Bread Sticks were created in Turin, Italy during the Middle Ages, sometime between the 14th and 17th centuries, depending on which story you prefer. There are legends associated with their creation which I have as yet been unable to provide primary documentation for, so they won’t be repeated except as a flight of fancy. Those stories center around the Duke of Savoy, Vittorio Amedeo II, for whom the bread was supposedly baked in the hope it would relieve his intestinal complaints. As the bread sticks are thin and crisp and more cracker-like in texture, it was hoped they would be easier to digest than the heavy bread usually served.
In Italy they are called grissini, supposedly after the physician who “invented” them. They were, “bread not larger than pipe-stems…some two feet long, very brittle and easy of digestion…a specialty of Turin where they originated…” 1.
Travel journals are fun to read when Americans or Brits encountered the grissini for the first time. They, “were not a little surprised on asking for bread to see the waiter bring in a number of long sticks, the size of pipe stems and lay them upon the table. We repeated the demand, and were near laughing when it appeared that both he and his master called them bread, and expected us to eat them. The taste was agreeable enough, but we found it took so much time to manage them, that instead of making away with a couple of yards (a moderate allowance for breakfast) we had hardly swallowed a foot and a half.” 2.
Rousseau recommended them for teething children  and said the “Piedmontese bread” was also known as Grisses. Turin is the capitol of Piedmont, Italy and that is why some 18th century writers used the name Piedmontese. 3.
Several writers commented on the unusually long time they retained their crispness, and yet it was said, “grissini—Piedmontese bread, in long delicate stems, laid across the table, snapping as you touch them and melting like ice-cream on your tongue…”. 4.
“We ate about three yards of bread which our musical waiter brought in a great bundle, like a parcel of sticks, under his arm! 5.
The Dublin University Magazine [Oct. 1859] proclaimed grissini, the bundle of sticks, the, “most delicious kind of bread”.
The grissini were often mentioned along with hot soup, minestra was a common variety, with cheese grated on top. 6.
“By the side of each plate was a bundle of small sticks, of the size of slate pencils, and from eight to ten inches long. At first both the children were very much puzzled by them, but seeing the use their father put them to, concluded they must be a substitute for bread. So it proved. They were delicately browned, short and crisp, like crackers, and were a most convenient plaything between the different courses. It is said of King Carlo Felice, that he always took a basket of these grissini with him whenever he went to the theater, that he might have something to amuse him between the scene. Nowhere but in Turin are they made so nicely, so that the Emperor Napoleon, who would have them on his table in Paris, had them expressed to him every morning fresh from Turin”. 7.
As for receipts, a London cookery book contained a receipt for Turin sticks in 1867, and by the 1880’s, receipts for bread sticks were being published on both sides of the Atlantic. They were sometimes called soup-sticks or salt-sticks.
TURIN STICKS. Two pounds of white flour, two ounces of fresh butter. Rub the butter well into the flour; add two teaspoonfuls of baking powder, and sufficient pure cold spring water to mix it into a stiff paste; cut into little lumps of equal size, roll out into long thin sticks as quickly as possible; bake in a rather quick oven. 8.
The following modern recipe for crunchy breadsticks comes from Taste of Home magazine.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
3 Tbsp. shortening
½ to ¾ cup ice water
1 Tbsp. olive oil
¼ tsp. coarse salt
¼ tsp. dried thyme
Combine the flour, baking powder, salt and shortening in a food processor, cover and process until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. While processing, gradually add water until the dough forms a ball. Transfer to a floured surface. Roll dough into a 10 in. x 8 in. rectangle. Cut into 10-in. x ½ in. strips. Twist each strip four times and place on baking sheets. Brush with oil. Combine coarse salt and thyme; sprinkle over breadsticks. Bake at 350 for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack. Makes 16.
For a yeast version, search the King Arthur Flour archives. Blissful Meals, yall. ©
1. Taylor, George Boardman. Italy and the Italians. 1898. Philadelphia.
2. Dwight, Theodore. A Journal of a Tour in Italy in the Year 1821. 1824. NY.
3. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Emilius. Vol. 1. 1763. London.
4. Costello, Dudley. Piedmont and Italy From the Alps to the Tiber. Vol. 1. 1861. London. & The Ladies Repository. Vol. 24. May 1864.
5. Roby, John. Seven weeks in Belgium, Switzerland, Lombardy, Piedmont, and Savoy. Vol. 2. 1838. London.
6. Vine, Frederick T. Practical Bread-making.
7. Sewell, Alfred & Miller, Emily. The Little Corporal. May 1868.
8. Llanover, Lady Augusa Waddington Hall. Good Cookery Illustrated. 1867. London.