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D - 13: Are Focaccia and M'Semen from the same Flatbread Family?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Writing for two days about Genoa made me thinking of Focaccia, the town’s famous flat bread. I wondered how many new bakeries had to open to feed all the builders working on the new palaces during the Golden Age. But then I had an even more intriguing thought. When we eventually arrive in Tunisia after four weeks of sailing, we will be eating M’semen, North Africa’s famous flatbread. Are these two related? Of course, I thought. Both Carthage and Genoa were Roman colonies for over 600 years. Given the dominance of Roman culture, these two bread types must share the same origin.

Focaccia made with 500g flour, 500 g water & olive oil (2:1), 10g salt, 10g yeast, bake for 15 min on 200 C or until ready

M’semen is made from durum wheat, dry yeast, melted butter, a tiny bit of sugar and water. Bake in oven on 200 C for 15 min or until golden

The name Focaccia derives indeed from a Latin word – Focus for hearth or plate for baking. Roman bread was thus called Panis Focacius. Scholars believe that it predates Roma and has Etruscan origins. Some even argue that it was a cultural import from the Fertile Crescent where flatbreads were found in excavations dating 14’000 years back. It is well possible that it was imported like olives, cereals, fruits or the domesticated animals we talked about in previous blogs. If ingredients can migrate, so can recipes for making bread.

Panis Focacius made from an ancient recipe

There are many different varieties of Focaccia on the Ligurian coast. There is no archetype. It can be baked with garlic, pecorino, herbs, tomatoes, olives, raisins, honey or with sugar. Focaccia is usually moist but can also be made completely dry which makes it the ideal and easy to store bread for long journeys on galleys. A useful quality for the mariners of Genoa!

M’Semen has different roots though. My intuition that it may be related proved incorrect. M’Semen comes from the Berber community who lived 10’000 years ago as herders in the then still green Sahara. As nomadic people they only baked occasionally when they had gathered enough wild growing cereals. Tried to find out what type of cereals they had access to but could not find out. Assume the wildly growing barley and wheat also grew in the Sahara, not only the Fertile Crescent. As the desert got dryer, the Berbers moved north into the Atlas Mountains where there was still enough rainfall to keep the pastures green. They could continue their lifestyle and their way of breadmaking came along. The fact that butter is used as fat and not olive oil is one indicator that relates it to cattle herding and not to Roman style farming. But whether baked with olive oil as in Genoa or with butter as in Tunisia, both are delicious. With vegetable or cold plate toppings both are an ideal snack for in between, a starter to a meal or a side dish. Whatever the heart desires!

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