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.

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.

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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.

What’s Rhianna’s favourite cheese?

Mozzarella-ella-ella.

Apologies. Even as cheese jokes go that’s a shocker. I’ve been wanting to make mozzarella for some time and inspired by the gents at Pizzicletta who are chuffed with the results of their own cheese making, I thought I’d give it a go this weekend.

So Saturday morning off I cycled to Stoke Newington Farmer’s market coming home with 2 litres of Hook and Son’s finest. I’m not going to regurgitate the recipe, that’s covered very well, here and here. Instead I wanted to share a few pictures of how it turned out:

All things considered it was pretty straight forward. Two litres of milk yielded 200g of mozzarella so it wasn’t the most economical. The recipe suggested a yield closer to twice that but I suspect at least part of that was down to my own over exuberance in kneading the cheese and my excitement of seeing it come together. The plan then was to make re cook the whey to make ricotta, literally “recooked” in italian, and then make Gjetost, a Norwegian brown cheese from what was left over.

This is where my beginners luck ran out though, the ricotta didn’t come together, and my brown cheese remained white. The Google diagnosis was that my whey was probably too acidic, not surprising given I couldn’t source citric acid powder so had guessed the lemon juice equivalent, one whole lemon proved in this case to be the incorrect answer, but you live and learn.

24 hours travelling, Government shutdown, elocution lessons and silly amounts of pizza.

Flagstaff is a long way from the UK, I appreciate that now, it’s also much higher and hence colder than I’d envisaged, so much for shorts and t-shirt desert weather. Yet it’s a great destination, if like me you arrive on public transport and remain close to the historic old town, it’s a quaint American town, so quaint it’s possible to avoid strip malls and the golden arches of McDonalds entirely. Ahh, bliss. It’s also dark, very dark, if you happen to arrive late at night, on a new moon, having travelled for 24hours straight I’d recommend a torch, it’s the world’s first International Dark Sky City – amazing for star gazing, less good for finding your motel.

Day one was a struggle, 3 batches of dough, gelato, prep, full service on little sleep. That night I slept like a log. As the week progressed I settled into the groove, fuelled by coffee from one of the town’s many roasteries and the banter from my new colleagues. They couldn’t have been more welcoming. Caleb threw open the doors to the whole operation and answered all my questions without hesitation. In return I did my best not to get in the way and helped out where I could. My accent provided the amusement, and it appears the American equivalent of sending the new guy out for a ‘long stand’ is to request one egg to be collected at a time from the store room, either that or was just unlucky with the orders. The highlight of each day was being let loose on the oven, a beaut of a Stefano Ferrara, and my skills progressed as I got used to the high hydration, 3 day ferment dough which they’re famous for, delicious and delicate in equal measures.

I helped with the bakes, something I’d been really excited about seeing beforehand and I wasn’t disappointed. They’re a pizzeria first and a bakery second but I don’t think there’s a bakery out there which wouldn’t be proud of the results. It’s no fluke, this is a real labour of love and Scott and Caleb were both in on their day off to run a test bake always looking to hone their skills. In fact that’s probably what struck me most, the whole team cares. Really cares. This was genuine, and they all mucked in to ensure the best experience for anyone who stops by.

The best testament to what Pizzicletta stands for was probably not the pizza, it was the team, the Pizzicletta family.

 

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.