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hungry for learning

Over the course of one week, students in the English-language beginner sessions make variations of at least 20 flavours of gelato.

Luciano Ferrari stands before a lecture hall filled with 40 jet-lagged students who have just flown into Bologna, Italy.

After stumbling through the pronunciation of names of students from countries as far-flung as Tanzania, Brazil and Canada, he barks out the first assignment.

Few institutes of further education are taught by professors whose outfits consist of navy-blue aprons and white gloves, but then again, few boast lemon-cream, pistachio and chocolate as their core subjects.

Welcome to Gelato University.

Founded by the Carpigiani gelato equipment manufacturer in 2001, the institute offers more than 300 courses from September to July, including eight week-long English-language beginner sessions a year. This year, the $1,000 courses have attracted about 3,000 students - a 50-per-cent increase over the past several years.

The surge in popularity, Carpigiani says, is indicative of a broader rise in gelato consumption worldwide amid the recession. According to Confartigianato, an Italian association of artisanal producers, gelato sales have gone up 5 per cent in the past year.

But the gelato maestri here stress it's not just gelato's relatively low cost that appeals to cash-strapped treat seekers. The fact that gelato contains less air and about 30-per-cent less butterfat than ice cream - which gives it a more intense taste - also speaks to an increasingly health-conscious population.

"Most people who've taken the course are interested in learning more about a product that's locally produced and wholesome," says Mr. Ferrari, whose Italian title gelatiere translates into "frozen dessert technologist" in modern, mystique-killing English. "But what we've seen lately is that people are looking for a back-up career in the recession. Something that's fairly easy to start up and that they can control."

One case in point is Claude Leclerc-Jacques, 24, a personal trainer from Quebec City, who is in Bologna for some gelato cross-training so she can add it to the menu of the raw-food takeout shop she and her father are opening this summer. Timing, though, couldn't be worse: She's also gearing up for a big fitness competition.

"I'm on a really strict diet to get my muscle-to-fat weight ratio down so I can only have tiny tastes," she says. "But after the competition, I'm going to make up for it."

In the lecture hall, students are schooled on such topics as the importance of the butter-fat-to-sugar ratio in creating a velvety texture. Most of the learning, however, happens at 18 gelato-making stations that thrum as they churn and freeze mixtures of eggs, milk, dextrose, stabilizing agent, cream and a host of natural flavours ranging from papaya and pineapple to coffee and egg cream. Over the course of the week, students make variations of at least 20 flavours.

Mr. Ferrari even has students sample Parmesan cheese gelato, a concoction that goes down about as smoothly as blended chalk.

Experiments - and failures - are all part of the process.

"We've made coffee, and an interpretation of vanilla that I may or may not have destroyed," says Steve McAlister, 42, from Boston. He fingers a dollop of hazelnut gelato into his mouth as it oozes out of a stainless-steel machine he oversees.

"I added too much flavour and then there was no going back. It'll appeal to someone who likes sweet things," he laughs. "Someone who can eat handfuls of sugar without complaining."

Mr. McAlister explains that here's here to ride out a midlife crisis.

"I work as a fundraiser and started to wonder what I'll do when I inevitably burn out. And I thought, I like to eat ice cream. So why not make it, too?"

But not all students plan on pumping out the cold, sweet treat for a living.

Lincoln Chou, a real estate developer from Vancouver, is simply on a taste reconnaissance mission.

"I take my food quite seriously and I just want to know what stuff goes into gelato," he says, pouring an egg-cream blend into the gelato machine with the help of a classmate from Mexico. "Even if I don't open a shop right away, I want to make something that's nutritious and healthy. It's personal for now."

Mr. Chou says he thinks the distinction the gelatieri here make between gelato and ice cream is overblown.

"Gelato and ice cream is basically the same thing," he says. "Gelato has less air and less fat so it's healthier. But if you eat too much gelato, it will still make you fat."

With some students on their eighth tasting cup of the morning, it's hard not to concede his point. Still, learning has rarely been so sweet.

Special to The Globe and Mail