Toast of the Tiber

Food - Bee Wilson on how to make the perfect <em>bruschetta</em>

The relationship between bruschetta and "garlic bread" is a peculiar one. In principle, bruschetta is the honest, poor man's original - nothing but charred, oil-soaked bread rubbed with garlic - while "garlic bread" is the embellished pretender. But somehow things have got mixed up. British democracy has confused them. Garlic bread became genuinely democratised, sold in dispiriting packs of two, or even four, for 99p in the brightest freezer cabinets. Meanwhile, the monied torchbearers of democracy - in fact, the elite - went crazy for bruschetta, paying a small fortune for pane covered in broad beans or anchovies at the River Cafe. And so, bizarrely, buttery indigestible garlic bread has come to seem unpretentious "people's food", while bruschetta is the poncy snack of the People's Party.

This is an unfortunate state of affairs. Everything that is best about bruschetta - its power to bestow well-being in one crisp bite - is betrayed by garlic bread. To begin with, as Marcella Hazan points out: "The most important ingredient in bruschetta is not garlic but olive oil." The garlic on bruschetta is rubbed on, so that you inhale the fresh garlic perfume as a backdrop to the olive oil, rather than eating great lumps of it. The origin of bruschetta was probably the ancient Roman practice of tasting newly pressed olive oil on a piece of bread, with or without garlic - a practice that has continued in the oil-producing areas of Tuscany, Umbria and Lazio.

The name derives from bruscare, meaning "to roast over coals". Alice Waters's version of bruschetta involves frying country bread in large amounts of oil, until thoroughly impregnated, and Elizabeth David recommends baking slices of white bread in the oven. But the best method for the modern cook is probably a very hot grill pan. The key is crispness (another difference with garlic bread), which steams in its own sogginess whether in foil or microwave.

The cause of bruschetta has not been well served by the versions often served in high-street pasta houses, which are indeed inferior to well-made garlic bread. A dry piece of French bread covered with canned green olives dyed black, chopped garlic, and melted Danish blue cheese is not bruschetta, though I have been served it as such. Italians are generally more sparing with their flavourings. A spreading of goose fat is one possibility, but the best, if most obvious, bruschetta is that of Lazio, where tomatoes and basil are heaped on top of the oily bread. At Remo's pizzeria in Rome, it costs L3000 a piece (less than a pound), and comes to the paper-covered table on a basic white plate. It is hot from the charred bread and cold from the salty tomatoes (which are variegated in colour, green at the edges, and seeded but not skinned), and if it weren't for fear of looking oily-fingered and greedy among the nice Roman families sharing salt cod fritters, you could carry on eating it forever. The strange thing is, you don't even notice the garlic.

Bruschetta (for four)
4-5 beef tomatoes, sea salt, basil, 4 thick slices sour dough bread, garlic, olive oil
Cut the tomatoes in half, and scoop out the seeds with your fingers. (Do not throw them away: they are a useful addition to scrambled eggs or salad dressing). Cut the deseeded tomatoes into finch dice, and macerate with several spoonfuls of salt for half an hour. Stir in some chopped basil. Slice the bread thickly, and toast until black stripes form on a very hot grill pan (or toast in toaster). Rub with cut garlic, pour oil over the bread (the over-used verb, "to drizzle", is not appropriate here), smother with tomatoes, and consume at once, visualising the banks of the Tiber, rather than Millbank, as you eat.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Are the loonies coming back?