An afternoon with Paolo Brunelli
A journey into the perfect ice cream (and zabaione)
We met Paolo Brunelli on a sunny afternoon in late March, and we took the opportunity to learn more about his vision and the road that led him to the top of the ice cream industry.
It was a beautiful spring day when Paolo Brunelli came to visit us at our headquarters at Villa Nuovo Paradisetto. We had a workshop planned with him to discuss our products and find out how they could be combined with his art.
We took the opportunity to have an all-around chat with him. After our interview with Corrado Assenza, we couldn’t miss the chance to explore with Brunelli the parallels between great pastry – and ice cream – and our own products.
Paolo Brunelli is a culinary celebrity who needs no introductions. After opening three signature ice cream and pastry parlors in just a short time - in Senigallia, Agugliano and Marzocca, all in the Marche region – he is now the go-to name for top-quality ice cream, which is every bit as good as gourmet haute cuisine dishes.
Brunelli's fate to become one of the leading players in the foodservice and hospitality industry seemed stamped in his DNA right from the beginning – although, as he himself tells us, his relation-ship with ice-cream started from a fit of anger. Paolo's art runs in his family. The scion of a family of restaurateurs, from a young age he started carving out his own space within the family company to break away from the footsteps of his mother, a Marche native and great cook of regional cuisine. The idea of specializing in ice cream came to him as a real epiphany.
“My career didn't follow the same path as regular ice cream makers,” he explains. “When I started back in the early 1980s, there were very few specific courses, and no Internet. So, I had to look around for information and things to read. At the same time, I followed different and unusual paths, which eventually helped me become who I am today. For many years I studied both music and as a sommelier, and I succeeded in incorporating both these areas of knowledge into ice cream making.”
In Paolo Brunelli's innovative vision, ice cream is no less a part of culture than any other ingredient, dish or preparation, and as such it should be regarded as part of Italian and international high-end cuisine. It's about making people understand that ice cream is not just a treat for children or to be enjoyed in the summer, and overcoming the many prejudices that mostly arise from ice cream's low price and widespread popularity.
“Ice cream is a magical thing, and what makes it magical is one feature in particular: its ultimate im-perfection, that is, melting, is precisely what makes it perfect,” states Brunelli. He further clarifies the concept by comparing ice cream tasting with wine tasting: “You can taste wine, then taste it again as it warms up in the glass, airs out and changes over time; ice cream just melts. As a result, it's impossible to have comparative or vertical tastings as we do with wine. This has been my obsession for the last twenty years, which eventually resulted in the Slowcool project.”
Designed in cooperation with architect Riccardo Diotallevi, Slowcool is a printed plastic polymer food container equipped with a transparent lid. It's basically a thermal tray that can accommodate three ice cream cups in wells surrounded by a mixture of water and glycol, which keeps the product cool. Not only does Slowcool provide more time for ice cream tasting, it's also a beautiful, elegant piece of design.
According to Brunelli, one of the keys for the creation of the perfect ice cream is choosing top-quality ingredients. “It all started in quite an unusual way back in the 1990s,” he recalls. “For many years I was involved with Slow Food, which gave me the opportunity to meet many farmers and unknown small producers. Some of them started contacting me and asking me to make ice cream from their oil, their wine, or some unusual fruit, and I became a sort of spokesperson for them. Im-agine you're a small oil producer who doesn't have the means or the communication skills I have. If we work together and create an ice cream made from a special olive oil, say from a small oil mill in Ragusa, we might be able to give it visibility. It's about creating buzz around ice cream while at the same time creating buzz around other products as well."
Paolo Brunelli's ice cream is deeply linked to Italian tradition and is more about the right balance of flavors than extreme experimentation. To wow customers, he relies on an accurate creaming process as well as excellent ingredients. This means traditional ice cream can open up to experimentation and new combinations of hot and cold, sweet and savory.
As Paolo explains, when he talks about ice cream what he's referring to is traditional Italian gelato, which he calls “the best of all.” From a technical standpoint - he says - what makes it unique is main-ly an invisible but essential ingredient, which consumers never stop to consider: “Air. Ice cream without air is not ice cream, it's technically a popsicle. If we incorporate air into a popsicle and do it right, the ice turns into something amazing, it becomes ice cream.” This is why eggs are such an im-portant ingredient, he adds, because:
“In artisan ice cream, air is only incorporated in the mixture by stirring the ingredients, one of which - and perhaps the most magical of all - is egg yolk. For a time it was reviled, especially in the eighties and nineties, but it's actually egg yolk that allows ice cream to naturally incorporate air the right way, and it's the air that creates that unique feeling, that velvet-like consistency that makes ice cream a unique product across the world. Every time I talk to someone from Japan or the US, for example, I realize this is what they really appreciate: the unique texture typical of Italian traditional ice cream.”
The second key ingredient is milk, more specifically raw milk:
“Fortunately, raw milk was destigmatized a few years ago, so today we are all allowed to use it. When working with small producers, the main difficulty is product availability, that is, securing a reliable supply. For years I've used raw milk together with milk from a local cooperative. Now we're having a little more trouble because volumes have increased, however, when I need to make fior de latte ice cream I'll use raw milk without adding anything else."
Still about ingredients, we now arrive at spirits, something Brunelli's art has a very deep connection to - especially wine:
“Many years ago in Agugliano, my hometown, there was an old winery run by my uncle, who in the seventies was a sommelier. By then, producers had started thinking about and offering natural wine, but with huge difficulties - twenty years ago, selling natural wines in a small village in rural Marche was quite complicated, but I'm proud to say I was able to emphasize each one's specificities and had a few selected customers. In ice cream, on the other hand, acids are unpairable by definition. As a sommelier and ice cream maker, the challenge was to come up with pairings for a product that was so important to me and, after I finally did, I moved on to beer, then tea, coffee and vermouth. In recent years the ice cream industry has seen some development, people's tastes have changed and, most of all, there has been an incredible evolution in beverages. Today there are wines that didn't exist before, and the same is true for ice cream. Just like food pairing, beverages provide opportuni-ties to create matches, indeed unions, with ice cream."
As for actually adding spirits into ice cream, there are huge technical difficulties as alcohol is a pow-erful antifreeze agent, explains Brunelli:
“It's a bit like making ice cream with lots of sugar in it. In addition, alcohol somehow causes some ingredients to curdle by tearing the protein apart, resulting in unstable ice cream. It's extremely dif-ficult to make alcoholic ice cream properly. The trick is to use plenty of egg yolk, which is tradition-ally used to make zabaione. There are also ingredients that didn't exist before, which allow us to create natural bonds, as well as other tricks. For example, my Negroni ice cream, which I presented about a year and a half ago, is actually Vermouth ice cream with the addition of gelified Campari and Gin. That's how the end result tastes like Negroni on a cone."
Paolo Brunelli then proceeds to give us an excellent demonstration of this by preparing for us a su-perb zabaione with Hampden DOK and Paolo Parisi's eggs – taking this traditional preparation and great pastry classic one step closer to perfection.
The chocolates are also amazing. Some are made with Capovilla's Williams pear acquavite, others with RhumRhum.
When using milder spirits, Brunelli explains how to strengthen the flavor without adding more alco-hol to avoid dulling the taste. The trick is adding flavorings that are consistent with the preparation. “In Alchermes ice cream, for example, we boost the taste by adding orange and star anise flavor.”
Our curiosity is inevitably piqued; is there any ingredient you can't make ice cream from? Paolo Brunelli shakes his head:
“Technically, ice cream can be made with anything that's edible, as well as things that are inedible. You can even distill wood, some of my colleagues have actually done it.” .
In his opinion,
“Ice cream should always be a warm hug. Making ice cream by distilling plastic is certainly interest-ing from a scientific standpoint, but definitely not in terms of business, much less of offering people that ‘warmth’.”
Paolo Brunelli's name is associated to a cream that has become very popular in his ice cream shops: the Brunelli cream. The idea stems from his desire to make ice cream from the best ingredients he had on hand at that time: caramelized Piedmont hazelnuts and Venezuelan chocolate mixed into a custard base.
“The best part for me is that this flavor has now become part of the collective memory and heritage of many people in Senigallia. Chocolate, hazelnut and Brunelli cream has become a traditional com-bination, and this means that many of today's children will remember these flavors as adults. To me, that's the beauty of it - creating flavors that end up becoming irresistible.”
'Irresistible’ is a recurring term in Brunelli's words as well as a very important concept in his vision:
“In cooking, when I need a flavor boost, I can add Parmigiano Reggiano, anchovy paste or whatev-er I need to bolster the fifth taste, umami: this is what I call ‘irresistible’. What about ice cream? For example, I can make something irresistible by adding Paolo Parisi's eggs. I know those eggs come from hens raised a certain way, and have somehow naturally developed a umami flavor. A similar result can be obtained with some aged wines, as well as with fermentation, which is actually what makes chocolate irresistible. So we can expect wine to be twice as irresistible, as it combines fermen-tation with an alcoholic element. So, if I add a special vermouth to bland ice cream, I could end up with an irresistible flavor.”
Our day together is coming to an end, so we indulge ourselves with some general questions about Paolo Brunelli's first love – music. If ice cream were a musical genre, what would it be?
“I actually did that a few years ago" he answers with a smile.
“I created two different menus, one with jazz ice cream and one with rock'n'roll ice cream. In my book, egg custard ice cream is rock'n'roll: it's straightforward, uncomplicated, a ‘gut’ flavor. Jazz ice creams are more subtle and elegant, like for example zabaione with vintage wine or a special ver-mouth.”
“I've been studying music my whole life, it's very important to me,” he ends. “The first thing I ask myself each time I open a new store is, where should I put the stereo? I want-ed music to be my job, but when I realized I was going to be a third-rate musician, I said no. I’d much rather be a first-rate ice cream maker.”