I love bread in all its forms, but near the top of my favorites is focaccia. I mean what genius thought to pair bread with olive oil, cheese and any number of combinations of toppings. My curiousity was piqued when we sampled the grape fociaccia, chiacciata con l’uva a specialty of Florence. We loved grabbing a slice and nibbling it as we absorbed the incredible city we found ourselves in. Just like pasta, it appeared that the choice of toppings were heavily influenced by region and variations extend far beyond the borders of Italy to France, Spain, Turkey
In the Beginning
Focacia is Latin for hearth or fireside, dates back more than 2,000 years and is the source of the name focaccia. Similarly, the name is taken from the Roman phrase panis focacius, which referred to a flat bread baked on a hearth or under the ashes of a fire. While focaccia dough is similar to pizza dough, comprised of high-gluten flour, oil, water, sugar, salt and yeast – it’s the baking process that gives focaccia its unique taste. The bread is typically rolled out or pressed by hand into a thick layer of dough and then baked in a stone oven or on a hearth harkening back to its origins. During the baking process, bakers puncture the bread eliminating unwanted bubbles that may result in deformities.
Those multiple wells were also a way to preserve moisture in the bread, as olive oil is then spread over the dough, by hand or with a pastry brush prior to rising and baking. In the northern part of Italy, lard will sometimes be added to the dough, giving the focaccia a softer, slightly flakier texture.
Historically, focaccia bread was associated with religious ceremonies (mainly Catholic) such as Christmas Eve and the Epiphany. However, the traditional focaccia bread of the past gave way to new forms from the North to the South in Italy as ingredients such as herbs, cheeses, meats, vegetables and honey contributed to the bread’s diverse and unique flavors.
Variations on a Theme
Different kinds of flat breads – essentially mixtures of flour (not always wheat), water and salt – have been prepared since ancient times by cultures spanning the globe. No small part of focaccia’s appeal is that the dough is so easy to prepare – requiring less kneading than regular bread – and it cooks a lot faster. To me part of the appeal is its portability. Enter a bakery feeling a bit peckish, exit with just about the most perfect munching food ready to resume exploration.
Some consider focaccia the ancestor of pizza – the dough used is similar, though there are some differences. Focaccia contains olive oil; classic pizza dough does not. The yeast content varies in focaccia (as it does in pizza), but generally focaccia has a thicker crust than most pizzas – though of course this distinction too varies by region.
Take for example:
Fugassa from Liguria – made of natural yeast, extra virgin olive oil and rock salt – is perhaps the most popular focaccia in Italy and abroad, and considered the original. Although there is some debate that the Etruscans, or ancient Greeks actually produced the first batches. This region offers unique challenges to bread making as the sharp salty air of the climate in this area makes yeast raised breads challenging, and is one of the reasons (along with the fact that yeast was rare 2,000 years ago) that the first focaccia was yeast free.
The high moisture content in the air prevents that desired crust from forming, let alone allow the bread to rise. Further complicating matters is that the bread is prone to mold almost as soon as it is removed from the oven. Hence the natural desire for a bread that did not require yeast and could be eaten straight away.
Fugassa di Recco (also known as focaccia al formaggio) is also from Liguria in Recco near Genoa, but this version contains crescenza (aka stracchino) cheese sandwiched between the two layers of dough.
Puglia gives us focaccia di patate, with potatoes and other ingredients are mixed with the flour.
Naples, offers focaccia bearing a strong resemblance to the classic pizza, with the dough topped with oil, a splash of tomato sauce and oregano.
The focaccia ripiena of Apulia is a bread dough filled with mozzarella, tomatoes, ham and onion or baked in the oven then cut into slices for consuption.
How about cauliflower? The Sicilian schiacciata catanese – contains cauliflower, anchovies and sausages.
Not to be outdone, the fitascetta from Lombardy is baked with red onions and a sugary topping.
Florence, and surrounding Tuscany has schiacciata con l’uva a traditional focaccia made with sweet and juicy grapes.
Camogll has biscuit-hard focaccia that is contrasted by the oily softness of a version made in Voltri
Parts of northwestern Italy, take a basic focaccia and sprinkled with sugar, or including raisins, honey, or other sweet ingredients.
Consider the focaccia alla genovese, originated in Genoa, or the focaccia alla messinese, from Messina.
Another popular variation is the Focaccia Barese, common in the provinces of Bari, Brindisi, Lecce and Taranto, that comes in three variations: classic focaccia with fresh tomatoes and olives, potato focaccia with potato slices and white Focaccia with salt grains and rosemary. Other options include peppers, onions, eggplant or other vegetables.
A Global Fascination
In France, fougasse or fogassa is a type of bread typically associated with Provence but variations can be found in other regions. The French word was derived from that same Latin panis focacius and as the hearth where those loaves were baked was the central point in every home they are referred to as foyer.
Fougasse was traditionally used to assess the temperature of a wood fired oven. The time it would take a loaf to bake hinted to the baker the oven temperature, and whether the rest of the bread should be added. The first loaves had different ingredients than their Italian counterparts: finely ground wheat flour, milk, eggs, butter and honey (replaced by sugar). The later addition of yeast offered a recipe that resembled a brioche.
The Provence versions are often flavored with aniseed and olive oil. In the Languedoc and Roussillon regions this is a hearty flat bread that is either sweet or marbled with fat and may take on the shape of a pretzel. Fougasse is also the name for French style calzone, which can have cheese and small squarish strips of bacon inside the pocket made by folding over the bread. In Auvergne and Aveyron, a bite might reveal candied fruits or prunes, even orange blossom water or grated lemon rind might be a welcome addition. The French versions are inclined to include olives, cheese, and anchovies, and may be regarded as a primitive form of pizza sans tomato.
Other versions are shaped or the tops slashed to resemble an ear of wheat. The region of Laguiole adds a snail shaped symbol to each loaf. This is no arbitrary addition as one snail (chignon) is added for each pound of dough.
Monaco has its version of fougasse topped with almonds and nuts.
Fouace (Crown Loaf)
½ oz compressed yeast
100 mL (½ c) lukewarm water
250 g (1-2/3 c) wheat flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp salt
5 T sugar
2 T orange blossom water
6-½ T butter
The evening before making, mix the yeast, water, and ½c flour, cover and set aside for an hour. Sieve the remaining flour into the mixture, add the eggs, and knead vigorously for 10 minutes. Next knead in the salt, sugar, and orange blossom water. Finally, work in the butter to produce an even dough. Cover the dough and leave for 3 hours. Knead the dough again and cover and leave overnight in a cool places or the refrigerator.
The next morning, preheat the oven to 440°F and shape the dough into a crown and bake for about 40 minutes until golden brown. If you want to make it a bit more fancy add some candied peel and raisins.
Pogačice (diminutive of pogača) is a type of puff pastry. Pogača, Poğaça or Pogacha is a pastry eaten in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Hungary, each with their own variations.
Pogača as this bread is called in Turkey is sometimes served hot as an appetizer. Hot pogača filled with feta cheese in Turkey is a delicious alternative. Here is a tasty recipe from Zerrin of GiveRecipe, a fantastic Turkish cook and baker.
Bogatsa (Μπογατσα), you guessed it is the Greek version of focaccia. It is a pastry consisting of some cheese, minced meat, or even custard nestled between layers of phyllo dough.
Argentines have fugazza, which was added to the diet thanks to Argentina’s many Ligurian immigrants. Here the bread is most often topped with sweet cooked onions.
The Spaniards call it “hogaza” where it takes on the shape and texture of a large loaf of country bread.
Other versions exist, but I think you get the idea. The appeal and adaptability of this bread proved irresistible and appears to have taken on a life of its own as it spread in ever increasing variations of ingredients and toppings.