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Standard bearers: Gelateria 3Bis

Categories: Behind the stalls

In a regular series that explores the story and philosophy of the Market’s Slow Food approved traders, this month we talk to Francesco Prati, co-owner of Gelataria 3Bis

Mountains of smooth, bold lemon. Pistachio piled high in peaks. Billowing, black-speckled mounds of pale vanilla. If this is the image you have in your head of an Italian gelateria, you may feel briefly disappointed upon entering Gelataria 3Bis in Borough Market, where those cold, creamy mountains are confined to sealed steel canisters and the only guide to flavours is a series of labels above the counter.

Here, the art is all behind the scenes, inside the churn, and beneath the lids of these gleaming containers. Indeed, the very existence of these vessels is one of the most visible indicators of 3Bis’s status as a Slow Food trader. Where you see gelato, company co-founder Francesco Prati sees an inherently unstable combination of frozen cream, milk and sugar. “It is very fragile. A change of less than two degrees will make the structure collapse—to keep it stable, so that it doesn’t melt or crystallise, is difficult,” he says.

Gelato does not last longer than two days, and the fresher the better (as the clean, top-of-the-milk taste of the fior de latte we’re licking now attests to.) Yet the UK sunshine is not reliable enough to shift reliable quantities of all flavours and “to make enough peanut butter gelato, say, to build a dome like that, we would need to make far more than we could sell in two days.”

A stable temperature
Wasting food is not the Slow Food way—nor, of course, is it Francesco’s. Ice cream castles remain where they should be, in the clouds, and in their stead a dense, creamy gelato made from natural ingredients beckons from the squat canisters keeping them at a stable temperature: “no more than 0.2C, no matter what it is outside.”

Ingredients are meticulously sourced. They are the difference between good gelato, and a poorer product with added fat, sweetener and milk powder. Some Italians, fiercely proud of their gelato culture call this lesser cousin ‘ice cream’, but Francesco dismisses the distinction as unfair. “It’s true of poor quality ice cream,” he says, “but it is true of bad gelato too. In Rimini, where I’m from, there was a maker adding milk powder when I was younger. In the 80s and 90s standards really dropped, though in recent years it has been coming back in.”

Companies like 3Bis, a Gelateria born in Rimini, have been restoring gelato to its former glories: a simple blend of milk, cream and (only where necessary) free range egg yolk, mixed and melded in the churn with some of the finest flavours Italy has to offer: Calabrian lemons, Sicilian pistachio, Piedmontese hazelnuts, all of which have EU protected status, bolstering those Slow Food credentials further still.

Best in the world
“They have been growing hazelnuts forever,” Francesco says of his producer. “Piedmont is famous for them.” Paolo, the co-founder of 3Bis, has been making gelato for decades, and has yet to better these hazelnuts—despite tasting thousands throughout the world. The same is true of the lemons from Calabria, and pistachios from the famous Bronte region of Sicily: sweet, smooth, aromatic, and despite the eye-watering expense of them, infinitely superior to those grown elsewhere.

“To make pistachio gelato or ice cream you need pistachio paste: really smooth, almost caramel like pistachios. Toasting and grinding them is an important part.” This demands precise machinery, a refusal to succumb to the lure of preservatives, additives or flavourings, and a deep understanding of the toasting process. “If the temperature is too high or the machine not running right, it will spoil the nuts and the gelato won’t work.”

There is no understudy. This is a purist’s gelato, made with minimal air and maximum core ingredient. “In proper gelato the proportion of pistachio paste to cream is higher than in mass-manufactured gelato, which usually contains more cream and sugar, and in the case of ice cream more air, often 50 per cent.”

Pistachio-suffused dream
The extra three to five minutes of churning time 3Bis’s gelato enjoys, compared to most mass manufactured alternatives, makes all the difference when it comes to mouth feel. “It feels denser, creamier. A single scoop weighs more, but it looks like less”—a trick of the eye for, as taste experiences go, we can imagine few deeper than this pistachio-suffused dream. “Why would you add more sugar or milk powder when the nuts you have are as good as this? When we make hazelnut flavour we use about 18 per cent hazelnut.” Any less, and it’s an afterthought. “You might just as well use cheap nuts if you want it that airy and sweet.”

Sweet, airy ice cream might taste quite nice, but it will stay with you as long as those unnecessary mountains of gelato do on a hot day—the remembrance will soon melt away, while our 3Bis fior de latte scoop sinks down into a cool, safe canister of memory.