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Focaccia - very old and also new

"Of all the Mediterranean breads, focaccia (fugassa in the local dialect) - one of the great triumphs of Ligurian cooking - is the easiest to make at home." Claudia Roden


Having talked about Claudia Roden just the other day, here I am featuring her again, because this is a first recipe post - from her latest, and possibly last book, Med, which I have also talked about before. It is a most beautifully produced book as this photograph shows and there are many wonderful recipes within, although many are very familiar.


When I saw that focaccia was the first recipe my heart sank a little. I mean what you can say about it? Plus I have probably 'done' it before. But it's the first recipe, and I do try to stick to the 'rules' I have made for myself. Besides in some ways it is very appropriate because it is indeed very ancient - a first food - dating back to the Etruscans they say, although it was the Romans who gave it it's name - from the Latin 'focus' meaning 'hearth' - which just goes to prove that the kitchen is the centre of every home - or certainly should be. The Romans called the bread itself 'panis foccius' which means 'hearth bread'. It's a flat bread, which we all know were the first breads, but a leavened flat bread and moreover featured olive oil and salt.


As I said, focaccia is ubiquitous. Just about everyone has a recipe and just about everyone has a different take on it, and yet, when Elizabeth David wrote her book Italian Food way back in 1954 there are merely these few words, which in today's parlance would be considered incorrect - (focaccia is not pizza - or is it?):


"The Genoese pizza (also called focaccia) is a kind of bread, made with oil and salt, and is particularly good to eat with cheese." Elizabeth David (1954)


There is no recipe anywher in her books. And Claudia Roden doesn't mention it either in Picnic for example, which was later - 1981.


I am not at all sure when focaccia became a thing. Various people date it to Italian immigrants in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and they may well have been cooking it at home, but the first mention I found of it in restaurants was in the 1990s, which makes rather more sense. Now admittedly, as usual I have not 'researched' in depth, but I'm guessing that some chef in an Italian restaurant decided to cook the focaccia that his nonna had made back in Italy or even in America, and somehow or other it became a hit and spread. Well it is indeed easy to make and also infinitely variable in what you can put on top - or inside - like pizza.


"With kids, or without them, make focaccia. It will set you in good stead for very many picnics, suppers, car journeys and general humdrum hunger. An early form of pizza, focaccia is a simple yeasted bread dough studded with flavour, smothered with olive oil and baked.


It is the process of flattening, flavouring and nurturing the dough that makes focaccia a wonderful thing. With firm claw-like fingers to dimple the risen dough, you can then add whatever you want to these pockets." Claire Thompson


So make some with your kids or your grandkids - to them "bread dough is beige play dough" Claire Thompson says and the stickier the better.


For focaccia dough is sticky. It's much wetter than pizza dough or it's other manifestation sciacciata - which is the Tuscan version. The differences between the three - and probably other versions too - are pretty subtle, but they are different. You use oil and salt in focaccia - indeed these seem to be a feature - both in and on top of the dough. Focaccia is also fairly thick, and proved twice. You dimple the top and then smother with oil, although opinion seems to differ as to when you create the dimples - before or after the second proving. Pizza is not proved twice, and almost always tomatoes and cheese are part of the deal although lovers of pizza bianca would, of course disagree. Sciacciata is different again - thinner and crispier.


I also found an outlier, which doesn't really belong here at all because it's really quite different, but it has the name of focaccia - Focaccia al formaggio di recco. It's not a leavened dough, it's just cheese sandwiched between two sheets of thin pastry and baked. In some ways more like a quesadilla.



But let's stick to focaccia for now - the kind of flatbread that I think virtually all of us would recognise as focaccia. I can't actually find this particular Claudia Roden recipe online, although there are other versions which are very close. For myself, for several years I made the version in my No-Knead Bread cookbook and it was generally pretty good. It included cheese in the dough, which is not at all authentic, but it worked, until one day it didn't. It was just horrible. The dough hadn't risen and it was very, very stodgy.


For a while I gave up, but one day I really fancied some focaccia so I investigated and decided to have a go at Jamie and Gennaro's version as shown on their video How to make focaccia which I know I have mentioned before. And I have to say that it was brilliant. So that's what I'm sticking to for now. Jamie does actually have several focaccia recipes, the one that is simply called Focaccia and shown here is, I think, from his very first book The Naked Chef, when he was young and unknown.


In her usual search for perfection Felicity Cloake also has a go at testing out a few versions - she actually makes them - and points out the general areas of contention. In this case that would be what flour to use and when to make those dimples. With regards to the flour it seems to be a choice between plain old ordinary flour, strong flour, 00flour and semolina flour, or a combination of two or three of those. I think Jamie's version is semolina and strong flour, but I could be wrong. It could just be plain ordinary flour and semolina flour. These days I notice a few cooks were recommending all those fashionable things like spelt, and emmer, as they are also increasingly suggesting using a sourdough starter rather than yeast, although Nigel Slater said this produced too many holes which made it useless for dips. Well I'm sure others would disagree.


It is easy though:


"I regard focaccia easier to make than to spell, and wonder if it isn't the bread to make first, even before you attempt a traditional white loaf. A batch rarely fails." Nigel Slater


Particularly if you have a stand mixer that will do all the kneading for you - probably better too. It has to be thoroughly kneaded until it is smooth and springy and silky. I did find a website called Tasting Table which rather usefully listed some of the things that could go wrong in an article called Thirteen biggest mistakes everyone makes while baking focaccia.


Several of my experts recommended leaving it to prove in the fridge overnight, but that takes planning about which I am not very good. Easy and probably more efficient as it is, don't despair if it doesn't look as if it has risen enough. Nigel Slater says it will be risen 'somewhat' and:


"don’t expect it to be as high as if you had proved it in a warm place ... it will swell during second proving" Nigel Slater


Originally focaccia would have been relatively plain. These days, however, the fun is in what you put on top - or even mixed into the dough. Claudia Roden has a variety of suggestions, from just salt - salt is absolutely necessary - to tapenade and cooked onions. In fact her suggestions are pretty simple - some people turn it into an artform - just check out #Focacciaart on Instagram - see a few below.



Olives, of course are a favourite, as are tomatoes - my favourite I confess. The Guardian had an article called Chefs' tips for funkier focaccia with some somewhat different ideas, and I also found a few more: Party focaccia with lemon, roast onion and grapes from Anna Jones; Focaccia with black grapes from Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of River Café; Ottolenghi's Potato focaccia and the OTK - probably Noor Murad - and Black lime focaccia with smoky chipotle oil, the recipe for which is not online - you'll have to buy the book - Extra Good Things - and you should.



Speaking of the chipotle oil, reminds me that more than one chef also suggested sprinkling, some even dousing, the top of the focaccia with a brine - whether just salt and water, or the pickle brine from the jar of chillies that you just put on the top of your focaccia. Apparently this makes it crisper. If you do this of course, you don't have to also sprinkle with salt, which you should otherwise do.


So what to do with the leftovers - if you have any. Personally I just reheat in foil and serve again. But you can slice and toast, or make a sandwich - as Nigel Slater does here. Many recommended that if you make a sandwich the filling should be juicy rather than dry, and Nigel went so far as to suggest filling the focaccia and then putting under a wooden board weighted with something heavy for a while. Rather like the French Pan bagnat I guess. If he still has leftovers the next day:


"The bread's last incarnation came this morning, torn into rough nuggets and dumped at the bottom of a couple of deep soup bowls. I covered it with a ladle or two of steaming chicken stock, a handful of shredded, blanched spring greens (so bright, so full of life) and a further trickle of olive oil. My bread was used down to the last juicy, salty crumb."


Now doesn't that sound so thoroughly modern and yet so thoroughly ancient at the same time. So simple too. One can imagine Italian peasants of old sitting down to such a meal after a hard day's work in the fields.


Last thing - Rachel Roddy suggested making Focaccia sausage rolls with any leftover focaccia dough. Which is slightly weird, but possibly pretty nice.


I do make focaccia every now and then. It is the perfect accompaniment to soup - particularly a minestrone style one, as well as being the perfect nibble for the hungry family when they arrive for a meal. And for the Jamie naysayers think before you criticise him for his schtick. Watch that video and before long even your smallest child will be making something absolutely delicious. There are lots and lots of comments from very ordinary people thanking him for his focaccia video and recipe.


POSTSCRIPT

Yesterday afternoon The Guardian's Feast newsletter arrived in my email inbox and what a coincidence to see Felicity Cloake promoting a new Irish cookbook The Irish Bakery. Then one of the first items was her How to make the perfect Dublin coddle. Furthermore, further down the newsletter was a link to an article on Dark Arts: How to Cook with Guinness. For a moment I thought I had inadvertently timed my post on Irish Food to coincide with St. Patrick's Day. But no that's in March. Just pure coincidence. Creepy.


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