In search of real focaccia

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Scritto da Harriet Metcalf Visite: 3185

Focaccia Now when I say ‘Focaccia’ you think you know what I mean, right? That olive oil infused, salt-studded flat bread from the Ligurian Coast. Chances are you’re eating it right now, maybe sandwiching some creamy mozzarella and slices of ripe tomato or as part of a tasty Aperitivo with a glass of Prosecco? I don’t want to delude you, but what you (may) have in your hand is a mere distant relative of the real thing, a bready impostor, a fake. Quite rightly you’re probably thinking, “Who do I think I am? questioning the credibility of your lunch, and anyway, Who cares as long as it tastes good?”

However as locally produced food and regional recipes that have shaped the culture and identity of an area, are slowly being lost into the inescapable and frenzied world of sterilized, portioned, plastic wrapped ready meals, it pays to be niggley about the quality, origin and authenticity of what we consume. And going to Genoa, after an early morning visit to the fish market, I was handed breakfast to eat while we strolled through the Caruggi – the alley ways- of the historical centre. What I saw looked familiar, but as I took it in my hands and felt the warmth between my fingers, the pungent aroma of olive oil as I bit through the crispy top into the soft centre, happening occasionally on damp, salty, puddles where the olive oil had come to rest during cooking; I knew immediately I wasn’t eating ‘Focaccia’, or not as I’d ever known it. This was what the Genovesi call Fugassa: And while the inhabitants of this bustling and eclectic city got ready to start the day, the first light hitting the rooftops of the houses perched precariously on the mountainside, I realised there was much more to the story of Focaccia than it’s modest beginnings of flour, oil, yeast, salt and water.
Just thinking of Focaccia as a tasty bread does nothing to convey its true significance in the hearts of the Genovesi. It has become entwined in the culture, tradition and lifestyle of the people of this Northern Italian region. Something carved into everyone’s childhood memories, a ritualistic part of everyone’s daily routine. This is due to the fact that like many of the Italian peasant foods now gracing the tables of some of the finest restaurants worldwide, Focaccia has always been within the reaches of everyone, present on the tables of even the poorest families.

The real focaccia

Generations and generations have been making the trip to the Panificio every morning to bring home fat slices of Focaccia appena sfornato. In the 1500’s it was given out in the church during wedding ceremonies, and is traditionally considered fisherman’s fare, to be twinned with a glass of white wine whilst discussing the previous night’s catch as the boats come back to the harbour.

Now, in Liguria the term ‘Focaccia’ can mean different things to different people based on which part of the coastal region they come from, and Focaccia has many famous forms each an entirely different creation in itself, so it can get confusing. For example, the famous Focaccia col Formaggio di Recco is a thin crispy affair of oozing cheese sandwiched between paper thin sheets of dough cooked on traditional round copper trays in the pizza oven. And this difference appears just a few miles down the coast. However today is dedicated to the Focaccia native to the city of Genoa, the leavened savoury snack which steals the hearts of locals and visitors alike. Its importance is shown by the recent certification set up by the Consorzio dei Panificatori di Genova e Provincia allowing only establishments meeting the precise characteristics - on ingredients used, rising time, cooking time and temperature etc. - to use the title of “Focaccia Genovese” when naming their product. This is good news for you and me as we can be sure that what we are unwrapping from it’s greaseproof paper- as fingers that can’t wait for coffee to be poured rip off corners, savouring the salty warm slivers in silence before coming back for more- is made with Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and that the dough will have been made with only the merest amount of yeast needed and risen for the correct amount of time to create a well flavoured light dough which is then cooked to perfection.

So where to go to get this little taste of heaven, or perhaps more importantly, when to go?

Every Genovese worth their (sea) salt will tell you that good Focaccia needs to be eaten hot and straight from the oven. Even half an hour after it will have become something else altogether, good in it’s own right, but no longer worthy of the name Focaccia. So those in the know go to the Panificio first thing and as all Fornai start work in the small hours, in some parts of the city there is no such thing as too early. In fact, late night drinkers, night workers, and fishermen often convene to share the first breakfast of the day before the sun comes up. As mentioning the subject of the best Focaccia in town can cause lengthy discussion and disagreement amongst the locals as everyone has their favourite haunt, it’s also better just to taste your way round the city sightseeing as you go. This is helped by the fact that like bread, Focaccia is sold by weight and bakeries will be happy to cut slices as thin or thick as you want to help keep you light on your feet as you stroll the winding alleys discovering the other treasures the city has to offer.

The slightly less greedy option is found at the bar. Alongside the Cornetti usually found in a self serve glass cabinet at the end of the bar are neat rectangles of Focaccia for a quick breakfast on the run. Here however I must urge you to follow local tradition and order a Cappuccino. Now you may know where this is going and are already thinking olive oily, salty bread and milky coffee all in one mouthful isn’t for you, but I promise if you dip a strip of Focaccia into the creamy foam for a little longer than an instant and pop it into your mouth just once, you’ll never want to eat breakfast cereal again. As they say, “When in Rome….”

Harriet Metcalf