Tag: Italy

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.30: Focaccia from Italy

Around the world in 80 bakes, no.30: Focaccia from Italy

With apologies to ciabatta-lovers, focaccia is the Italian bread par excellence. Its pillowy, soft texture, coupled with a crisp outside, a slight crunch of salt flakes and the aroma of olive oil simply can’t be beaten. 

My focaccia recipe is, to be honest, a bit of a mongrel. Prior to this strange year, I was visiting Italy around twice a year, but the best focaccia I have ever had was not made by an Italian but by an Indian chef at a hotel in the mountains of Oman who swore by a triple proving. The softest, most pillowy dough – my ideal focaccia consistency – comes from the kneading method in the Persian flatbread recipe in Sabrina Ghayour’s Persiana. I’ve gone for Giorgio Locatelli’s recommendation for flour (from his Made in Italy, via Felicity Cloake’s round-up recipe in her excellent “The perfect xyz” series in The Guardian), and done toppings as suggested by Italian-American Maurizio, aka The Perfect Loaf. Personally, I think the results are well worth the extra effort, but there are certainly shortcuts available if you’re pushed for time.

Two important variables are the salt and oil content. I eat a fairly low salt diet and the amount in here is about the maximum I can take. For some, even this will be too much; for others, this won’t be nearly enough compared to the salt hit they expect from a focaccia. My focaccia is also relatively low in oil: you may prefer to drizzle on a lot more than me. You’re just going to have to experiment until you get these to your taste.

Also, I’ve opted for a 40cm x 30cm tray, which gives a flattish focaccia with a relatively short, hot baking time. A variation would be to use a smaller, higher-sided tin and a lower temperature (say 200℃) for a loaf with a higher ratio of inside softness to outside crust.

  • 400ml warm water (around 40℃)
  • 20g sugar
  • 8g dried yeast
  • 375g strong white bread flour
  • 375g OO flour
  • 10g salt
  • 100ml olive oil, plus 30ml for the drizzle
  • A tablespoon or so semolina flour (optional)
  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 24 black olives, pitted
  • Half a dozen sprigs of rosemary
  • 20ml cold water
  • 10g sea salt flakes

There are some options as to how to prepare baking trays. You’re trying to get high heat onto the base of your focaccia as soon as you can, so Cloake suggests that you preheat a pizza stone in your oven and “transfer” the focaccia to it. That’s all very well, but it’s difficult to transfer a large rectangle of dough while keeping its shape, without the toppings falling off. I opted for a metal baking tray placed onto the stone: metal is a good conductor and this did the job just fine. An alternative is to lay out your focaccia on baking parchment: if you don’t have a pizza stone, you’ll want to preheat the metal tray and then move your dough to the heated tray while still on its parchment base.

As ever, rising times depend completely on the temperature in your kitchen, and the alternatives should be obvious if you don’t have a stand mixer.

  1. Combine water, sugar and yeast; leave for a few minutes until frothy
  2. In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flours and salt and stir until mixed evenly
  3. Add the wet mix and 100ml olive oil to the dry mix
  4. With the standard paddle, mix for a minute or so until you have a smooth dough: you should find that it comes away cleanly from the sides of bowl
  5. Switch to the dough hook and knead for 5 minutes
  6. Leave to stand for 10 minutes, then knead for another 2 minutes. Repeat this.
  7. Brush a little olive oil over the surface of a large bowl, transfer your ball of dough to it, cover and leave to rise for around 60-90 minutes.
  8. If you’re using baking parchment, line your baking tray with it. Optionally, dust a tablespoon or two of semolina flour over this.
  9. Knock back the dough and shape it into a rectangle covering the whole tray, Make it as even as you can: you’ll get some resistance, but you can pull it around with little danger of tearing.
  10. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rise for another 45 minutes or so.
  11. If using a pizza stone, put it into your oven now. Otherwise, slide the parchment sheet off your baking tray and put the tray into the oven.
  12. Preheat oven to 250℃ fan (or as near as you can get).
  13. Leave the dough for its second rise, around 45-60 minutes. 
  14. Meanwhile, prepare  your toppings: chop of blitz the rosemary very fine, halve the cherry tomatoes. If your olives came in brine, wash them thoroughly to remove the salt.
  15. Uncover the dough and with a finger, press a pattern of 6 x 8 indentations into it with a finger, going deep. Press the cherry tomato halves and the olives into the indentations in a chequerboard pattern (that’s why I’ve been fussy about the numbers). Sprinkle the rosemary evenly over the top.
  16. Cover with a tea towel again and leave for another 30-45 minutes.
  17. Prepare a mixture of 30ml olive oil and 20ml water, whisking with a fork until emulsified. Spread this evenly over the focaccia.
  18. Sprinkle the sea salt flakes evenly over.
  19. Now work quickly: open the oven, take out the stone or tray, transfer your focaccia to it, replace it in the oven and close. Now reduce the oven temperature to 225℃.
  20. Bake for around 20-25 minutes until golden brown.
  21. Remove from the oven, slide the focaccia onto whatever board or tray you’re going to serve it on, and leave to cool for a few minutes before eating. This may be the hardest thing in the recipe, but you don’t want to burn your mouth!

Olives, almonds, grapes and the sea: food and wine in Puglia

The first things that strike you are the olive trees. On the way from Bari airport to our first hill town, Ostuni, we pass untold hectares of them. When we visit the Masseria Brancati, we get to see them close up, laden with leaves and fruit, which is still unripe – it’s August and the earliest harvest is still a couple of months away. Some of the trees, named the monumentali, are very, very old – 2,500 years or more: their trunks are several feet wide, gnarled, looking generally grumpy at what they’ve seen.

Masseria Brancati - near Ostuni
Olive trees at Masseria Brancati, near Ostuni

Puglia produces 40% of Italy’s olive oil. But this ancient part of the nation’s culture is vulnerable, as evidenced when you drive past Brindisi and see the road – the old Appian Way from Rome – lined by thousand upon thousand of dead trees, standing upright but with their leaves scorched. They’re the victims of a single subspecies of bacterium, the xylella fastidiosa subs. pauca: since 2013, farmers and government scientists have been engaged in a desperate struggle to save the olive trees: there are signs of some recovering or being replanted, but the lines of brown trees are still a desperately sad sight.

Martina Franca - Bruschette at Bistrot Garibaldi-2
Friselli with tomatoes and basil

In Italy, food defines everything. And Puglia is where the food is grown, so it’s all about doing simple things with the local ingredients. The centro storico of Ostuni is packed with shops selling local food items to the well-heeled tourists from further north, of which the most important is olive oil. Apart from details of terroir and whether or not the oil is organic, the principal differences between oils lie in whether or not they are first pressing (the Italians tell you to keep extra virgin olive oil for salads and not use it for cooking) and the harvest date: early harvest olives (mid-October) give an oil with a distinctive strong flavour, whereas late harvest olives can give a smooth oil with a long aftertaste.

Almonds are another important crop. If you’re an ice-cream lover, don’t miss their combined fichi e mandorle (fig and almond) flavour, and the shops have plenty of almond biscuits of various types. There are many types of hard biscuits (including the biscotti type familiar to us outside Italy), but my downfall was the mouth-watering soft ones, something between an almond biscuit and marzipan, that we bought from the Furne di Porta Nova bakery, towards the east of the old city in Ostuni. The bakery also makes focaccia, the Puglian version being delightfully light, with far less oil and salt than I’ve had elsewhere, and usually laden with olives and cherry tomatoes. Apart from focaccia, my favourite bread here is their equivalent of the Spanish pan rustico, an unevenly shaped sourdough loaf with a hard crust and a delectable soft, moist middle: in at least one bakery we visited, the sourdough starter was made with fruit. Hard crackers (taralli and friselli) are ubiquitous, handed out as snacks with virtually any drink you buy at a bar.

Alberobello - Astra - Burrata and mozzarella-2
Burrata (centre) with mozzarella

Puglia’s hallmark cheese is burrata: soft, white balls, usually 6 centimetres or so in diameter which are popular both as breakfast and lunch items. Cut into the skin-like outside and a creamy filling gushes forth, delicious on its own or as part of a salad (but be sure to eat fresh burrata the day they’re made – they don’t improve). Lunch plates are also likely to include caciocavallo, a hard cheese made of sheep’s or cow’s milk or, most deliciously, both. There’s also capocollo (a cut of cured pork from the neck and shoulder, somewhat fattier and somewhat stronger tasting than typical prosciutto).

Locorotondo - Perbacco Restaurant
Caciocavallo tart with salad and capocollo

And then, of course, there’s the wine. Various connoisseurs I know are rather dismissive of Puglian wines as being easy drinking and lacking in distinction. Personally, I love Puglian red wines: they’re scented, full of flavour and low on hard tannins. The predominant grapes here are Primitivo (the same variety as the US Zinfandel), Negroamaro and Malvasia nera; there’s a wine called Salice Salentino that blends either two or all three of these. There are others to be discovered: we didn’t get round to Nero di Troia, but the contents of our bottle of Susumaniello vanished without trace in a chorus of yums. I’m less keen on the whites here, but they make a mean summer rosé with Negroamaro.

A short trip to Matera in the neighbouring province, Basilicata, revealed another truly lovely red wine, Aglianico, said to be one of the oldest wines from Greek times (the name may or may not be a corruption of “Hellenico”). It tells you something about Italian regionalism that Aglianico was nowhere to be seen on the shelves in Puglia, even if you’re only half an hour’s drive from the border. If you’re buying a present for a friendly baker, a neat souvenir from Matera is a wooden bread stamp, used in bygone days to stamp you initials on your loaf when baking it in a communal bread oven.

Gallipoli-2
What chilies are really for…

Even within the province, there is variability according to region. We stayed at Gallipoli on the Salento peninsula (not to be confused with the battle site in faraway Turkey), a town which has been a fishing centre for centuries and is celebrated for its seafood. At the fish market, stalls proudly announce that the produce is “recently fished”: the fish was very good; the clams and mussels were outstanding. The surprise of our trip were the gamberi viole (purple prawns), said to only be available in the Salento area and up there with the most intense-tasting shellfish I’ve ever eaten. When I asked the man in the market how best to cook them, his response was “anchè crudo” (don’t bother and eat them raw). I wimped out and showed them the pan for a couple of minutes and I’m glad I didn’t do more: they were fabulous, but we discovered in one restaurant that they lose their flavour if overcooked by even a minute or so (the restaurant, to be fair, replaced them without demur).

Gallipoli-7
Fisherman preparing nets at Gallipoli

Our experience of Puglian restaurants was that they’re not particularly good at trying to be fancy. But when it comes to taking great fresh ingredients – even humble ones – and cooking them simply, they’re masterful. Portions, by the way, are giant: if you’re trying to leave room for dessert, be wary. Il Pettolino in Gallipoli, Nausikaa in Martina Franca, Il Guercio di Puglia in Alberobello and PerBacco in Locorotondo all served us meals that were thoroughly memorable without a sniff of haute cuisine. We’ll be back.