Saturday, December 23, 2006

Chocolate gelato

AMBLED, YESTERDAY, with a friend, in search of chocolate gelato in our little town, and found it in four shops on the sides of our central plaza. I won’t identify the sources of the shops, because friend and I disagreed slightly, proving that chocolate gelato is after all a matter of taste (itself born of the uneasy mating of intuition and experience).

So here are the results, comparing six samples:

  • First attempt: sold as “gelato,” but badly mixed — grainy and almost waxy and very inconsistent from top to bottom of the scoop. Cheap chocolate flavor. (What does this mean? Well, thin, tired, lacking in complexity). So wrong that I actually took it back to warn the proprietor of the poor quality, precipitating an uncomfortable confrontation with a very defensive man who wanted to discuss it aloud at some distance. Was given as consolation

  • chocolate-port “gelato,” masking the poor quality of the chocolate with the harsh alcohol of equally cheap “port.” Not a pleasant experience.

  • Chocolate ice cream: not gelato but ice cream, dense and fairly rich with a decent texture.

  • “Mexican chocolate” ice cream, overwhelmingly cinnamon-flavored as those hard discs of Ibarra chocolate tend to be, but refreshing and energizing; again, a good texture.

  • Chocolate “gelato” made, I hear, in San Francisco, and trucked up here seventy miles away. A good chocolate flavor, rich and substantial, marred by an overly dense, rubbery texture, almost like taffy.

  • Chocolate “gelato” made here in Healdsburg by a local restaurant kitchen. Surprisingly lightweight chocolate flavor; inconsistent mix; very tired, stale-refrigerator taste.

  • None of this is important; it was only ice cream, after all. But it raises the intersection of a number of complex subjects, Chocolate and Gelato and Ice Cream and, of course, Taste. (A businessman would be quick to add others: Marketing and Economy and Consistency among them.)

    We’ve tasted a lot of ice cream and gelato, Lindsey and me (she was not the friend joining me on yesterday’s search, though she went along with it good-humoredly). The best ice cream I’ve ever eaten has been that that Lindsey has made, in a hand-crank freezer; for years she made it that way (though with a machine-cranked freezer, otherwise identical) at Chez Panisse. I still think she wrote the standard recipe for ice cream, in her Chez Panisse Desserts (still in print, thank you).

    The best gelato has been found three times: once in a memorable little stand in Capalbio at the southwestern corner of Tuscany; once at Gelato di San Crispino in Rome; always — always — at the remarkably consistent and always pleasant and attractive Pampanin in Verona. Well, of course those are all in Italy; gelato is an Italian experience.

    I must add to this list, of course, Mary Canales’s remarkable work at Ici in Berkeley — but Berkeley is also seventy miles distant.

    We’ve tasted a lot of chocolate, too. Some day perhaps I’ll write seriously about Chocolate, which is almost enough to make me believe in Divine Providence — surely chocolate is, with wine, one of the great gifts of life. (I don’t mean they should be taken together, of course, though some quite specific pairings can be very pleasant.)

    We tend to the dark and bitter chocolates. I like white chocolate, but it’s another thing altogether. Chocolate should, in my opinion, be dark and bitter, should tend more to the oily-unctuous than the waxy-brittle, should be deep and complex. I don’t care about all those specific flavor-adjectives: jammy, fruity, blackberry, and so on. I know they’re there, but adjectives are even more a matter of taste than are flavors. But dark and bitter, unctuous, deep and complex, that’s what I want, something that hits me immediately when I smell or taste it, that builds in my mouth, that keeps on saying something afterward, something pleasant.

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