“It was only in the 1990’s that those soupy dragons, the Delias, the Nigellas and the Jamies, burst through the double doors of their steamy lairs to become not simply local heroes of the urban middle class, but tabloid bestriding ogres of popular culture. I think it fair to say that the last decade of the 20th century will be remembered not so much for its wars, its mass murders or its scientific advances, as for being that era of human progress in which, at last, focaccia became available in the Fens.” Will Self Feeding Frenzy (2001)

Written a little before the culinary pull of Israel and Palestine, and the meteoric rise of one of its advocates – a chef who would today have doubtlessly be included in Self’s polemic is Yotam Ottolenghi.

So my attraction to this particular chef’s homeland, not known for its Focaccia, and a leavened bread originating in North Central Italy and traditionally made without potatoes, all conspired to create an air of appreciative suspicion when first encountered.

There are recipes and there are chef’s recipes, and any prefixed by ‘riff’ or ‘my take on’ or ‘with a twist’ and you normally find me running for the hills. As M.F.K. Fisher mentioned in An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949) “Gastronomical precepts are perhaps amongst the most delicate ones in the modern arts. They must, in the main, be followed before they can be broken…”

 So when trying to write of the value of culinary tradition rather than thoughtless repetition, and of origination rather than fashion, I was reminded of some of David Hockney’s recent woodland paintings at the RA. They depict a world so unquestionably familiar and down-to-earth, yet seen from a less familiar but more illuminating standpoint – trees from a slightly different point of view. Such modest adjustment can add immeasurably to the experience and as a result our assumptions are given a generally welcome nudge, our outlook made that much more receptive.

And it was with some of Italian Nonna’s home cooking, carried aloft by its migrating families to beckoning new parts of the world, many of its faithful cooks, along with their established recipes, chose to absorb locally available produce and adopt a mildly adjusted view of formerly hallowed dishes.

Rather than being irrationally usurped by fashion, everyday cookery practices are sometimes changed by simple, convenient practicalities, which in turn can add immeasurably to the end result. Although it’s only bread from a slightly different point of view, I think this revised focaccia now deserves incorporation into the wider Italian canon.

Potato Focaccia from The Guardian Life and Style Yotam Ottolenghi

1 large baking potato (360g)

350g strong bread flour

1 tsp fast-action yeast

1 tsp caster sugar

100ml olive oil

Flaky sea salt

4 baby desiree potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-2mm-thick slices

2 tbsp picked thyme leaves

2 tbsp picked rosemary leaves

2 small garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced

¼ tsp nigella seeds (optional)

Heat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7.

Bake the potato for an hour, until cooked through, then cut in half and scoop out all of the flesh.

Discard the skin

Set aside to cool, then put in the bowl of a food mixer, with the dough hook in place.

Add the flour, yeast, sugar, 3 tablespoons of oil, 130ml water and a teaspoon of salt to the bowl.

Mix on a medium-low speed for two to three minutes until it all comes together.

Increase the speed to medium-high and work for 12 minutes, until the dough is smooth, elastic and rather wet.

Transfer to a medium bowl brushed with a tablespoon of oil, cover with cling film and set aside somewhere warm for an hour, until it has risen by 50% and is soft and silky.

Line a 30cm x 40cm oven tray with baking paper and brush with a tablespoon of oil.

Tip the dough into the centre of the tray and stretch out with your hands so it covers the base of the tray.

Cover with cling-film and set aside for half an hour, to rise.

Mix the sliced potato, herbs, garlic and remaining 25ml oil, then spread this mixture evenly over the dough, pressing it down lightly. Set aside for another 30 minutes, to rise.

Heat the oven to 210°C/410°F/gas mark 6½.

Sprinkle the bread with a teaspoon and a quarter of salt and the nigella seeds, if using, then bake for 20 minutes, until golden-brown all over.

Lift the focaccia off the tray on its paper, discard the paper and leave to cool on a wire rack.

Serve warm, after about 15 minutes, or at room temperature.

Wine thoughts

Given what I have said above, I have opted for some local talent – Valpolicella. This is still one of Italy’s underrated reds – for which some of the country’s rapacious winemakers have, in the past, been squarely to blame. They sent us mass-produced, cheap but mediocre wines by the sea-tossed boat load. Things, I am pleased to report, have got so much better. Look out for the designation Classico, and you should find yourself with a gently acidic wine, attractively aromatic but powered by an exciting, red-cherry fruitiness. Principal grapes are probably unfamiliar, Corvina and Rondinella lead the charge, but are often backed up by Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend, so you can also add a degree of complexity to the tally.