A few years ago, while searching in an op shop, I found a small hardback cookbook that’s become a favourite. Believe it or not, good cookbooks are so hard to find in op shops that I’ve almost given up looking. You sift through a gazillion microwave and diet cookbooks and mostly come up with nothing.
Published in the 1980s, Italian Pizza and Savoury Breads by Elizabeth Romer is from a different publishing era – it’s not gorgeous or fleshed out with photos to make you drool. Instead there is a scattering of still-life illustrations by the author. Tables covered with blue tablecloths and laid with a pizza, a bottle of wine, a bowl of tomatoes and a stem of vine leaves; that sort of thing – which you can imagine inside aluminium frames hanging slightly crookedly on the walls of someone’s holiday villa.
Romer appears to have wandered all over Italy in search of authentic pizza and bread recipes, and the book is full of interesting historical and social information as well as plenty of food detail. But whenever I grab it, there’s a sad little note inside the cover of my copy that always catches my attention:
I look forward to cooking and eating these with you. In these hard times, think of the money we can save in not buying pita bread.
I read and re-read this note and probably imagine a slightly different scenario each time, and hope things improved quickly. I usually come back to thinking about the price of pita bread – you can get it for $1 a bag these days and I’m pretty sure it’s never been expensive?
I generally make a beeline to the recipe for chickpea bread – farinata – which Romer gathered in the region of Liguria and says is scarcely known in the rest of Italy.
Italian chickpea bread
This bread is really a dense cake and made from a batter rather than a dough, so it requires no kneading and can be made in a few minutes (with some batter resting time). It is simply chickpea flour, water, salt and generous olive oil, and this time I sprinkled it with rosemary, which made the bread taste like the best rosemary, oil and sea salt pizza, but more interesting with the savoury flavour of chickpeas underneath.
I like to make the bread whenever dinner requires a substantial side, and it’s also a great recipe to turn to if you need to make a meal gluten-free. The only potential challenge you might have is sourcing the chickpea flour – but you will find it at Indian groceries and health-food stores.
2 cups chickpea flour
400 ml water
1 heaped teaspoon salt
100 ml olive oil
picked rosemary leaves
Put the chickpea flour in a bowl and whisk in the water a little at a time to avoid lumps. When it is all combined (it should have a consistency like crepe batter), walk away for a few hours, or up to overnight. This is to ‘slake’ the flour – soak and soften it – and instead you can cook it on the stovetop before baking the bread in the oven, but soaking is easier.
Preheat the oven to 220°C. Stir the salt into the batter. Pour the oil into a shallow tin (I use a paella tin, but you could use any round or square tin that’s not too large). Pour the batter on top. The oil will float to the surface. Use a fork to quickly whisk the oil into the batter until there is little or none left on top. Scatter with rosemary leaves and put into the hot oven. Bake until richly golden (around 30 minutes). Cut in the tin and serve either hot or warm.