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Mariateresa Majer holding a big ice cream cone at her shop in Dortmund
In Germany, people of all ages enjoy ice creamImage: LWL/Hudemann

Imported tradition

Louisa Schaefer
August 21, 2009

Germany, typically known for beer and sausage, has been home to a long line of Italians who can boast a talent that also pleases the palate; they're ice cream makers, and a special exhibition is dedicated to them.


Every day, Italian-born Giacomo Ferigo concocts his savory treats in what he calls his "ice cream laboratory" in an upscale neighborhood in Cologne. Using organic milk and real fruit, he whips up unusual flavors like pear-parsley, pumpernickel, rose and chilli pepper-chocolate. Naturally, his customers say it's the best ice cream in town.

"You have to learn ice cream-making from the ground up," he mused, "and know exactly what you're putting into it. You also have to be creative and have a great sense of taste!"  

Ice cream-making as an art form

Of the ice cream sold in Germany, 85 percent of it is manufactured industrially. The other 15 percent is made fresh, primarily by Italians or Germans with Italian heritage, and sold in ice cream parlors.

Many of the Italian ice cream makers in Germany were born here and learned the craft from their immigrant parents, but 46-year-old Ferigo has a different story.

Curator Anne Overbeck in front of an ice cream cart in the exhibition
Curator Anne Overbeck in front of an ice cream cart in the exhibitionImage: LWL/Hudemann

"I grew up in Italy and actually wanted to become a chef, but that didn't work out," he recalled. He learned ice cream-making in the Veneto region in northern Italy, where it is a tradition, and later moved to Cologne as part of an internship during his training. 

Now, an exhibition at the LWL Industrial Museum in Bochum tells some of this history, which is closely linked to a long tradition of seasonal migration.

"This relatively small group tells a lot about how Europe was connected long before anybody was talking about the European Union," said curator Anne Overbeck, describing the inspiration behind the "Ice-Cold Passions" show that focuses on the history of ice cream makers in western Germany's industrial Ruhrgebiet region, where Bochum is located.

Venue reflects the history

The show is housed in one of the old coal-mining buildings that has been turned into a museum.

"When we began thinking about the exhibition, we started wondering where all these Italian ice cream makers came from, and it turns out that 80 percent of all those in the region come from two little valleys in northern Italy - the Zoldo and Cadore Valleys," Overbeck said. 

These Italians were originally from the Dolomite mountains, and were seasonal workers in the 1800s. In the summer, they would farm, work in the logging industry, or make nails. In the winter, they would sell hot chestnuts in Italy's northern cities. 

Giovanni Martini with his ice cream cart in the streets of Recklinghausen in 1910
Ice cream vendors couldn't afford shops, but found carts to be more practical anywayImage: Angelo Martini

But in the second half of the century, severe storms wrecked the logging business and big companies edged out the craftsmen in the Dolomites. The workers left the region to find work, while their families would remain. They'd often return in the winter, and some began learning the ice cream-making trade in northern Italy. 

"The region is called Veneto and until 1866, it belonged to the Hapsburg Empire," Overbeck explained. "That is why the first Italian ice cream makers went to Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, which were all part of the Hapsburg Empire. So, starting in the 1860s, the ice cream makers went to Vienna to start selling ice cream."

Eventually, they made their way north, to the Netherlands and Germany, where other Italian migrant workers had helped build streets and canals. Around the turn of the 20th century, and into the 1930s and 50s, the ice cream makers were drawn to the industrial areas because they thought they would be lucrative.

Recipes kept under wraps

While real ice cream unfortunately cannot be found at the exhibition, there are plenty of ice cream-making accoutrements from the boom periods.  

An ice cream parlor in the Ruhrgebiet in the 1960s
An ice cream parlor in the Ruhrgebiet in the 1960sImage: LWL-Industriemuseum/Privat

Besides hand-cranked ice cream churns, yellowed photographs of ice cream makers, aprons and dishes for serving are on display. There's also a recipe framed on the wall - but only one. Ice cream-making was a family tradition passed down orally from generation to generation; few people actually recorded recipes.

While Italians didn't actually invent ice cream - precursors of the dessert were made by the Ancient Greeks, by Persians, Arabs, even the Chinese -, they still have a particular way of making it. Gelato is normally made from whole milk, eggs, sugar and natural flavorings, and usually contains seven to eight percent fat; ice cream often has a minimum of 10 percent. Still, makers often don't like to divulge their recipes.

In the exhibition, you'll also see an antique ice cream cart that was pushed through the streets. Italian ice cream makers often couldn't afford to rent a shop. On the upside, that meant they could go where the people were and soon became stiff competition for the German bakeries, said Overbeck.

Later, the Italians sold their ice cream from the windows of their first floor apartments, throwing open their windows and placing a board in front, creating a little bar.

The Italian-German connection

The real boom in the Italian ice cream business in Germany came in the 1930s, but World War II sent many Italians back home.

"The political friendships in fascism made it easier for Italians to come to Germany in the 1930s," Overbeck said. "In 1943, when Mussolini had to step down and Italy became an ally, ice cream makers went back to Italy, but knew they would come back to Germany one day and stored their stuff with neighbors."

The ice cream parlors were popular in the 1950s and 60s, and especially attracted young people with their mix of Mediterranean flair and American diner pizzazz - lots of chrome design and a juke box in the corner.

The Losego family in their ice cream shop - holding ice cream cones and a cup of coffee
Many ice cream parlors are still family ownedImage: LWL/Hudemann

Gelato in Germany nowadays

Antonio Faghera's family originally came from Venice, moved to Leipzig in 1900, and eventually settled in Bochum. His family business is portrayed in the exhibition; he learned ice cream-making from his father and said the trade is an important part of German culture.

"We're an institution," said Faghera. "The ice cream cafes are a meeting place for families, and a place to drop by for everyone. Kids love the shops because they can get something here they really like."

Still, many of the old Italian ice cream parlors have closed down, or been sold to Germans, Turkish-Germans or Greek-Germans.

"Many of those who still make ice cream don't do it in the traditional way," Ferigo noted. "The trade is dying out."

But there are some who want to keep the tradition alive. What was once a trade handed down from generation to generation was in 2008 turned into an occupation with an official training program that aims to raise the bar in Italian ice cream-making.

"Many of the young Italians here in Germany are third or fourth generation and have not wanted to learn the trade because, until last year, they wouldn't have had official qualifications," said Anna Carnio of Uniteis - the Association of Italian Ice Cream Makers in Germany. "They preferred to go to Italy and study something else that would give them a degree."

Two kids licking an ice cream cone with the sun shining behind them
Healthy? At least it's high in calciumImage: dpa - Bildfunk

Ferigo, at any rate, knows why the tradition should be kept alive. "Because it makes people happy, because it's healthy," he said. "It's one of the few foods that has everything the body needs. Even after a long day of work, I still find myself eating a few scoops each evening."

Author: Louisa Schaefer

Editor: Kate Bowen

The exhibition at the LWL-Industriemuseum in Bochum runs through October.

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