Smart things to say about Signature Dishes: Gelato

Italian ingenuity, French royal patronage and theatrical exaggeration all helped bring this dish to a wider audience
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Gelato, Procopio Cutò, Le Procope, France, 1686. From Signature Dishes that Matter
Gelato, Procopio Cutò, Le Procope, France, 1686. From Signature Dishes that Matter

Le Procope, on 13 rue de l'Ancienne Comédie in Paris is the city’s oldest café in continuous operation having opened in 1686. However, its notoriety doesn’t end there, as our new book Signature Dishes that Matter explains.

“Le Procope was opened by Procopio Cutò (also called Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli), who had immigrated from Sicily, an area with a long history of enjoying sorbetti,” the book reveals. “These honey-sweetened fruit-flavored ices (which were brought to the Italian island by the Arabs) could be widely enjoyed in the summer months, thanks to the bounteous snow brought down from Mt. Etna.

“It is said that Cutò's grandfather, a fisherman, had invented a sorbetto machine that received a patent from the king; it became his grandson’s inheritance. Until then, ices were only available to the rich because of the high cost of the ingredients required in the preparation.”

In 1686 Procopio followed his grandfather’s lead, adapting the traditional sorbetto recipe by substituting sugar for honey and adding salt to the ice to speed up the freezing process, thus creating gelato; he served the dish in egg-shaped cups.

These weren’t the first ices served in Paris. “Sorbets and ice creams were first brought to France for the wedding of Catherine de Medici to Henry II in 1559,” explains our book. “But it was Cutò who finally made them more widely available to the public at his café, one of the first in Paris (up until then, coffee was mostly sold by street vendors or at fairs).”

 

Signature Dishes that Matter

“His success was sealed when he received a royal patent to sell the dessert exclusively,” our book goes on. And the French court weren’t Procopio’s only famous patrons. “Because of his proximity to the theater, his lavishly decorated café was a favorite of the likes of Balzac, Victor Hugo, Robespierre, and Benjamin Franklin.”

Indeed, the dish even made it onto the stage. “’Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal.’ So said a character in the Voltaire play L’Ecossaise, set in a Paris café modeled after Le Procope.”

Thankfully, this is one fully indulgence, still available to us all. To find out more about this dish and many, many others order a copy of Signature Dishes that Matter here.


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