic villas adorning the lake shore and bell towers ringing every hour. Not to mention the Italian cuisine and its delights for our taste buds!

Just like the ordinary collared shirt and fedora can be transformed by the average Italian man into an outfit that looks like he just stepped out of the pages of GQ, the everyday tomato, grape, olive, wheat flour, egg and milk has been turned over the centuries into the most simple and delicious foods such as ragu, fresh pasta, cheeses of all descriptions, virgin olive oil and wines. It’s no wonder Italy is renowned as one of the great gastronomic countries of the world.

An aperitif…

As we over looked Lake Como we’d make a point of toasting to the beauty with a bubbling glass of prosecco. Prosecco hails from the Veneto region in northeast Italy and differs from champagne in a number of ways. The origin and grape varieties are different for starters, with champagne coming from the Champagne region of France from grapes governed by bodies that oversee those areas, while prosecco is made primarily from the Glera grape.

The champagne method is far more intensive with secondary fermentation occurring in the bottle, while prosecco’s takes place in a stainless steel container. All these differences deliver a different flavour profile too and make prosecco a far more affordable option for the everyday consumer like me.

For mains…

Italian cuisine was truly introduced to the world in the 1960s when Italians moved to the United States. The cuisine at that stage was very regional. Many Italians from Sicily moved to the US where they found their disposable income increased dramatically and so more was spent on their food. This is when lashes of olive oil and cream were added to dishes that made them far more gourmet than they used to be back in Italy.

A wonderful story about the origins of Alfredo pasta starts from a restaurant in Rome, named after the owner, Alfredo. His wife was struggling to eat during her pregnancy so he made her a meal with fresh pasta, butter and parmesan and it had the desired results and became a popular dish. Many American actors visited Alfredo’s when they visited Rome and soon the recipe for this meal made it into a US cookbook under the name, Alfredo, and the rest, as they say, is history. Alfredo pasta is now a household name and a very mainstream meal for many nationalities around the world.

We made sure to select the best Italy has to offer when it comes to food and had a constant stock of salami, parma ham, prosciutto, prosecco, pasta, pecorino and parmesan. That is when the shops were open! We made the mistake of trying to stock up on suppliers over the sacred siesta time. Food shops close from 12:30pm to 3pm even over the busiest tourist and most lucrative time of the year. I simply couldn’t fathom it.

Shopping was fascinating. Representative of the Italian eating habits, there was a full aisle dedicated to pasta, in all its forms. There is pasta of every shape, size and format imaginable. Wholewheat, organic, mini versions of the original, pasta I have never heard of – Pappardelle and Pico – and even pasta made with red wine – Tagliatelle al Chianti!

As we strolled through the streets we were confronted with wild boar heads and drying boar haunches in various shop fronts. This is the art of prosciutto or parma ham making. It takes between nine months and three years to make prosciutto through a series of cleaning, salting, curing, washing and drying steps. The temperature at which it dries is of great importance to achieve the tender and distinct aroma and flavour of prosciutto.

And finally dolce/dessert…

Our first experience of gelato in Italy was one to remember. We were enticed into the gelateria by a glass display stand housing over-filled tubs of gelato of every colour and flavour. Overwhelmed by our options, we read out the flavour options to our five-year old twins, everything ranging from fruit, nut to chocolate and every mix inbetween. Needless to say, they said “Yes!” to all!

Forced to make a choice, I went for the straciatella. The first lick really was a completely different taste sensation, much creamier and denser than ordinary ice-cream. Everything I had hoped. The differences between Italian gelato and ice cream are slight, yet make all the difference in flavour and texture. Gelato is made with milk, sometimes skim-milk as opposed to cream which gives gelato a much lower milk fat content. Less milk fat allows the flavours of gelato to really stand out compared to the more blended flavours of ice cream. Gelato’s flavour is helped by the fact that it has less air whipped into it than ice cream, making it much denser.

So it’s delicious and the healthier choice – at least that’s what I told myself with a gelato-a-day becoming a regular holiday habit! Finally, while ice cream is normally served frozen, gelato is stored and served at a slightly warmer temperature so it’s not quite as frozen.

On returning to the Netherlands, we were out at a harbour festival and the kids were desperate for an ‘ijse’/ ice-cream. Recently spoilt by our Italian gelato-a-day holiday, I knew this was going to be a disappointment for them. So when I lifted Ella up to show her the ice cream cart, her first remark was, “Where are the flavours?” and then on eating, she was horrified to find a piece of ice in her ice cream. Dutch ice-cream is now no match to their new found ice-cream standards, I’m afraid.

About this column

Lisa Ronquest2Lisa Ronquest is currently Head of Product Development – Global Food R&D at Mars Inc, based in The Netherlands. The intention of this column is to be both a personal and professional account of a South African food scientist exploring life and work in a developed market.

You can contact her at [email protected].

Related reading:

Food Explorer #4: A South African food scientist explores Grolsch

Food Explorer #3: A South African food scientist explores chocolate in Belgium

Food Explorer #2: A South African food scientist goes shopping abroad

Food Explorer #1: A South African food scientist taking on a global R&D role