We use more flour than most households.
Should we launch a restaurant it won’t have happened overnight. We’ll have kneaded several tonnes of dough before bricks and mortar was ever a possibility.
Rather than put the bags out with the recycling we started collecting a sack here and there. I counted them today and there’re 26. Over half a tonne’s worth stashed away in a cupboard. If all goes to plan we’ll decorate a section of the wall with them. Wallpaper with meaning.
These bags have taken us through some of the steepest sections of our learning curve. But may we never stop improving.
We keep two sourdough starters. Extravagant I know. This is mainly down to nostalgia but there’s the odd occasion where there are benefits of maintaining two at different hydrations or water contents. Sanj is getting on a bit now, born in my old flat, named after a flatmate and good friend he’s been with us throughout our baking journey. Clare, his classier other half has nobler heritage and hails from 200 year old Lapland stock if you buy into that kind of thing. I don’t. Granted I like the story and want to be part of a baking lineage, but my own view is that your starter quickly adapts to the local microflora, ours having long ago acquired a Bristol accent.
As an experiment I wanted to start a new starter. One born and bre(a)d in Bristol [sorry]. I mixed equal parts flour and water and left it on the counter. Repeated this once a day discarding 3/4 of the mixture and after a week baked a loaf. It really was that simple.
I lie. Baking’s not simple. Baking the perfect loaf’s a Sisyphean task, but one where you’re rolling dough not boulders and even the disasters taste great. Getting you own starter going is simple though and well worth the effort – amazing what you can do with just flour and water.
Seven days of starter evolution and the resultant loaf
There are plenty of well written guides online for making our own starter so I won’t dwell on the specifics, I like this one for example. Although my personal tips would be the following:
  • Use a decent organic flour with as much whole grain as possible
  • Rye makes a welcome addition, it has more soluble sugars than wheat and typically higher amylase activity, all of this equates to more food for the starter
  • Don’t bother with fancy glass Kilner jars, granted they look nice but with regular feedings and cleaning they smash far too easily. This grows tiresome. Cheap plastic containers like soup containers work much better
  • And finally if all of this still sounds too daunting, give us some notice and we can bring some of our starter along to an event for you (assuming you pass our extensive starter adoption vetting process)

 

On the surface there’s not much to this newsletter, a few paragraphs which don’t really do justice to the last few months. Give the links a click though. Make yourself a cup of tea and peel back the layers on what we’ve been up to.

Restaurant news

I’ve now lost track of the number of sites we’ve visited. Turns out placing a three tonne oven on site makes some landlords uneasy. But it feels like we’re gaining momentum, with leads starting to reach us through customers and word of mouth. We have a couple of front runners, but until these things are done – they’re not. So for now we’ll remain tight lipped. Rest assured you guys will be the first to hear once it’s all signed.

Last hurrah before we kiss our holidays goodbye

We spent the last few weeks in the US. A west coast pizza road trip to visit some of the best pizzerias and bakeries in the world. We met some incredible people and have returned inspired – and slightly overweight- ready to progress to the next level. Full writeup can be found here, make sure you’ve got that tea.

Hart’s 2

It’s with a massive smile and giddy jig that we announce we’re back at Hart’s Bakery on Friday 20th March for another pizza popup. The last sellout event was great fun and we’ll be back with the winning formula of wood fired sourdough pizza and bring your own booze. We’ll be serving from 5pm so come down early before we run out of dough.

Moor of a good thing

In a warm up for a bigger event in May (weekend of 16th, paired pizza and beer anyone?) we’ll be popping up at Moor Beer’s tap room next Friday evening (13th) to prove there’s nothing unlucky about it.

Shameless self promotion

We don’t believe in competitions, food’s too subjective. There’s no one ‘best pizza’ with so many styles, interpretations and variations on a theme. We do however see the impact awards can have and as a fledgeling business, if you were prepared to vote for us in the Bristol Good Food Awards click here, we’d be eternally grateful. I think it was Anthony Mangieri who said that “taste may be an opinion but quality is a fact” – we’re committed to improving each day so stick with us for the journey.
We’ve been to Naples. Love the place. The chaos is part of the charm and they know a thing or two about pizza. However we’ve always taken more of a lead from what’s going on the other side of the Atlantic. We’re not Italian and don’t pretend to be, so freed by the constraints of ‘they don’t do that in Naples’ we take inspiration from the style and techniques, but use these to showcase the produce and flavours on our own doorstep – just like our favourite places in the US have done for years.
This trip was about inspiration, a motivational boost before we commit to the restaurant and kiss our holidays goodbye. It wasn’t about emulating any particular pizza or style, more about learning how those at the top their game manage their lives around a successful business.

Weather to make us feel at home

So to Portland home of Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, to visit Sarah Minnick and some of the prettiest pies around – works of art. Sarah visits the market every week and her pizzas are a barometer of seasons, she also makes the best ice cream in town.

Portland’s often compared to Bristol, it’s the cycling capital of the US and home to a thriving coffee and craft beer scene. It also rains. A lot. Luckily Sarah had offered to drive us around town and take us to some of her favourite spots. First up Roman Candle, Roman style pizza al taglio, or by the cut, with big communal tables, inventive salads and the most extravagant handmade Italian oven just to reheat slices. Next, Powell’s bookstore which we’d add to any visitors guide, the cookbook section alone being larger than most UK bookstores.After some due diligence on the local coffee and craft beer we circled back to Lovely’s and opted for their nettle special and a melted leek option. Both excellent but the leek pizza with a hit of chilli infused honey stands out as one of the highlights from the whole trip. Midway through the meal it became apparent that a ‘pizza each’ order was rare, most couples opting to share and still take a few slices home. We weren’t to be beaten by a 12” pizza but it wasn’t until chatting to Sarah later when she let slip her dough balls are scaled 60% heavier than ours that we appreciated how much we’d eaten. We weren’t prepared to skip on dessert though, and their walnut butter ice cream made it clear their reputation on desserts was well deserved. This was all washed down with some house made kombucha a curious self carbonated drink I’d been sceptical of on previous US visits but Lovely’s version was crisp, refreshing and had me sold.

 

From rain to heat

Phoenix is enormous. Sprawling and hot. Sixty miles across everyone drives but we beamed like kids cycling around on cruisers with the sidewalks to ourselves. Arriving in Phoenix our hosts informed us that most visitors are there to tick off three things, the Grand Canyon, Sedona and a meal at one of Chris Bianco’s restaurants. Our top three was different – a meal in each of Chris’s three restaurants in town.
Chris is a legend in the industry and also one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. His energy and enthusiasm is off the scale and he knows more about the UK than most natives. We started at Pane, appropriately named as that’s where all their bread’s made, a large, functional but attractive hub for operations. There we met Marco, Chris’s brother, head baker and grains enthusiast and enjoyed the first of our Bianco meals, wood baked focaccia sandwiches, my favourite of which packed with their house made mortadella.
From Pane to Downtown the original(*), his first oven setup in the courtyard, a working monument to where it all started. Chris hand mixed dough here for over a decade which puts my own gripes about hand mixing into perspective. He made us two pizzas, two classics, a marinara and a rosa. Watching him work dough is hypnotic. He remains focussed on the conversation but with the deftest of touch two pizzas appear in front of you. At this point his diction accelerated as he rattled off advice he wished he’d been given early in his career, lessons you only learn with 20+ years in the business. Then before our stomachs registered they’d reached capacity we were off to Town and Country (*) the actual site of his first restaurant which they left after several years and returned decades later.
Town and Country is housed in one of Phoenix’s many strip malls, an oasis of Bianco charm amongst the nationals. Chris greets everyone. Seems to know everyone and there’s a story behind each piece of furniture and purpose behind each motion on site. Town and Country serves pizza but we were there for the pasta, all handmade with the trademark focus on ingredients. We were about to pop. Feeling sleepy and content we headed back to our accommodation for a nap.
At this point it’s worth a thank you to our AirBnB hosts in town, Shawn and Chad who not only loaned said bikes but took us out for drinks, drove us around town and also gave us a set of “Bertha’s” salvaged letters – a reminder of our west coast tour which will hopefully grace the walls in our restaurant.

From the heat to the hills

Our ‘Compact’ hire car booking was vetoed by the staff at the rental booth on the grounds of safety and in the first case of up-selling I’ve not grown to regret we were handed the keys a 400bhp beauty – Deloris as she became know.
I’d been privileged to visit Flagstaff before where I’d staged at Pizzicletta and wrote about here but it was great to be taking Kate to the place I kept banging on about. Flagstaff is a stunning mountain town, a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and if it didn’t already house one of the best Neapolitan pizzerias in the world we’d consider setting up shop. Somehow the pizzas have got better since my last visit. Credit to Caleb’s drive and commitment to improvement. The mozzarella now made in house has a more uniform, creamy melt and the dough, fully sourdough these days on a regimented feeding regime with a new mixer, is lighter with more loft.
Did I mention we ‘happened’ to be in town for Arizona beer week?
Determined not to end up too massive we took some time to get on the trails. The route down into the Grand Canyon being one of my all time favourite walks hikes. It really doesn’t get much better than spending the day outdoors with good friends before heading back and enjoying a good meal. Yes pizza.
With a slight waddle and inability to squat we did our best to lend a hand around the pizzeria. We balled dough, baked bread and chatted about our respective plans, ways to grow and improve. It was a privilege to be back.

To the coast and the home of sourdough

Sad to leave we pried ourselves away, heading for the coast, scenic roads and the sourdough mecca that is San Francisco. Everyone we’d spoken to loves the place. It’s easy to see why and having ticked off the tourist spots quickly we settled into a routine of alternating artisan coffee spots and temples to gluten. Delfina, Casey’s, Tartine, Una Pizza Napoletana, Jane on Larkin, Pizza Hacker – I could write a blog on each of these from the notes I scribbled on each visit – perhaps I will if anyone’s interested? But this was more about setting us up for the next step, for inspiration and focus to get us through the tedium and red tape that comes with launching a restaurant.
The best part of the trip wasn’t the food though, nor the views, the coffee, wine or beers. It was the people. Time and time again we were floored by their generosity, the insights shared, lessons learned and passed on. We’re eternally grateful and can only hope we can build on that advice and pay it forward – humble pie.

Sprouts get a lot of bad press and this pizza is a nightmare to sell. But I refuse to back down as it’s one of my all time favourites and I’ve yet to meet anyone who hasn’t enjoyed it having given it a try. There’s something about the way the sprout leaves char at the edges and the combination with pancetta or smoked bacon is an all time classic.

I first had this pizza at Motorino as part of our New York pizza tour but you can get it much closer to home from ourselves or the excellent Honest Crust who are also staunch advocates of sprouts on a pizza.

Ingredients
Sourdough base
Mozzarella
Slithers of garlic
Sprout leaves
Smoked bacon or pancetta
Olive oil
Extra prep?
Some people mandolin the sprouts to get the slices fine enough, we just use the leaves and follow the approach almost verbatim from the Slice blog, here’s how.
Berthas In Bristol

Honest Crust in Altrincham

What I’d do differently
Find a way to get more people to order it, they’re missing out.

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”

Probably the last thing you want to hear in January but trust me it’s preferable to my tax return so let’s catch up on a couple of toppings which went down well last month.

Ingredients
Sourdough base
Mozzarella
Roasted chestnuts, shelled and chopped
Rosemary

 

Extra prep?
There’s an art to shelling chestnuts, one I’ve yet to acquire even after tackling 3kgs of the little critters. Make sure you work on them while they’re hot though, this reduced the frequency of cuts under my nails and toned down the colourful language.

 

 

What I’d do differently
It needs a grind of black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil to finish but really not much else. The smell of this pizza alone makes it worth a try even if you have to wait until next year.

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It’s over a year since I travelled 5000 miles to work at Pizzicletta, where did that go?
Back then I still had the day job and was about to take a leap out of my comfort zone to start our own business. Fast forward a year and I find myself at River Cottage with a badge labelled ‘chef’ consulting for an oven builder. Now I’m the last person to describe myself as a chef, cook is generous and baker more accurate but thankfully the owner of the best pizzeria in NYC once told me you don’t have to be a chef to make amazing pizza. In fact it helps if you’re not.
It’s been an incredible summerOur first season with the Berthamobile went better than we could have ever hoped. Thank you. I really mean that. It was a pleasure to continue our series meeting suppliers and finally make it over to the Isle of Wight to see where our tomatoes come from. We’ll be updating the website over the coming weeks with pictures from the summer and some very talented friends – take a bow Tim Griffiths.

Glutton for punishment

With the rhythms of the mobile business becoming familiar we’re once again stepping outside of our comfort zone. This time a leap – into the world of bricks and mortar, long term leases and scary restaurant fit out costs. But the passion’s there. It’s driving us.
Gluten for pleasure 
Back at the development kitchen [read domestic] we’ve continued to tinker with our dough and through an anal system of logging, notes and gradual iteration we’ve taken a step closer to the pizza in my mind’s eye. Whilst there’s no such thing as a perfect pizza we’re committed to improving ours each day.
Currently we’re in a period of adjustment, which is why you won’t see us roaming the streets as often. We’re doing our best to juggle the mobile business alongside the restaurant plans and have several weekend dates in the diary, along with an exciting pop-up planned at Bristol’s sourdough mecca – Hart’s Bakery – on Friday 28th November. Full event schedule here.
Wobbles 
It was always our aim to be candid throughout this process and my respect grows each day for all those who’ve ventured down this path. Kate’s back in London mid-week which pays the bills but adds to the strain. I flip between euphoric excitement and overwhelming despair depending on the latest fun and games with the agents. But it’s the vision that keeps us going – of a modest neighbourhood restaurant serving the best pizza in Bristol and beyond, that and our home cured bacon.
Everyone should cure their own bacon.

“Just to confirm…”

Never the best start to an email.

It was 12:30 and we were mid way through a busy lunch service in the middle of summer. A beautiful day to be stood anywhere but the mouth of a 500º oven. I was wearing shorts.

“… no shorts will be permitted onsite”

A building site.

I’d been chasing for a viewing for months, our allotted slot fell between a lunch and dinner service but the dress code caught me by surprise. A building site with a dress code.

As the last lunch order hit the spike I headed to the viewing, charity shop on route and I was the proud owner of some M&S Blue Harbour trousers several sizes too big, £4.50 including the tissue in the pocket.

I made the viewing and we’ve placed an offer. If all goes to plan the trousers are going on the wall.

 

We’ll have no dress code.

Pizza’s simple. Good ingredients on good bread. We’re proud to source our tomatoes from the lovely people at The Tomato Stall on the Isle of Wight. Ripened on the vine, picked at their peak, with varieties selected for flavour not yield – what’s not to love.Here’s a short film on our trip to the sunniest part of the UK:


The Tomato Stall Visit – Isle of Wight from BerthasPizza on Vimeo.

 

Everyone loves the summer

At least that’s what I used to think but it turns out I was wrong. Our dough hates it.
With ‘cold’ tap water above 22ºC and night temperatures remaining in the 20s there’s been nowhere to hide. We’ve always walked the tightrope of longer proofing times, pushing the ferments further so the gluten breaks down into something that’s equally delicious as digestible, but when the temperature rises it’s hard not to have a few wobbles. Acidity increases, degradation accelerates and you’re left cradling each dough ball like a newborn.

Tweak, test, iterate, adapt

The easy way out would have been to switch to commercial yeast, drastically cut the ferment times and hope most wouldn’t notice but where’s the fun in that. Out came the textbooks, academic papers on microbial specific growth rates and numerous chats with some of the best in the business. Particular thanks to the Harts Bakery team and Emily Buehler, the author of the brilliant and aptly named Bread Science book. In a nod to my previous life as an engineer I also swapped the temperature controller of a chest freezer so we have a giant chest fridge / proofing chamber. Never before have I got so excited about white goods.

Bertha to the rescue

And then the weather changed again, Hurricane Bertha blew through and it’s 5 degrees cooler. Percentages and timings have changed once again, but at least this feels more familiar territory. Regardless we’re in a much better place now, we understand more, we appreciate more. We’re ready for the sun again.

So what else has been going on

Well we’re finally Bristol residents and enjoying a regular spot at Temple Quay Market. To the loyal customers who’ve visited on every appearance – thank you – as promised we’ll be serving up your favourite with fresh cherries, gorgonzola and smoked bacon this Thursday.
We went foraging with Chris of Heavenly Hedgerows, July might be known as hungry month but we came back brimming with ideas, first up to try will be a bianca sausage pizza finished with wild mustard flowers, who fancies that?
If all that wasn’t enough we also found our way onto the front of The Landy Magazine, in their words ‘the tastiest 110 of all time’  and who are we to argue.

We’re heading to Southville

On the 31st August we will be making our debut at the Tobacco Factory Sunday market. We’ve been big fans of this buzzing market for some time so it’ll be great to finally be a part of it.
Starting in September we’ll also be firing up at the Hungry Caterpillar play cafe to provide pizzas at lunchtime and into the evening.

“So where’s your restaurant?”

This is the second most popular question we’re asked after “did you trade at Glastonbury” – we didn’t, although our mozzarella does come from a farm there. As for the restaurant we’ve started the process of looking at potential spaces – who’d like a wood fired sourdough pizza joint down their road?