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The Bread of Kings

by Teresa Lust

December 2015    

A granite obelisk rises seventy feet up from the center of Piazza Savoia in Torino’s old Roman quarter. Built in 1853, the monument commemorates the passage a few years earlier of the Siccardi Laws that abolished the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical courts over civil affairs. Named for Count Giuseppe Siccardi, the Minister of Justice who presented the legislation, the laws effectively wrested power from the Church and placed it in the hands of the State. This radical move did not sit at all well with the Pope, but it helped put Torino at the fore of the nationalist movement that would bring about the unification of Italy a few years later.

At the base of the monument is the inscription: La legge è uguale per tutti. A theretofore inconceivable notion, “Everyone is equal under the law.” Underneath the obelisk the citizens buried a wooden box—a time capsule of sorts—a collection of the finest offerings of Torino as a testament to their uniquely civil society. The box contained a copy of the laws, a newspaper, a few coins, a bag of the region’s prized Arborio rice, a bottle of its noble barbera wine, and a packet of grissini.

Grissini are Italian breadsticks and Torino is their native city. They stand a world apart from the factory-minted, packaged breadsticks familiar to countless diners in the United States, the kind you can occasionally still find tucked between the salt- and pepper-shakers and the chianti-flask candleholders in red-and-white checked tablecloth restaurants. Chalky and stale, those breadsticks have a commissary flavor that gives them about as much appeal as a saltine cracker, though they suffice for nibbling absently while waiting for the waiter to take your order.

True grissini, i veri grissini torinesi, are made by hand. Crisp and delicate, long as an arm, thin as a finger, knobby and gnarled like arthritic old bones, they have a yeasty, slightly nutty flavor with a hint of toasty sweetness from their golden crust. They are served at state dinners and family meals both special and quotidian, snapped in half, then placed in a tumbling stack like kindling directly on the table or else wrapped primly in a linen napkin. You can find artisanal grissini (singular: grissino) throughout the Piedmont, but they have long been the iconic bread of Torino. Like any signature food their origins are the stuff of legends.

By most accounts they trace to a sickly seventeenth century prince from the House of Savoy. Vittorio Amedeo II, a frail child with a weak digestion, was only nine years old when his father died of fever in 1675. His mother—Madame Royale, as she took to being called—assumed control as regent of the Savoy Duchy, which included what is now the Piedmont of Italy and part of France. She summoned her private physician to examine her son, concerned the boy might never gain the stamina required of a proper duke. The doctor diagnosed poor nutrition as the culprit and consulted with the court baker, one Antonio Brunero, who developed a thin, crusty bread expressly for the heir apparent. He started with a traditional loaf from the region, called a ghersa in Piedmontese dialect. Long and slender, it shared a common lineage with the French baguette. Brunero made it progressively longer and thinner until it was no wider than his thumb, as long as his outstretched arms, and essentially all crust. He added the diminutive “ino” to its name, ghersino, which became grissino in Italian.

In those days common thinking maintained that the crust of the bread contained all the nutrients, while the soft interior crumb, though tasty, was void of nutritional value and hard to digest. Signor Brunero’s salubrious bread apparently worked wonders, because young Vittorio Amedeo made a full recovery. His mother might actually have preferred a more marginal outcome—a cure effective enough to have the poor boy feeling better, but not so complete as to give him the energy and acuity to govern on his own, for she very much enjoyed running things herself.

She tried to marry Vittorio Amedeo off to his cousin, Infanta Isabel Luisa of Portugal, an arrangement that would have landed him permanently in Lisbon and left Madame Royale to tend to the Piedmont, but he would have none of it. He obstinately took to his sickbed with a feigned malady not even grissini could cure, until finally the nuptials were called off. He asserted his claim to the duchy and his mother reluctantly stepped aside. Vittorio Amedeo ended up marrying the docile Anna d’Orleans, niece of Louis XIV of France. Madame Royale approved of the union, as the demure girl had no interest in state affairs. Anna likewise turned a blind eye to affairs of the extra-marital sort, which pleased Vittorio Amedeo as well.

Vittorio Amedeo II went on to become the first Savoy king—of Sicily, and then Sardinia—which was logistically quite a stretch from clear up north in Torino, but those were the only kingdoms available at the time and he had to start somewhere. His Machiavellian determination to expand his domain and rid it of foreign influences provided the germ for an independent country of Italy and earned him the nickname la volpe Savoiarda, ‘The Savoy Fox.” A century and a half later in 1861, his descendant Vittorio Emanuele II was crowned the first King of the newly united Italy. Which, the baker-historians of the Piedmont like to say, means there would be no nation of Italy today were it not for the invention of grissini.

Grissini remained on the royal table of subsequent Savoy monarchs, eventually becoming known as il Re dei pani, il pane dei Rei, the King of Breads, the Bread of Kings. As for the Savoy Fox, his ghost is said to haunt the corridors of Venaria Reale, his favorite hunting lodge west of Torino. He wears a black cloak and carries a grissino burning at one end as a candlestick.

No legend as tidy as this could possibly have come about without sweeping a few contradictory facts under the rug. Some researchers date the origins of grissini back several centuries earlier. Bread in the Piedmont was sold then not by weight as it is today, but by the loaf, and during grain shortages or times of inflation bakers made smaller loaves to keep prices from rising. When the Black Plague arrived in the Piedmont on the heels of a series of famines, droughts, and other calamities during the fourteenth century, an economic crisis ensued that had bakers turning out smaller and smaller loaves. The long, thin ghersa grew steadily thinner and longer until it became a breadstick. Writing in the sixteenth century, the doctor and botanist Costanzo Felici mentioned bread “made of soft dough, which when fermented is drawn out into long shapes.” Similarly, the Florentine Abbot Vincenzo Ruccellai noted in his diary a novelty he encountered while passing through the Piedmont on his way to Paris in 1643: bread, “lungo quanto un braccio e sottile sottile,” long as an arm, and very, very thin.

The Duke’s grissini would have been daintier than these earlier versions, made of fine white flour, which the doctors wrongly thought to be more healthful than milled whole grain. Slender breadsticks graced the tables at the Savoy Court, to the delight of visiting nobles and dignitaries, and soon became popular among the aristocracy across the Piedmont, who alone could have afforded white flour in the first place.

Napoleon discovered grissini as he pushed through Torino on his campaign to conquer Italy. Hoping what he called les petits batons de Turin might soothe his chronic ulcer, he brought bakers from Torino back to Paris to make breadsticks for him there. Try as they might the bakers could not replicate grissini once they arrived in France. In Torino it’s said that Parisian air and the river Seine could not substitute for the fresh mountain air of the Alps and the waters of the Po, but no one knows the true explanation. So Napoleon established a stagecoach service between Torino and his palace and had his breadsticks delivered.

I became acquainted with the artisanal grissini of Torino years ago during my first visit to Rocca Canavese—my maternal grandmother’s native village—fifteen miles northwest of Torino. I was traveling with my mother and older sister, and we went to meet our relative Catterina at the bakery she owns with her husband in the village’s main piazza. She rushed from behind the cash register and greeted us with a stream of Italian spoken so quickly as to be incomprehensible to our unpracticed ears, along with a chiropractic hug and a buss on each cheek that needed no translation. She would have been barely forty then, her hair, cut blunt above the shoulders, was still its natural light brown shade instead of the hennaed-chestnut tint she now sports. Her baker’s cap had slipped to one side with all the embracing.

She ushered us behind the counter to see the racks and bins brimming with an assortment of specialty breads: Pane normale, integrale, and ciabatta. Plain bread, whole wheat, and a flat, airy loaf shaped like an old slipper, along with a couple types of pizza by the slice. One by one she held up an array of rolls of whimsical form and name: rosette, tartarughe, manine, palla di neve, carciofi, coppiette, biove. Roses, turtles, little hands, snowballs, artichokes, double crescents, and soft, billowy rounds. Catterina beamed as she said each name and giggled infectiously as we tried to repeat her words. I spoke little more than traveler’s phrasebook Italian at the time, and listening to the musical sounds coming from her mouth played a large part in setting me on my journey to master her language.

She escorted us across a narrow alley to see the laboratorio, where the actual baking took place. And a laboratory it was, with a hulking nine-door baker’s oven and a battery of oversized stainless-steel contraptions that collectively mixed, kneaded, portioned, or proofed the various doughs. Her husband Augusto wore baker’s whites, though their color more accurately resembled unbleached flour. Same for his shoes, which were the customary soft white bedroom slippers I’ve seen on bakers in both France and Italy.

Augusto was making grissini. He stood behind an age-worn machine, a groaning, whirring metal box that drew a long sheet of risen dough across a conveyor belt and into its mouth. Once inside, the dough was portioned and cut into slender batons that emerged on the other side. Working in time to the creaking gears of his machine, he stretched the strips into four-foot lengths, pulling them apart from the ends while simultaneously administering a light, twirling flick of the wrist as if giving a jump-rope half a turn. He stopped the machine for another round of greetings, then started it back up again, only slower this time, so we could try our hands at shaping a few grissini. Our breadsticks arced and squiggled. When they weren’t thick and lumpy on the ends, they were swollen in the middle. That flick of the wrist only came with practice.

Augusto loaded the baking sheet into the oven, our misshapen grissini awkwardly noticeable amid the uniformity and precision of all the rest. When the breadsticks emerged from the oven I noticed he set ours aside. They appeared on the table that afternoon at the midday meal; good enough for the family, but not acceptable for paying customers. I felt much chagrined, though I shouldn’t have. I’d been raised an ocean and two generations away from Torino. Napoleon’s bakers had only crossed the Alps to the Tuileries, and they couldn’t make them either.

  Teresa Lust is the author of the culinary memoir Pass the Polenta: and Other Writings from the Kitchen. She currently teaches Italian for the Rassias Foundation at Dartmouth College and gives cooking classes. She is working on a follow-up collection of essays and recipes inspired by the dishes and people she has encountered during her travels in Italy.


Photo used under Creative Commons.