Few breads are closer to their roots than Italian focaccia. Focaccia, a chewy, tangy, and wonderfully oily flatbread is eaten in its various forms all over the Italian peninsula. Some are square, some round. Strolling through, say, the small town of Arcidosso, Italy, might lead you to a small panetteria serving pieces of long focaccie sprinkled with salt, olive oil — and nothing else. An equivalent bread exploration (what else would you do in Europe?) in Rome might yield tasty Pizza Bianca, perhaps served with some salumi. As its name suggests, focaccia is the stepping stone between the traditional yeasted breads of Ancient Rome and the world’s most popular bread-based meal. As with most ancient (and some modern) civilizations, bread was a major staple of not just nutrition but life in Ancient Rome. The Roman poet Juvenal described the occupations of Rome as “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses). Yeasted flatbreads were present on every table at every meal. The most highly prized grain was spelt, a varietal of wheat. The breads would be leavened by a wild sourdough starter, often begun with a paste of flour, water, and yeast-covered grape skins. When the lost city of Pompeii was excavated in 1748, bakeries were found, with stacks of fossilized bread still intact.
The hearth was the most important element in the Roman home. In fact, the Latin word for the hearth is focus. Therefore, the flat breads baked directly in front of the fire were known as panis focacius, or “hearth bread”. The breadth of the Roman Empire caused panis focacius to spread all around the Mediterranean. Regional variations exist to this day. Besides the different breads bakes all around Italy, the descendants of pains focacius include Pissaladiere, a Provencal tart of sorts topped with caramelized onions, and the French Fougasse, a flat bread often shaped like a wheat stalk. Mediterraneans preserved their bread-baking traditions as they became attached to other observances. Focaccia, in its sweet forms, is often eaten at Christmastime. Perhaps this and other religious and social connections helped to keep focaccia around for two thousand years. I use America’s Test Kitchen’s recipe for focaccia; a giga, or starter, is created, before the addition of more flour and water to create an extremely wet and sticky dough. The dough is flavored with fresh rosemary, coarse sea-salt, and a liberal drizzling of olive oil. I enjoy it served with flavorful olives or on its own, crispy, oily, salty, and flavorful. A wonderful accompaniment to a hefty dose of history.