A story about a friend & her Florentine grape focaccia (schiacciata all’uva), in three parts.
Florence, October 2015
‘Firenze Santa Maria Novella,’ said the speaker above my seat. Startled, for I was fast asleep, I grabbed my coat and jumped down. Damn, the umbrella. How can I always forget the umbrella? But no matter, I thought, for I was in Florence, meeting friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, and we were having lunch in a beautiful place, and it wasn’t raining anyway. Everything was going to be fine.
I saw Rachel first. We arrived at the same time, from opposite directions – she from Rome, I from Venice. We met in the book shop (cookbook section) and instinctively, as if guided by the waft of roasted (burnt?) coffee beans, we slowly nudged towards the bar. The counter was flooded by a stream of commuters. We elbowed a little, pretended we didn’t know what a queue was – wait, who’s first? what? Well, I guess us! – and managed to order and inhale a much-needed shot of caffeine. Emiko arrived short after, and together, we adventured out of the station and into the heart of the Renaissance city.
The day was grey but mild. I soon realised, walking at a good pace, that I had overestimated the autumnal chill. My cheeks – I could feel them – were red with heat. Or was it the excitement? For I was talking about favourite things – food, travel, recipes, cooking, writing – with two of my favourite people, who happen to be wonderful cooks and writers and all-around wonderful humans. What I do know for sure is that I was talking and walking without knowing exactly where it was that we were going. But no matter, for being with Emiko, who knows Florence and its food like the back of her hand, I just knew it was going to be good.
And indeed, on autopilot mode, without a hint of hesitation, Emiko guided us into a favourite forno – a bakery in the heart of the city (the location in Via dei Tavolini, or Small Tables’ Street, just added to the romance) called Cantinetta Verrazzano. The place was charming. From the antique copper machine to the marble countertop, from the dark wood benches and tables to the old-school tiling, it all concurred to creating a cosy, warming, welcoming atmosphere – just what one wants from a place selling comfort food like bread and pastry.
Emiko encouraged us to order an espresso, ‘which is always good here’, and, in case we were feeling peckish, a piece of schiacciata all’uva. I looked in the direction of the tray with the flatbread oozing with sticky grape syrup the colour of some purple dusks, and wondered how on earth could one ever resist such a beautiful thing. In fact, none of us did – we all got a piece with our coffee. Hungry as I was after the early rise and the long train ride, I devoured mine, cracking seeds and all, finishing off by licking every drop of grape juice off of my inky fingers.
I knew I was in luck. The schiacciata (grape focaccia), a sort of sweet flatbread typical of Florence, makes its appearance only for a fleeting period coinciding with the local grape harvest, between September and October. Thankfully, it was still hanging out at the forno when we visited, for I had been wanting to try it ever since I read about it on Emiko’s blog. And it was every bit as good as I thought it would be – strikingly simple, vaguely sweet, and exploding with fruity flavour.
Sydney, March 2016
The day began that the sun hadn’t even risen yet. Luisa‘s car was packed to the rim with props and photography gear and all that was needed for that day’s workshop. We sped along the bay and finally arrived at the meeting point – a picturesque street in Rose Bay.
Quietly – for everybody was still sleeping, including her little one – Emiko, loaded with groceries, a cake in one hand and a bowl of dough in the other, exited the front door. She was in Australia for the launch of her debut cookbook, Florentine. For a lucky coincidence, I happened to be in Sydney at the time, too, so I had the chance to take part the cooking and photography workshop her and Luisa had organised at the wonderful location that is Glenmore House.
The warm morning sun peeked through the French door into the airy room where we all gathered to cook and photograph. Attendants arrived, and various scenes were set up for them to study and shoot. The common theme throughout the day was seasonal Italian food, with recipes and moods inspired by Emiko’s book. Surrounded by the various still life scenes (an autumnal market scene, a fresh pasta scene, a merenda scene), the centre table was the heart of the ‘live show’, where Emiko was demoing a couple of Florentine recipes, and with me lending the proverbial hand for styling and modelling purposes.
Emiko made a colourful bowl of late-summer panzanella that day, but the star of the show was easily her schiacciata all’uva. That’s what the bowl of sticky, bubbly dough she was holding in the morning was meant for. She grabbed a good blob with well-oiled hands and skillfully spread it in a thin layer, as if for making focaccia, then I got to sprinkle the medley of local red grapes (some as small as a young pea) and cover the lot in sugar and olive oil. She then proceeded to shape the remaining dough into what looked like a blanket for the grapes, spreading it and stretching it with her fingers so that every berry was covered and cosy. Another sprinkle of grapes went on top; more sugar, too, and a splash of olive oil; and then, the schiacciata was ready to go in the oven.
The scent coming from the kitchen as we carried on with the morning activities was inebriating. Enrolled to check for doneness, I had the pleasure of hanging out next to the warm oven and stare at the schiacciata as it puffed and tanned, the grapes bursting into purple puddles, some juice leaking onto the baking tray in little streams that would turn dark and crisp like sugary shards.
It was meant to be Autumn in Sydney, but days were still warm enough to enjoy the outdoors and eat al fresco, which is exactly what we did. Sat at a long table under a scenic wooden pergola, we lunched on caponata and panzanella, green soup with herbs from the garden, and finished with a square of still-warm schiacciata. It was the first time I tasted the homemade version. Different from the one I had in Florence, it was perhaps even more pillowy, and – we all thought – as brilliantly good as it was beautiful.
Veneto, September 2016
Autumn has arrived once again, and the best of the grape season with it. A few years ago, Dad planted a few red grape vines in the garden – concord, mostly – and having had a good harvest, I couldn’t miss on the chance to finally bake the schiacciata myself. I followed Emiko’s recipe, of course. But also, I let myself be guided by what I remembered of her gestures, of the scents and textures as they moulded in my memory, and for the third time in less than a year, I got my schiacciata, fruity and comforting – recurrent like a mantra – there to announce a swing in the seasons and a change of mood in the kitchen.
This is an edited extract from Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books.
The only modification I made was skipping the aniseed, as I am admittedly not the biggest fan, and the icing sugar dusting at the end. Everything else follows Emiko’s instructions faithfully. I added volume measurements, too, if you’re used to baking in cups.
500 g | 3 2/3 cup plain (00) flour, plus extra for dusting
400 ml | 1 2/3 cup lukewarm water
2 1/2 teaspoons (7 g) dried yeast OR 20 g of fresh yeast
600 g | 1 lb 5 oz concord or other sweet red grapes
80 g | 1/3 cup caster sugar
75 ml | scant 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
Prepare the dough
(This can be done the night before you need to bake it, or a couple of hours ahead of time.) Sift the flour into a large bowl and create a well in the centre. Dissolve the yeast in some (about 1/2 cup or 125 ml) of the lukewarm water.
Add the yeast mixture to the centre of the flour and mix with your hand or a wooden spoon. Add the rest of the water little by little, working the dough well after each addition to allow the flour to absorb all the water. Add 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil to the dough and combine.
This is quite a wet, sticky dough. Rather than knead, you may need to work it with a wooden spoon or with well-oiled hands for a few minutes until it is smooth. Cover the bowl of dough well with some plastic wrap and set it in a warm place away from draughts until it doubles in size, about 1 hour. If doing this the night before, leave the dough in the bowl to rise in the fridge overnight.
Assemble the schiacciata
Separate the grapes from the stem, then rinse and pat dry. There’s no need to deseed them if making this the traditional way.
Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).
Grease a 20 cm (8-inch) x 30 cm (12-inch) baking tin or a round pizza tray with olive oil. With well-oiled (or wet) hands, divide the dough into two halves, one slightly larger than the other. Place the larger half onto the greased pan and with your fingers, spread out the dough evenly to cover the pan or so that it is no more than 1.5 cm (1/2-inch) thick.
Place about two-thirds of the grapes onto the first dough layer and sprinkle over half of the sugar, followed by about 30 ml / 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Stretch out the rest of the dough to roughly the size of the pan and cover the grapes with this second layer of dough, stretching to cover the surface. Roll up the edges of the bottom layer of dough from underneath to the top, to seal the edges of the schiacciata. Gently push down on the surface of the dough to create little dimples all over. Cover the top with the rest of the grapes and evenly sprinkle with the remaining sugar and olive oil.
Bake for about 30 to 35 minutes or until the dough becomes golden and crunchy on top and the grapes are oozing and cooked.
Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Cut into squares and enjoy! This is best served and eaten the day of baking, or at the most the next day.