Before the summer just gone (‘18), I had never been to Italy. I’m not really sure why, because my family love sunshine and food and those two words encapsulate everything that is great about that country. Anyway, the summer of 2018 had not one, but TWO trips in store, to the beautiful land of pizza and pasta. Because that’s the only relevant cultural significance of Italy right? Pizza and pasta? (Sidenote: if you believe the ridiculous statement above then your stomach is about to get woke by the recipe that ensues). So a road trip from the North of Italy (Genoa) to the South of France (Nice) with a few stop offs in between was what the Cheung clan had in store and it was beautiful. We visited some really pretty places and had a great time, but food wise it was eye opening. In fact, both trips to Italy were. Since becoming a vegan I was so used to going on holiday and having to order fries and a side salad, and thanks to my lactose intolerance, even before my opting out of meat and dairy I was constantly having to ask about ingredients and cooking techniques. (France is like a minefield of hidden dairy products). But Italy is different. You cross the border and suddenly asking if they cooked their mushrooms in butter is offensive because of course it would ever be olive oil. In fact olive oil was used almost universally in place of dairy products like butter or cream with the exception of cheese. But cheese is much easier to spot than melted butter.
So here I was in a new country thrilled by the opportunity to actually eat like a local and not have to order a customised salad that left you with a bowl of iceberg and tomatoes with a side of chips. Instead I could wander into a focacceria and choose from a wide selection of freshly baked focaccia that was lathered in olive oil, not butter. In fact, they were almost exclusively vegetarian so all I had to dodge was the cheesy ones and that wasn’t too difficult. It felt great to eat something that was such a staple for locals without having to alter it in any way at all. The same applied to a surprising amount of pasta dishes that relied on good quality tomatoes and fresh herbs for their powerful flavours. It wasn’t even frowned upon when I ordered a pizza with no cheese, (pizza marinara) which was apparently one of three original Neapolitan variations.
The second Italian adventure of the summer was a completely different experience and one that involved even more focaccia than the first. It came about thanks to the pride of my Italian housemate Matteo (Teo) who wanted to give us the local’s tour of his hometown, Piacenza. His family were kind enough to have us for the entirety of our stay and his wonderful mum made all nine of us dinner, every night. (We love you Amanda!). This was awesome because it meant we got to see what genuine Italian family dinners looked like. Strip back the fancy restaurant experience and you are left with some incredible food. There were slight variations made to certain dishes thanks to the extensive veganism that pervades our student house but all in all most things were left unchanged. Amanda’s fresh pesto was a personal favourite of mine, made from basil she grows on the windowsill!
We explored a lot and did some travelling, staying the night at Lake Garda before moving on to Verona. And all those long sweaty train journeys had one thing in common. They were fuelled by focaccia. Everywhere we went, Teo ensured there was an abundance of focaccia weighing down our rucksacks, god-forbid we ever got stuck somewhere! And I think this is where my love for the stuff comes from. Of course it’s delicious and incredibly therapeutic to make but I think it’s the joyous memories of holidaying in the sunshine with some of the best people I know that makes this bread so special to me. I find myself making it more and more and cannot wait to return to its beautiful country of origin to get myself the real deal once again.
The recipe I have included below is for the base bread and a couple of variations that I love to make, however the options for toppings are endless. I often do a roast veg one which is pretty easy, just cut whatever veg you want into fairly small pieces and roast whilst you let the dough prove. It’s better, if you are pre-roasting anything, to leave it a bit on the under done side as it’s going to be going back in the oven on top of your dough for another session and you don’t want it to burn or dry out. You can do sliced olives, sliced onions, garlic and rosemary, cherry tomatoes or even plain with lashings of olive oil. The combinations are endless.
P.S. Sorry for the length of this post, I got carried away…