Focaccia is back and better than ever
Author: David Matthews
Photography: Will Horner
The question rings out into cyberspace: "What are your favourite focaccia fillings - either those you buy or make yourself?" I'm deep in archived Vogue Australia forums. I expect no responses, or maybe some light ridicule.
But the answers fly back: pesto and lemon; chicken, avocado and Swiss cheese; char-grilled eggplant, sundried tomatoes, feta. Four pages, all positive. Then, on 20 April 2005, it goes silent. And I think to myself, I've pinpointed when focaccia died in Australia.
Died? Maybe not. You can still have it the way you used to: at Tropicana Caffe in Sydney's Darlinghurst focaccia service runs till four; Brunetti in Melbourne still kicks it how it always has. Take a turn through little Italy and focaccia won't be very far.
We know focaccia. We're familiar with its Roman roots, its pitted surface, the liberal use of olive oil. We know it because it was everywhere, packed with char-grilled vegetables and grilled in sandwich presses. For a time it represented the height of cosmopolitan café culture here, but for something that was at every corner café, somehow it went wrong. Was it Atkins? Sourdough? And why, over a decade after the trail went dead, is it back on menus?
"People are reclaiming things that were ruined by mass production," says Mike Eggert of Sydney's Pinbone team, who is about to open a focaccia-forward Italianate pop-up in Mascot with Jemma Whiteman, his Pinbone partner.
"We love focaccia," he says. "But it still makes me think of this fluffy, white, bullshit version. That's everything focaccia shouldn't be."
Eggert and Whiteman first made the bread at 10 William St, and they'll be baking it again when Mr Liquor Dirty Italian Disco opens this month. They might enrich the dough with lard and potato, treat it like bruschetta, serve slices with 'nduja, or straight-up to tear apart and load with butter that's been whipped with drippings from the wood-fired oven.
"Focaccia fills a niche - it's got an amazing texture without being too chewy, an amazing flavour without being sour," says Eggert. "We use a mixture of soft '00' flour, and strong flours - which help the water absorption - loads and loads of olive oil on top, which stays in the dough so you get this chewy, crusty, salty, oily, fucking sick bread."
If it sounds bold to open a place focused on a bread that fell out of favour, then Fugazza is the boldest, having opened in 2011 in Melbourne with the aim of reintroducing the bread to the city. Their Tuscan-style version is baked crisp, and not pressed or toasted before being made into sandwiches. But they're not alone. In Adelaide, How the Focaccia opened last year in Hindmarsh. Back in Sydney, Dust Bakery sells schiacciata slick with olive oil and crusted with salt.
The team at Porteño launched their latest venue, Wyno, with a dark loaf that sits on the counter, ready to be sliced and swiped through whipped lard. Chef and co-owner Elvis Abrahanowicz, who's done versions since Bodega opened, thinks a resurgence is overdue. "I ate plenty of it in the '90s, but then you couldn't get it for ages," he says. Wyno's version is puffed and thick, an influence from Argentina. "It's a bit like a sponge cake," says Abrahanowicz. "We cook it quite hard - it's got so much fat in it that it never burns, just goes delicious."
Focaccia is also in the bread basket at Neil Perry's new Sydney outpost of Melbourne's Rosetta. Head chef Richard Purdue tested different flours and oils before settling on the dough, which is laced with hojiblanca olive oil and proved for almost 24 hours: "We knock it back by prodding it with our fingers, let it come up again, and then before it goes in the oven it gets another big dose of olive oil over the top."
Salt and rosemary are in the mix, and it's topped with oil once more before heading out to customers. "It's funny, when I was talking to people about the restaurant opening up, and the focaccia, so many were like 'Oh, what are you, lost in the '90s?'" says Purdue. "Everyone didn't realise it was coming back."
"I think it's been long enough that people are willing to give it a go as a bit of a novelty, and then they go 'oh, I see, I see'," he says. "It's like flared pants - it's been just long enough."
Mr Liquor Dirty Italian Disco, 952 Botany Rd, Mascot, NSW; Fugazza, 31 Equitable Pl, Melbourne, Vic; Wyno, 4/50 Holt St (enter via Gladstone St), Surry Hills, NSW; Rosetta, Grosvenor Place, 118 Harrington St, Sydney, NSW