Do you like breadsticks? Those long crispy sticks that are always displayed on the tables of every restaurant of Italy were created in Torino…and there’s a nice story behind it which involves the Duke of Savoy Victor Amadeus II, a smart doctor and a local baker.
The political context: Victor Amadeus II, Duke of Savoy, born in Torino in 1666, was the only heir to the throne of a small yet very strategic Duchy covering the Alps between Italy and France. His father died when he was 9 years old, thus he became the youngest Duke in the history of the House of Savoy: too young to rule so that his mother, the Duchess May Joan Baptists of Savoy Nemour, sister of the Queen of Portugal, took the power as a regent and tried to force her son to marry her niece (the daughter of the king of Portugal), so that he would become the new King of Portugal and she would keep the power over the Duchy of Savoy, at that time under the strong influence of the French King, despite being and independet State. Although he was very young and the wedding agreement already signed, he refused to marry his cousing and move to Lisbon and took the power when opportunity arose. His smart political attitude and his role within the context of the Spanish Throne Inheritance war brought him to the attention of the major monarchies of Europe thus he received the title of King of Sicily in 1713 when the peace treaty was signed in Utrecht. 150 years later the house of Savoy unified the Country and became the Royal Family of Italy until 1946.
So what’s the link between the Duke and the Breadsticks? When he was young, Victor Amadeus II was very often reporting a severe stomach ache, which was sometimes so hard to force him in bed, thus upsetting the whole members of the court, being the young Duke the only heir to the throne and still without any descendant. Several treatments were attempted with medical herbs without any significant results, until a doctor hailing from the Alps had the chance to visit the Duke and he understood that his problem was what we nowadays call “gastritis” and he recommended to avoid eating anything that may favour the excessive production of digestive juices in the Duke’s stomach. As a result Victor Amadeus was recommended to avoid the intake of bread.
Here we come to the breadsticks. In late 1600s bread was an essential component of human’s nourishment thus a solution had to be found to secure the Duke with a well balanced diet. The official baker of the royal palace was called and he was explained with the issue. After thinking about it for a while, he came up with the solution.
A foreword is necessary at this point. In late 1600s in Piedmont, most of the people from the lower classes were not speaking Italian, neither French but a local language still in use today called “piedmontese” which is a mix of the two with it’s own grammar and vocabulary. The Royal Baker was only able to speak Piedmontese.
The Italian name of the breadsticks is “Grissini” which is a transliteration of the piedmontese “GHERSIN”. The bread dough is called GHERSA in piedmontese, thus GERSIN is a diminutive which refers a small dough.
The baker showed up before the young Duke and he said that his problem was the soft part inside the bread which is in fact not fully baked (on purpose) and facilitates the production of stomac acids, thus he needed to create a bread made only of crust. He basically said he would not make bigh dough (Ghersa) anymore, but small ones (Ghersin) and he would lenghten them by picking it with both hands, making waving movements in a way to distance the two far ends. Through such a process, the bread would become a stick made only of crust, fully digestible. This process is called “stirare a mano”.
It goes without saying that the Duke recovered from his sickness and the breadsticks became a huge success. Legend has it that when Napoleon conquerred the city he discovered the breadsticks and he loved them so much to order a weekly supply to be delivered to Paris.
Nowadays there are 2 methods for making the bredsticks: 1) stirato a mano, which is the procedure described above and 2) Rubatà, which is the Piedmontese for “rolling”. Such procedure is used to extend the lenght by rolling the dough on a surface, as if you were making gnocchi.
The original breadsticks are very long and that is why you often find them broken into two pieces each to prevent them from being too invasive on your restaurant’s table. Otherwise you can find them wrapped into a bag whose label says: Grissini Torinesi but in this case they never exceed a lenght of 30 cm.
Thank you Victor Amadeus II!!!