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Flour power

The humble grissino, pride of Turin, has saved a prince from death, captivated Napoleon and inspired the Futurists, writes John Irving. And you thought it was just a breadstick.

Piazza Savoia is a pretty square in the old part of the north-west Italian city of Turin, former capital of the Kingdom of Savoy and, from 1861 to 1865, of the newly unified nation itself. At its centre stands an obelisk, erected in 1850 to commemorate the Siccardi laws abolishing the clergy’s right to be tried by its own ecclesiastical courts. The good citizens of Turin were so proud of the level of civilisation they had reached (the reform meant that henceforth everyone would be equal before the law), they buried symbols of their city at the base of the obelisk for posterity: a box containing a few issues of the daily newspaper La Gazzetta del Popolo, a copy of the controversial laws, a handful of coins, some grain, a bottle of Barbera wine and a single grissino, or breadstick. Not many people outside Turin know that.

Not many people outside Italy know this; that the grissino is to Turin what the pizza is to Naples, so associated with the place that nowadays you often see “grissini di Torino” branded on packets of industrial breadsticks manufactured elsewhere. Like many famous food products, its origin is cloaked in mystery. The most reliable historical explanation of its birth goes something like this. In the late Middle Ages, bread was sold not by weight but by bulk, meaning that for a “soldo” coin, say, you could buy a loaf of bread of predetermined weight. In Turin and the surrounding region of Piedmont, that loaf was long and thin and known in dialect as a “ghërssa”. Prices, of course, fluctuated, but for fear of bread riots the nominal value of currency was kept fixed: the variable was the weight of the loaf. Nowadays, inflation reduces our purchasing power: in those days, it reduced the size of the loaf you could buy for your money. When an economic crisis hit Piedmont in the 14th century, the ghërssa became thinner and thinner. So much so that it ultimately became a teeny-weeny “ghërssin”, later Italianised into grissino, a long, crisp breadstick.

Despite such inauspicious beginnings, the grissino eventually became a product in its own right, and was baked separately by specialised personnel. Easier to digest than ordinary bread and storable for weeks on end, its success was guaranteed. In a treatise written in the 1560s, the doctor and naturalist Costanzo Felici mentioned a bread “made of soft dough which, when fermented, is drawn out into long shapes”. Passing through Chivasso, near Turin, on his way to France on a diplomatic mission in 1643, the Florentine abbot Vincenzo Ruccellai came across “bread as long as an arm-and-a-half and as thin as the bones of the dead”.

In the late 17th century, Savoy prince regent Vittorio Amedeo suffered a bad bout of gastroenteritis. The doctor to the royal court, Don Teobaldo Pecchio, addressed the problem with a crust-over-crumb approach and prescribed the ailing royal a diet of the palace baker Antonio Brunero’s breadsticks. In the space of six months, the youngster made a miraculous recovery and later ascended the Savoy throne as Vittorio Amedeo II. From then on, whenever he rode out to hunt at the Castle of Venaria Reale in the countryside west of Turin, he always took a basket of breadsticks with him. His ghost is still said to stalk the corridors of the castle by night: it wears a black cloak and in its right hand carries what looks like a long gilded candle. It’s actually a burning grissino.

Amedeo went on to become an astute politician, hence his nickname “la volpe Savoiarda” (the Savoy fox). Under him, the Savoy dynasty took off, laying the base for Italian unity, which eventually came in 1861. The popular saying, “We’re Italians thanks to a grissino”, was coined in nostalgic recollection of Amedeo’s reign. Not that the royal craze for grissini ends here. Another Savoy king, Carlo Felice, enjoyed them so much he used to munch on them with tuna fish as he watched the opera in his box at the Teatro Regio. Later, a certain Princess Felicita had her portrait painted with a breadstick in her hand: thereafter she was nicknamed “la principessa del grissino”. It’s no chance that the breadstick became known as “il pane dei Re e il Re dei pani” (the bread of kings and the king of breads).

As the quality of the espresso in Naples is said to depend on the local air and water, so for the same reason do grissini give of their best in Turin and its environs. When, in the 1790s, Napoleon decided to have “les petits bâtons de Turin” made in Paris (he found they eased his chronic stomach ulcer), he hired two Turinese bakers to oversee the enterprise. The results were so disappointing, he had a stagecoach service set up to import grissini directly from Turin instead.

The texture, flavour and appearance of paper-wrapped industrial breadsticks we find on restaurant tables today bear no resemblance to the artisan versions on sale in the bread shops of Turin and its neighbouring towns and villages. Proper grissini come in two distinct versions: the straight “stirato” (stretched) typical of Turin and the “robatà” (rolled), pronounced roo-ba-tah, of nearby Chieri (a fresco in the 15th-century baptistery of the local cathedral shows a man eating one). Both are made from an elastic dough of fine-ground flour, water, yeast and salt, though olive oil or lard may be added for crispness and flavour. After kneading and proving, techniques differ. To make a stirato, the baker gently rotates the dough and stretches and pulls it to the full extent of his arm span, usually somewhere in the region of 1.5 metres. “It has to hover in the air,” one baker tells me, “as if it were a living thing.” The knobbly robatà, probably the oldest of the two varieties, is simply rolled on a floured board to a length of about 40cm. Both stirato and robatà are baked in the oven for 10 minutes or so at a temperature of 250C, and may nowadays be flavoured with chopped sage or oregano, cheese, olives, walnuts, poppy or sesame seeds and so on – much to the disapproval of purists.

In Italy, the grissino has long been part of popular consciousness. A common expression is “magro come un grissino” (as thin as a breadstick) and a TV commercial for a popular brand of canned tuna describes the fish as “so tender you can cut it with a grissino”. Especially in Piedmont, the grissino has a role to play in the kitchen too. The menu of the first Futurist lunch, served at the Taverna Santopalato in Turin on 8 March 1931, kicked off with Antipasto Intuitivo, which consisted of “an orange, from which the flesh had been removed, filled with chopped salami and Cirio pickles, and with grissini sticking out like rays of light”. Less conceited preparations range from the “grissino vestito” (literally, clothed breadstick), the ubiquitous cocktail party nibble that involves wrapping a slice of prosciutto round the end of a grissino, to zuppa Valdese, a humble soup of cabbage, cheese and crushed breadsticks typical of the Waldensian communities of the Val Pellice, a valley south-west of Turin. My butcher in Turin uses crushed breadsticks, as opposed to breadcrumbs, to coat his cotolette alla Milanese, or veal cutlets. It’s a simple idea but it works: definitely worth trying at home.


This article is from the May 2010 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.