Focaccia is one of those foods whose true origins are completely lost to us. Have a look at some of the typical food reference books, and they’ll talk about focaccia and the Greeks, the Etruscans, maybe the Minoans, yadda yadda. But then pretty much everybody likes to trace pretty much everything back to the Greeks, the Etruscans and maybe the Minoans (they had indoor plumbing, don’t you know). If I were to take a guess, I’d say focaccia is much older even than that.
Focaccia is a flat bread, and flat breads are without a doubt the world’s oldest breads. How do we know that? Because you don’t need ovens to make them. Being so thin, a flat bread can be baked on a hot rock, either a slate-like thing placed over a fire, or on a flat spot where a fire used to be, after the embers have been cleared away. The word “focaccia” is actually derived from the word “hearth” or “fireplace”. Indeed in Rome a “panis focacius” (no snickering you in the back) was a flat bread baked on the floor of a fire pit.
Flat breads made in this way can be found all over the world, especially in the Middle East. What really nails focaccia as a Mediterranean specialty is its conspicuous use of olive oil (and in the case of Provence where it is known as fougasse, olives). Olive oil was traditionally brushed over the top of the bread after it was baked, followed by a sprinkling of herbs, and if you were a Greek or a Roman, probably a little honey as well. All this was done to add flavor to what was probably a fairly bland item (not unlike another heavily topped flat bread whose name eludes me at the moment).
As to who did it first, there’s no way of knowing. Flat breads go back to Neolithic times, olive oil at least 4,000 years. So it could have been the Greeks, the Etruscans, the Minoans…