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How Italians sold ice cream to the masses in Vienna

Residents of the Austrian capital have queued for more than 130 years to sample the Italian ice cream of the Molin-Pradel family, one of Vienna's oldest gelato dynasties.

How Italians sold ice cream to the masses in Vienna
Molin-Pradel family Ice-cream parlour is pictured at Schwedenplatz square in Vienna, Austria. credit: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

“He helped democratise ice cream, which before was reserved for the wealthy,” Silvio Molin-Pradel says of his great-great-grandfather Arcangelo, who began selling it out of pushcarts in Vienna in 1886.

More than a century later, ice cream consumption among Austrians is higher than in neighbouring Italy.

And it was entrepreneurs like Arcangelo Molin-Pradel, born into poverty in northern Italy’s Dolomite Alps, who were among the first to benefit from the sweet tooth of the Viennese.

The high cost of sugar, milk and refrigeration — years before electric freezing was invented — meant ice cream was long reserved for aristocrats.

But ingenious Italians like the Molin-Pradels changed that, producing ice cream based on water and fruit extract.

Ice cream migration

Originally from Zoldo,  six hours from Vienna by car these days, the Molin-Pradels, like other families, were so poor that migrating for seasonal work was part of life — whether to work as seafarers, lumberjacks or ice cream makers.

Vienna became one of the ice cream makers’ first destinations outside Italy, says Maren Moehring, a history professor at the University of Leipzig in Germany.

The Italian migrants’ “frozen stuff” as some called it quickly became popular with ordinary Viennese.

This sparked the ire of Austrian bakers, who perceived them as “dangerous competition”, Moehring says.

In 1894, the ice cream makers got the right to open shops in Vienna rather than just selling ice cream from carts.

“The Viennese were already used to sweets… so it wasn’t hard to then serve this cold product,” Molin-Pradel, who keeps his recipes a secret, tells AFP as he stands in the back of his salon at Schwedenplatz.

At the central, tree-lined square in the heart of Vienna, the family still produces artisanal ice cream.

Each day in summer, about 5,000 customers order from dozens of flavours, ranging from traditional ones like chocolate and vanilla to avocado, lavender and hemp.

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“Every Viennese will tell you that ‘their’ Italian ice cream maker is better,” says Molin-Pradel.

“The colours must be pastel. It is a guarantee of quality,” he says, adding that the business has expanded, including selling their ice cream through some Vienna supermarkets.

Lasting tradition

Out of roughly 370 ice cream shops in Austria, about 40 are still run by Italians in the small Alpine nation of almost nine million people, according to the Austrian Economic Chamber.

Its data also show that Austria boasts an average per capita consumption of more than 60 scoops per year, or about eight litres of ice cream – more than in Italy, with an average consumption of six litres.

From one generation to the next, the gelato makers’ skills and knowledge were passed on, “which explains their success”, Moehring says.

While ice cream makers in earlier times would typically return to Italy to take care of the harvests in the Alps by mid-August, today the season lasts well into October.

Even today, Pradel-Molin goes on a pilgrimage to his ancestral home of Zoldo at the end of each season.

It’s still his source of inspiration to keep up with the latest flavours and other industry secrets, he says.

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FOOD & DRINK

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Summer in Italy means lots of things - trips to the beach, empty cities, strikes, and metro works - but it also ushers in the spritz and negroni season. Here are some of the best drinks to cool down with in Italy this summer.

From spritz to shakerato: Six things to drink in Italy this summer

Spritz

Venice wins all the prizes for being the home of the spritz: the jewel in Italy’s summertime daisy crown and one of the country’s most popular exports.

To first-time customers, the sweet-and-bitter combo can taste unpleasantly like a poisoned alcopop. Stick with it, however, and you’ll soon learn to appreciate this sunset-coloured aperitif, which has come to feel synonymous with summer in Italy.

The most common version is the bright orange Aperol Spritz, but if this starts to feel too sweet once your tastebuds adjust then you can graduate to the dark red Campari Spritz, which has a deeper and more complex flavour profile.

What are the best summer drinks to order in Italy?

Photo by Federica Ariemma/Unsplash.

Negroni

If you’re too cool for the unabashedly flamboyant spritz but want something not too far off flavour-wise, consider the Negroni.

It’s equal parts gin, vermouth and Campari – though if you want a more approachable version, you can order a ‘Negroni sbagliato’ – literally a ‘wrong’ Negroni – which replaces the gin with sweet sparkling Prosecco white wine.

Served with a twist of orange peel and in a low glass, the Negroni closely resembles an Old Fashioned, and is equally as stylish. A traditional Negroni may be stirred, not shaken, but it’s still the kind of cocktail that Bond would surely be happy to be seen sipping.

Crodino

Don’t fancy any alcohol but still crave that bitter, amaro-based aftertaste?

A crodino might be just what you’re after. With its bright orange hue, it both looks and tastes very similar to an Aperol Spritz – so much so that you might initially ask yourself whether you’ve in fact been served the real thing.

Similar in flavour are soft drinks produced by the San Pellegrino brand; bars that don’t have any crodino on hand will often offer you ‘un San Pellegrino’ as a substitute. These drinks are usually available in multiple flavours like blood orange, grapefruit, or prickly pears.

A barman prepares a Campari Spritz cocktail in the historic Campari bar at the entrance of Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuel II shopping mall. Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA / AFP

Chinotto

Much like the crodino, the chinotto is another distinctive bitter Italian aperitivo drink.

With its medium-dark brown colouring, however, the chinotto bears more of a resemblance to Coca Cola than to the spritz, leading to its occasionally being designated as the ‘Italian Coca Cola’.

In reality far less caramelly and much more tart than coke, the chinotto has its detractors, and the fact that we’re having to describe its flavour here means it clearly hasn’t set the world alight since it was first invented in the 1930s (it was subsequently popularised by San Pellegrino, which became its main Italian producer).

If you’re looking for another grown-up tasting alternative to an alcoholic aperitivo, however, the chinotto might just be the place to look.

Bellini

What’s not to love about the bellini?

Its delicate orange and rose-pink tones are reminiscent of a sunset in the same way as a spritz, but with none of the spritz’s complex and contradictory flavours.

A combination of pureed peach and sugary Prosecco wine, the bellini’s thick, creamy texture can almost make it feel smoothie or even dessert-like. It’s a sweet and simple delight, with just a slight kick in the tail to remind you it’s not a soft drink.

Shakerato

Not a fan of drinks of the fruity/citrusy/marinated herby variety?

If caffeine’s more your thing, Italy has an answer for you in the caffe shakerato: an iced coffee drink made with espresso, ice cubes, and sugar or sugar syrup.

That might not sound inspired at first, but hear us out: the three ingredients are vigorously mixed together in a cocktail shaker before the liquid is poured (ice cube-free) into a martini glass, leaving a dark elixir with a delicate caramel coloured foam on top.

You couldn’t look much more elegant drinking an iced coffee than sipping one of these.

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