I’m very proud of the bread we serve at my restaurant in Soho. The brown is from the Neal’s Yard Bakery and represents the very best of the hippie baking tradition – what was described in
Focaccia is one of the most basic of breads. The name derives from the Latin for hearth, foces, so must have originated as a flat bread cooked in the embers. This recipe is used by us to make three types of bread: firstly, a herb-strewn, large, flattish loaf (the daily bread); secondly, a pizza base; and thirdly, rolled out very thinly, grilled to accompany various meze-like starters. The last use unwittingly echoes the bread’s origins.
This style of bread is now so universal that it is difficult to remember how recent an introduction to Britain it is. Camisa, the outstanding Italian delicatessen on Old Compton Street, has sold it for about ten years, nasty packet focacce have been available for longer, and we have been baking it every day for four years. Like its spiritual cousin, ciabatta, it is now completely absorbed into the British diet.
In a large bowl combine all the sponge ingredients. If you are using fresh yeast, mix it thoroughly with the water and sugar before stirring in the flour. Dried yeast doesn’t even need this short starting period. Cover the bowl and leave for 30 minutes at room temperature.
The ‘sponge’ will have risen by this time. Add the flour, salt and
Lightly oil a baking sheet (I favour Swiss roll tins because they have a raised rim). Halve the dough and spread it out over the sheet. This is harder than it sounds because the dough is very elastic, resisting your attempts to spread it evenly, and contracting back to near its original shape and size. Persevere, and it will suddenly surrender and begin to co-operate. The loaf should be about 2 cm thick. Lightly oil it and cover with a tea towel, which should be dampened. Leave to rise for half an hour.
Preheat your oven to maximum. Scatter the loaf with the rosemary leaves, season generously with salt and pepper and lightly oil again. Gently poke little indentations all over the loaf with your fingertips, taking care not to deflate it. Spray some water on the inside of the oven to generate steam, then a few seconds later pop the loaf in. Bake for 20 minutes. The loaf is done when it is firm, golden brown and the base sounds hollow and drum-like when tapped. (Don’t burn your fingers doing this.) The other half of the dough can be kept for up to three days in a zip-lock bag in the fridge. Allow about an hour out of the fridge to wake the yeast up.
© 1999 Alastair Little. All rights reserved.