All my life I’ve been a breakfast lover. As a kid I would devour toaster strudels and pop tarts. In fact I ate so many toaster strudels in my early years that the thought of even looking at them now makes me a bit queasy (although I’ll admit, I still miss the fun of making your own design with the icing). At the weekends, my mom would fry pancakes in so much butter that they ended up being more savory than sweet, at least until my friend and I drowned them in maple syrup. My dad would wake up extra early to make his slow-cooked bacon and cook up a batch of creamy stone ground grits (if you don’t know what they are, Google it. It’s a southern thing).
When I went to college in New England, I fell in love with bagels and every weekend my friends and I would head to the local bakery for our bagel and iced coffee fix. I looooved the mix of a sweet latte with a savory sesame seed bagel, extra cream cheese.
Oh yes, I love breakfast, in all its various forms, shapes and sizes.
Unfortunately in Italy breakfast just isn’t that big of a deal. For Italians, it’s the lightest meal of the day and usually includes a cappuccino with some biscuits or a croissant. In short, when it comes to an Italian breakfast, there just isn’t that much variety; it should be a little something sweet, not too heavy, just enough to hold you over until it’s lunchtime. Pellegrino Artusi, in his 1891 book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, reminds his fellow Italian citizens that breakfast “being the first meal of the day is always more appetizing and therefore you shouldn’t satisfy all your hunger if you want to taste lunch”. Many Italians even skip the whole meal together, opting just for a coffee.
But not for this hungry girl.
My first breakfast at a cafe’ in Genoa was pretty scandalous. Looking back, it really couldn’t have been more typical of Liguria. I honestly couldn’t believe what I was seeing before my eyes. A little old lady, hunched over sitting at her table with a cappuccino on her left-hand side and…what was that in her right hand? It was too square to be a croissant. Was she really eating a piece…a piece of focaccia? It was nine o’clock in the morning but it was indeed a piece of focaccia. AND she was dunking…yes DUNKING her focaccia into her cappuccino.
Now for those of you who don’t know what focaccia is, it’s a soft savory bread typical of Liguria made with a lot of olive oil. It’s the “bread and butter” (only no butter, just olive oil) of the region and can be eaten as a snack, light lunch, and yes, unbeknownst to me, even for breakfast.
This was a mind-blowing revelation to me. Italians never eat savory things for breakfast. In America, we have no problem waking up to finish off last night’s pizza sitting in the fridge. Heck we even consider burritos a breakfast food. Yet in Italy, this is truly strange and I’m honestly not so sure all Italians would be okay with this.
After that first breakfast in Genoa, I started noticing focaccia everywhere in the morning. At the bars and cafès, people walking down the streets munching on a nice big square of it wrapped up in paper, even kids on their way to school in the morning eat this stuff. It’s like DRUG.
Curious to know more about this whole focaccia for breakfast thing, I did a little more research.
I learned that Ligurians have difficulty explaining this sweet and salty concept to outsiders. Many people claim, in disgust, that the oil from the focaccia interferes with the sweetness of the milk in the coffee, and leaves a strange oily residue. However, like it or not, Ligurians beg to differ.
Apparently, there is an art to eating focaccia for breakfast and Spezzino Vero explains three important rules to keep in mind:
1. Focaccia breakfast shouldn’t be rushed, but savored. It’s better if you can find a place to sit down and really enjoy it.
2. There is no “perfect shape” of the true focaccia; it shouldn’t be round nor perfectly square, but rather cut into an imperfect rectangular strip
3. You must lightly dip the focaccia into your coffee, not drown it. It’s all about achieving the perfect balance between the sweetness of the milk and oiliness of the focaccia.
So there you have it. How to eat focaccia for breakfast, should you ever meet the occasion.
When it comes to breakfast, tradition is tradition, whether you understand it or not. Where I come from, it’s all about the pancakes, grits and bacon. For the rest of Italy breakfast remains sweet and petite: a croissant, a cappuccino or nothing at all. As for the Ligurian people, they continue to eat breathe and live for their focaccia, no matter what hour of the day it is…which works just fine for me.