While Italy has a gelato shop for every 1600 of its inhabitants, the ratio in Australia is one to every 15,000 people. But if there’s any doubt that Australia does not deserve its spot on the Gelato World Tour, taking place this weekend in Melbourne’s ‘little Italy’, Carlton, consider this: the per capita consumption of this most delightful of Italian confections is the same in both countries.

Conceived as a way of showcasing the world’s best gelato ‘artisans’, the world tour has eight preliminary rounds encompassing Europe, Oceania, the Middle East, the US and South America. Three finalists from each round will vie in Rimini, Italy next northern summer for the honour of the world’s best gelati. Melbourne is the third stop on the tour (with events already in Rome and Valencia). From here it will go to Dubai, Sao Paolo, Austin, Shanghai and Berlin.

The Australian competition (featuring 16 finalists, announced by leading chef Guy Grossi) takes place this weekend, appropriately enough, at the Piazza Italia just off Lygon Street. The finalists need to win over both popular support from the public and the more critical judgment of the technical jury, of which Grossi is the Oceania president.

Spectacular lemon and berry gelati

Spectacular lemon and berry gelati

The tour was conceived by the Carpigiani Group, the company that manufactures equipment to make gelato, based on a desire to connect directly with the gelati consumer. While public competitions have been held in Europe before (with some unexpected winners, but more on that later), this is the first time the concept has been taken around the world.  The tour’s world director Achille Sassoli says previously the company’s focus was exclusively trade fairs.

So, what constitutes a gelato ‘artisan’? Sassoli says there is no formal requirement, although Carpigiani runs a ‘Gelato University’ that offers practical training in the techniques of gelato manufacture. The science is paramount, particularly in the profusion of flavours now available, to ensure the right consistency of the finished product.

Gelato is far from being just a sweet treat for a hot day. Some of the world’s greatest chefs use gelato in both savoury and sweet dishes to provide a textural counterpoint as well as a flavour hit. Grossi, who announced the participants for this weekend, says the most unusual gelato he’s ever experienced was made from hay.

Guy Grossi announcing the 16 finalists for the Oceania competition in Melbourne.

Guy Grossi announcing the 16 finalists for the Oceania competition in Melbourne.

“There are some gelatos or sorbettos that can work very well (in savoury dishes), such as tomato. However, there are some chefs who have a very different intent and that’s to push boundaries. Do they go too far? Only the diner can respond to that. (Melbourne-based chef) Frank Camorra does a tomato sorbet that goes extremely well with his anchovy toast. It’s a refreshing flavour. Also, to have something like a melon gelato with prosciutto or other cured meats is a classic combination. “I don’t think you can call (the use of gelato by chefs) a fad,” Grossi says. “It’s been around for a while and I would say only time will tell if it’s an element of dishes that chefs continue to use.”

Grossi says while there is no formal requirement before a manufacturer can call themselves a gelato artisan, he says the reverence for ingredients and techniques is their hallmark. “I think that’s the defining quality among all these participants. They all have a deep respect for the processes and the quality of the ingredients they use.”

At the tour launch, hosted by Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle, a group of gelato aficionados were asked to nominate their favourite gelato flavour as well as what they considered the most unusual. Traditional flavours were well in evidence among the favourites – chocolate, lemon, pistachio. Among the more unusual were taleggio, oyster, parsley, pumpkin and hay.

In Melbourne, some of the flavours to be showcased are mascarpone and fig, cremino (made with caramel, amaretto, peanuts and chocolate fudge), mandorla affogato (almond and coffee), tiramisu as well as a few more unusual entries, including ‘Deconstructed kaya toast’. Apparently this is a Singaporean/Malaysian favourite made from eggs, sugar, coconut milk and pandan leaf, served on crackers or toast.

Three finalists from the Melbourne event will head to the seaside resort town of Rimini in one of Italy’s most celebrated foodie regions, Emilia-Romagna next year for the final judging. Sassoli says there are no ‘blind tastings’. “Each finalist will have an area where all the details about where they are from and their gelato flavour are displayed,” he says. In answer to a query of whether a predominantly Italian audience would vote only for the local produce he said in previous smaller competitions, judged by a popular vote, a Canadian gelato artisan was declared the winner on one occasion and an Israeli artisan on another.

The Melbourne event takes place from October 25-27. Check out the links above for more details.

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