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Tales of Focaccia

Often looked at secondary to pizza, focaccia is a flat bread prepared in a hearth, or oven, with a rich history. We learn more about this northern Italian bread and it's countless presentations. From sauce-topped to fig-topped, focaccia is a meal for any time of day.

Recently (in 2007), the last scenes of a film, called Focaccia Blues - with the tagline "the true fairytale about the focaccia who ate the hamburger" - were shot in Puglia, Italy. This film is based on the true story of what happened a few years ago in Altamura, a town of 65 thousand souls in the province of Bari, where the world's largest fast-food franchise opened a huge restaurant to great success ... at the beginning. But, two local bakers, very proud of their own region's foods, produce and traditions, were clearly not enamored with the novelty of their new neighbor. Against all odds, they opened a bakery, ten times smaller than their competition, just yards away. Month by month, the bakers saw their own clientele growing larger and larger. Then the unexpected happened: in only eighteen months, with creativity and a lot of work, they managed to put the fast food restaurant out of business. It was the first time that this ever happened - a modern day David and Goliath story - and it made news. It was first reported by the Paris newspaper Liberation, and then by the New York Times and other newspapers and magazines around the world. A documentary and then a film followed.

So, how did they do that ... those two courageous and industrious souls in Bari? With the confidence that a homemade focaccia simply tastes better than a mass-produced bun, they started to prepare focacce imbottite - a thick focaccia, cut in half and filled with all sorts of local produce: ham, sausages, cheese and vegetables. Their customers quickly discovered that their local bakery's lunches were definitively more satisfying than the fast food next door. As the New York Times concludes at the end of their article, the fast food restaurant wasn't beaten by a baker; it was beaten by a culture.

So what exactly is a focaccia? The name is derived from the Latin panis focacius, which refers to a kind of flat bread cooked over a hearth or in a wood-burning oven. Different kinds of flat breads - essentially mixtures of flour (not always wheat), water and salt - have been prepared since ancient times by cultures all over the world. Though, not unique to Mediterranean cuisine, Italy's flat bread has always been popular in Italian homes. Focaccia's appeal is no doubt due in part to the fact that the dough is so easy to prepare - requiring less kneading than regular bread - and it cooks much faster. Although originally most focaccia breads were unleavened due to the scarcity of yeast in early times, today yeast is always used in focaccia dough.

Some consider focaccia to be the ancestor of pizza - the dough used is similar, though there are some differences. Focaccia contains olive oil; usually pizza dough does not. The yeast content varies in focaccia (as it does in pizza), but generally focaccia has a thicker crust than most pizzas - though of course this varies according to the region. There are countless regional recipes for focaccia - as varied and numerous as its different names in the many Italian dialects. Fugassa from Liguria - made of natural yeast, extra virgin olive oil and rock salt - is perhaps the most popular focaccia in Italy and abroad; Fugassa di Recco is also from Liguria but contains crescenza (also called stracchino) cheese between the two layers of dough. In the focaccia di patate, made in Puglia and other regions, potatoes and other ingredients are mixed with the flour. There is also the Sicilian schiacciata catanese - a kind of focaccia made with cauliflower, anchovies and sausages. An entirely different version, called fitascetta is made in Lombardy with fish from Lake Como. Different varieties of sweet focacce (plural form of focaccia) are prepared in some areas of northern Italy, but they are probably better described as torte (pies) than as bread.

In Italy, the classic plain focaccia - with extra virgin olive oil, rosemary and rock salt - is probably the most common form ... because it tastes great just as it is, right out of the oven. But, of course, focaccia can also come with all kinds of toppings: onions, sausages, sauteed mushrooms, grilled eggplant or peppers, or fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil. DeLallo's assortment of healthy Italian imported Bruschetta toppings - such as, sun dried tomatoes, artichokes, olives and roasted peppers - provide great ready-made toppings, made from fresh, local produce, preserved in Italian olive oil, with a minimum amount of vinegar.

Making focaccia at home is easy and fun, requiring no special utensils and making very little mess. Even if you have never made your own bread before, you very well might bake a great focaccia on your first try. But, don't worry if you don't - you will certainly soon be making your own delicious homemade focaccia. Fresh out of the oven is a special joy, but for days to come it will taste great heated up in the toaster. Just cut the baked foccaccia into toaster-sized sections, and enjoy it with your morning coffee, or as a mid-morning snack. For lunch, focaccia is an easy and delicious alternative to panini or regular sandwiches. If you make your focaccia thick enough, it can be cut down the middle, opened, and stuffed with salumi - in Italy, this term includes all cured pork meats, such as salami, Parma and San Daniele raw ham, capocollo, pancetta, speck, and so on. If you have a sandwich grill, stuff the focaccia with your favorite cheese, rucola (arugula), prosciutto crudo (raw ham) or speck; then grill for just a few moments, until the cheese is melted. Another way to heat up a focaccia is to lay it in a nonstick pan on a very low flame covered with a lid - it works like a miniature oven - until it's warm and delectable.

Because of its countless delicious variations and how easy it is to prepare, focaccia is enjoying a kind of renaissance. A new wave of popularity in America and elsewhere has drawn quite a bit of attention to the humble ancestor of pizza. This staple of Italian cuisine has shown the world that simple, delicious food can conquer a giant - and not just figuratively speaking.

Anna Lucia's Recipe for Focaccia