I'm not Italian. As far as I can trace my ancestors were not Italian. And yet, I long for the place as though it were my homeland. While living in London I met many wonderful Italian people and even lived with three Italian speakers at one point. As such, I've hardly visited Italy as a tourist. I've almost always travelled with Italians or Italian speakers and because of this received a genuine insight into their beautiful culture as opposed to the tourist experience which can often be overshadowed by crowds, inauthentic food and one too many visits to a church. My first trip to Italy was on a long weekend in Rome with an Italian friend from work. We climbed the Spanish steps and it was then, at the top, as I looked over the rooftop gardens beyond and Bernini's fountain below that I decided I would live there one day. Not necessarily Rome (although I'd never say no if given the chance) but Italy.
On returning from that first trip I began Italian language lessons in London and continued them years later when I returned to Melbourne. I can't say I'm fluent - far from it - but I understand a good deal. It's only fear that prevents me from speaking more than I do. You see, I was lucky enough to fall in love with someone who speaks Italian fluently and so I could be speaking it every day with him if only I could overcome the prohibiting block inside my mind that says I must not try something unless I know I'll be good at it. Oliver studied Italian at university but even after three years of study he still attributes his fluency to surrounding himself with Italian speakers, making pizza in a Melbourne pizzeria and befriending Italian workmates while living in London.
Although at one point we lived in London at the same time we didn't meet. Which is probably a good thing. I have a much more altruistic view of the world these days. I'm not sure Oliver would have liked the me that was yet to rid herself of the angst and confusion that comes with not knowing what you want to do with your life. Oliver worked for the well known chef, Antonio Carluccio, managing one of his restaurants. His love of Italy grew as did his knowledge of Italian food. It's said the difference between French and Italian cuisine is that French cooking relies heavily on technique whereas Italian food is all about the produce. Fresh produce, sourced locally and cooked simply is the philosophy behind this cuisine beloved the world over. Don't get me wrong, it's possible to eat bad food in Italy, but it's usually in the big cities at a tourist outlet. Do your research and you'll discover some of the most thoughtfully produced food you've ever tasted.
While Oliver has lived in Italy, working on vegetable farms in both Emilia-Romagna and Sardinia, I am yet to realise my dream of calling Italy home. Although, we fantasise about it almost every day so I presume we'll get there one day. For now, we must content ourselves with visits roughly every other year and embracing Italian cooking in our home. Oliver is the bread maker in our house and I just love it when he makes Italian focaccia. It's a cross between bread and pizza and he used to serve it every day at Carluccio's. We usually reserve it for when guests are coming over as it doesn't take hours to prove like sourdough. It's also so more-ish that it usually goes in one sitting which is another reason we don't eat it too often as Oliver adds copious amounts of olive oil and salt - the very reason it is so more-ish.
30 g fresh yeast
About 175 ml lukewarm water
500 g baker's flour (00 ideally)
2 Tablespoons olive oil plus quite a bit extra for drizzling
pinch of salt
25 g coarse salt
Dissolve the yeast in the water. In a bowl, add the flour then the oil, yeast liquid and pinch of salt. Mix together, adding more water if necessary to obtain a very soft, smooth dough. Knead for about 10 minutes, until elastic, then place in a bowl. Cover and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in size. Alternatively, you can mix all the ingredients in a food processor and, using the dough accessory, knead the bread for 2 minutes before covering and placing in a warm spot to double in size.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Lightly oil a large baking tray. Knock back the dough, then dip your fingertips in olive oil and gently press out the elastic dough until it covers the whole tray. It should be about 2cm high. Brush with olive oil and then make small indentations here and there in the dough with your fingers tips (as shown below).
Sprinkle the coarse salt over the top and bake for 25-30 minutes, until a golden-brown crust has formed. As soon as the bread comes out of the oven, drizzle more olive oil on top (see, I told you there was a lot of olive oil involved). Don't skimp on this step. The oil will be absorbed into the bread giving the most wonderful flavour. Allow to cool slightly then cut into strips or squares. You can even slice the focaccia in half and make a sandwich out of the warm bread with your favourite cheese and ham. Enjoy!