Mel and Sue (Picture credit: BBC)
The Great British Bake Off on BBC2 has proved a surprising culinary hit, it appears, with viewing figures the highest for any cookery programme in recent memory, outstripping the pneumatic Nigella and the comely, doe-eyed Sophie. Certainly, I have enjoyed the few episodes I have caught. Maybe it is the cosiness of the subject - baking - that makes it so popular. We can almost smell the aroma of bread baking or a banana loaf straight from the oven. The presenters, Mel and Sue, are engaging and entertaining, with a nice gentle tongue-in-cheek take on the proceedings. I'm less keen on the judge Paul Hollywood who can be cutting and harsh in his comments, and who seems rather impatient with a bunch of (mostly) women with floury hands trying to turn out perfect petit fours to please him.

I happened to catch the bread episode a few weeks ago as this is probably the element of baking that interests me the most (I'm not a great cake or patisserie maker). When I stopped full-time work to have my son, I decided that one thing I would do while I was at home was learn how to make bread properly. It took awhile to perfect my loaf, but after some experimenting and tinkering - and the purchase of a heavy-duty Kitchenaid food mixer - I arrived at what I considered to be a pretty damn fine method resulting in an Italian-style loaf. Now bread making is just something I do each week, like practising the piano and teaching other people's kids how to play the piano. It's second-nature, and I rarely measure anything. I use the same method for any kind of loaf, unless I am making something really special, like Stollen, which requires a little more attention.

Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry
Thus, I was all prepared to crow and shout with horror at Paul Hollywood's focaccia method on The Great British Bake Off, but I was also willing to stay the course to see the results at the end. He recommends a wet dough to give the bread its aerated texture. Some of the contestants were very successful, others less so - and they were the ones who received the full curl of Paul's discerning lip. The next day, I set about making focaccia to his method. It's a little disconcerting at first, to have the bowl of the mixer filled with a sticky mess, but keep at it and it gradually takes on a characteristic silkiness that indicates it is nearly ready.

I tend not to put fancy toppings on my focaccia: the most fancy you're likely to get in my house is chopped fresh rosemary, or some black olives, or occasionally sun-dried tomatoes. I usually top it off with olive oil and Maldon sea salt.

When I was in Italy recently, I watched the cafe owner in Molini put the finishing touches to her focaccia (sea salt and sesame seeds, which is Ligurian style, apparently) before taking the big trays of bumpy dough up to the village bakery. There was one 'secret' thing she did to the dough, which I am not prepared to reveal until I have tried it myself, but the clue is steam - and not the tray of boiling water in the bottom of the oven, as Paul Hollywood recommends (which does work to produce a good crust).

You can get Paul Hollywood's recipe from the BBC website here (downloads as a PDF file). I don't use sachets of dried use, as I prefer Dove's Farm Quick Yeast (use 1 tsp to 500g strong white bread flour), and I make my bread entirely in the food mixer, except for the knocking back after proving, and shaping. You need a large, shallow baking tray for focaccia as the loaf should not be too deep. In Liguria, you sometimes see focaccia with a tomato, garlic and olive topping, but more often than not, it is kept simple, with oil and salt.


  1. I have never, in many years of eating at nifty cafes and posh restaurants, had foccacia as good as the stuff in Genoa. I think perhaps it just requires a very, very free hand with the olive oil and salt. Or possibly it's just the memory of a nice holiday many years ago that has coloured the Genoan foccacia so good in my mind. Only one answer: take another trip there!

  2. The foccacia we had in Liguria was wonderful - not too thick and dense. I watched the cafe owner make it, tamping it down and scattering it with olive oil, salt, sesame seeds and finally water. I think they also used an unbleached flour there - the other local bread was a rough, round loaf with a crumbly texture and pale yellow.


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