The Valley of the Ice-Cream Makers

Georges Desrues meets second-generation ice-cream-maker Chiara Soban to learn how she uses everything from Istrian saffron to Terrano grapes and Karst cheese to make pitch-perfect gelato.

Val di Zoldo in northeastern Italy.
The so-called Valle dei Gelatieri, the “valley of ice-cream makers,” is a narrow valley in the Venetian Dolomites, surrounded by mighty mountain peaks with a rapid torrent running through it. While the official name is Val di Zoldo, its nickname is a nod to the numerous immigrants who left a life of poverty in their homeland to try their luck elsewhere. Since the end of the nineteenth century, Italians have emigrated to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and all across the world, exporting the skills to make and sell excellent ice cream.

Val di Zoldo, appropriately, is where Chiara Soban’s family comes from. Her parents met more than fifty years ago in Cologne, Germany, where they worked together in a gelateria, fell in love and married. Some years later they returned to Valenza in the Piedmont region of Italy. There they took over the Traiber family’s ice-cream parlor, which was founded in 1924. The Traibers, too, originally hailed from Val di Zoldo.

Chiara Soban.
Since she was a child, the now thirty-two-year-old Chiara has been helping out in the family’s ice cream parlor during summer break. This is where she received her training and where she learned to appreciate the high quality that the name “Soban” is synonymous with in Italy. Today, the family’s four gelaterie always lead the lists of best ice-cream parlors in the country, such as those of Vanity Fair and the respected restaurant guide Gambero Rosso.

While her brothers Stefano and Andrea both run two of the ice-cream parlors, Chiara just recently opened “Sorban di Trieste,” the latest branch of the prestigious family business, in the northeastern Italian seaport.

How would you characterize the fundamental differences between artisanal and conventional ice cream? The English language rightfully distinguishes between “gelato” and “ice cream.” In Italian, “gelato” denotes both artisan (artigianale) as well as industrially produced (industriale) frozen desserts. Mainly, the difference is in the choice of ingredients. A true artisan works exclusively with fresh products, such as fresh milk and eggs, as well as seasonal fruit.

*Which Italian region offers the best ice cream, in your opinion?*__That’s the wrong question to ask. There are a variety of traditions and tastes. In Milan,gelato tastes very different from the one in Bologna, where it is generally richer because of the greater amount of cream. Southern Italian gelato is even more opulent. They use an even greater amount of cream and eggs, but they also have amazing fruit at their disposal.__

What about the Val di Zoldo? Strictly speaking, the Val di Zoldo does not have a gelato tradition. Its inhabitants left and then made ice cream abroad. The gelatieri only return during the winter months, while ice cream is not in season. Today there are two or three ice-cream parlors in the valley, but they are comparatively new.

Saffron flowers.
*Do you use different ingredients in Trieste and in Piedmont?*__Of course! If at all possible, I source locally. Here I have access to saffron from the nearby Istrian peninsula; or to grapes and wine made from the local white Vitovska varietal and the red Terrano. I source olive oil and cheese from producers from the Karst plateau which towers above the city. That’s also where the honey for the chocolate sherbet comes from.__

Are there any recipes that you adjust to the local culture?One of Trieste’s special features is the century-long affiliation with Austria, which is why I make ice cream in the style of the Viennese Sacher cake. I named another flavor after the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresia at the occasion of the tercentennial of her birthday. The adjacent Balkan peninsula is also a great influence to the city and its culture, so I created baklava ice cream and one that was inspired by gibanica. Just like the Slovenian pastry it is based on, this flavor contains poppy seed, cinnamon, and cooked apples. The tufahije, on the other hand, made from cooked pears and nuts, comes from Bosnia.

Georges Desrues

Born in Paris and raised in Vienna, Georges Desrues is a journalist and photo reporter living in Trieste.

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