Garlic Bread: A Perfect Taste Symphony

What made a commoner's meal to use leftovers in Rome become the most recognised and loved treat worldwide.  

By Madhulika Dash


Talk about food that needs no introduction, and chances are that the one treat that would prime the list is Garlic Bread. Despite its humble composition of treat, which essentially is a toast slathered with garlic infused butter, this quintessential cafe side today isn't only the most recognised toast/open sandwich that appeals across palates but also the one that has been experimented the most in recent times. 

From the Roman styled olive smoothened garlic rubbed on a sourdough bread slice to grilled brioche layered with cultured butter and cheese to the gourmet style garlic butter doused freshly baked bun with the cheese pull effect in HopsHaus, let’s take a look. 

But how did this Italian dish rise to such global dominance? 

While the garlic bread that we know and recognise today made its debut around the second World War as a popular finger food for soldiers then, and had most of its earlier variations, including the one with cheese and the use of baguette slice as the base toast, around the time; the idea of garlic bread took shape in ancient Rome. Fascinatingly, not as a treat, but as a clever way to use stale bread. It began when an enterprising thermopolium owner decided to toast old rye bread and rub it with garlic, a popular aphrodisiac around the time, and serve it with olive oil and a jar of wine to soldiers for half the cost of a meal. 



Named Bruschetta alla romana, the innovative treat quickly earned its spot as a popular snack among evening drinkers, who found it an exciting addition for their drink experience – and a quick meal too. And soon garlic bread or Bruschetta alla romana began  its journey to different parts of the empire, taking on a local spin wherever it went thanks to soldiers who found it a delicious way to sustain themselves.

The Pompeii connection however is one side of the Garlic Bread origin story, the other comes from the region of Tuscany. Story has it that when Romans invaded the region, they chanced upon what many historians consider the earliest version of garlic bread for Bruschetta alla romana: essentially a day-old bread thick slice, toasted, rubbed with garlic, drizzled with olive oil and pinch of salt. A staple of the working class in Tuscany, this open sandwich found its way into the military camp and then into many Roman cities where it first became a popular street treat and eventually an integral part of the feast table, especially one hosted for and by the young people. 

Garlic's reputation as an aphrodisiac and a cure-all ensured Garlic Bread's run as a classic with a few tweaks on the way. One of them was the use of garlic on the toast. Instead of using the raw pods, the Pompeii and later versions had the entire bulb of garlic roasted on open fire so it attains the butter like smoothness and could be spread like butter – an ace that separates a good garlic bread from the not so good one.  


Did the likes of Emperors Caligula and Nero fall for the charms of garlic bread? While it is hard to ascertain, the advent of garlic bread and  the resultant rise of another fascinating toast treat called bruschette – a segment that would define all forms of open toast treats including the classic tomato-mozzarella-basil that became popular around the 16th century – did change not just the fortune of toast, which now was a gourmet treat too, but how the world had it.  

By the early 15th century, the bruschette had become the canvas of culinary exchange. Ingredients, dishes, spices and even fruits would have to pass the bruschetta test to be a part of the European culinary lexicon, especially in the court of Catherine De Medici, who introduced the art of fine dining in courses. 

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, along with a bunch of grapes. In Calabria, pepper and oregano is added to the bruschetta; in Alba, the foraged truffles are in season while in Abruzza, the bruschetta is made of ventricina, their famous pork sausage. Over the years,  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 like the Garlic bread. 



Simplicity however wasn't the sole reason for Garlic Bread's globetrotting stint. In the later years, the Roman treaty continued to hold its court for the same reason that made it popular in Pompeii. Garlic bread needed limited resources, was filling and delicious, and yet could be tweaked to local taste. Between 1660-1942, garlic bread did exactly that.  

In fact, it was in the US that the modern-day Garlic bread we know today was created.  The garlic butter was the US-Italian creation where Olive Oil was replaced with butter that was infused with softened garlic, chopped garlic or even crushed garlic, eventually commercially made cheese was added to it. What didn't change was the bread: even in its US-Italian fusion, garlic bread tastes best with one day old bread. 

Much like pizza, garlic bread too turned into one of the  greatest migration food stories that made its frozen debut in 1970. It was the US-Italian version that the rest of the world came to know, accept and love, including India. 

What gave garlic bread that edge? The flavour profile. The US-Italian version of garlic bread although calorie dense was built to taste. It scored high on the rich combination of sugar (bread), salt (butter, cheese) and fat (butter, cheese) along with a good dose of Umami-ness thanks to the cheese and garlic, which made the bread addictive.




The frozen run of garlic bread came to an end almost a decade ago as chefs began experimenting with different versions of the Italian treat using quality ingredients. Thus, creating a new chapter in the history of this Italian treat. So what makes a good garlic bread today? 

Take the Garlic Bread of HopsHaus Bengaluru for instance. Not only is the version here not bruschetta style, but is made of bread that are proven 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 Dhruv Oberoi’s (head Chef, Olive Bar & Kitchen) version 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.”

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.”