While the industrial version can be easily dismissed as mere junk food, a properly crafted pizza can be a delicious, well-balanced meal. Louise Pinchin meets some of the people who bridge the gap between Real Bread baker and proper pizzaiolo.
To begin my culinary journey, I wanted to talk to someone who owns a pizzeria and then uses the falling heat to bake Real Bread. Master baker Michael Hanson, who runs The Hearth in Lewes, East Sussex, does just this. Having started out running a mobile pizza company for festivals, he has vast experience in building wood-fired ovens and teaching other people to use them.
Michael earned his stripes at the first Franco Manca in Brixton (co-founded by fellow Campaign supporter, Bridget Hugo), which specialises in wood oven sourdough pizza. With 40 years’ experience as a baker under his belt, he believes that getting to know the oven is key. “You can’t control a pizza oven in the same way as any other oven, it is totally down to the experience and skill of the individual using it. We make bread dough in the morning, prove it during the day and bake it the following morning. We stop using the pizza ovens and rake them out at 10pm and the ovens are back in business at 7am for bread-making.”
He explained how the relationship between the pizzaiolo working in the evening and the baker making bread in the morning is critical to the success. “The pizzaiolo will scrape the embers last thing at night and ensure that the oven is appropriately prepared for the bread-making in the morning.”
You can't control a pizza oven in the same way as any other oven
The Dusty Knuckle co-founder Max Tobias first made bread for a funeral at the age of 12 and was bought his first bread-making book by his mum. When setting up the bakery, he and Rebecca Oliver started out using the pizza oven of a local Italian restaurant, running backwards and forwards with the dough they proved elsewhere. In October 2014, they moved the business to a shipping container and use a now use a deck oven bake all their bread. Recalling the early days, Max echoes the words of Michael saying “The real skill comes from the importance of understanding the temperature of the oven and managing the oven.”
A former chef who left the restaurant world to follow his passion, David at Raleigh Street Bakery in Denver, Colorado is a self-taught baker who built his own pizza oven at home. He also mills his own, organic wholegrain flour, which he uses to make sourdough boules, baguettes and rye bread.
On bake day, he pre-heats the oven using gas and finishes with wood, skillfully making sure that certain parts of the oven reach a maximum temperature, moving the coals to the front of the oven and using bricks to retain the heat. Under Colorado’s 2012 Cottage Foods Act, he is able to sell the Real Bread he bakes in it to his neighbours.
Taking their skills in a slightly different direction, self-taught bakers Gordon Woodcock and Katie Venner run the Tracebridge Sourdough bakery. They have turned their passion for baking into an amazing opportunity for their local community to come together. Katie told me “Back in 2008 nobody in the area had heard of sourdough, but this is where our journey began, using a wood-fired oven that we had built ourselves.”
They have now handed on the bakery reins but still run pizza nights in the grounds of their home. Starting as an occasional event this has now turned into a regular Friday fixture, bringing the local community together over great food. These popular evenings run from Good Friday through to Guy Fawkes’ Night and attract around 80 people each week.
Katie concurs that it is much harder to make bread in a wood-fired oven and learning to manage the oven takes time and skill. She says, “Consistency is much easier to achieve in a conventional oven whereas with a wood-fired oven, there are many other considerations including the quality of the wood and the physical nature of raking out the coals.”
Researching and writing this article has been a fascinating journey into the relationship between people who make Real Bread and those who make pizza, for whom this isn’t just a job; it’s a passion and a joy.
While the modern pizza may come from Naples and the word first appearing over 1000 years ago, its ultimate origin is unknown. Etymologists variously suggest a Germanic root meaning bite, an Aramaic one meaning bread, and even Latin via Greek meaning pitch, on account of the crust being blackened in the oven. Similarly, they canít seem to agree on a linguistic relationship between the apparently similar pizza, pitta and pide.
Some more Real Bread bakeries that...
...went through a pizza oven phase
E5 Bakehouse, London
The Handmade Bakery, Slaithwaite, Yorkshire
...hold pizza nights
The Baker's Table, Talgarth
Rubenís Bakehouse, Twickenham
Cheese and Tomatin, Scottish highlands
Loaf, Crich, Derbyshire
Andy's Bread, Llanidloes
Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 33, October 2017