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The origin of garlic bread

Here’s how garlic bread—a poor Roman’s meal—became a global obsession, and continues to be so till date 

Of all the Italian dishes to have earned global citizenship, nothing comes close to garlic bread. The Italian bruschetta that gained mileage as a side kick to pizza beginning 1880 thanks to the immigration of Italians to the US today has versions that have evolved not only through the years thanks to local influences, but have some local avatars too. In India, for instance, it is quite common to see garlic bread served with chillies, capsicum, and a whole lot of other toppings—much in sync with the numerous pizza versions we have.

Garlic bread
Garlic bread is loved all over the world. Image: Shutterstock

However, the one place that the famous Italian classic didn’t see much change was in the restaurants and hotels, where the serving of garlic bread was strictly traditional: bruschetta style using a day-old sourdough bread, preferably the baguette that is known to yield well to the cheese and garlic-butter topping. 

That was the scene till recently. Thanks to a few chefs, the good old garlic bread—an essential side to a wonderful Italian experience, seems to have had a transformation. Incidentally, the change isn’t in just how it appears but in its composition as well. 

Take the garlic bread of HopsHaus Bengaluru, for instance. Not only is the version here not bruschetta style, but it is made of bread that has been proved and baked on order with a generous filling of a cheese blend and garlic butter, and takes about 45 minutes to an hour to be ready. A brainchild of Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, HopsHaus, the idea behind the change in the composition of the garlic bread was inspired by two things: one, the local cheese range in Bengaluru that finally made using Parmigiano-Reggiano possible; and two, the kind of wholesome experience that a made-on-order bread can affect. “It just cranks up the experience,” says Chef Seth, who uses oven-roasted garlic instead of butter in the filling that gives it that rich, velvety garlic feel without the unappetising sharpness and mouthfeel.

Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Hopshaus, makes a cheese-filled version of garlic bread
Chef Vikas Seth, Culinary Director, Hopshaus, makes a cheese-filled version of garlic bread

Curiously, Chef Seth isn’t alone in rethinking the wheel when it comes to garlic bread. The version by Chef Dhruv Oberoi, Head Chef, Olive Bar & Kitchen, too is a far cry from the 1902 standard. Instead of the all-familiar baguette slice generously topped with cheese, Olive’s garlic bread, says Chef Oberoi, “is presented in the English toast and butter manner, where the hand-rolled baguette that has parmesan folded in its dough is brushed with olive oil (in summers and butter in winters) and baked in the wood oven and comes with a garlic salsa made with salt-baked garlic, caramelised onion, olive oil, balsamic and burnt rosemary.”

Garlic bread cheese-filled version
The cheese-filled version of garlic bread

Another interesting presentation is that of Imperfecto where garlic bread is, in fact, a serving of a mini baguette loaf instead of slices that are slathered with cheese and garlic. “It is more of the sailor’s version where we use an entire loaf, the size of a dinner roll,” says Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, Culinary Director, Imperfecto, “to prepare our garlic bread on order.” Once baked, the bread is slit, and the mix of cheese is filled into the crevices with roasted garlic spread in between. Once filled, the loaf is brushed with herbed oil and toasted to crisp the crust and melt the cheese. 

A far, far cry from the Italian-American garlic bread that the world was introduced to soon after World War II when the butter-garlic-cheese toast began making in-roads into different cultures as one of the greatest migrant fast foods and became the standard style of making the Italian classic; they do score on the taste factor that once made Bruschetta alla romana or the original garlic bread so popular across the Roman kingdom. Said to have been invented in Tuscany before the Romans came to power, garlic bread originally was more a poor man’s sustenance. Made of bread that had passed its prime, the first iteration of garlic bread, says a culinary anthropologist, “was of a day-old thick slice of bread, toasted, rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil and a pinch of salt. Served across eateries called thermopoliums, it was one of the more interesting ways to put old bread to use, and cheap enough for the poor to indulge in frequently.”

In fact, last year a dig at Pompeii showcased how the loaves that had passed their prime were quickly sliced, toasted, and turned into Bruschetta alla romana for the evening drinkers.

Such was the popularity of the garlic bread among denizens, especially the soldiers who had it as a source of courage before going to the march, that often they would pack a few toasted breads along with a small bottle of olive oil and oven-roasted garlic for the road. For the poor people, garlic bread thanks to the limited resources used was a way of nourishment too. After all, garlic back in the day was this all-cure allium that was also an aphrodisiac. And since the society’s major concern was health and fertility of young people, the toast became another way of keeping the larger population satiated and nurtured. 

Chef Saby or Sabyasachi Gorai
According to Chef Sabyasachi Gorai, using cheese in garlic bread was a Roman upscaling

Fascinatingly, says Chef Gorai, “the use of cheese in garlic bread wasn’t an American addition as earlier believed, but a Roman upscaling. A common breakfast of the well to do in Pompeii was the freshly baked, cake-shaped bread served with cheeses both fresh and aged along with a variety of fruits, dry fruits, honey, and nuts. A common eating practice was to make your own little slice, and it is possible that garlic bread too would have reached the table, albeit in a more refined format where instead of raw garlic, the pods would be roasted to get that butter-like smoothness without the sharpness.”

Whether Caesar, Nero or Caligula ever had a taste of the famous garlic bread is hard to ascertain, but the bruschetta that remained the privy of southern Italy did garner its share of interest resulting in the rise of another toast-treat called bruschette. The latter version would become the broader terminology of all kinds of toppings served on a toast, including the classic tomato-mozzarella-basil that became popular around the 16th century. 

The distinction between the two forms of toasts, interestingly, says Chef Seth, “didn’t only showcase the two different food cultures of southern and northern Italy but also the tables they were served in. While Bruschetta alla romana remained a commoner’s favourite made with garlic, olive oil and salt; bruschette comprised of all the other creations and soon became a popular appetiser for the rich and famous.”

By the early 15th century, the bruschetta, in fact, became a way to taste great ingredients and would be often used in the court of Catherine de Medici to sample great ingredients that were either produced locally or imported. Such was the moreish-ness of this simple treat that each region developed its own bruschette (eventually renamed as bruschetta). In Piedmont, for instance, it’s called “soma d’aj”, and is covered with garlic, olive oil, and a slice of tomato and, during the grape harvest season, is served along with a bunch of grapes. In Calabria, pepper and oregano is added to the bruschetta; in Alba, the foraged truffles in season; while in Abruzza, the bruschetta is made of ventricina, their famous pork sausage. Of course, says Chef Oberoi, “over the years the bruschette comprised of more elaborate versions too where you could have toast layered with cuts of meat like prosciutto crudo, chicken livers, fresh sausage or lard that melts delightfully into the warm crevices of a toasted sourdough bread; or a farmer’s bounty that has zucchini, eggplant, mushrooms, bell peppers and different types of cheeses that are either sprinkled or spread. But the best bruschetta remained the ones that are simple and showcased the bread—the oldest food of Italy.”

Chef Dhruv Oberoi
According to Chef Dhruv Oberoi of Olive Bar & Kitchen, over time the bruschette became fancier with interesting toppings like chicken livers and fresh sausage

It was, adds Chef Seth, “garlic bread’s simple recipes—it could be made with limited resources—and acute adaptability that made it the first bruschetta to travel to different regions when many Italian immigrants migrated to US for a better life. Between 1660-1942, garlic bread not only earned new ingredients—butter being the most important—but also palates and became a popular street treat.”

In fact, says Chef Gorai, “it was in the US that the modern-day garlic bread took shape. The garlic butter was the US-Italian invention where instead of olive oil, which was still a few decades away from making its debut, butter was used to create Bruschetta alla romana. The garlic was used in a variety of ways—chopped, crushed and baked—along with traditional herbs, oregano being the first, and eventually cheese was introduced as cheesemaking became popular. What didn’t change was the use of the one-day old bread.”

It wasn’t out of need, continues Chef Gorai, “but taste. Stale bread could take the butter and cheese better than a fresh bread and had that trademark crispness even the Italians would associate the good old Bruschetta alla romana with.”

The tweaking turned garlic bread into one of the greatest migration food stories as it was this version of the garlic bread that made it to the world market in 1970 in frozen format. A decade later, olive oil made its world debut, but by then, say the chefs, “the Italian-American version had stamped its popularity world over, including India where it became the first Italian dish to gain acceptance.”

What gave garlic bread that edge? “The flavour profile,” says Chef Seth, “The US-Italian version of garlic bread while being calorie dense was built for taste. It scores high on the rich combination of sugar (bread), salt (butter, cheese) and fat (butter, cheese) along with a good dose of umami-ness that adds to the deliciousness and addictiveness. A reason why we always find the mention of garlic bread so exciting. In addition to that are the known health benefits of garlic. And given that India in the 1970s was familiar with both, the garlic bread despite its blandness compared to Indian food had its appeal.” 

While the chefs agree that the Italian classic is here to stay for another decade, the journey ahead, say the culinary minds, “would see the original bruschetta taking its original format of showcasing the best of ingredients, albeit with a few tweaks.” 

Madhulika Dash

Known for her columns on food anthropology, Chefs’ Retreat and wellness-based experiential tables, Madhulika Dash has also been on the food panel of Masterchef India Season 4, a guest lecturer at IHM, and is currently part of the Odisha government’s culinary council.

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