The heat wave came without warning. Although I can’t say the same for the focaccia. That came from an all-consuming craving for salt-crusted cushion-soft bread, and no matter how many heat waves we suffer, there will always be a focaccia in this house.
I have not experienced many heat waves in my life. This is fair to say considering I am from a country which is famous for its drizzle. There were two freakishly hot days in 2019 – soaring to the dizzying heights of 32C – and I documented my normal greedy eating habits, but little did I know what a real heat wave can do. How your stomach seems to shrivel from the heat. And how even a sip of water can bloat you. Dear reader, finally my appetite was sedated as I lay as still as possible, partially dressed on slightly damp sheets in a hotel room in the Pyrenees. Sight-seeing was abandoned. Eating was postponed. A breeze was prayed for.
We live in a flat in Toulouse. Its positioning means that it receives a splash of direct sunshine in the early morning only, then for the rest of the day, it is shaded and cool. In winter it’s frigid. Layers and blankets are required.
In the summer though, it’s a blessing. Oh sweet blessing of a flat. And the fan! Beautiful, kind fan, what would we do without you?
We found out. Gaylord and I went into the Pyrenees for the weekend. At first we were seduced by the majestic scenery – towering mountains, green hills, a monastery perched imperiously above the forest, quaint provincial villages full of markets and tinkling fountains, oh and the coffee bowls we drank from in the morning that caused such a frenzy of excitement that I sent pictures to my family – that we thought it would be bearable, pleasant even.
We were naïve. An excursion into the nearby town to buy lunch took our breath away, and we returned to the car looking like we’d had been dunked a bath. We endeavoured to stay cool in our hotel room, the balcony doors thrown open to catch a non-existent breeze, stripping down to just swimwear to lie on our twin beds, no physical contact allowed.
For Gaylord, this proved hopeless, and with him suffering the beginnings of heat stroke, we sheltered under a tree by the hotel’s swimming pool, plunging into the cold water at regular intervals. Meanwhile our middle-aged swimming companion, a guy staying at the complex for a yoga retreat, fell asleep in the 40C sun, his skin frying until it reached a hot-pink well-done. During a desperate car drive just to feel general air movement, we passed fields and soaring eagles seemingly oblivious to the heat, although the neatly stacked hay bales appeared to be sagging, melting into the freshly turfed earth.
Finally, by 8pm there was release. Fresh from yet another swimming pool dip, we drove up and up a winding bumping track, perilously close to a chasm between mountains, to a cliff-top restaurant with a bird’s eye view of the surrounding valley.
We sat in the cooling sun, gulping glasses of iced apple and apricot juice, then feasting on a charcuterie platter full of pâté, chorizo and saucisson from the next door farm, all served with slivers of pickled cucumbers and carrots. As we ate, we kept jumping up to take pictures of the view and the setting sun, which, eventually emerging from behind a cloud, appeared like a brilliant red fireball blazing through the sky.
Heat waves are never easy to negotiate, but we had it much, much easier than those in Barcelona (which had gone BEYOND the traffic light colours and into PURPLE) and Paris, which was 35C at 9pm. Turns out, the weather was record-breaking. Funnily enough, the temperature number, just like the hours in the day, took on a rubber-like quality, bouncing and morphing into heights and lengths undefined by anything as redundant as a numeric marker.
And in a similar way, my appetite bounced right back to normal as soon as the day cooled, and by the time we’d returned to Toulouse, I could have eaten the carpet. Thankfully instead though, I made focaccia.
Salt-Crusted Fluffy Focaccia
This easy focaccia recipe has been life-changing which may sound like a hyperbole but hear me out. It is perfectly formed, fitting snugly in our metal baking dish and rising to beautifully high proportions so it can be sliced in half and filled appropriately. Not only that, but there’s a salt-water brine involved.
Now please don’t shrink back in horror at that. I’m the same. Salt-water brine poured over a focaccia dough always seemed to me, a lazy person, as an unnecessary addition to bread. Isn’t focaccia oily and salty enough? And, maybe I should say this considering I write a food blog with recipes, but wherever I can I try to chop a step off a recipe’s method. What’s the expression about lazy people and hard jobs and easy ways to get things done?
Well, one day I finally surrendered and just tried salt-water brined focaccia already, and wowza – the salty water creates a salt-caked crust all over the surface and down the edges of the bread. As it bakes it thickens and crisps, turning a deep russet brown, while the soft springy texture of the focaccia is still light and as bouncy as a baby’s bottom.
I made focaccia twice last week. On top of all this dough and salt water, I first spread a layer of sweet caramelised onions, and then for the second bake, I sliced traffic light cherry tomatoes, slices of creamy mozzarella and small shards of garlic which were pushed into the focaccia’s pockets. Once baked, it was strewn with basil, then we ate it with fresh tomatoes, cheese and salad. Each slice was so thick and springy, they were just begging to mop up all the salad dressing.
Heat waves will come and thankfully go, but at least some some easy focaccia is here for when we’re hungry again.
For the focaccia
- 300 g flour with added gluten for bread (in the UK this is strong white flour, in France this is T55)
- 1 sachet of dried yeast
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tsp honey if you'd like to try a vegan version, substitute the honey for ½ tsp sugar
- 175 ml warm water
- 1 tsp salt
For the toppings
- 7 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tbsp herbes de Provence dried, usually found in supermarkets
- ½ tsp salt
- 2½ tbsp lukewarm water
- Other topping ideas include: 1 red onion cooked with balsamic vinegar until caramelised, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, garlic, rosemary, olives, goat's cheese, sundried tomatoes, figs, blue cheese, walnuts, the list goes on!
- Tip the flour and yeast into a bowl and combine. In a jug, mix together the water, honey and oil, then pour it into the flour and yeast, stirring with a wooden spoon to create a sticky dough. Bring it altogether with your hands and plop it on to a floured surface. Be warned: it will feel wet! But this is good!
- Knead the dough for a couple of minutes so it is a little less wet, then add the 1 tsp of salt. Fold it into the dough like you're wrapping a present and keep kneading until it is stretchy. Put it into a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a tea towel. Leave to prove in a warm room for an hour, or until it has doubled in size. In a heat wave, it will take about 20 minutes!
- While waiting for the dough to rise, prepare your chosen toppings.
- Mix together the 7 tbsp olive oil with the herbes de Provence and set aside. Dissolve the ½ salt into the lukewarm water for the brine.
- When the dough is ready, give it a good punch and knead to get back some of the stretch. Stretch it out in an oiled baking tray – it will spring back, but persevere! Over the next 10 minutes it will relax and will fit snugly into the tray.
- Using your first three (clean) fingers, push dimples into the focaccia dough. Make sure you touch the baking tray at the bottom! Fill the dimples with the herby oil, then pour over your brine. Cover in the rest of your chosen toppings and leave to puff up for another 20 minutes.
- When you have 10 minutes more of rising time, preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/395°F.
- Once well-risen, slide the focaccia into the hot oven and bake for 20 minutes until the surface is golden and crusty.