Much as we might hate to admit it, there are just some things the Italians are inherently better at than us Brits. Gorgeous artisan handbags for one, breathtaking ancient architecture for two, and thirdly, and perhaps most irrefutably: ice-cream! Or gelato, to be precise. More than just the Italian word for ice-cream, gelato is a style of ice-cream, consisting of a whole-milk base and a smooth, rich texture bursting with intense flavours; a culinary feat that’s won the nation its world-class reputation for iced desserts.

gelato 2So, when the “most important event in Italian gelato making”, the prestigious Gelato Festival, hit London last week, t! went along to get the full scoop (sorry!). Each year between July and September, the event tours Italy and Europe with its unique and world-first gelato flavours from the creme de la ice cream of Italian and foreign gelato makers – with the overall winner crowned winner of the 2016 European Gelato Awards. They were joined by a host of star-rated chefs and top gelato makers, each sharing their tips, tricks and traditions behind authentic gelato.

Having already toured Italy, last week it was London’s turn to enjoy the Festival at Old Spitalfields market, where visitors were treated to talks and masterclasses on subjects including Italian food and culture and female entrepreneurship, and the secrets behind Sicilian iced desserts. One of the stand-out events, which t! was lucky to attend, came courtesy of master gelato maker Paolo Pomposi, the winner of last year’s European Gelato Award. Visitors from all over the world flock to Florence to sample his world-famous Buontalenti gelato – a simple but delicious mixture of cream, egg yolks and sugar. His winning flavour ‘La Dolce Vita’, comprises a Buontalenti base, finished with a decadent chocolate sauce and chopped hazelnuts. A 45 minute masterclass on telling us the tips, tricks and secrets behind achieving his world-famous dessert.

So, first things first: what separates gelato from your bog-standard ice-cream? “The best, most important ingredient in any gelato recipe,” says Monica Costa, the session’s host, is “love and passion”.

Love, passion, and some top-notch ingredients, of course. Four to be precise: full-fat milk, sugar, eggs, dried milk powder and cream. After a brief introduction, Pomposi gets to work on his masterpiece. Resembling a wizened Willy Wonka, he starts by filling a cavernous metal bowl with half an industrial-sized bottle of full-fat milk, followed by a generous helping of sugar, which is then hand-whisked to form a rich, creamy mixture. Next in goes the star ingredient: dried milk, which gives gelato its famous butter-soft texture. Whereas many shop-bought ice creams use thickening agents to add texture, dried milk is a much lighter alternative.

Pomposi gives the mixture another quick whisk, before pouring it into an ice cream maker, where it’s left to churn for five minutes. The mixing process, as he explains, is crucial to achieving gelato’s dense, silky consistency. “There’s a fine line between butter and milk” Pomposi cautions, before explaining that the temperature needs to be alternated between hot and cool to avoid a disaster. He proceeds by heating up the mixture for a few seconds before dropping the temperature for several minutes to achieve a more dense texture.

But there’s still one vital ingredient missing. More milk? Nope, double cream, of course!  “I’m only adding a tiny bit” says Pomposi, before proceeding to tip in a litre-sized bottle. There’s method to his madness; while regular ice creams contain 20-25% cream, gelato comprises 50% cream, in order to obtain its divine creaminess.

After another brisk whisk, the mixture is fed into the churner for another 15 minutes, As the audience stares longingly at the grumbling machine, Pomposi distracts us with a tutorial on how Buontalenti is adapted into his award-winning La Dolce Vita. Once the mixing is complete, he explains, he will blend the salted caramel sauce into the gelato, as well as adding it as a base.

A few minutes later, and the wait is finally over. Off pings the gelato maker and out comes a sight that would put Mr Whippy to shame: thick, fluffy plumes of velvet-soft cream cascade out of the machine into the waiting tub. After dispensing lavish scoops of gelato in mini tubs, a proud Pomposi tops his creations with his world-famous sauce.

“Bellissimo!” proclaims the gelato wizard, proudly sharing his creation among the appetent audience.

The verdict? As a seasoned traveller to Italy, I’ve tried my fair share of gelatos, from to Venice to Florence – the birthplace of gelato – but this is by far the best: a velvet-smooth, melt-in-the-mouth texture and deliciously sweet vanilla-like flavour tinged with a satisfying hint of sea salt. With or without its caramel sauce, this is one dessert guaranteed to please all palates.

Huge congratulations to this year’s winners of the London Gelato Festival! Osvaldo Palermo was awarded first place with his ‘fiordipanna’ gelato, a mix of of caramel, dark chocolate and nuts. Simone Mancini’s Figued cappuccino, featuring a mix of coffee and figs, came second place. The outright winner of the European Gelato Festival 2016 will be announced at the Grand Final, which takes place in Florence on  1-4 September.  For updates on this exciting event, visit the Gelato Festival Facebook page.

The outright winner of the European Gelato Festival 2016 will be announced at the Grand Finale, which takes place in Florence on  1-4 September.  For updates on this exciting event, visit the Gelato Festival Facebook page.

Photos: © Aasritha Naidu