Focaccia – A Favorite Italian Bread

focaccia even predates the Pope

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

checking out the options

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.

imagine munching a focaccia while contemplating this scene

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.

or here?

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.

dining in style

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

France

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.

sampling the delights in France

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)

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

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

Directions

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.

Bosnia

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.

Turkey

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.

Greece

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.

Argentina

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.

Spain

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.

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26 comments for “Focaccia – A Favorite Italian Bread

  1. June 20, 2011 at 6:20 AM

    Hi Lou Ann,
    I’m literally on my way out the door so please forgive me but I couldn’t find your email anywhere!!! I only breezed over this post so I’ll need to come back to relish it but I did want to tell you we are playing the Picnic Game once again at my blog. I tried to get here yesterday but time just got away from me. I do hope you will be able to join us this year.

    Now, I’m going to have foccaccia as I head for the car, lol…
    Louise recently posted..A Quick Picnic Game Update 2011

  2. June 21, 2011 at 6:50 PM

    I also adore focaccia and fougasse – and all flatbreads. (I like the thick breads also – am totally an equal-opportunity bread eater). I love the combining of cultures and how each culture made them their own.
    Claudia recently posted..A cheddar-goat-chese-quiche washed down with buttermilk raspberry cake

  3. June 21, 2011 at 9:39 PM

    Ooh I LOVE foccacia!! I have yet to bake it myself…LA Times had a really good article about it a few weeks ago. I love it when its oily from good olive oil!

  4. June 23, 2011 at 4:22 PM

    Love rustic no fuss breads like Foccacia.

  5. Laz
    June 24, 2011 at 6:59 PM

    Nothing beats the smell of freshly baked foccacia. The kitchen is perfumed with rosemary and thyme. Amazing. Making it at home is so easy, yet many still decide to get it out. Something special about making bread at home that many miss out on.

  6. June 24, 2011 at 8:28 PM

    Ooooh! That was interesting! I love how you said, “consider foccacia as an ancestor of pizza”. That was a neat one, hehe. Anyways, I LOVE rosemary foccacia! There is this one place that we get it at and it has great texture, not too dry, not too rubbery, just perfect! Thanks again for the interesting and wonderful information!
    Rylan Ty recently posted..June Garden Update

  7. June 25, 2011 at 6:40 AM

    So cool to learn about all the versions and variations from other countries. I’m always drawn in by focaccia! There was just recently a story in the LA Times by Nancy Silverton about figuring out the perfect focaccia recipe. I’ve been meaning to try it, and now I’m re-inspired!
    lisaiscooking recently posted..Boston Cream Pie

  8. s
    June 25, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    Fougasse, foccacio. I never really made the connection… GREG

  9. OysterCulture
    June 26, 2011 at 6:33 AM

    Louise – Thank you so much for the personal invite. I will try my best.

    Claudia – Agreed, its interesting to see the variations based on culture. No way to choose a favorite for me.

    Sophia – That extra zing and crispiness is so perfect!

    Wizzy – Something to said for fuss free to be sure.

    Laz – I’m only surprised no on has developed a candle or room fragrance yet.

    Rylan – Hee, just checking to see if you were paying attention =)

    Lisa – I saw that same article and of course I need to give it a try.

    Sippity – Me neither until I tried seeing where this focaccia thing could go.

  10. June 26, 2011 at 5:07 PM

    This history of focaccia is remarkable. I didn’t have any idea that this bread is so ancient. It is interesting learning about the other Italian regions, as here in SF I always imagine that there’s only one kind of focaccia with perhaps a few variations.

    Your article makes me wonder about the history and placement of foods in a particular area’s culture. Does that exist in the United States? Do we have foods that mark particular regions but exist in most areas of this country? I’m hard-pressed to think of something that is locally distinct with universal variations, like focaccia seems to be in Italy and other parts of Europe. Any ideas?

  11. June 27, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Focaccia in all of it’s glorious forms is a long time favorite. In fact it is the only version of bread that I bake, or can bake :) It was also a favorite at the restaurant, we could never keep it coming out of the oven fast enough…
    Great post!

  12. June 27, 2011 at 12:29 PM

    Hey LouAnn!
    As always I learn how ancient and rich the history of some of my favorite foods are when I visit oysterculture =). I love sticking my fingers in focaccia dough – I had the best focaccia the other night and was dipping chunks of it in taramasalata.

    I’m back in town with Kyle, whom I’d love for you to meet! We are here all summer so let me know when its a good time to meet. Also, mark your calendar for a pop up bakery…we’ll be using flour + water on sunday morning aug 7th, they’ll be serving mimosas and coffee and we’ll have some fabulous baked goods (not focaccia though I’m afraid – think more french like kouign aman, etc).

  13. June 27, 2011 at 5:26 PM

    Give me some focaccia and that first view! Beautiful! We used to make focaccia at the bread store where I worked in high school and college and my husband and I fell for it then (yes we’ve been together that long ;)). Despite how good that was, I would imagine it is nothing like the real thing from the source. All of your descriptions sound delicious!
    Lori recently posted..Grilled Green Beans with Dill Feta Sauce

  14. OysterCulture
    June 27, 2011 at 8:15 PM

    Stevie – Great question. A few foods come to mind – crab cakes from Maryland – you can find them on most any menu. BBQ is common, but has huge regional variations – I think of that one as the primary example – its got huge following with very specific ideas in the south east but then regions have their own thing – Memphis BBQ, KC, Texas, etc.

    MoS – I love it and not being a big baker, I’m with you that it has satisfactory outcomes.

    Gastro – Woohoo, I get to meet the little guy. I cannot wait. I have a new client down in Los Altos so we could meet down that way sometime. I’ll send you an email with somedays. August 7th, I am there. I like French baked goods, could this be another joint post? Are you up for it yet?

    Lori – There is something to be said about eating the bread in the nation in which it was developed – I have some traveling to do.

  15. June 28, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    Like you, I am a sucker for bread! So versatile and delicious.

    Fougasse and focaccia are irresistibly scrumptious! The savory versions are marvelous, but the sweet ones too.

    Lovely post. Did you go to Annecy? I see you added a picture of that beautiful town…

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  16. June 28, 2011 at 2:45 PM

    Focaccia here is called Figazza a version of this gorgeous bread- love it and it’s a perfect match with other savory delicacies. I didn’t know those other delicious variants want all of them :)

    Cheers,

    Gera

  17. June 28, 2011 at 10:11 PM

    Since you posted a “bread” recipe, I got excited about trying it, but I realized that I’ve never heard of compressed yeast before. I’ll have to do some research before I get to make it.

  18. July 3, 2011 at 3:40 AM

    Love learning more about foccacia which is one of my favourite breads – I’ve made it once but I didn’t enjoy it that much. And isn’t it wonderful to see how joined the world is, without boundaries sometimes when it comes to food – the same thing with new takes and variations and names of course

  19. OysterCulture
    July 3, 2011 at 8:24 PM

    Rosa – Yes I was in Annecy and it was a beautiful town, I greatly enjoyed their markets
    Gera – I now have to try a figazza. Thanks for sharing.

    Kitchen M – I cannot wait to see what you do with it. Have you ever tried the focaccia at Arizmendi’s?

    Kitchen Butterfly – I love making bread, but have never felt let down having freshly baked bread from someone else’s oven.

  20. July 4, 2011 at 9:54 PM

    Love Italian flatbread and couldn’t get enough of them!

  21. July 10, 2011 at 9:02 PM

    No I haven’t tried Arizmendi’s focaccia yet. I’ve only tried their pizzas. Is that your favorite focaccia in the city? I’ll try that next time. :)

  22. OysterCulture
    July 12, 2011 at 7:11 PM

    Angie, I agree, something to be said for flatbread in general, and especially the Italian variety.

    Kitchen M – Can’t say its my favorite although its at the top of my list, and I am only holding back as i have not sampled all that many, just keep going back to Arizementi’s. =)

  23. July 13, 2011 at 1:25 AM

    I adore focaccia in all its forms both Italian and French and have tried many recipes. You’ve given me one more!

  24. July 14, 2011 at 8:40 PM

    Focaccia with juicy purple grapes baked into it is my downfall. I first had it in Canada of all places — at Terra Breads on Granville Island. I still dream about it. That’s how good it was.

  25. July 18, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    Love, love focaccia…..It is a family favorite!

  26. OysterCulture
    July 24, 2011 at 6:21 PM

    Jamie – I agree there is just something so right about focaccia

    Carolyn – I’m with you, it was love and obsession at first bite.

    Erica – ditto

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