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.

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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.

After Flagstaff I headed to New York which in my humble opinion has the strongest claim to the best pizza city on earth. The tea however is rubbish.

You only make the mistake of ordering a tea in a coffee shop once

I’m guessing they don’t have PG tips over there, but that didn’t matter I was here so seek tips from Mr Paulie Gee himself. I’ve talked about Paulie before, he needs no introductions in the pizza circles and was good enough to spare a couple of hours to sit down with us and share his advice. His generosity didn’t end there and before we knew it he’d picked out four of his favourites from his current menu. They were incredible. There are lots of great pizzerias in New York but where Paulie really stands out – his genius – is his topping combinations. The Cherry Jones with gorgonzola, prosciutto and cherries being just one example which ticked off each of the five tastes with aplomb. I’d like to show you pictures, but part and parcel of the unique interior is low level lighting and my phone camera didn’t do justice at all, so for now you’ll just have to take me word for it and visit in person as soon as you can.

Whilst in town we also managed to squeeze in visits to a couple of other pizza places I’ve been longing to try. Roberta’s had been on my wish list for some time and being just around the corner from where we were staying we swung by on our first night. There we shared a Barely Legal, with the broccoli and pork sausage I thought this would be a take on a classic salsiccia and friarielli but the horseradish and caramelised onion took it to another level. The best things about it was the crust though, really distinctive and like nothing we’d tried before, it had a light interior but was crisper than usual on the outside.

Motorino completed the trinity of my must visit Neapolitan joints although if I’m honest we came away underwhelmed, it felt like very Americanised pizza, heavy on the toppings. There’s no denying their Brussels Sprout with smoked pancetta, garlic and said sprouts is a brilliant combination but the toppings were piled to deep pan heights and it lacked the subtlety and sophistication of what we’d seen elsewhere. Perhaps just an off night.

From there it was only fair that my other half participated more in the restaurant selection and we were spoilt by all the other culinary delights New York has to offer.

As another Englishman in New York recently put it:

 

Better Out Than In, Banksy in New York

This weekend I’ll travel 5000 miles for pizza. That’s got to be close to some kind of record, it’s five times further than the Proclaimers were prepared to go. I’ll be going to spend some time at Pizzicletta. There are arguably better pizzerias around, and definitely closer ones but I doubt there’s one which is closer to my vision – a friendly neighbourhood restaurant serving good ingredients on good bread. It helps that they make everything from scratch, including their own gelato, that they focus on the best of local ingredients and even bake their own bread in house – not even the oven’s residual heat is wasted here. So it’s not hard to understand my attraction, what takes a bit more explaining is why I’m taking my allotted two week’s annual leave and flying to the other side of the planet to work 14 hour days and stay in a crappy motel.

The truth is I can’t wait. It’s a first tentative step towards my dream. The dream of running my own pizzeria. The trip is a test, I love the idea but am I prepared for the reality.

The owner, Caleb also started out in a very different field, as his name suggests he’s not Italian, but he’s got pizza in his soul and his story has been an inspiration to me for some time. Whilst over there I’ll also be spending some time in New York – it’d be rude not to – and ticking off some of the long list of pizza joints I’ve wanted to try for an age. I’ll also be meeting another legend from the pizza scene a Mr Paulie Gee who’s generously agreed to spare some time to share his own experiences in moving from IT professional to owner of one of the most popular restaurants in New York. Cheers Paulie!

As for what happens after that, who knows. One step at a time. Baby steps.