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.

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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.

 

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?
Saturday was D-Day, Dough-Day to be clear, we didn’t venture to Normandy. The aim was simple, to try a variety of dough recipes with a view to finding our favourite. We were sticking to classic Neapolitan pizzas which happen to be both our personal favourites and notoriously difficult to perfect. The dough has fewer ingredients typically than New York, or square pan Sicilian styles, but the higher temperatures required in cooking mean there’s a fine line when aiming for a charred exterior but soft chewy cornicione – or crust to you and me.
I’m an engineer by background and the geek in me took over as I insisted on minimising the variations between each pizza so we could be sure that all we were testing was the dough. Each pizza was formed from the same flour (not Caputo Tippo 00, which I know I’d be marked down for in Naples, but Stoate’s Organic Stoneground Strong White flour – I’ve got a 25kg sack of the stuff which I really should use up before ordering another). The same toppings were used, this was classic Neapolitan style so it had to be margheritas. The oven was held at the same temperate, well, within the relms of what’s possible on a small domestic wood fired oven. We heated Bertha so the temperature of the stone read ~300 °C with a flue temperature of 400 °C. Ideally I’d have liked this higher as traditional Neapolitan ovens tend to run around 500 degrees, however there the heat source is from one side and they have a much more even distribution. In Bertha the fire is directly below the stones, so the bottom of the pizza tends to cook much quicker than the top. As a result, we ended up having to take them out early to avoid burning the base, which means the crusts lack the telltale leopard spot charring typical of Neapolitan pizzas, but you can’t have everything… I’m already planning to experiment with the blowtorch to rectify this.

finally… almost pizza time
Margherita was the order of the day

time to cook

Bertha in action
Anyway, back to the dough. I ended up trying 4 variations, a sourdough recipe with a strong pedigree, as I believe it’s used by Franco Manca, “The Best Pizza Dough Ever” recipe from 101 Cookbooks, which stems from acclaimed baker and author Peter Reinhart. We also tried a no knead recipe from the Slice pizza blog and finally another Peter Reinhart recipe (I’m a bit of a fan) from his Crust and Crumb book, which started with a pre-ferment, poolish or sponge, so was a bit different to the others. Four dough recipes – can’t be that hard I thought. Error. Each required several day’s preparation along with an elaborate mixing and resting schedule, so out came the note book again. I didn’t help myself by selecting mainly US recipes either, how many millilitres of water are in a cup… (well it turns out it depends on your cup, that’d be 236ml for a US one or 250 for a metric one – I worked on the assumption that they’re patriotic about their cups in the US, so went with 236).
my scribbles, complete with pizza stained tasting notes

Here’s a summary of the different doughs I made:

Working Name
Origin
Pre-ferment / Special Preparation
Ingredients
1
Sourdough
Active sourdough starter (Clare)
20h ferment
Water: 250ml
Flour: 425g
Starter: 7.5g
Salt: 4.5g
2
101
Overnight rest for dough
Water: 196ml
Flour: 284g
Yeast: 1.5g
Salt: 6g
Olive oil 28g
3
No Knead
Room temp rise 8-12h
Refrigerate to prove for 2-4 days
Water: 242ml
Flour: 373g
Yeast: 5.6g
Salt: 7g
4
Poolish
Active poolish
Overnight rest
Water: 89ml
Flour: 224g
Yeast: 0.5g
Salt: 7g
Olive oil: 56g
Poolish: 140g (Flour: 126g, Water: 236g, Yeast 1g)

As you can see from the ingredients column there was considerable faff to sort the ratios into manageable quantities, if we’d stuck to the original recipes we’d have ended up with enough dough for 32 pizzas, which even by our gluttonous standards seemed ambitious. This way we had just over 500g of dough from each recipe so we could make two 250g pizzas.

On to the pizzas themselves, and confusingly in the order we ate them:

No Knead:

Our thoughts: Very light and airy, best rise, crust like fluffy white bread, not much flavour.

Poolish:

Our thoughts: Sweet. Less rise, more ‘crumb’ texture. Tastes like potato cakes! More caramelised, could work well with blue cheeses and figs.

101:

Our thoughts: Better rise than Poolish, lighter than No Knead, still little flavour.

Sourdough:

Our thoughts: More complex and substantial, interesting flavour. Sweeter tomato mixture would work well to balance the sour flavour from the dough.

Summary
So there you have it, 4 different dough recipes with some surprisingly different results. I don’t believe you can say which is the best, that’s too subjective, but what we can say is which was our favourite, and that was the sourdough by quite some margin. It had a far more interesting flavour and added more to the overall taste rather than being just a receptacle for the topping. The dough was also one of the easiest to make too. Guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that the recipe from the award winning Franco Manca came out on top, but we learned a lot along the way.
The first pizzas turned out so well we didn’t feel the need to repeat the process, so after stuffing ourselves with an extra sourdough pizza we took the spare dough and made some focaccia (mmm… salt and olive oil) and a loaf too: