My word I love bread. It really is my weakness- I’m not really fussy about origin: Arabic flatbread rich with za’atar for breakfast, soft Indian roti to scoop up indulgent curries for lunch, Greek pitta puffed up and warm with humous as an afternoon snack and crisp French baguette with dinner. If it vaguely resembles bread- I’m there!
Most cultures regard a dinner table without bread as incomplete. This is especially true in Italy where the addition of bread on the table normally means the dreaded ‘cover charge’. I have touched on Italian bread before with my post about ciabatta, but now I move onto focaccia.
Focaccia actually takes a few different forms in Italy itself; areas in the north actually call incredibly thin layers of dough stuffed with cheese and baked, focaccia, but here I will focus on the one we are familiar with; a thick, olive oil enriched bread often studded with rosemary and rock salt. It has taken some time to get this recipe right, mainly because it took some time to convince myself that a bread could (or should) contain quite so much olive oil. I am now persuaded. The essence of this bread is the olive oil. It is a paradox, as it is full of oil but is not oily with a soft and airy texture.
Olive oil is a controversial subject these days; the book Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller is an eye-opening reflection and investigation into the olive oil trade. It is an unfortunate fact that amongst the honest and hard-working artisan producers in Italy, Spain and Greece, there are many unscrupulous fraudsters making a profit from people’s trust in a label which boasts of ‘extra virgin’, ’100% Italian’ or scenes of rural Tuscan hills. Olive oil is often cut with lower grade oil, which is sometimes not even from olives at all.
Bertolli olive oil is a perfect case in point; the Bertolli family were actually bankers who never owned an olive tree. They made a fortune due to an incomprehensible European law that, until 2001, allowed any olive oil bottled in Italy to be sold as “Italian olive oil”. In fact, even now 80% of the oil Bertolli uses comes from Spain, North Africa and the Middle East. It is still sold in bottles “Passione Italiana” on the label. Today, Italy still sells three times as much oil as it produces; you do the maths. The word ‘pure’ does not mean anything about the contents; just because the oil says it is produced and/or packaged in Greece or Italy, does not mean all the oil comes from that country. Low grade oil is shipped in from all over the Mediterranean to meet demand.
In the UK, we consume over 30m litres of olive oil every year, so it is worth knowing how to choose something good for your kitchen. One of the most important things is to buy bottles which are not clear; olive oil needs to be stored in dark bottles to slow down degradation. You should also check the bottle for the harvest date; olive oil degrades with age, it does not improve and it needs to be used within 18 months of the harvest date. Try to buy from somewhere that will let you taste it first; most delis and smaller shops will be happy to let you try before you buy, although this is obviously not the case in your local supermarket! If you are buying Italian oil, look for a label which says that the oil is produced in Italy using olives produced in Italy. Extra Virgin is the most important label and, although not an absolute guarantee, the symbols for DOP or PGI give a little more confidence. In this case, you really do get what you pay for; there is just no way you will get a quality olive oil if you only spend a few pounds. Try to think of it as an investment for your kitchen; a good oil will transform your cooking, although it is a massive waste to cook with it; save it for salad dressing, drizzling on pasta and, of course, for dipping bread into.
The problem is that olive oil is as diverse as wine in flavour and very few people know how it really should taste. Blind taste tests have embarrassed many a knowledgeable foodie. Brands such as Bertolli have marketed their wares as smooth, light and gentle, but real olive oil is usually deeply peppery. It will probably make you cough if you sip a spoonful of it. It can smell grassy, fruity and fresh. What sort you like is deeply personal, that is why it is important to taste it. Whatever you end up buying, it should make you happy when you sip it. There is a reason why Homer referred to as liquid gold.
makes one large slab to serve 6-8
For the bread
500g strong white flour
20g coarse semolina
15g fresh yeast
50ml extra virgin olive oil
For the topping
30 ml extra virgin olive oil
sprinkling of rock salt
2 tbs picked rosemary leaves
Preheat your oven on at 250°C. Oil a 20cm swiss roll tin. If you do not have one of these, a baking sheet with high sides will do.
Mix the flour and semolina together and rub in the yeast, using your fingertips as if making a crumble. Add the salt, olive oil and water and knead the dough for 10-15 minutes. It will be very wet, but keep going and it will firm into soft dough. Place the dough into an oiled bowl, cover with a shower cap or cling film and rest for an hour in a warm, dry place until it has doubled in size.
With the help of the rounded end of your scraper, turn the dough out onto an oiled tray. Drizzle the oil for the topping over the dough, then, using your fingers, push and prod the dough so that it spreads from the center towards the edges of the tray. Do not pull it hard, just let it ease out. Cover with a tea towel and leave to rest somewhere warm and draught-free for about 45 minutes.
Dimple the dough with your fingertips, and rest for a further 30 minutes.
Take the rosemary leaves and push them gently into the dough. Sprinkle on the rock salt and put into oven, along with a spritz of water from a spray gun to create some steam. If you don’t have one of these, throw a couple of ice cubes into the bottom of the oven. Turn down the heat to 220°C and bake it for 25-30 minutes, until the bread is light golden brown. Remove from the oven and slide onto a wire rack to cool. Brush with a little more olive oil while it is still warm.
Serve with more olive oil, antipasti, soup or just on its own.