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The Artisanal Gelato Makers Of Mozambique

Damiao Justino Macamo, right, helped produce this batch of gelato during his first day at Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, with the help of instructor Luca Cappelletti.
Vicky Hallett for NPR
Damiao Justino Macamo, right, helped produce this batch of gelato during his first day at Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy, with the help of instructor Luca Cappelletti.

Gelato served at Cremedoce De Fronteira is supposed to taste good. And do good.

The gelato shop, which has been scooping up a menu of flavors, including coconut, banana and papaya since its opening in late April, stands out in the town of Ressano Garcia, Mozambique.

It's only 60 miles from the capital Maputo, where there are several eateries with Italian-style ice cream. But this village of about 10,000 people, many of whom live in mud huts, isn't exactly known for its trendy restaurants.

José Maria Chicuarimba — a 22-year-old who grew up in the João Batista Scalabrini Center, a nun-run orphanage and school — describes his hometown as a place where just getting water can require braving a crocodile-infested river. (Crocs attacks are a problem throughout Mozambique.)

Opening this gelateria is about much more than just introducing delicious desserts to an untapped market. The endeavor is designed to offer training that can generate job opportunities in Maputo and beyond, explains Valentina Gianni, a physician who's the Mozambique country manager for AGAPE Onlus, an Italian nonprofit that supports the Scalabrini Center.

"Our vision is to create a big laboratory that's permanent," explains Gianni, who knew that would require both equipment and expertise — along with a start-up budget of about $95,000. Funding was secured when AGAPE Onlus partnered with Rotary International (as well as Rotary Club Bologna-Valle dell'Idice and Rotary Club San Miniato), and plans began to crystallize.

In March of 2018, Chicuarimba got on a plane to Bologna, Italy, accompanied by long-time Scalabrini Center instructor Damiao Justino Macamo and Sister Carla Luisa Frey Bamberg. Their mission? Learn how to make a food Chicuarimba had never even tasted until his first day of an intensive program at Carpigiani Gelato University alongside students from around the world.

After a morning of lectures and a break for lunch, everyone in class donned aprons and headed into a gleaming industrial kitchen lined with blast freezers and turbo mixers. Team Mozambique, including a Portuguese interpreter, huddled around a metal table to examine a laminated recipe sheet.

Instructor Luca Cappelletti explained each item on the list, where to find it and how to measure it. "Now, do it," he encouraged, and Macamo and Chicuarimba were soon pouring a milk mixture into a bucket that was sitting on a scale. Chicuarimba spooned in vanilla paste, and then grabbed a lemon and grater to add a touch of zest.

There was some frenzied stirring and transferring. And then waiting as the machine worked its magic.

About 10 minutes later, Macamo was carrying an entire tray full of creamy gelato to a display case. "It's easy," Chicuarimba proclaimed.

But making gelato is not quite as easy in Ressano Garcia.

For Chicuarimba, who studies mechanical and environmental engineering in Maputo, working with new kinds of machinery is one of the most appealing aspects of the project. "I've always been interested in practical things," he says, which is why in addition to the gelato-making course, he also took specialized lessons in maintaining and repairing the equipment. But he couldn't use these skills until everything actually arrived in Ressano Garcia. Government red tape held up delivery for nearly a year.

Once the lab was set up, the next challenge was turning anything on — figuring out how to connect Italian machines to Mozambican electricity is apparently quite tricky.

And because the power supply is limited, it's not feasible to store lots of ingredients (like fresh milk) that require constant refrigeration. Fortunately, fruit is cheap and widely available, so dairy-free sorbet is doable. But even that will require plenty of water ... and remember those crocodiles?

There are three water options in Ressano Garcia, Macamo explains, and the gelato makers must pay for access to all of them. There's a well, but its water is so salty that they use it exclusively for showers. There's water from the croc-infested river, which needs to go through a filter before they can cook with it. For drinking — and making gelato — they must buy mineral water.

So, right, the situation is not ideal. "But the energy is there," says Nicola Fabbri, president of Fabbri 1905, a Bologna-based company that makes products for gelato and pastry chefs. He offered a big serving of behind-the-scenes assistance by connecting the project with Fabbri 1905's Tibor Demes, a gelato chef with more than 15 years of experience who is based in South Africa. Part of his job description is now visiting Ressano Garcia several days a month to conduct "training and re-training." "It's not just making gelato. It's how to sell and serve it, too," says Demes, who believes that this support will help the shop sustain its momentum.

Keeping a project like this going after the initial excitement is often the toughest part, says University of Copenhagen economist Sam Jones, who spent seven years advising the Mozambique government. Although he's not connected to the gelateria, he knows how tough it is to find work in the country — even university graduates have trouble. So even if the laboratory is successful, "it's unlikely to be massively transformative," he adds.

"I look forward to getting proved wrong," Jones says. "And I look forward to eating their gelato."

For the moment, Cremedoce De Fronteira's flavors are only available from its Ressano Garcia shop and a gelato cart they're using along the nearby South African border. The name, which means "sweet cream of the frontier" in Portuguese, is a reference to this location. But it also seems appropriate for a business pushing the limits of what's possible in an area struggling with such poverty. Plans are to keep growing, and eventually, to sell to restaurants in Maputo.

Master Italian pastry chef Gino Fabbri — no relation to Nicola — visited Ressano Garcia for the grand opening in April. "They were emotional and excited," says Fabbri, who had also led a baking training for Chicuarimba, Macamo and Bamberg during their time in Bologna. The reunion was a chance to improve their cakes and tarts, which they'll continue to work on together through video tutorials (and sell alongside the gelato).

It was a treat, he says, to get to taste their marula flavor, made from a local fruit.

And the next important guest to try a sample could possibly be Pope Francis, who will be traveling to Maputo in September. Coordinating the logistics will be complicated, but Fabbri has faith that it will happen.

He was there when it seemed the long-awaited machinery wouldn't work. Then folks from the electric company came out in just a few hours and solved the problem. "It was a miracle," he says.

Vicky Hallett is a freelance writer who regularly contributes to NPR.

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