Thursday 24 September 2015

Lessons from banker to baker

previously shackled to a keyboard
We’ve written about our past before, in fact it’s on the front page of our website - we were looking for a change of direction, a route out of London, a vocation not a chore. We sat there sharing the food we’d cooked with friends and the answer stared back at us - pizza.

I’ve followed the time honoured career path from engineering to finance to artisan sourdough pizza, which isn’t quite as daft as it sounds as a love of food and sharing it with others was the one constant throughout. People are often shocked by the transition from banker to baker but for World Escape Day we wanted to list the top 3 skills we’d learned in one life and applied in another.

  • Network - a networking event was my idea of hell, but change the subject matter and it’s more like catching up with friends. I look forward to meeting with new suppliers and those with a passion for the best produce, sustainability and provenance. The connections you make in your new chosen field are invaluable, embrace every opportunity to expand your network. You’ve picked this new area, I promise it’ll be far less painful chatting to others about it.
  • Work ethic  - by most people’s standards I used to work long hours, I’ve never been work shy. Nothing quite prepares you though for the slog of starting your own business. I envy those who leave the office and don’t spare it another thought until they arrive the next day. I’ve barely switched off since we started - I need to get better at this - but it only shows how much we care. I think it was the Innocent book which referred to ‘The Eastenders Test’. If you get home from a 10-hour day and you still have the drive to spend another 5 hours working on your project (rather than simply watching Eastenders) then you’ve got what it takes to put in the long, hard hours to turn your idea into a reality. I hate Eastenders but we did 6 months of this before selling our first pizza.
  • Play to your strengths - For engineering and finance you need to be numerate but it’s been more handy than we’d expected for our fledgling business. Models to predict when the dough would be ready, ramp geometry to get the oven level, restaurant projections, it all helps to know your way around a spreadsheet. You’ll have a string to your bow which can be applied to your escape.

Thursday 13 August 2015

Emerging from wedding and festival land

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time from Stick in Mind on Vimeo.

Meet Harris, keeper of the dough secrets

That's Harris above. I'm sat in a Shoreditch coffee shop writing this newsletter, a flat white sipping cliché.

The caffeine’s required though, there’s a lot to catch up on. Our last newsletter came out just after we’d returned from our US pizza road trip. Time dilates in wedding and festival land, the long evenings, cheery customers and late night drives home blurring into one another. Flicking back through the calendar we’ve been busy.

Did we even mention we were finalists in the BBC Food and Farming Awards?

We made the last three in the street food category, which with less than a year’s trading under our belt was more than we could ever ask for. We got to meet some amazing people, Giorgio Locatelli had a play on the oven and has even taught me the ‘poor pizzaiolo hands’.


I struggle to describe the DO Lectures, an ‘ideas festival’ comes up short. It’s the moments around the campfire, the chat with the speaker you admire on a crazed early morning run / swim, which make it special. But special it is and we were lucky enough to be there. Bertha did us proud through a pizza worshop, two hundred plus bread rolls and a hundred odd pizzas, she likes to think of herself as official oven supplier to DO 2015. Look out for our article on dough in the latest yearbook.


Would be the name of a Transformer which sporadically morphs into blogs and we’ve just about kept them ticking over. If you’re that way inclined you’ll find introductions to starting your own sourdough mother, tales of my paper bag collectioninterviewsvideos (the same as above), and a rant on doing things right the first time - 10 Bertha’s points to anyone who clicks through to all of them, redeemable in our restaurant.

…once we finally find a site.

I promise you we’ve been looking. I roam the streets, searching for advertising boards and vacant plots. We’ve a crack team of Friends of Bertha’s - we love you guys - sending us tips on where might be available. Feel free to join this team, come one come all, a shedload of Bertha’s points available to whoever finds us our home. We’ll get there.

So where can we find you now?

Well since you ask we’ll be at BrewDog Bristol this Saturday, 15th August and Moor Beer Taproom the following week, 22nd August.

What’s not to love about pizza and beer?

Wednesday 5 August 2015


I have no regrets in life. That’s a lie, I bloody hate these sandbags.

At a generous estimate they’re 30% reconstituted with Gaffa tape, that’s on the rise, I’ve owned colanders with fewer holes.

We bought these before our first mobile event, one of the many last minute items we scrambled to source before selling to the public. I was working at my old job, my last free weekend not the most productive with a 19 pub stag do yomp across the Lake District and each evening consumed ticking off the tasks to get us up and running.

I knew the proper way to fill the sandbags, to line each section with a thick plastic bag, pour sand into each, keeping it contained and secure. But in haste, and with the weather forecast threatening to blow our marquee away, we dumped the sand straight into the bags and hoped for the best.


If you ever see two feet protruding from the back of a yellow Land Rover, muffled curses emanating from the bowels of the van, chances are that’ll be me. Typically I’m lying face down, pinned under a hot oven, trying to wrestle a limp, slug of a sandbag free as it ejects sand from at least 4 orifices. Half a tonne of oven bolted to the chassis doesn’t make the clean up operation any easier.

From that point onwards we vowed we’d always do things the right way, first time. If a job’s worth doing and all that.

Monday 13 July 2015

time for flavour

More of a vlog than a blog.

Time - 90s of yours and a snapshot of how we spend ours. Water, flour, salt, our secret ingredient and why it matters.

From the creative StickInMind goblins

time from Stick in Mind on Vimeo.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Q&A with With Mustard (lot of withs there)

We had a lovely chat with Bristol based food blogger With Mustard, she asked the questions, we did our best to answer them, for plenty more on cooking and eating in Bristol and beyond we'd wholeheartedly recommend her site.

Bertha's Pizza -Roving, Bristol

Pizza, in the last eighteen months, has made quite a resurgence in Bristol. For the most part, these new establishments are independents, sourcing ingredients locally where they can and making fresh dough on site. Whilst some aim to recreate a taste of Napoli, others are eschewing traditional ingredients to encapsulate flavours from the Southwest.

One of the most striking to arrive, is Bertha's, run by Graham and Kate Faragher. From their sunflower yellow Land Rover, converted to carry a hefty wood fire oven, they make some of the best sourdough pizzas in town: Graham usually working the tricksy dough, whilst Kate deftly plucks pizzas from the mouth of the roaring oven.

I caught up with Graham to ask him a few questions. Seems I'm not the only one to find the thought of a fire above your petrol tank vaguely terrifying!

WM: How did Bertha's begin?

GF: In our back garden with a Sheffield steel brick lined oven called Bertha. We were looking for a change of direction, a route out of London. A vocation, not a chore. We sat there sharing the food we'd cooked with friends and the answer stared back at us -pizza.

WM: What was it that drew you to Bristol?

GF: We believe in local food and we believe in Bristol for what it stands for -supporting independent producers and we want to be part of this. Great pizza is simple; good ingredients on good bread. Our job is to team up with the best local producers and showcase their produce. Bristol is the best hub for tapping into all the amazing produce coming out of the Southwest -so here we are. There also happens to be great climbing, cycling and surfing on the doorstep.

WM: Your yellow Land Rover is fast becoming iconic on the Bristol street food scene. Was it quite an undertaking to modify?

GF: Yes. It's half a tonne of oven. We were originally considering vintage vehicles such as Morris Minor postal vans but after several cycle tours of the area, we knew it'd never get up the hills. She's ex Darlington Borough Council highway maintenance; under the grey stripe, there's still a red reflective strip. The oven had to be built within the vehicle itself, it's too big to be loaded straight through the back. It had to be cured over a couple of weeks, gradually building larger fires and yes, it massively freaks you out lighting a fire inside your new car. Over the drying process you lose 100kg of water and get a very soggy dashboard.

WM: You did a lot of research before you started out. Where did you eat the best pizza?

GF: Probably somewhere in the US. I'm going to stick my neck out and say Pizzicletta, a tiny neighbourhood pizzeria in Flagstaff Arizona. The same place I flew 5000 miles to work in during my holidays in my old job and, exactly the kind of place we'd like to run in Bristol.

WM: What elements did you take with you?

GF: An obsession with the dough, in fact I had that already but they drilled it home. They use a much wetter dough and longer ferments than you see this side of the Atlantic, and at first it was an absolute shocker trying to work it. In the US they're also far less hung up on the Neapolitan 'rulebook' of toppings; the best places just look at what's fresh at the markets and build a topping around it.

WM: Sourdough has a slow ferment and is trickier to handle, why did you decide to use it for your bases?

GF: It tastes better. Granted there are lots of health benefits, the longer ferments in particular make it much easier to digest. It also gives a softer crumb and it's flavour that dominates most decisions at Bertha's HQ.

WM: What's the secret to a good tomato sauce?

GF: Good tomatoes -that's it really. Lots of pizzerias get hung up on San Marzano tomatoes, tinned and shipped over from Naples. We tried loads of different varieties and there are some really good ones but we've not found any to match those we sourced from the Isle of Wight. We use an organic tomato grower with a passion for heritage varieties. It was hard work to build up the volumes we require -in the early days we'd have to call ahead of each event, place the order on Monday, they'd be picked on Tuesday, sent over on Wednesday and at the market on Thursday: like a foodies Craig David. Our secret tomato sauce recipe, which I'll reveal exclusively here is, the best tomatoes you can find and sea salt.

WM:You often use seasonal and foraged ingredients -what makes a great topping combination?

GF: Balance -less is often more. We spend a lot of time trying to pair ingredients which tick off each of the senses and have just the right moisture content, as no one likes a soggy bottom. There's a reason a Margherita is a classic; the umami bomb of the tomato and parmesan; the richness of the mozzarella balanced by the acidity in the tomatoes and the flecks of char across the crust providing bitterness to offset the sweetness. We look for similar layers of flavouring in whatever is seasonal.

WM: With street food you are out in all weathers -have you considered finding a permanent location and premises?

GF: We're trying! We've been looking for what seems like ages, but it's tough. Rest assured you'll be the first to know when we find somewhere and send any recommendations our way if you see a space in your neighbourhood.

WM: Finally, what have been the highs and lows of your journey so far?

GF: We wear our heart on our sleeve when it comes to our food. This is our passion. You'll never please everyone and we struggle not to take any differences of opinion personally. It's also incredibly physical, back breaking work with 500kg log deliveries and oversized bags of flour. It's all worth it though when you get a customer coming back, grinning from ear to ear, mozzarella still stuck to their chin, raving about the food you've just made with your hands.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Paper Bags

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.

Monday 30 March 2015

Flour & Water

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 amlyse 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)

Thursday 5 March 2015

Russian Doll

If you already subscribe to our newsletter you'll know all this, if you'd like to subscribe, click here.

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.

Friday 27 February 2015

Humble pie - West Coast U.S.A. Pizza Road Trip

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.

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Top That: Bacon and Sprouts (à la Motorino)

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.

Sourdough base
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.
Bertha's 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.

Top That: Roast Chestnut and Rosemary

"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.

Sourdough base
Roasted chestnuts, shelled and chopped

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.