Where’d the year go

2016 has been quite a year but we’re not talking politics or those who’ve said their goodbyes.

A best nine won’t do ours justice so here’s a top 25 of what’s happened.

We started the year focused on mobile events.

February Meg’s passport arrives and we’re headed to Naples to visit some pizza legends and the Ferrara family who built our oven.

March to Copenhagen, working the beast at Baest and learning from some of the best in the business.

April to the lovely folks at Brue Farm to see where our mozzarella’s made and where we now source the curd for making it in house.

May, a popup outside our future home, Big Bertha’s on order and we’re picking plates, peels and pans.

June we’re knocking down walls, painting and plastering

July, oven’s in, the Bridges & Talbot boys have worked their magic and we’re touching up and tasting.

August we’re open and the real work begins.

Feels like we’re only just warming up – let’s see where next year takes us.

Hello, I suppose we should introduce ourselves, we’re Bertha’s Pizza, Graham, Kate & Meg, do say hi if you see us about. I guess you’re wondering what’s happening to this beautiful building – we’re proud to say it’s becoming our home.

Our journey started 6 years ago with a backyard oven named Bertha and a dream to make world class pizza. As a hobby became an obsession, and we spent our holidays working in some of the world’s best pizzerias, mobile Bertha was born and for the past few years we’ve been touring far and wide. If you’ve seen a bright yellow Land Rover with an oven shoehorned in the back that’d have been us.

We made the final of the BBC Food & Farming Awards in our first year of trading and The Sunday Times has just listed us as one of the top 25 pizzerias in the UK, all very flattering for a modest mobile setup. The accolades are nice but our real goal is to create a friendly, owner-run, neighbourhood restaurant serving simple, affordable food which brings a smile to your face.

We’ve commissioned 3 tonnes of mosaicked, hand built Neapolitan oven, the third iteration of Bertha and the beating heart of our restaurant. She’ll run at over 500C cooking pizzas in 60 seconds, the searing heat creating loft and flecks of char on our characteristic long ferment sourdough base. We will continue to team up with the best producers, the more local and sustainable the better. We’re not doing this for fashion, trends, or even to sell more pizza. We’re doing it because we care and because we want to see those we partner with flourish too.

Our menu will remain concise, focussed on doing one thing well – pizza. But within the remit of dough and fermentation don’t be surprised if you see fresh bread for sale and our own house made mozzarella, charcuterie and ferments featuring in our toppings.

The aim’s to open in August with a week’s soft launch prior for those who’ve helped us get this far; if you’d like to be part of this, to join the family and provide feedback to shape your neighbourhood pizzeria then drop us an email on the address below.

More importantly, stick with us for the journey, things are about to get interesting.

If you’re keen to read more our website’s berthas.co.uk and if you’ve got any questions please pop your head in or email us at hello@berthas.co.uk

If you’d be interested in joining the team contact careers@berthas.co.uk

Text as published in Hiut Denim’s yearbook number three. Illustration by Bjorn Lie

“There’s a shop around the corner, go buy some flour, knock up another batch, you’ll clean up.”

It was 1pm and we’d just sold out. The weather forecast took a u-turn for the better, Bristol was packed and we’d flown through 120 pizzas in a couple of hours.

Our dough won’t be rushed though, our pizza’s slow pizza.

It cooks in less than 90 seconds but starts life a week before. The starter is fed, a mix, a knead, knead, knead, knead some more – by hand. A connection to the dough, to the subtleties of how it evoles, but one that loses its romanticism on a 40kg batch. Next a slow sedate rise. We give the enzymes time to do their job, to break down the gluten into something which is both delicious and easy to digest – but not too long, when you lose the loft and the acidity becomes too pronounced. It’s a balancing act, one we’re committed to. We’ve logged 118 iterations of our dough formula and counting, dozens more before it made it to a spreadsheet, it’s anal to the extreme. Thousands of pizzas, each bake taking a step closer to the pizza in our mind’s eye. 

What does that pizza look like? Well it’s all about the crust, the airy bits at the edge consume 80% of our effort. Great pizza is simple, good ingredients on good bread. We focus on the bread and showcase the amazing produce on our doorstep as toppings. We aim for loft, structure, the point the crust is barely cooked through, the starches gelatinised, and char. Flecks of char, notes of bitterness which offset the natural sweetness of our tomatoes. The base must be thin but not crisp, foldable not rigid or brittle. When the dough’s on song it’s robust, extensible, translucent on the marble, you could read a newspaper through it if there was one to hand.

We do it because it tastes better, because it’s healthier, because we’ve yet to find a better way. No shortcuts. Flavour before profit is the closest we’ve come to a business model. Time is the secret ingredient.

Q&A with with Daniel Young of Young & Foodish, Daniel asks the questions and I get carried away with the answers.

How did Bertha’s get started? 
Bertha’s what we christened our first oven, a Sheffield Steel, brick lined Garden Oven where we began the transition from home bakers to pizzaiolos many years ago, you’ll still see her outline in our logo, a nod to where it all began. Our friends were gracious and put up with the cindered, failed attempts in the early days. We experimented with every recipe we could find and slowly, honing our skills along the way, started to improve. Our only goal was to get better each bake, and it was clear we were moving in the right direction, as our friends started inviting themselves over, as we began to converge on our characteristic long ferment sourdough base.

What were your inspirations?
We love the food culture in Naples, that pizza is food for the masses and rich and poor sit side by side in their favourite pizzeria. Our style takes more of a lead from what’s going on the other side of the Atlantic though and we’re lucky enough to have met and worked with some of our pizza heroes at Pizzicletta, Bianco’s, Paulie Gee’s and Robertas to name just a few. They don’t get too hung up on the ’Italian classics’ and instead focus on showcasing the best of what’s growing locally exactly as we aim to do in the South West.

Why was it important for you to have a wood oven vs a gas or electric one?
I used to be a wood puritan, that was the only option. My heart said ‘wood’ but my background as an engineer said ‘prove it’. So that’s what I did, armed with four trays of dough at three different hydrations or water contents and an infrared thermometer I went to an oven builder who had two identical ovens side by side, one fuelled with wood and one gas. Fifty pizzas later and I was more open minded when it comes to fuel source. Given the choice between wood, gas or thermal mass, it’s the weight, design and quality of the oven which wins hands down every time. There’s good reason for this, when you’re working an oven hard you’ll drop the temperature of the deck, and conversely, with too much fuel in a ‘light’ oven you can easily overheat it – that thermal mass acts as a buffer, inertia to those fluctuations in temperature and more consistency in your crust. That’s before I’ve even touched on the size and shape of the mouth of the oven (smaller’s better for holding the heat but harder to work), the position of the heat source (don’t put it at the back and have all the heat billow out the front even if it is easier to turn the pizzas), the shape of the dome, type of masonry used and a myriad of other factors I could bore you to death with. For what it’s worth in our restaurant we’re planning to install an oven from Stefano Ferrara, a third generation oven builder from Naples, a true artisan who builds all the ovens from bricks by hand rather than from pre-fabricated slabs; we’ll get the hybrid version, fuelled with wood or gas, to satisfy my heart and head.

How did you go about acquiring and installing your oven on your yellow rover?
Bertha’s ex Darlington Borough Council Highway maintenance, now all ovens we own or vehicles carrying them end up being called Bertha. We run our oven hot, 500C plus, getting insurance for this in the back of your car above the fuel tank isn’t straight forward so we outsourced the installation to the Dragon Oven guys who know what they’re doing. The oven’s built within the vehicle, each piece just fitting through the rear door. There’s a steel subframe which is bolted to the chassis, a two piece floor, three piece dome and lots of insulation. You have to cure in the oven over a week, slowly building larger and larger fires to dry it out gradually and stop it cracking. It loses 100kg of water through this process which without the doors open results in a very soggy dashboard.

Which of your pizzas are you most proud of?
We love our margherita, there’s a reason it’s a classic, the simplicity means the flavour of the dough comes through and the quality of the ingredients can shine. Having said that we’re more known for our less traditional toppings and if we can incorporate some foraged produce even better. Creamed nettles, cheddar and chilli is worth the stings and our Kimcheese, with house kimchi and Devon Blue tends to raise eyebrows and delight in equal measure, the spice, crunch and acidity of the kimchi offsetting the rich, creamy blue cheese.

What differences do a wood oven make in the finished pizza?
Far less than you’d think and I’d challenge anyone to tell the difference in a blind taste test. It adds more to the atmosphere, the romanticism, with the flicker of the flames lapping the dome. I used to think you’d only get the distinctive flecks of leopard charring with a wood oven but experience tells me it’s more linked to the dough and heat stored in the masonry. I’ve a friend who runs a renowned pizzeria in Canada who’s just sent me a video of a beautiful pizza made in a gas oven without any flame at all, the heat stored in the bricks baking the pizza to perfection.

Can you truly taste the wood or smoke in the flavour of the crust? And if you can’t, why use wood then?
I don’t think so, my palate couldn’t pick it up in a side by side comparison. When we want to push smoked notes we’ll select smoked salts, cheeses or charcuterie, the flavour of which will dominate any smoke imparted through cooking. In fact, next time you’re staring into a Neapolitan oven take a look at the couple of inches from the deck of the oven up the sides of the walls, you’ll notice there’s never any soot on this band, even on cooler ovens as the draft from the chimney doesn’t let the smoke drop to the base – another reason to think any affect would be minimal. Using wood’s all about the romanticism, the challenge and excuse to play with fire.

What is the greatest challenge for you associated with using wood?
Working with wood’s a real challenge, it’s a natural product, prone to variation and the first task is to find a variety and source which suits your location and style you’re aiming for. I worked at a pizzeria in Flagstaff above 2000m where the lower oxygen content in the air meant their wood had to be incredibly dry, they ended up using desert dried Arizona pecan. Once you’ve got the wood there’s an art to maintaining the fire at just the right temperature, when you add a log the temperature of the oven will drop, particularly with lighter ovens so there’s no use throwing in a piece just before you need it. There are plenty of tricks of the trade, you can ‘stage’ logs, preheating them in other parts of the oven and use a variety of sizes or sawdust to get a more reactive boost of heat but it takes years to get properly acquainted with your oven and how to get the best out of it, good job we’re in this for the long haul.

Things are getting serious

…we’re having t-shirts made.We’ve resisted thus far, the aprons Kate crafted have sufficed as uniform, but we’re stepping up a level in 2016. This is the year our crazy dream of a neighbourhood pizzeria becomes a reality. New restaurant, newborn, all in.

We’ve spoken to Howies about getting them printed, a brand we follow and admire, they’ll be organic cotton, flour and flame retardant – is that possible? But even then I might not wear one. I want my attire to tell part of our story, something of the journey thus far and those who’ve shaped our path. So on my back I doubt you’ll read Bertha’s Pizza, you’ll see Pizzicletta, Honest Crust, Bianco’s, Paulie Gee’s, Robertas, Una Pizza Napoletana, Rudy’s, Pizzeria Libretto, L’Antica Pizzeria, Pizzeoli, Pepe in Grani, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, Bæst or any of the other greats who’ve come before.

It’ll be a reminder of how high the bar’s been set, of how hard we need to work and how we’re in this for the long haul.

Bertha’s Pizza – representing.

P.S. We’re also hiring, get in touch to play with fire and fermentation for a living.

 

Previously shackled to a keyboard.
We’ve written about our past before, in fact it’s on the front page of our website – we were looking for a change of direction, a route out of London, a vocation not a chore. We sat there sharing the food we’d cooked with friends and the answer stared back at us – pizza.
I’ve followed the time honoured career path from engineering to finance to artisan sourdough pizza, which isn’t quite as daft as it sounds as a love of food and sharing it with others was the one constant throughout. People are often shocked by the transition from banker to baker but for World Escape Day we wanted to list the top 3 skills we’d learned in one life and applied in another.

 

  • Network – a networking event was my idea of hell, but change the subject matter and it’s more like catching up with friends. I look forward to meeting with new suppliers and those with a passion for the best produce, sustainability and provenance. The connections you make in your new chosen field are invaluable, embrace every opportunity to expand your network. You’ve picked this new area, I promise it’ll be far less painful chatting to others about it.
  • Work ethic  – by most people’s standards I used to work long hours, I’ve never been work shy. Nothing quite prepares you though for the slog of starting your own business. I envy those who leave the office and don’t spare it another thought until they arrive the next day. I’ve barely switched off since we started – I need to get better at this – but it only shows how much we care. I think it was the Innocent book which referred to ‘The Eastenders Test’. If you get home from a 10-hour day and you still have the drive to spend another 5 hours working on your project (rather than simply watching Eastenders) then you’ve got what it takes to put in the long, hard hours to turn your idea into a reality. I hate Eastenders but we did 6 months of this before selling our first pizza.
  • Play to your strengths – For engineering and finance you need to be numerate but it’s been more handy than we’d expected for our fledgling business. Models to predict when the dough would be ready, ramp geometry to get the oven level, restaurant projections, it all helps to know your way around a spreadsheet. You’ll have a string to your bow which can be applied to your escape.

 

Meet Harris, keeper of the dough secrets

That’s Harris above. I’m sat in a Shoreditch coffee shop writing this newsletter, a flat white sipping cliché.The caffeine’s required though, there’s a lot to catch up on. Our last newsletter came out just after we’d returned from our US pizza road trip. Time dilates in wedding and festival land, the long evenings, cheery customers and late night drives home blurring into one another. Flicking back through the calendar we’ve been busy.

Did we even mention we were finalists in the BBC Food and Farming Awards?

We made the last three in the street food category, which with less than a year’s trading under our belt was more than we could ever ask for. We got to meet some amazing people, Giorgio Locatelli had a play on the oven and has even taught me the ‘poor pizzaiolo hands’.

DO

I struggle to describe the DO Lectures, an ‘ideas festival’ comes up short. It’s the moments around the campfire, the chat with the speaker you admire on a crazed early morning run / swim, which make it special. But special it is and we were lucky enough to be there. Bertha did us proud through a pizza workshop, two hundred plus bread rolls and a hundred odd pizzas, she likes to think of herself as official oven supplier to DO 2015. Look out for our article on dough in the latest yearbook.

Blogatron

Would be the name of a Transformer which sporadically morphs into blogs and we’ve just about kept them ticking over. If you’re that way inclined you’ll find introductions to starting your own sourdough mother, tales of my paper bag collectioninterviewsvideos (the same as above), and a rant on doing things right the first time – 10 Bertha’s points to anyone who clicks through to all of them, redeemable in our restaurant.

…once we finally find a site.

I promise you we’ve been looking. I roam the streets, searching for advertising boards and vacant plots. We’ve a crack team of Friends of Bertha’s – we love you guys – sending us tips on where might be available. Feel free to join this team, come one come all, a shedload of Bertha’s points available to whoever finds us our home. We’ll get there.

So where can we find you now?

Well since you ask we’ll be at BrewDog Bristol this Saturday, 15th August and Moor Beer Taproom the following week, 22nd August.What’s not to love about pizza and beer?

I have no regrets in life. That’s a lie, I bloody hate these sandbags.

At a generous estimate they’re 30% reconstituted with Gaffa tape, that’s on the rise, I’ve owned colanders with fewer holes.

We bought these before our first mobile event, one of the many last minute items we scrambled to source before selling to the public. I was working at my old job, my last free weekend not the most productive with a 19 pub stag do yomp across the Lake District and each evening consumed ticking off the tasks to get us up and running.

I knew the proper way to fill the sandbags, to line each section with a thick plastic bag, pour sand into each, keeping it contained and secure. But in haste, and with the weather forecast threatening to blow our marquee away, we dumped the sand straight into the bags and hoped for the best.

Error.

If you ever see two feet protruding from the back of a yellow Land Rover, muffled curses emanating from the bowels of the van, chances are that’ll be me. Typically I’m lying face down, pinned under a hot oven, trying to wrestle a limp, slug of a sandbag free as it ejects sand from at least 4 orifices. Half a tonne of oven bolted to the chassis doesn’t make the clean up operation any easier.

From that point onwards we vowed we’d always do things the right way, first time. If a job’s worth doing and all that.

We had a lovely chat with Bristol based food blogger With Mustard, she asked the questions, we did our best to answer them, for plenty more on cooking and eating in Bristol and beyond we’d wholeheartedly recommend her site.

Bertha’s Pizza -Roving, Bristol

Pizza, in the last eighteen months, has made quite a resurgence in Bristol. For the most part, these new establishments are independents, sourcing ingredients locally where they can and making fresh dough on site. Whilst some aim to recreate a taste of Napoli, others are eschewing traditional ingredients to encapsulate flavours from the Southwest.One of the most striking to arrive, is Bertha’s, run by Graham and Kate Faragher. From their sunflower yellow Land Rover, converted to carry a hefty wood fire oven, they make some of the best sourdough pizzas in town: Graham usually working the tricksy dough, whilst Kate deftly plucks pizzas from the mouth of the roaring oven.

I caught up with Graham to ask him a few questions. Seems I’m not the only one to find the thought of a fire above your petrol tank vaguely terrifying!

WM: How did Bertha’s begin?

GF: In our back garden with a Sheffield steel brick lined oven called Bertha. We were looking for a change of direction, a route out of London. A vocation, not a chore. We sat there sharing the food we’d cooked with friends and the answer stared back at us -pizza.

 

WM: What was it that drew you to Bristol?

GF: We believe in local food and we believe in Bristol for what it stands for -supporting independent producers and we want to be part of this. Great pizza is simple; good ingredients on good bread. Our job is to team up with the best local producers and showcase their produce. Bristol is the best hub for tapping into all the amazing produce coming out of the Southwest -so here we are. There also happens to be great climbing, cycling and surfing on the doorstep.

WM: Your yellow Land Rover is fast becoming iconic on the Bristol street food scene. Was it quite an undertaking to modify?

GF: Yes. It’s half a tonne of oven. We were originally considering vintage vehicles such as Morris Minor postal vans but after several cycle tours of the area, we knew it’d never get up the hills. She’s ex Darlington Borough Council highway maintenance; under the grey stripe, there’s still a red reflective strip. The oven had to be built within the vehicle itself, it’s too big to be loaded straight through the back. It had to be cured over a couple of weeks, gradually building larger fires and yes, it massively freaks you out lighting a fire inside your new car. Over the drying process you lose 100kg of water and get a very soggy dashboard.

WM: You did a lot of research before you started out. Where did you eat the best pizza?

GF: Probably somewhere in the US. I’m going to stick my neck out and say Pizzicletta, a tiny neighbourhood pizzeria in Flagstaff Arizona. The same place I flew 5000 miles to work in during my holidays in my old job and, exactly the kind of place we’d like to run in Bristol.

WM: What elements did you take with you?

GF: An obsession with the dough, in fact I had that already but they drilled it home. They use a much wetter dough and longer ferments than you see this side of the Atlantic, and at first it was an absolute shocker trying to work it. In the US they’re also far less hung up on the Neapolitan ‘rulebook’ of toppings; the best places just look at what’s fresh at the markets and build a topping around it.

WM: Sourdough has a slow ferment and is trickier to handle, why did you decide to use it for your bases?

GF: It tastes better. Granted there are lots of health benefits, the longer ferments in particular make it much easier to digest. It also gives a softer crumb and it’s flavour that dominates most decisions at Bertha’s HQ.

 

WM: What’s the secret to a good tomato sauce?
GF: Good tomatoes -that’s it really. Lots of pizzerias get hung up on San Marzano tomatoes, tinned and shipped over from Naples. We tried loads of different varieties and there are some really good ones but we’ve not found any to match those we sourced from the Isle of Wight. We use an organic tomato grower with a passion for heritage varieties. It was hard work to build up the volumes we require -in the early days we’d have to call ahead of each event, place the order on Monday, they’d be picked on Tuesday, sent over on Wednesday and at the market on Thursday: like a foodies Craig David. Our secret tomato sauce recipe, which I’ll reveal exclusively here is, the best tomatoes you can find and sea salt.

 

WM:You often use seasonal and foraged ingredients -what makes a great topping combination?

GF: Balance -less is often more. We spend a lot of time trying to pair ingredients which tick off each of the senses and have just the right moisture content, as no one likes a soggy bottom. There’s a reason a Margherita is a classic; the umami bomb of the tomato and parmesan; the richness of the mozzarella balanced by the acidity in the tomatoes and the flecks of char across the crust providing bitterness to offset the sweetness. We look for similar layers of flavouring in whatever is seasonal.

 

 

WM: With street food you are out in all weathers -have you considered finding a permanent location and premises?

GF: We’re trying! We’ve been looking for what seems like ages, but it’s tough. Rest assured you’ll be the first to know when we find somewhere and send any recommendations our way if you see a space in your neighbourhood.

 

WM: Finally, what have been the highs and lows of your journey so far?

GF: We wear our heart on our sleeve when it comes to our food. This is our passion. You’ll never please everyone and we struggle not to take any differences of opinion personally. It’s also incredibly physical, back breaking work with 500kg log deliveries and oversized bags of flour. It’s all worth it though when you get a customer coming back, grinning from ear to ear, mozzarella still stuck to their chin, raving about the food you’ve just made with your hands.