The Surprising Botany of Icecream

Words by
Aina S. Erice
Images by
Aina S. Erice
| December 12, 2016

It’s likely nobody has ever visited an Italian gelateria because of carob. After all, you could find a hundred more titillating plant stories in an ice cream parlour – from raw criollo chocolate nibs to Madagascan vanilla pods. Nobody, that is, except for me.

As I stood in the gelateria, juggling four plastic spoons, a handbag and a camera while trying to decide which flavours to pick, I considered how utterly bizarre my quest was. Because I could write about many fascinating plant ingredients featured on the labels that tempted me the most.

Ricotta and Saffron; Chestnut honey; Walnut and Fig; Cheese & Orange blossom honey, and much more (yup, honey is quite important around here).

But I wouldn’t. I had come to Likitta, the gelateria I was in, on a mission to find out more about the secret botany of ice cream.

Secret, because you’ll never see these plants scribbled on the label —just quietly tucked away in the ingredient list.

Secret, because they are hidden in plain sight, the humble components that are part of the mixture formulae yet work their magic in subtle, often undetectable ways: thickening, stabilising, guaranteeing that smooth, luscious texture in your mouth. You won’t need them to whip up delicious ice cream at home, but they become a necessity if your mountains of creamy frozen goodness must survive for days without collapsing into a dripping slush-pile.

As we sat around a table with the parlour founder, Daniela, it became clear I was the first to ask about these unsung heroes of ice cream craft. “Nobody is interested in this kind of stuff,” she lamented while pointing at her gelato menu booklet; it had several pages with information and pictures of these secret ingredients, listing their origins and properties.

In those pages I found, of course, the culprits that started the whole quest: my beloved Ceratonia siliqua beans.

Carobs, or locust-beans.
Carobs, or locust-beans.

I’ve always had a soft spot for carobs; there’s an old carob tree in my parents’ garden, and I grew up playing fetch with our dogs using beans instead of balls. Until recently, I thought the most interesting thing about these plants was that their seeds had been adopted as weight units we still use today when referring to gold or diamonds, the carat.

Then I learnt of carob-seed flour’s secret role in ice cream making (it avoids the formation of ice crystals, giving the end result a creamier and more stable texture), and I got curious. So I visited Likitta to find out more.

As Daniela explained, carob flour is added in minute amounts preset by law: no more than 15 carats per kg of gelato basic mixture (milk, cream, sugars), once the temperature has reached 40ºC (104F), otherwise it wouldn’t dissolve properly.

I peered at the booklet in my hands; next was another botanical ingredient I’d expected to find, guar gum: a stabiliser derived from the seed of a legume, Cyamopsis tetragonoloba, mostly grown in India and Pakistan. Funny enough, it gained popularity as a stand-in for carob flour during World War II, and now both coexist pacifically in ice cream as fellow secret ingredients.

At the end of the page though, I stumbled across a substance called inulin; despite sounding vaguely familiar, I had no clue about its nature, origins, or its role in ice cream making.

Daniela smiled; she adds it to the fruit-based, milk-free ice creams, she explained, so they develop a deeper, fuller flavour. Inulin is industrially obtained from the roots of two relatives of sunflowers: chicory (Cichorium intybus; the flower featured in the large image at the top of the post), and Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus). It’s considered a prebiotic, as it improves digestive conditions by promoting ‘good bacteria’ growth.

Likitta Gelateria in Sardinia, Italy
Likitta Gelateria in Sardinia, Italy

She showed us into the ice cream lab hidden behind colourful curtains, an ordered array of stainless steel surfaces and machinery crammed into the smallest amount of space possible, where she and her son (and current owner of Likitta) Andrea make the magic happen. Sliding one of the cupboard doors open, she showed us the secret botanical ingredients that are sprinkled on their gelati.

Peering at the labels, I was amazed; even though nobody seemed to care, she bought them organic.

To me, this was proof that in Daniela and Andrea I’d encountered that rare breed of artisan gelato makers: they not only love and respect ice cream, believe in educating people about what goes into great gelato, they also choose sustainably produced (and, if possible, locally sourced) ingredients.

They go further still, because they do it even if it’s carob-style. Even if they remain unsung and unacknowledged.

Still, even they must draw the line somewhere. For Daniela, this year it was vanilla.

The most ubiquitous, most synthetic flavour of them all, we’ve been preconditioned to expect cheap vanillin-based ice cream. Not the complex, natural symphony of scents and flavours in a real vanilla orchid pod, most of which are now harvested in Madagascar. This year though, Malagasy crops did terribly, so prices have increased sharply: a kilogram of pods would’ve cost Daniela the equivalent of around $400, and she would’ve had to sell each serving for around $3.5. She told us resignedly that nobody would’ve bought “plain” vanilla ice cream for that much.

At the mention of vanilla, my ears perked up. Orchids were, after all, the other reason (besides carob) I’d begun researching the botany of ice cream in the first place!

There’s an intriguing world at the intersection between food and orchids that, as professor Luigi Berliocchi mentions in his book The Orchid in Lore and Legend, goes beyond good ol’ vanilla. And the most tantalising anecdote I’d stumbled across a few years back, was the use of (certain species of) wild orchid flour —called salep, or saloop— in Turkish traditional ice cream, maraş dondurması.

Salep has an effect akin to that of carob flour on steroids: it gives the ice cream mixture extraordinary thickness (depending on the dose, “the consistency of drying concrete”). This enables ice cream vendors to perform countless tricks that are a testament to the extreme thickness and stick-ability of dondurma.

Flowers of wild Ophrys fusca, one of the salep-yielding species commonly gathered in Turkey.
Flowers of wild Ophrys fusca, one of the salep-yielding species commonly gathered in Turkey.

 

As food historian Mary Işin mentions in her book on Turkish sweets, the history of salep in ice cream making was never documented, so we have only speculation and legend to turn to. Regrettably, the future of salep-yielding orchids is both less uncertain and more disturbing: increasing demand and unsustainable harvesting practices have endangered wild orchid populations. Over 40 million orchids are estimated to be annually harvested and ground to salep only in Turkey. The numbers are far from palatable.

Last time I passed through Istanbul’s airport, there was an ice cream cart in the international terminal. I immediately thought Salep! and made a beeline for the vendor and asked for a serving.

I hadn’t yet researched its sustainability issues nor the alternatives often used in lieu of real salep nowadays (rice powder, carboxy-methyl-cellulose; there was probably more of these than orchid flour in my dondurma), I just loved the idea of having a bite of traditional, orchid-laced ice cream.

Next time though, I suspect I won’t be able to enjoy it without feeling guilty about those millions of wild orchids and their uncertain future.

Fortunately for ice cream lovers beyond Turkish borders, the carob flour and guar gum lurking in our cones pose no ethical dilemmas whatsoever.

As I licked the last drops of my Walnut and Fig gelato cup at Likitta’s, I felt absurdly pleased with the whole experience. Because now I know what I want in my next ice cream: the passion and knowledge of an artisan gelato maker, combined with a choice of ingredients that makes me feel like I’m helping out the planet.

Even if they’re secret.

Many thanks to Daniela Lecca and Andrea Era (and to Maria Luisa Diana) for introducing me into the wonderful world of artisan gelato making; grazie di cuore!

More of Aina’s writing is available to read on her website and blog.


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