Why, a flat bread. An Italian flat bread, to be more specific. An Italian flat bread that hails from the extreme northwestern coastal region of Liguria, to be more specific still. Flat breads have a very long history in Italy, dating all the way back to the Etruscans, a mysterious ancient people who dominated the northwestern coastal and inland regions of Italy up until the rise of the Roman empire. Just how long the Etruscans lived there before the Romans took over is anybody’s guess. They didn’t write much, so there are scant records about the way they lived. Some clues have however come down to us from other sources. The Roman writer Virgil, for example, whose Aeneid contains a scene in which Greek adventurers visiting coastal Italy eat their dinners off of flat, round pieces of bread. Some food historians have interpreted this as evidence of early pizza (Aeneas and company were camped near modern-day Naples). Others believe that what the Greeks were eating was actually Etruscan focaccia, though how they make that distinction is beyond me, since the two breads are almost identical.
Both rank among the oldest and most primitive of breads, being only slightly improved (leavened) versions of pancakes, “baked” on a hot, flat rock. Indeed the name focaccia itself means “hearth”, deriving from the Latin “focus”, a fireplace in the center of a dwelling. Panis focacius was the original term for these breads, and if there’s any snickering I’ll be forced to clear the room. They were made by clearing a space among the embers of a fire, and laying the dough down amid them. Which came first, pizza or focaccia is probably a moot point, since once upon a time they were very likely just different words for the same thing, and over time evolved in their own directions. Today focaccia is (generally speaking), a thicker and fluffier bread compared to pizza with fewer and sparer toppings. It’s fabulously popular today in Italy, especially in northwestern regions (like Liguria) where one can find innumerable local versions. It’s quite popular here in the States too, of course, and in France where it goes by the name of fougasse.