The first gelato I ever fell in love with was Amarena.
It was winter in Venice, and I was having an Eat, Pray, Love moment with a cone of Amarena, a sour-cherry ripple ice cream which reminded me of the Screwballs I loved when I was little.
A Screwball was a 1970's invention which has inexplicably stood the test of time and is still sold by supermarkets today. They were/are small cones shaped and striped like jester's hats which contain yellow ice cream rippled with scarlet sauce (raspberry flavour - supposedly). At the bottom of each cone was a little round teet, which contained within it a tiny ball of bubblegum. This hallowed, tiny, chilly ball stained the cream with dye, and made the entire cone contents taste delightfully of the inimitable flavour of bubblegum. It was the crass cherry on the cake of crassness; a perfect, chewy, wet ending to a deeply saccharine, seductively sensory experience.
There was (is) absolutely nothing chic about a Screwball, it was a frivolous and fake cone of dubious integrity but I loved it and the visual drama of the crimson syrup swirling into the buttercup cream was enough to lift my spirits, however damp they may have been.
But then along came Amarena. I was 15 when I first went to Venice, taken as a treat by my grandmother. Every day my mum and I pounded the rainy streets in search of gelato, and it was Amarena that caught my eye first. Venetians streamed past us in their slick suits and clacking heels; immaculate, golden watches glinting, hugging their umbrellas close. Umbrella-less and bedraggled, we paused at a stall on the corner, as - magpie like - I spotted something shiny. A swathe of pure-white gelato lurked behind the glass counter, lit by fluorescent strips, a vague blue shadow cast over it, swirls of berry-wine syrup rippled through the snow-scape, and scattered carelessly over the top were handfuls of the glossiest cherries, darkly gleaming. I ordered a large cone of it, and all of my happiest Screwball memories came rushing back in that first lick.
(photos by Charlotte Bland)
It is perhaps unjust to compare Amarena to a Screwball, as Amerena has a proud and noble history, (I'm not sure the same could be said of a Screwball) based around sour black cherries cultivated, most famously candied and bottled in spectacular Art-Nouveau style by Gennaro Fabbri and his wife Rachele. These Amarene grow in various parts of Italy (particularly in Emilia Romagna) and were branded and bottled back in 1905 by the enterprising couple. The ceramic jars are now a familiar sight around the world (as well as excellent pen holders), and form an important part of the Italian dolci repertoire. Though candied and thus undeniably sweet and sticky, they are also wonderfully sour, a beguiling combination that marries perfectly with creamy, pure Fior di Latte gelato.
As I am incapable of leaving well alone I tweaked this classic gelato combination a little, taking inspiration from a delicious tart I ate in Rome, in the old Jewish quarter; a fat, flat wedge of a tart made of very yellow pastry, sour cherries and ricotta which is famously singed black on the top. Sweet, creamy, crumbly and moist, with just a hint of bitterness from the burnt top, it is served by burly, busy women with hammy arms from a small, unmarked bakery on the corner with an arched doorway, crested by a torn and faded white frilled blind. The pies squat sedately in the window, at first unprepossessing on their white doilies; roughly shaped, and as yellow (pastry) and black (burnt pastry) as bumblebees.
I bought a slice of one and ate it warm on a bench, the vivid red cherries bleeding into the clean white ricotta like unhappy gums. It was extraordinary. Sweet, oh so sweet, but also sour and a little savoury from the ricotta; filling yet refreshing, with the slightest bitter edge from the char. A thousand, unexpected things in one meagre-looking mouthful.
This gelato uses ricotta as its creamy base in homage to that pie that I ate on a late September day two years ago, BC - Before Covid - when life felt just a little more pieno with possibilities and still frilled with romantic reveries like spontaneous trips to Rome to eat cult crostatas on corners. Perhaps it will come again, perhaps not. I cannot say. In the meantime there is this gelato, which is a pretty good fallback.
This base is a simple ricotta gelato base which works well with lots of different ripples (including fig, apricot and cherry).
Ricotta gelato base:
Good Pinch of sea salt
Bring the milk and sugar to a simmer, stirring occasionally to help melt the sugar.
Place the cornflour in a bowl and add a ladleful of the hot milk mixture to it, whisking well to form a smooth puree. Add the cornflour back to the pan with the milk and whisk well over a low heat for a few minutes until the mixture becomes the consistency of a thin custard – more like double cream.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a few minutes.
Churn in an ice cream machine according to instructions. Serve, either drizzled/rippled with Amarena cherries.