Focaccia is the epitome of summer. The perfect one should be moist but airy, its crumb sandwiched between thin but ultra-crunchy top and bottom crusts, thanks to the generous amount of olive oil used in its making. Not unlike a very thick-crusted pizza, this flatbread is a great vehicle for all kinds of vegetables, but also cheese and dips, olives and cold cuts. After all, it is a Mediterrenean staple.
Most historians believe it originated with either the Etruscans of North Central Italy before the Roman Empire was formed, or in Ancient Greece at the beginning of the first millennium BC -- though flat unleavened flatbread similar to it has also long been made throughout the Middle East. Identifying the culture that first baked the loaf is an unnecessary exercise, but what we do know is that similar recipes for it can be found in Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain.
The name focaccia derives from the Roman “panis focacius,” meaning “hearth bread”, referring to the fact that focaccia was traditionally baked in coals in Roman times. Its recipe back then consisted of rough flour, olive oil, water, a very small quantity of yeast, and salt, and was probably quite plain. It was used as a dipping bread, usually torn apart by hand and dipped into salty soups made from water, vinegar, and possibly olive oil (essentially what you get served at most Italian restaurants as you wait for your meal these days, minus the water component of course).
As the Romans began expanding their empire to France and Spain, they brought focaccia with them, spreading its popularity across continental Europe. The bread was mostly a poor man's meal, baked to feed sleeves and country peasants -- the Spanish pan de hogaza, a version of focaccia, originated that way, as did fugasse, in the French regions of Burgundy, Provence and Languedoc.
Once people started baking it, focaccia simply went on to become part of their cuisines and gastronomic traditions. In the early 20th century, when a number of European immigrants left for South America and the US, they took their focaccia recipes with them, keeping the bread alive and strong.
They got more experimental with their toppings, too: Today, savory versions of focaccia are topped with rosemary, sage, garlic, cheese, and onions, while sweet varieties can be topped with honey, raisins, sugar, and lemon peel, among others.
Nerdy fact: Foccacia’s pockmarked appearance results from indentations made in the dough to prevent large bubbles from appearing on its surface during baking.
Photos: Carla Barber & Theodor Brinch