Hello, I suppose we should introduce ourselves, we’re Bertha’s Pizza, Graham, Kate & Meg, do say hi if you see us about. I guess you’re wondering what’s happening to this beautiful building - we’re proud to say it’s becoming our home.
Our journey started 6 years ago with a backyard oven named Bertha and a dream to make world class pizza. As a hobby became an obsession, and we spent our holidays working in some of the world’s best pizzerias, mobile Bertha was born and for the past few years we’ve been touring far and wide. If you’ve seen a bright yellow Land Rover with an oven shoehorned in the back that’d have been us.
We made the final of the BBC Food & Farming Awards in our first year of trading and The Sunday Times has just listed us as one of the top 25 pizzerias in the UK, all very flattering for a modest mobile setup. The accolades are nice but our real goal is to create a friendly, owner-run, neighbourhood restaurant serving simple, affordable food which brings a smile to your face.
We’ve commissioned 3 tonnes of mosaicked, hand built Neapolitan oven, the third iteration of Bertha and the beating heart of our restaurant. She’ll run at over 500C cooking pizzas in 60 seconds, the searing heat creating loft and flecks of char on our characteristic long ferment sourdough base. We will continue to team up with the best producers, the more local and sustainable the better. We’re not doing this for fashion, trends, or even to sell more pizza. We’re doing it because we care and because we want to see those we partner with flourish too.
Our menu will remain concise, focussed on doing one thing well - pizza. But within the remit of dough and fermentation don’t be surprised if you see fresh bread for sale and our own house made mozzarella, charcuterie and ferments featuring in our toppings.
The aim’s to open in August with a week’s soft launch prior for those who’ve helped us get this far; if you’d like to be part of this, to join the family and provide feedback to shape your neighbourhood pizzeria then drop us an email on the address below.
More importantly, stick with us for the journey, things are about to get interesting
If you’re keen to read more our website’s berthas.co.uk and if you’ve got any questions please pop your head in or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d be interested in joining the team contact email@example.com
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.
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.
If you already subscribe to our newsletter you'll know all this, if you'd like to subscribe, click here.
Things are getting serious
...we’re having t-shirts made.
We’ve resisted thus far, the aprons Kate crafted have sufficed as uniform, but we’re stepping up a level in 2016. This is the year our crazy dream of a neighbourhood pizzeria becomes a reality. New restaurant, newborn, all in.
We’ve spoken to Howies about getting them printed, a brand we follow and admire, they’ll be organic cotton, flour and flame retardant - is that possible? But even then I might not wear one. I want my attire to tell part of our story, something of the journey thus far and those who’ve shaped our path. So on my back I doubt you’ll read Bertha’s Pizza, you’ll see Pizzicletta, Honest Crust, Bianco’s, Paulie Gee’s, Robertas, Una Pizza Napoletana, Rudy’s, Pizzeria Libretto, L’Antica Pizzeria, Pizzeoli, Pepe in Grani, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, Bæst or any of the other greats who’ve come before.
It’ll be a reminder of how high the bar’s been set, of how hard we need to work and how we’re in this for the long haul.
Bertha’s Pizza - representing.
P.S. We're also hiring, get in touch to play with fire and fermentation for a living.