Noble origins of “grissini” (breadsticks)
Grissini – crispy breadsticks – date their origin around 1670 when a local baker from Turin, Antonio Brunero, made them for the sick young Duke of Savoy, Vittorio Amedeo II (1666-1732). The doctor of the ducal palace recommended that the weak child would eat something easily digestible hoping to stimulate his flagging appetite.
Everything began after the death of the father of Vittorio Amedeo whom French mother reigned with rather domineering tendencies until the day the child grew up and showed a strength of character and a sensitive intelligence so much needed in the first quarter of the 1700’s, when he inevitably had to participate in the European political, diplomatic and military events of that time.
In facts, we give much of the credit of the success of the Duke of Savoy to breadsticks!
As proud as we are about our grissini, we say that the tempting crunchy bakery invention had its desired effects by helping Vittorio Amedeo II to defeat France which kept Turin under siege for several days. As a result, he was crowned King of Sicily with great pomp in 1713, a title exchanged for that of Sardinia in 1720. That’s when some of the most stunning baroque architecture was commissioned in Turin which became the capital of the new kingdom. The entire region benefited from those events, including the University, founded much earlier in 1405, which was expanded
While in Piemonte we like to believe that breadsticks give extraordinary powers to people, it looks like there are alternate explanations attributed to their origins: according to some, Vittorio Amedeo’s father, Carlo Emanuele II, in 1668, was concerned about the possible spread of an epidemy. He asked bakers to make a more hygienic bread and Brunero created these sticks which are less likely to get moldy and spoil because they contain less moisture than loaves and rolls.
According to some others, grissini are even older and their name would come from “grissia”, the name given in dialect to bread loafs. In the 1300s, following inflation, bakers started making bread smaller and smaller to the point that people would use the name “grissino” as a diminutive.
A fourth theory – or better call it a legend – says that Brunero may not deserve all the credit given to him: in 1643 a new “extravagant” bread, described as “long as an arm and very thin” were reported on a travel diary written by a Florentine abbot, Vincenzo Rucellai, who traveled to Chivasso, a town just outside of Turin. Thereby we can assume that Brunero’s invention was probably a variation of an already existing delicacy.
The House of Savoy turned out to be the first enthusiasts of this specialty: many heirs of Vittorio Amedeo II were known to eat breadsticks almost everywhere, even during theatrical performances, like Carlo Felice (1775-1831) or Carlo Emanuele III that purchased a large container specially made to hold the delicate delight and transport it on his honeymoon in 1724.
Grissini are mentioned on several books and even in occasion of important historical events: described as “little sticks of bread consisting entirely of crust” or as “little batons”, where appreciated by Napoleon, who conquered Turin in 1801 and sent them to Paris. A French writer, Antoine Claude Pasquin Valery, refers to grissini as “the first surprise awaiting travelers in Piedmont, very digestible and no more expensive than ordinary bread”. Friedrich Nietzsche, while living in Turin in the 1880s, wrote about the local population being fond of grissini but he preferred bread rolls, with which he was more familiar.
Bibliography: Sally Spector, Chocolate, truffles & other Treasures of Italy’s Piedmont cuisine, Daniela Piazza Editore.
How we eat them nowadays
Breadsticks are one of Piedmont‘s signature product which can be found in bakeries and on the tables of restaurants; they can be served as a snack, with an aperitif or a glass of wine. During our traditional meals are perfect with starters and appreciated for their lighter texture compared to regular bread loafs. Some pastry shops sell them covered in dark chocolate, make them ideal for a sweet break.
One of our favorite stops is the Cravero bakery in Barolo where periodically grissini are baked in the shop’s oven located half way on the main street of the small town, releasing a pleasant smell that sometimes reaches the imposing medieval castle.
In Piemonte we tend to judge a restaurant just from the quality of breadsticks, better if well presented on the table, wrapped in a linen napkin. While industrial grissini are great to be transported when traveling like in a backpack or for a light and healthy snack because of their practical individual packaging, in a good restaurant we expect to find artisanal or homemade products.
You can roll a slice of Parma’s ham around it or plunge it in a creamy sauce like a gourmet truffle spread or pesto. There are even soups prepared with crumbled grissini and broth probably the most innovative way to recycle them goes to Michelin-star chef Davide Scabin: one of his signature dishes is a Fassona beef fillet steak cutlet, breaded in a crunchy breadstick crumble. Once the meat is cooked, is taken to the table on a wooden fire obtained by burning rosemary and other aromatic herbs which leave to the preparation an ancestral smoked final taste.
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