Tuscun bread, fruity olive oil and big red tomatoes: we reveal how the Italians make amazing bruschetta, every time
The history of bruschetta
Also known as fettunta (‘greased slice’) in Tuscany, bruschetta’s origins are thought to be medieval. Italian food legend Marcella Hazan argues it can be traced back to the ancient Romans and even the Etruscans, the name coming from the Roman bruscare, ‘roasted over coals’. Since all the ingredients were widely available then (with the exception of upstart tomatoes) it’s hardly a leap of imagination to see ancient Romans tucking into their own version of garlic bread.
Although it’s enjoyed across the country, central Italy is said to be bruschetta’s spiritual home.
Andrea Boscu Bianchi Bandinelli’s family estate, Villa di Geggiano, near Siena, has enjoyed 400 years of glorious architecture, fabulous wine and extraordinary food. He recently opened a restaurant in Chiswick, also called Villa di Geggiano, that aims to bring a little Tuscan sophistication and glamour to the UK: even if sadly, even they can’t transplant the weather that brings the ripe, fresh ingredients bruschetta depends on.
The restaurant’s head chef, Lazarin Kroni, hails from Sicily. Both he and Bianchi Bandinelli have strong memories of – and strong opinions on – the joys of bruschetta. They are adamant. Everything in bruschetta, from new-season garlic, bright, fragrant basil and the reddest, juiciest tomatoes to exceptional new-pressed extra-virgin olive oil, needs to be young – very young - with one exception.
Bianchi Bandinelli remembers, as a small boy growing up in the ancient villa, waking every day to the smell of fresh bread baked in a fireplace you could almost sit inside. Kroni’s stepfather actually was a baker. For both men, getting the base right is key.
Fresh Tuscan bread can be a bit of a disappointment to the uninitiated. Baked without salt it looks delicious, but doesn’t actually taste of much. Tuscany’s foods are often highly flavoured; a neutral, salt-free base allows them to shine at their best.
Leave this ‘neutral base’ a day or so, however, and the staling process gets underway, allowing the natural flavours to emerge.
It’s hard to find Tuscan bread in the UK, but Lazarin Kroni is quite happy to use a good quality rustic sourdough. Don’t cut it too thinly, or you’ll get crostini - more suitable as a receptacle for topping than an intrinsic part of a dish. Approximately 1.5cm is a nice balance between crisp exterior and soft insides.
If you’re lucky enough to own a josper grill, you can make like the top chefs and toast the bread on that. Happily, popping bread under a regular grill does the trick nicely, though if you can get the rungs scorching hot they will add flavour.
“The best bruschetta has to have a back taste of smoke,” says Bianchi Bandinelli.
“It needs to create some marks,” agrees Kroni. “It is good on a barbeque.”
A hint of garlic
Once the bread is lightly toasted, preferably with some nice black lines across it, rub a clove of garlic over the rough surface. How much is down to individual taste. “Some people rub the whole clove until there is nothing left,” says Bianci Bandinelli, who confesses to being a " bad Italian" and not actually liking the stuff. I tried several amounts of garlic in my trials and discovered it’s even more pungent than you might expect. Half a clove per toast overpowered some of the more delicate flavours; I’d recommend erring on the side of subtlety.
“You could create a map of Italy by the way they serve their bruschetta," says Bianchi Bandinelli. “In Rome, they like anchovies and mozzarella. In Puglia tomatoes. Oregano in Sicily. Rosemary and anchovies in Calabria.”
Most people in Britain associate bruschetta with tomatoes, though; fleshy, ripe and oozing with juice. This can present a challenge for UK cooks.
Great garlic, decent basil, impressive sea salt and top quality olive oil are all pretty easily acquired in cold, dark Blighty – but tomatoes are another thing altogether. We just don’t have the climate. Our reddest, freshest, juiciest toms are, frankly, pale imitations of the stuff they throw out in the Mediterranean.
If you’re having real trouble, leave tomatoes out altogether, serving your bruschetta ‘naked’ like they do in Tuscany – just garlic, salt and the finest, fruitiest, freshest olive oil available. “The salt should not be too refined,” says Andrea Boscu Bianchi Bandinelli, “there should be big grains you can taste and crunch.”
If you do use tomatoes, “try to find the best ones in the market,” says Lazarin Kroni. “Preferably large plum varieties or beefsteak”. Peeling them will add a juicy sensuousness. Score the flesh into quarters with a sharp knife, blanch for a few seconds in boiling water and the skin will come away easily.
If you can’t find truly exceptional beefsteaks, Lazarin suggests using cherry tomatoes. Simply cut them in half: there's no need to peel.
He likes to marinade the topping for about ten minutes. Roughly chop the tomatoes, then steep in the best olive oil you have, with some basil and seasoning. Tip a good dose of topping onto your garlic-rubbed toast, add a little more salt and olive oil and enjoy.
A traditional variation during the month of November in Tuscany uses cavolo nero black kale. Evolved to celebrate two classic Tuscan harvests, it also showcases the very first, spicy pressing of the new season’s extra virgin olive oil. “It’s important to enjoy it young,” says Bianchi Bandinelli “After a few months you lose the peppery taste”.
“Day-old bread, month-old oil, year-old wine,” goes the old Italian advice about bruschetta. And to drink alongside? Choose light wines, fresh and fruity. Rosés and light reds work particularly well, but bruschetta’s not a fussy dish. Drink what you love; you won’t go far wrong.
Recommended bruschetta recipes
Thank you images and information from telegraph.co.uk
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