Genoa is perhaps the only city in the world where you might happen to see an impeccably dressed businessman in a suit and tie eating a piece of focaccia at eight in the morning on his way to the office. This is because it is here, in the capital of the Italian region of Liguria, that focaccia bread was born as a breakfast food, to then later become a snack to be eaten at any time of the day, enjoyed all over the world.
Likely one of the first dishes invented by man, the primitive focaccia was a mash of ground cereals mixed with water and baked in the sun. It is the forefather of modern focaccia, a word that likely derives from focacius panis, or "bread baked under the ashes". There are different variations of it in almost every culture around the world, but if you speak with Ligurians they won't have any of it: the only real focaccia, "fugassa," is that from Genoa.
Authentic Genoese focaccia is rectangular or round, with a maximum height of a finger - but most importantly it has dimples, small holes formed on the surface of the focaccia with fingertips. That’s where the olive oil and course grains of salt come together. The base for focaccia dough is similar to that of bread, with the addition of a rather generous amount of fat (almost always extra virgin olive oil): you can find the complete recipe for focaccia bread here.
The most common variants of focaccia include the addition of green and black olives, but it can also be enjoyed with rosemary, potatoes, and stewed onions that are poured on top just before baking. The dough can also be mixed with spices, cold cuts, vegetables, and cheeses.
Whichever version you prefer, here are some secrets to preparing a delicious and homemade classic Genoese focaccia bread.
- The first secret is in the amount of water used in the dough. Once kneaded, it will be somewhat sticky and difficult to stretch.
- The second secret is to mix one part olive oil with two parts water. Beat the mixture with a fork and pour it over the rolled out dough.
- The third secret is what you will need when it's time to bake. Place a small container filled with water it in the oven; it will serve to maintain proper humidity.
- One last warning: when it is cooked, remove it from the pan and place on a wire rack. This will serve to keep the base crisp.
In short, the perfect focaccia is soft and crunchy on its base, never too salty, and despite being well oiled it should not leave an excess sense of oiliness on the palate when eaten. As always, success is found in a set of tricks derived from experience and willingness. To offer consolation, just think: every baker in Liguria keeps the recipe a secret, handing it down from one generation to the next, and new bakers that open shops take at least one month of testing before selling it to the public.
The classic Ligurian focaccia stands out among other Italian regional versions, followed by the one from Puglia (made with oregano, cherry tomatoes and boiled potatoes in the dough), but there is also the famous focaccia from Recco (in the picture aboce), a small town in the province of Genoa, which created a particular shorter version of the focaccia that is made without yeast and stuffed with fresh local and traditional cheese (similar to stracchino): here you can find the traditional recipe. This version has been awarded the Italian PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) and has consortium behind it, so beware: chefs and bakers, feel free to unleash your imagination, but unless you're enjoying focaccia on the shores of Liguria, it can't be called the "original ".