Saraghina, the dancing temptress from Fellini’s film 8½

Helen, a woman in a wide brimmed hat, walks through the tunnel  from Bonassola to Levanto. Trains have not passed through since 1975, and the tracks are now covered with asphalt so the locals can enjoy a stroll.     

Helen only sees vague shapes through her prescription sunglasses, but she comes here every day as the darkness is the savior of her English rose complexion. Up ahead, she can make out a woman in a silver caftan. Two men walk in the opposite direction and she calls out to them.

“Ragazzi! How about a good time?”

“Forget it. We’re unemployed,” they answer and pass her by.

Helen stumbles. “Did that just happen?”  She slows her pace to remain unobserved.

An elderly gentleman approaches and the woman calls out again.    

“Signor! Are you lonely?”

The gentleman raises his hands in the air. “Graziella! I’m a pensioner with no lead in his pencil.”

 “I can take care of that. My sex is an assassin,” she hisses.  

The gentleman hesitates for a moment, shakes his head, then passes her by.

“Good Lord!  It’s Graziella!  Levanto’s town whore!” Helen says to herself. 

She has heard stories about this woman. When she sits in the bar at the beach, she can listen to the men’s tongues wag.  

“Graziella? I wouldn’t touch her with a barge pole. My uncle almost croaked underneath her fat ass!”

“Why pay the cow when you can get the milk for free?” asks the lifeguard and they all burst out laughing. 

This is the beauty of getting older. No one notices you are there until it is time to pay the bill.

Graziella walks out of the tunnel and the beads of her caftan ignite in the sunlight.

Damn!” Helen hurries to catch up with her. Outside, she rolls down her linen sleeves to protect her freckled arms. Sunscreen on the hands will have to wait as her prey is moving fast along the boardwalk. She pulls out her iphone and clicks three times for good measure.   

Passersby glance at Graziella out of the corner of their eyes and keep their distance. A little girl points her finger and the grandmother pulls it down. It is not polite to point.  

“Her face. I need her face,” Helen thinks as she stalks her down the stairs that lead to the Via Dante.   

Graziella enters the Focacceria and waits her turn in the line of customers. The woman in front steps away and Graziella yawns at her predictability.

“All the more room for me in this hell hole,” she thinks.

The woman behind her is standing so close that she can smell her perfume. It smells like the Chanel she swiped off the dressing table when that schmuck in his villa tried to shortchange her. Could she be the wife? 

Graziella pays for her sheet of focaccia, then walks over to the glass refrigerator and pretends to study the mineral waters. A pale woman in a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses now speaks to the shop owner in the reflection.

“Two sheets of focaccia, please.”

“Shall I cut you off a piece for now, Signora?” asks the shop owner.

“Oh no… this is for the men at home.”

The woman approaches the refrigerator. Graziella opens the glass door and steals a glance at her. The lips of the woman turn up in a smile that lingers too long.  

Her eyes, I want to see her eyes,” Graziella thinks.

The woman pulls out a mineral water.  

I prefer still water during the day. And not too cold, either,” the woman says.

That is certainly better for your digestion, but everyone has different desires,” Graziella replies.

The woman lowers her sunglasses and looks at Graziella.

So very true!”

Her eyes are green and rimmed with pink. She is a delicate creature, but the crow’s feet reveal someone who has laughed all the way through her easy life.  This is the type of woman who would just look the other way if her perfume disappeared. “I am sure the maid will return it once she’s got her man,” she would reason. 

The woman leaves the shop with the focaccia sticking out of her straw bag. She is the only person who has been civil to her all day and she does not even know her name. Graziella follows her onto the Via Dante and up the stairs to the boardwalk. The woman looks behind her and nods. Graziella bites her lip.

“Fool! She’s seen you!” 

It is 13.00 and she has not serviced a single customer. She opens the door to her Fiat 500 and sits inside. From here, she can still watch the woman lean over the railing and breathe in the sea air. 

Two teenaged boys sneak up behind her, poke her in the ribs, then grab the focaccia. She raises her hands in surrender and laughs at their stealth.     

Graziella’s heart tightens and she tears at the bread in her bag.        

“Is my makeup Felliniesque? Do I remind you of Saraghina? Well, I’ve seen 8½ too,” she whispers to herself.   The salty starch melts on her tongue but it brings no comfort.   

The woman and her men now walk towards the Casinò, the beach establishment with the finest sand.

A wave of melancholy washes over Graziella as they disappear through the gate.

Tonight, you’ll tweet your followers how you bought focaccia to fill the hollow legs of your sons. You’ll tell them how you’re blessed, how you belong.”

Her phone buzzes and she takes the call. Relieved, she licks the oil and salt off her fingers and peels out of the parking lot. Signor Bernini wants to rumba so the afternoon is no longer lost.

Focaccia is street food, eaten on the fly. It appears in almost every part of Italy, but the Ligurians have a special gift for it. The recipe I give you today is not traditional, as it is made with the dough of soda bread. This brilliant idea comes from Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. True focaccia fans may get their feathers ruffled, but you can have this version on the table in less than an hour as yeast and the rise are not involved. If you have never made soda bread, I suggest you watch her make it on this YouTube video.


1 pound / 450 grams plain flour plus a little bit extra for the bread board
1 teaspoon salt
(0.5 teaspoon if using American measuring spoon.)
1 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda (0.5 teaspoon if using American measuring spoon.)

12 to 14 ounces / 350 to 400 ml buttermilk or sour milk
cherry tomatoes, olives, whatever you fancy
Sea salt for sprinkling

The Method

Preheat the oven to 474°F / 250°C

Brush a 9 x 13 inch (23 x 33 cm) baking tin with olive oil.

Sift the flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda into a large bowl.

Make a well in the centre.

Pour all but a couple of ounces of the buttermilk into the well.

Using one hand with the fingers outstretched like a claw, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl until the dough comes together. It should be soft, but not too wet and sticky. If necessary, add the rest of the buttermilk, a bit at a time.

Turn the dough on to a floured bread board and just turn it in the flour, shaping the dough into a rough circle.

Put the dough on the oiled baking tin and roll it out into a circular shape.

Make little holes, or dimples, in the dough with your fingertips.

Pop some rosemary sprigs in the holes and drizzle the focaccia with olive oil.

Sprinkle with the sea salt.

Bake the focaccia for 20 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.

Drizzle a little more oil over top, allow to cool slightly and then serve.


9 thoughts on “La Focaccia

  1. Rozanne il mio inglese perde colpi…non capisco se serve il lievito per questa focaccia! Peró capisco la storia
    che coinvolge fin dalle prime righe! Loredana

  2. Grazie Lori!

    Devi usare il sodio bicarbonato!

    Per fare buttermilk, devi mettere 1.5 cucchiai di aceto o limone nel latte…aspettare 5 minuti.

  3. Hi Rozanne! Loredana introduced me to your website last year and I really love your stories! I just read the Focaccia out of interest and was surprised to see the ending! And I’ve been to Levanto so could visualise the whole scene!
    I have several of Darina Allen’s cookbooks inherited from my mum and have always taken an interest in Ballymaloe as the Allens attended my Quaker School in Ireland. I made Darina’s cauliflower cheese just the other day and will now try this Focaccia recipe! I also need to test out a couple of your other recipes. Keep up the good work. Best wishes, Lynda

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *