Ice cream- myths and legends

When we talk about women and cooking in Florence, the first name that comes to mind is definitely that of Caterina de Medici, a strong and charismatic woman who had a decisive role in the fate of Italian and French cuisine, when she introduced French nobility with many Florentine delicacies.

The Chinese presumably discovered how to store ice for the summer period as far back as 500 BC. The Babylonians, the Arabs and the Romans used to refrigerate the juices obtained by squeezing fruit. The Pharaohs delighted their guests with a cup of snow in one side and fruit juice in the other. Greek poets talked about refreshing drinks prepared with lemon, honey, pomegranate juice, and of course, snow or ice.

It is said that in the Middle Ages this pleasant refreshing treat disappeared, and the Arabs were the ones who introduced the special recipe to Italy. Legend has it that the recipe, called sorbet from the Arabic sherbet (sweet snow) or from the Turkish sharber came with the Arabs when they arrived in Sicily. Still, the legend goes that master ice cream makers learnt the techniques to prepare this refined, light, fruit juice and sugar based ice cream from the Muslims.

It is also said that in the Renaissance ice cream, as we know it today, appeared thanks to our  Catherine de’ Medici. Legend has it that the Medici family organised a competition for the most original culinary recipes, which was won by a certain Ruggeri, a former chicken seller, who competed with a “sweet ice cream”.

It so happened that the jury panel was incredibly impressed by Ruggeri’s ice cream which came first before the ones presented by professional French cooks, and his recipe became a success all over Tuscany. When Catherine de’ Medici went to France to marry Duke de Orleans, and future King of France, she wanted Ruggeri to move with her to show French chefs that the Italians were better at cooking - she thought that he could better organise the wedding reception in Marseille, much better than the French chefs. One could think that fourteen year old Catherine, bride by proxy in an extremely difficult moment in the history of Florence, who had even risked her life, had other things to worry about than finding a pasty cook. However, this is what the legend says or maybe it is what we’d like to believe.  It’s nice to think that Catherine wanted to show the French Tuscan’s culinary superiority. It was 1533 and Ruggeri became a real celebrity, and while all the wealthiest family wanted him at their service, he was envied and hated by the French pastry chefs and cooks. The story goes that he was even assaulted and beaten, and for this reason poor Ruggeri preferred to return to Florence, back to his simple chicken seller’s life.

There must be some truth to it all...
In a letter addressed to Catherine de’ Medici herself, Ruggeri included his precious ice cream recipe, and wrote: “With your permission I go back to my chickens hoping that everyone will finally leave me alone and, while forgetting about me, they will enjoy tasting my ice cream. This is presumably how Catherine inherited the famous recipe.