Focaccia: a sort of timeline

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
In the future, historians will know us by our bread, suggests Kim Knight.

Sourdough? The great autumnal lockdown of 2020. Cinnamon scrolls? The shorter shelter-in-place orders of February this year. Focaccia? You had it for lunch five times last week.

The bread with more holes than bread is back.

Earlier this month, musician James Milne, aka Lawrence Arabia, posted a simple question to social media: "Can anyone accurately date the great New Zealand focaccia boom? I’m thinking c.1999-2004."

And thus, the flatbread floodgates opened and the Great Yeast Debates of New Zealand began. Sample correspondence: "It definitely coincided with the late antipasto platter period, which had its genesis back in the upper sundried tomato civilisation." — Yvonne Lorkin (wine writer).

"Coincided with the great panini boom." — Sam Smith (music writer).

But everything new will once be old, and so it is with focaccia.

"How one did enjoy a coffee and yards of Italian bread," wrote a travel blogger in the Otago Witness, circa 1872. "A crisp, porous substance in lengths of about a foot, in thickness like sticks of sealing wax."

Was this early influencer consuming the focaccia future generations would grow to know, love and dunk in dukkah? It seems likely (though a trio of dips and a sundried tomato would have been the clincher). The internet cites Annabel Langbein and Ray McVinnie as New Zealand’s key contemporary focaccia adopters.

In my own home library, I find a kind of bible: The New Zealand Bread Book. There’s focaccia on page 80, but this is a third edition, printed in 1996. Was it there in 1981, when the book was first published? No, says food historian and co-author Helen Leach.

"The earliest appearance ... is in the revised edition of 1989 ... the 1989 recipe is definitely the earliest so far in New Zealand."

Do you remember your first focaccia? In this land of ham-and-white-sandwich-slice sandwiches, it was an Italian immigrant who signalled a culinary coming of age — an early ’90s gateway to olives and olive oil; to hummus and balsamic and the courgette as a zucchini.

Salt was for fish and chips but sea salt was for sophisticates who ate flatbread. Focaccia was pizza without pineapple, bread without butter and as worldly as a wine bottle shaped like a fish. Until it wasn’t. One day, you could buy focaccia in Ashburton. Just like that, Auckland invented the bagel.

But everything old will once again be new and so it is with focaccia.

Like velour and Birkenstocks, flip-phones and Winona Ryder, the flatbread’s time has come again. In the grimmest depths of the Northern Hemisphere’s 2020, it was focaccia — and, very specifically, focaccia gardens — that flooded social media feeds.

Locked-down bakers stretched a canvas from dough and painted it with baby tomatoes, onion crescents and fennel fronds. They couldn’t go to school, work or frequent restaurants but they brought the outside inside. They made their world more beautiful with flatbread.

Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra is credited to have said "All sorrows are less with bread" and, this lockdown, New Zealanders took a loaf out of his book.

We have not gone full floral but we have joined the focaccia renaissance. Make it fast and simple or complicated and sultry, salty and oily, crunchy and springy. Eat it with your bare hands and dream of the day you can, once again, break bread with separated friends. 

Angela Casley's classic focaccia bread recipe

Makes 1 loaf

1 ½ cups tepid water

2 tsp yeast

2 tsp sugar

¼ cup olive oil

5 cups plain flour

1 tsp salt

Extra oil, for drizzling


Rosemary sprigs

Coarse sea salt

1 cup olives


1. Place the water into a bowl. Combine the yeast and sugar, and sprinkle over the water. Allow to sit for 10 minutes until frothy. Then add the oil.

2. In a large bowl place the flour and salt. Make a hole in the middle and pour in the wet ingredients, stirring to form the dough. Place on to a lightly floured bench and knead for 5 minutes. Place the dough into a lightly oiled bowl, cover and place into a warm area for 1 hour or until doubled in size.

3. Remove the dough. Place it on a lightly oiled baking tray and press it into an oval shape about 30cm long. Let it rest again for 1 hour to rise.

4. Preheat an oven to 200degC.

5. Using your fingertips, make indents in the dough and top with your choice of flavours. Drizzle with extra oil and bake for 20 minutes or until hollow-sounding when tapped.


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