Sometime, in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, William Cobbett, a journalist, wrote “Without bread all is misery.” Today, more than half a century later, I would like to honour his legacy by telling the world about the wonder that is focaccia.
In another life, when people could go to restaurants without a thousand worries, you may have— like me— chosen a restaurant solely for its bread.
If you ever encountered a spot-on bread basket and if the said place happened to be Italian, you should consider it your duty to taste the focaccia.
Focaccia (pronounced “foe-kah-cha”) is among the most popular of all Italian breads. If you travel to Italy, you’ll see focaccia eaten all day long— be it dunked in cappuccino as they do in Genoa (not to be confused with the Kingdom of Genovia from The Princess Diaries), taken to the beach as an afternoon snack, or used to make sandwiches.
While some are familiar with the thinner Tuscan-style focaccia made with rosemary (known as schiacciata or “smashed” bread) or the airier Genoa-style focaccia, there are numerous styles of focaccia from the various regions of Italy.
So, first of all, where does it come from?
Focaccia has a history dating back to almost 2,000 years. Some accounts credit the Etruscans while others give a nod to the Greeks for its creation. Today, Liguria (the region that’s home to Genoa) is considered as the epicentre for traditional Italian focaccia.
Focaccia is usually made of a combination of a strong flour (re: one that has a high gluten content), extra virgin olive oil, yeast, herbs, spices, salt, and pepper. Though those ingredients are similar to that of pizza, focaccia usually contains more yeast than a typical pizza recipe.
Making focaccia is a great way to try your hand at baking, but that doesn’t mean your first attempt will be a guaranteed success. Some struggle at getting the bread to rise, or end up with a super dense bread, and others bake a focaccia that tastes overly yeasted.
The reality is a few key details make all the difference between mediocre and great focaccia. The secret lies in using quality ingredients to create a dough with a minimum of 70% hydration.
Patience is key, as the dough must rest for a long time (anywhere from 8 hours and up to 48 hours after the initial kneading) so that the flavour can develop. This crucial step will allow for adequate fermentation, which in turn will guarantee superior (non-yeasty) flavour.
Another crucial step is to be extremely generous with the olive oil. Pretty much every step involves some olive oil—it should be in the dough, used to grease the baking sheet, and brushed on the bread before it goes in the oven, and when it comes out!
In the classic Genoa-style focaccia, the traditional step of adding brine to the dough before it is placed in the oven, makes a world of difference. This brine, made by whisking together 1 part water to 2 parts olive oil and a large pinch of sea salt, gives the final focaccia an airy, golden crust and helps the salt really incorporate into the dough well.
If you travel through Italy, you’ll find focaccia breads that vary greatly with different thickness, toppings, and texture.
Liguria is the birthplace of traditional focaccia bread, where it is known as focaccia Ligure or focaccia Genovese. This one is a simple yet classic one, sprinkled with salt, brushed with olive oil, soft and about an inch thick.
But Liguria is also the home of focaccia di Recco, which has cheese in between two thin layers of bread. If you head to the town of Sanremo near the French border, you’ll come across a focaccia topped with anchovies or sardines known as sardenaira or pizzalandrea— reminiscent of the French flatbread known as pissaladière.
During Easter celebrations, Venetians make a sweet take on focaccia that is topped with sugar and butter instead of salt and olive oil. While in the Southern Italian town of Bari, you’ll find focaccia Barese, made with durum wheat flour and topped with rosemary, tomatoes, and/or olives and salt.
There is the rather well-known Tuscan focaccia known as schiacciata. This focaccia bread is fully covered in olive oil, usually thinner than the Genoa-style focaccia, topped with rosemary, and has a soft interior with a crispy outer layer. During the harvest months it’s common to make schiacciata all’uva where the bread is sweetened and stuffed with wine grapes.
Lastly, I would like to end this rather thrilling account by putting my beautifully baked focaccia out for everyone to see.
– Stuti, D. P. S. Noida