Mediterranean Flatbreads: A Framework For Flavor
When we think of the culinary signature written across the Mediterranean, it's of lashings of olive oil and cloves of garlic, sunny pinches of saffron and all sorts of seafood. While these undeniably mark the region, we should also be thinking of something else: flatbreads.
I don't mean the dry, flavorless hardtack crackers that can keep for months. I mean delicious, handmade yeasted doughs, pulled thin and grilled up with all sorts of savory toppings. Once you start looking, you find them everywhere. In North Africa, a pita-like dough is pulled out into lahmacun or manaeesh and topped with lamb, cheese or zataar, the piquant spice blend common to the region. The French pissaladiere features a rich base with a savory topping of caramelized onions, olives and anchovies, while the leaner doughs of Italian focaccias and pizza biancas can feature anything from a drizzle of oil and sprinkle of herbs to a smattering of cheeses, vegetables or even fruit. Of all the variations up and down the Mediterranean, though, my favorite is the Spanish coca.
Cocas are a specialty of the provinces of Catalonia, and versions can also be found on the Balearic Islands. They take many forms, but the basic template is built on a yeasted dough, usually enriched just a bit with olive oil (or, if we're being traditional, rendered lard from Spain's beloved pigs). Once risen, it's pulled out into long ovals and topped with some of Spain's best vegetables, meats or fishes (or any combination of the three). And, of course, a good healthy lashing of Spanish olive oil.
From that basic framework, cocas can go out in a number of directions. Vegetable toppings include mushrooms, greens, peppers (both fresh and marinated), eggplants, squash, onions or whatever else is in season. Sausage, ham or bacon can represent the animal kingdom; and anchovies, shrimp, salt cod or octopus the sea. In short, pretty much anything goes.
There are also sweet cocas, often with a thicker, brioche-like sweetened dough. Some of them combine fresh or candied fruit with pine nuts, or even sausage for a savory edge. The one notable exception to this pizza-like template is that cocas are usually cheese-free — they're often served at room temperature, from bakeries that have them waiting in the case, which would make the melted-and-cooled cheese somewhat unappetizing. The lucky result is a lighter flatbread, more delicate than a pizza, which lets the toppings shine through.
In Spain, cocas are enjoyed as a quick snack or light meal, grabbed by the slice from the many small bakeries that prepare them. I think they shine best as a part of the tapas tradition: served with your happy-hour glass of wine or as an addition to your next cocktail party. Cocas do this job particularly well. Although there is the usual Mediterranean helping of olive oil, the base of yeasted dough means you can snack without worrying about greasy fingers. The lack of cheese means they don't get too heavy, so you can snack throughout the evening, and the starch and vegetables keep the booze from going to your head. And, as with any good bar snack, the generous sprinkling of salt keeps you reaching for your next sip. Which keeps you reaching for your next coca.