by Mary Stanley
In January 2006, I attended SIGEP (Salone Internazionale Gelateria Pasticceria e Panificazione Artigianali) in Rimini, Italy. This is arguably the premiere international fair for all things pastry, bread, pasta and pizza; however, six football-field-size halls are dedicated to only gelato. I fell head over heels in love with this softer, more intense cousin of ice cream. I learned everything I could, eventually bought my own equipment, opened my own gelateria in Brownwood, Texas, and began the task of perfecting my new obsession.
Early in 2013, a consortium made up of SIGEP organizers and representatives from Carpigiani (a gelato machine manufacturer), MEC3 (a gelato flavoring manufacturer) and IFI (a gelato case and bar manufacturer) spun the idea that there should be a sort of Olympics of gelato. There were already competitions for professional pastry chefs, chocolatiers and gelato masters, but none that challenged and rewarded the small, locally owned gelato shops and their proprietors, who are really the frontline ambassadors for gelato. The group called the new competition the Gelato World Tour, and each company in the consortium provided a necessary component for the contest.
The new competition was divided into stages that were held all over the world—beginning first in Rome, Italy, then moving to Spain, Australia, Dubai, Brazil, China, the U.S. and Germany, ending with the grand finale in Rimini, Italy. Each stage was held in large, outdoor tent-laboratories in local parks, where 16 participating teams from that particular region would prepare their best gelato—first for the public and then for the judges. Enough equipment was provided at each stage to enable the teams to produce gelato for crowds of up to 30,000 to 70,000 enthusiasts. The top three competitors chosen at each stage were invited to compete in the grand finale. This entire theatrical and complicated production facility was set up, broken down and transported seven times across the globe—taking two months between each relocation—an heroic feat.
The North American stage was held in Austin in May 2014. Months before, invitations and applications were sent to gelaterias across Canada and the United States. My little Brownwood gelateria was chosen to be one of the 16 competitors, as was Tèo Espresso and Gelato, which would become Austin’s hometown favorite and place third. A Canadian won first place and an Italian-based gelateria in Miami won second. Of the 26 gelateria owners eventually chosen to compete in the grand finale, Matthew Lee, owner of Tèo Espresso and Gelato, was the only U.S. citizen. Even though I didn’t win, Lee asked me to be on his team at the grand finale and I happily agreed.
Of course, preparing for any food competition is challenging because the way people choose a best flavor is subjective and dependent on a few things. The number of taste buds varies from person to person, for example, and can sway an opinion. Those with more taste buds are referred to by scientists as “supertasters” and are often highly sensitive to tart and bitter flavors.
The opposites are known as “nontasters,” and then there are those who fall somewhere in between. (My customers tend to fall into two camps: the creamy nut and chocolate lovers and the tart and fruity lovers.) In addition, a person’s culture and tradition comes into play. A 2013 study published in the “Food Quality and Preference” journal found that more than 70 percent of German children preferred biscuits with added fat compared to only 35 percent of the children from Cyprus. Conversely, the majority of the German children preferred plain apple juice while the Swedish, Italian and Hungarian children opted for the version with added sugar or flavors. All of these things were on Lee’s mind as he prepared for the grand finale. He’d won the North American stage with his best-selling flavor “Nuts”—a mixture of Nutella and peanut butter—but would it be the right choice for international tastes? It’s common knowledge that Italians, in general, are not fond of peanut butter, but Europeans tend to love hazelnuts and pistachios. Lee chose pecans as a good replacement and to promote Texas pecans. He next considered what flavors typically accompany pecan, and bourbon came to mind. Since American bourbon is considered luxurious and rare in Europe, combining toasted, salted pecans in a bourbon-laced vanilla base swirled with bourbon caramel seemed like an outstanding and uniquely American combination. But would it be just a little too American to win?
But there were even more challenges. Because alcohol is an antifreezing agent, anytime it’s added to gelato it disrupts the final freezing temperature. Lee’s recipe had to be tested and retested so that the texture and freezing point would fall within industry standards while still focusing on taste. It couldn’t be too sweet because unlike Texans, the rest of world tends to not be quite as fond of sugar. In addition, the alcohol taste couldn’t be too overwhelming and the pecans had to be just the right size and remain crunchy for a pleasant mouthfeel. All of these components had to be exactly right.
Once a recipe has been developed, it’s relatively easy to reproduce in your own gelateria. But in Rimini, the team would be using unfamiliar equipment, not to mention milk and cream with different fat and solid contents. During the Austin stage, gelato makers experienced power outages, sun burning through glass cases at temperatures over 100 degrees, wind and rain. Freezer and display cases failed. There was no way to anticipate what physical disasters might happen in Italy. To top it all off, delays in pecan shipments added to the team’s anxiety—so much so that each of us carried the legal limit of pecans in our suitcases as part of our plan B.
The Gelato World Tour is literally tons of work, with 26 gelato makers producing 14,330 pounds of gelato and serving more than 70,000 cups and mini-cones during three days of the finale. Makers started work at 8 a.m., then fell exhausted into bed at 2 a.m.—four days in a row. The longest hour, of course, was the hour of judging. Sample boxes of each gelato were collected, then each contestant was called to the stage to present an introduction to the gelato followed by questions from the judges. These questions had the ability to sabotage a gelato maker’s chances. The rose-flavor gelato maker, for example, couldn’t tell the judges the correct way rose water is made. At this point, the judges were looking for any technical weakness to eliminate contestants. It was nearly 1 a.m. when the announcement was made.
First place went to “Mandorla Affogato” (or, “Drowned Almond”) by John and Sam Crowl (Cow & the Moon, Sydney, Australia); second place went to “Grumpy’s Heart” by Francesco Mastroianni (Il Cantagalli, Lamezia Terme, Italy); and third place went to “Hazelnut Heart” by Alessandro Lancierini (Gelateria Fiore, Suzzara, Italy). Afterward, blogger and gelato judge, Bree May, posted this: “I had two very clear standouts. I honestly couldn’t decide, so I awarded them both equal points as my joint number one’s. Cow & the Moon’s unbelievable ‘Mandorla Affogato,’ and a gelataria from Austin called Tèo, who served their seriously amazing ‘Texas Pecan Pie laced with Bourbon Whiskey.’ The latter deserving a massive high-five because it was interesting, delicious, well balanced and a gelato I’d be happy to eat again and again….”
This review, among others, and the happy faces of the people as they tasted our gelato, made us feel like winners.