Journalist and author, Luciana Polliotti has made critical contributions to restoring professional dignity to the figure of gelato artisan. I interviewed her myself, celebrating her “first” 70 years, carried lightly and with elegance as a true First Lady of Italian artisanal sweets.
Artisanal gelato is going through a period of intense transformations. Throughout the world it is developing in a thousand different ways. What future does Luciana Polliotti see for this wonderful Italian sweet?
I should have a crystal ball to answer this question, but I’ll try anyway. Most of the planet’s population knows nothing about traditional Italian artisanal gelato. Where it has been produced correctly it has found success. “Good” must be accompanied by “beautiful,” it must look as good as it tastes.
If we look beyond our Italian borders we find a huge market waiting for this product. The future, if we can analyse the present well, can be prosperous only if the whole artisanal gelato supply chain (ingredients, accessories, machines, and so on) continues to work well, producing excellent products and avoiding quick, easy solutions. It takes years to build an image and only minutes to destroy it.
The figure of an Italian-born gelato artisan is inexorably diminishing in gelato shops across Europe, particularly in Germany. The guarantee of an Italian businessperson has been surpassed by the times and globalization. Will the new artisans of various nationalities be able to maintain the tradition and quality of artisanal gelato?
We Italians have to lead the way. The only chance that we have not to lose tradition and quality is exporting gelato along with its culture, professionally training the new gelato artisans. It doesn’t matter where they are from, anybody can become an excellent gelato artisan, as long as they are trained and kept up to date by Italian instructors.
When I speak of culture I do not simply mean “making” gelato, which is obviously critical, but rather exporting a cultural model, a conception of working as a gelato artisan, which is a combination of alchemy, science, marketing, communication, and hygiene. Gelato’s history must also be exported, so that the trade’s roots are known, creating pride in belonging to something greater. A good gelato artisan must be a visionary person, a dreamer, while at the same time able to keep two feet planted firmly on the ground.
If for some reason the idea spreads that making artisanal gelato is a simple thing, this is the way to ruin everything. A while back it was said that there are “gelatori” (gelato freezers) and “gelatieri” (gelato artisans) the gelato freezers being those who know nothing about gelato but simply pour mixture into a batch freezer, and gelato artisans being professionals who create excellent products, like great restaurant or pastry chefs. The latter are the focus of the world market, the others are like hamburger flippers, necessary but performing a different function.
There is an effort to avoid translating the word “gelato” into other languages, the same as for words like pizza, espresso, and spaghetti. For gelato it hasn’t been easy. The French will never do it – you can’t touch their “glace” – while in Germany there is actually a law against it. What do you think about this?
I’ve been fighting this battle for years across the globe. In fact, I think it was actually me who launched this idea years ago. It was coined to maintain a clear distinction between industrial ice cream and traditional Italian artisanal gelato, when abroad it was considered all the same thing.
As far as the French are concerned, well, they don’t count because they were the first to add the noun “glace” to the encyclopedia (1751-1772) and, in contrast with ourselves (we have a short memory), they never forgot it. But maybe they have forgotten that it was a certain François Procope des Couteaux, originally known as Francesco Procopio Cutò from Palermo, who democratized gelato in Paris, breaking it out of the royal court and selling it at his Café Procope (still standing in Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie) to famous names like Diderot and D’Alambert. No problem! The Germans and the Spanish are the way they are and, maybe, sooner or later they will understand. But you know that this is only a miniscule part of the world….
It is true, however, that between industrial ice cream and traditional Italian artisanal gelato there is a middle ground occupied by “gelatori” (gelato freezers), so maybe for these frozen mixtures we will have to come up with a new definition. I’ll try.
Artisanal gelato is often sold at a price that is too low, sometimes to the detriment of its quality. Any suggestions on how to avoid dangerous races to the bottom?
For us a race to the bottom means just one thing: failure. Above all, gelato artisans must be aware that they are producing something unique, and armed with this awareness decide the proper price for their gelato, without surrendering and without exaggerating. The days are over when one can save on ingredients to stay in business. The market demands excellence and you can’t produce excellence with substandard ingredients. If we look beyond our trade we find trattorias, osterias, cafés, fast food restaurants, and restaurants in general of different levels. Traditional Italian artisanal gelato shops should be on the same level as quality restaurants. You yourself, Franco, some time ago during an interview on television noted that a gelato artisan is like a tailor. That’s the way it is. Do you know why so many friends, who work well, have trouble accepting our position? Because they aren’t aware of their own history, and therefore they lack pride in belonging to a noble category of professionals. This results in lack of courage. This is another reason why I feel so strongly that culture makes a difference: the more you know, the less afraid you are.
There has been a certain upsurge in extreme positions regarding readymade ingredients. What do you think about this?
I have something to say about this. First of all, extreme positions bother me because I know from personal experience (I have had some extreme positions in my time!) that in the end they go nowhere. Having said this, for years gelato artisans have used readymade ingredients, but they behaved like some husbands: they used them, but when talking about them with others they said they didn’t, like certain husbands do when it comes to lovers, denying it and hiding them in closets if necessary. The producers of ingredients, together with machine manufacturers, joined together with enlightened gelato artisans to prevent the destruction of the gelato trade by industrial ice cream manufacturers. This was in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. How could they have competed with these multinational colossals, the industrial Goliaths against the artisan Davids? By coming together they won, and still today these Davids are able to maintain their position of around 50% of the market, the only country in the world where this is the case.
Gelato artisans are strong if they march together with their supply chain. Without serious, efficient technology, without pure, clean, safe readymade ingredients, without high-level accessories there would be problems, of which there is not even an inkling today.
Experienced gelato artisans know how to offer their customers fresh, locally sourced products, and they also know how to select the best readymade ingredients, exactly like they choose the machines for their production area.
The Grom experience must be studied. From them we learned how to communicate better, but we must be careful about telling tales about how once upon a time gelato was better. It’s not true! It was grainy, too sweet, and melted instantly. Right? Just like today the gelato made by “gelatori” (gelato freezers) is a cold product that has nothing to do with the noble artisanal gelato of Italian tradition.
We must not give in to extreme positions. Let us proceed forward with our cultural rudder strongly in hand.
This year Italy won the Gelato World Cup for the fourth time, in an eternal duel with France. However, there are other countries that are growing in quality and professional ability. Who should we bet on in the future? Will we ever see a different country at the top of the podium?
Seeing other countries at the top is my dream, and, maybe from the beginning, my personal goal. If other countries win, it means that our gelato culture has spread well. We have been working with the Cup for 15 years to make known the best of our gelato. When I say “best” I mean flavour, balance, combination of flavours, as well as presentation, good taste in presentation, and the acquisition of pastry and cooking skills. We had to knock down barriers between the professions, forcing gelato artisans, chefs, pastry chefs, and ice sculptors to communicate. We had to ask nations to learn how to make traditional Italian artisanal gelato and with great pride I can say that much has been achieved and many goals have been reached. Who will we see on the podium in the future? Argentina is working very well and, in general Latin America. Also Australia. In Europe, Spain is a strong competitor, followed by Poland and Switzerland. And let’s not forget Morocco, which has taken giant leaps in these last few years.
A few months ago, Luciana Polliotti reach an important milestone (if we can say so…), turning 70. Your spirit, however, remains that of a young lioness, always combative and optimistic. Where do you find all the energy?
Yes, on Christmas Eve I turned 70. I am happy to be 70 and to have reached this point. There are still many battles ahead. I realize that I am slower than before, I need more time to reflect, but that doesn’t mean stopping. Instead of hopping around like a grasshopper I dedicate a lot of time to my three adorable grandchildren, and I plan on setting aside a part of my time to write, much more than before. Because, in the end, what remains of a person, of her battles, besides what she writes? If I am slower then I run less. Over the years I have learned to accept what I cannot change, to change what I can, and to have the wisdom to understand the difference between the two.
Over the course of your long career you have known many people. In a professional capacity, having to choose just three for an interesting meeting, who would you invite?
I like large groups of people, but if I must have a meeting with just a few people, well, I would like to talk and argue with Giulio Gorlini, who was my first editor in the trade and contact with the world of artisanal gelato. He trusted me even if I didn’t know a thing about this world, and he promoted me to director of his magazine in no time. Then, I would like to have Enrico Giuseppe Grifoni, courageous and generous gelato artisan who in Italy wrote the first Gelato Manual, to try to understand better what drove him to put himself out there, giving away his extraordinary recipes to the world. Also, don’t be shocked, Otello Cattabriga, because his genius gelato machine changed the history of this business. If I could add a fourth person I would always hold a chair for Giancarlo Gabaldo, enlightened ex-president of Aiipa who, during a tempestuous presentation on savoury gelato at Mig in Longarone in 1986, defended me with courage and far-sightedness that were truly special. He won a place in my heart.
Regarding savoury gelato, which some members of the World Cup have baptized as “gastronomic” because it is not the salt that makes it savoury but rather the use of gastronomic ingredients, well, you know lately there are some chefs, pastry chefs, and some rare gelato artisans who are claiming the invention of this product? I suggest that all these alleged creators hop over to the Gelato Museum at Carpigiani, which I curated myself, so they can get a few ideas, study a bit more, and come down off their pedestals.
You have written a number of successful books over the years. Which is your favourite?
The book that I have not yet written and that I hope to write for your publishing company…