Sorbet was introduced to the tables of the nobles and the rich of Italy - it would seem, starting from the very city of Florence – at the end of the 1500’s. This evoked various comments - from some it was condemned as damaging to the health because it brought “iced emotions” to the organism, and others exalted it- for the same reasons - as a benefit and tonic.
The sorbet - which may be considered as the ancestor to ice-cream - is characterised by its ingredients (water, sugar, fruit, egg white) which make it very light and suitable to “separate” the taste of a meal. It was served at important lunches at different moments: for example between a fish course and a meat course or between a very strongly flavoured dish (for example - game) and a more substantial dessert. It also had the function of “a rest”, indispensable in meals with many courses and so the guests needed long periods in between that gave the stomach time to digest the various foods.
The realization of sorbet was made possible - as we are informed by the 16th century historian Giuseppe Averani in his book “Del vitto e delle cene degli antichi” (“About the diet and the meals of ancient peoples”) - by the fact that «Bernardo Buontalenti, a man of very shrewd intelligence and renowned for his brilliance and for many wonderful discoveries, was the first to manufacture and preserve in ice». It is certain that in the year 1595, for the inauguration lunch for the fortress of Belvedere, projected and realised in Florence by Buontalenti, his sorbets were presented in fantastic and complex forms, served at various times throughout the meal.
A LITTLE HISTORY
But it seems that the sorbet reached Italy from a very distant country. From China, according to the author of the “Storia del cibo” (“History of Food”), Reay Taunahill, who wrote: «The Chinese had already discovered in the VII century B.C. how to preserve winter ice to be used in the summer constructing depositories of ice which were maintained cold by evaporation….. and the Indian Mogul emperors sent cavalry riders to the Hindukush with the task of bringing back snow and ice to Dehli for their sorbets, or ices made from a water base and flavoured with fruit.....».
It was certainly this use of consuming iced drinks which passed from the Far East to the Middle East, as our term “sorbet” derives from the Turkish “sherbet” which means “fresh drink” which in its time derived from the Arab “sharab” with the superimposition of “sorbire”. From the Middle East the use of sorbet was brought to Sicily and to Spain (countries which in their history at various times were under Arab domination), and from Sicily and Spain it spread throughout Italy and Europe.
THE FORTUNE OF THE SORBET
It is certain that since the end of the 1500’s, sorbet began to be seen, not only in Florence and Tuscany, but throughout all of Italy, so much so that there flowered many manuscripts on this theme and we remember as an entertaining example the “Discorso sopra il bever fresco” (“Discussion about cold beverages”) of 1602 written by Jacopo da Castiglione, and that of Peccana in 1627 called “Del bever freddo” (“About cold beverages”). These studies contain discussions about, above all, the negative and beneficial effects that this cold food may have on the human organism: a controversy that in some way is concluded by a book written in 1775 by the Neapolitan, Filippo Baldini with the title “De’ sorbetti” (‘About sorbets’). In this, he supports the text on the salutary effects of sorbet.
But apart from all the disquisitions, in the tracts of this period on cooking we can already find recipes for sorbets, beginning with the most antique, contained in the book “Opera” by Bartolomeo Scappi, which we follow with a tract from the book by Antonio Latini “Lo scalco alla moderna” (“The modern steward”)
“Take ten pounds of fresh, un-spoiled cherries, picked that same day and leave on them half of the stem, and make into bunches of ten per bunch, and take a casserole dish with a pound of pure water and put the said cherries into it, and, as it begins to heat, put in ten pounds of fine-ground and sifted sugar and let it boil very gently, skimming the froth with a spoon, and when the cherries start splitting and are all of the same colour, remove them and put on a plate and allow them to drain; and boil the liquid by itself until it is cooked, not forgetting to skim the froth, and making the test on top of a plate, and if it does not spread out, remove from the fire and undo the bunches of cherries and arrange them in glasses or on silver plates, with the liquid on the top, which should be warm, and put in a cold place to freeze. Cherries can be prepared in this way and fresh plums can be cooked in the same liquid. (Bartolomeo Scappi)
“The requirement is three pounds of sugar, salt three pound and a half, thirteen pounds of snow, three lemons in number if they are large, if they are small, you will judge the measure, particularly in the summer season”(Antonio Latini)
“You will take the above black cherries, you will diligently crush them with their stones, you will put them in water, you will add sugar in proportion , mixing well with a spoon, then you will be able to strain the water, freeze it and serve it as necessary, if you want to make it in little time, you will boil the black cherries dry, crushing their stones and then putting them in water so that it takes on the flavour of the black cherries.” (Antonio Latini)
SORBET REACHES PARIS
If it is true that sorbet found its first achievement in the famously sumptuous Florentine and Tuscan banquets of the Medici period, it is also true that in Paris its popularity spread thanks to the activities of the Sicilian, Procopio de’ Coltelli. He was an enterprising man who made his way to the French capital in the year 1660 to open the first ‘caffè’ “Il Procope”: an elegant establishment situated opposite the Ancienne Comédie Française, in which, apart from coffee, sorbet and ices in many varieties and fantasies were also served. “Il Procope” is lucky, and becomes a “locale à la page”, and passes into history for being the centre of meetings between the intellectuals and writers amongst whom numbered Rousseau and Voltaire, to give an example. Still today, the Caffè Procope is active with the boast of being the most antique brasserie in the city.
But as technology became more advanced, the sorbet also appeared on the tables of the middle classes, but slowly, gradually , it became displaced by the richer and more nutritional icecream; so much so that it became a delicacy for more demanding palates, attentive to the value, and respectful of the preservation of traditions. A dish - therefore - nearly “intellectual”, sober, simple and refined, of home produced manufacture, whereas today it is industry which is the intermediary between ice-cream and the public (even if in every Italian city it is possible to buy expensive home produced ice-creams), transforming an exceptional product into one of daily use, spread throughout all social environments.
Even so, sorbet for all of the 1700’s and the 1800’s merited great attention on the part of literary writers, who dedicated pages of praise to it, beginning with - to remain in Tuscany - Lorenzo Magalotti (born in Rome, diplomat to the Grand Duke of Tuscany, died in Florence in 1712) who wrote an ‘Ode alla sorbetteria’ (‘Ode to the sorbetteria’) to Redi in ‘Bacco in Toscana’ (‘Bacchus in Tuscany’) praising the sorbet with these verses: “oh come scricchiola tra i denti, e sgretola / quindi dal l’ugola giù per l’esofago / freschetta sdrucciola fin nello stomaco” (“oh how you crunch between the teeth, and shatter / then from the throat down through the oesophagus / coolness slipping down to the stomach”.