Bruschette? Crostini? Friselle?

The Italians have a story for most any traditional dish. It is no different with the simple slice of toasted bread, they call Bruschetta.  

The name Bruschetta is believed to be related to ‘brusca’, an Italian name of a brush used to clean horses. The rough surface of a toasted bread slice resembles the very old tool used by Italian farmers.

Nobody knows for sure, but it could be reasoned that the tradition of serving toasted bread with garlic and olive oil should be attributed to Tuscan Renaissance farmers. The Tuscan Fettunta is the original form of Bruschetta, before the farmers of Campania, supposedly near Naples, put some tomatoes on it.

The Italian Bruschetta recipes most frequently are prepared with bread called Casareccio. This home-made bread is typical for Central Italy: Tuscany, Lazio, and Abruzzo. It has traditionally been baked without salt as it was heavily taxed by the Papal States and scarcely available then; consequently, this unsalted bread required some seasoning to become a dish.

In the past, bread was baked in quantities meant to last for at least a week, as making it required a lot of work. In the Italian cuisine there are numerous recipes that use stale bread, and Bruschetta is probably the oldest example.

While it is hard to believe that the divine combination of bread and olive oil would not be discovered until the Renaissance, one must consider the historical usage of olive oil and the time it has taken to develop the skills and technology for oil production and storage; before olive oil became commonly farmed and available.  The savor of Bruschetta strongly depends on the quality of olive oil used in a recipe; even in the past people were aware of the differences in quality, choosing only the best for consumption.

To most people 'Bruschetta' means a slice of toasted bread with olive oil, garlic, tomato and basil. In fact, it was the first diversion ever used by the Neapolitan farmers, who were among the first Europeans to grow and consume tomatoes. In that region, however, fresh oregano would be chosen over basil to accompany tomatoes. Today, the Neapolitan version is probably the most popular, but the variations of Bruschetta are infinite. It is prepared all over Italy and abroad; the recipes embrace a range of fresh produce, typical for respective regions.

As I searched for the story and recipes for Bruschetta, I also came across Crostini which are prepared in a similar manner. I asked my Italian friend to clarify the differences for me. He had to think for a moment, but then concluded that Bruschette are typically prepared with a larger slice of toasted bread and with chopped or diced produce. Crostini are smaller, meant to accompany soups, and they are served with some kind of spread. You will also find the word Crostini used for what we know as croutons. Furthermore, you will come across crostini di polenta, a variation typical for Northern Italy, which are prepared with toasted cornmeal instead of bread.
My friend also mentioned that he visited an Umbrian restaurant at his hometown of Torino, where he once tried their Crostoni; the name would indicate that they are the big Crostini, then in fact Bruschette. He laughed and agreed that the Italians with a slight twist to a recipe and a change of name adapt dishes to become their local specialty.

I n Southern Italy instead of Bruschette, you will find Friselle, which are hard bagels, made with semolina or whole wheat flour. They are dried in the oven in half slices and can be stored for several months. Historically they would be taken along by the crusaders to last during their long voyage; and the fishermen who would use sea water to soften the hard bagels before adding a topping made of herbs, fish or tomatoes. Friselle are easy to make if you only have the time; in my family it is a great emergency food, especially when we run out of bread.

Your creativity is the limit to the ways in which you can serve Bruschette, Crostini or Friselle. I hope that the few recipes on my blog will feed your imagination.   

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