The heat is intense – I haven’t ever experienced intensity like this before and in truth I’m very friggin’ nervous. I suspect this is what Hell’s maw might look and feel like….if there is such a thing as a hell…… I like to believe there isn’t. The fire is alive, this is the only way I can articulate what I am seeing…..its a living breathing life-form…a very beautiful very dangerous one and I am completely mesmerised by her.
She clings to and feeds upon a charring mix of maple and oak nestled at the back of the oven’s interior, the smell is a heady mix of sweet and bitter charcoal – the flames are hypnotic and command every fiber of my attention, she is aggressive and single-minded and I’m worryingly attracted to her. My nostrils burn on deep intakes of breath. I wonder if this is what a moth experiences before it gets burned up….was this what Icarus was feeling whilst flap-flap-flapping towards the sun….I think I understand now what motivated Prometheus…..(not the movie…that was terrible).
From reality Paulo nips my arm like a pony would bite just to make sure I wasn’t irrevocably lost in the conflagration, securing my attention he points to the flames in the wood oven and deftly flicks a handful of finely milled bread flour into the gaping maw. What happens next is nothing short of spectacular. On impact with super heated air the flour explodes in a spectacular display of miniature explosions and colourful combustion, it crackles and fizzes and transforms from just plain dust into a beautiful display ….and then within an instant of terrifying beauty its gone. ..the power of this thing is humbling….
Paulo looks at me with sparkled eyes and a bearded knowing smile – just enough to suggest that he himself was impressed with what just happened but not enough to suggest that he hasn’t done it a thousand times already…as for me….well I’m just fucking dumb-struck…..
His home, an eccentric 3 story pile custom-built and beyond homely is buried between pine, lake and gorse in County Wicklow – and in mid summer with everything in full bloom its like a lost sock in a Saturday morning duvet…its warm, comforting and soft.
Paulo just finished construction of an outdoor cooking area a week prior to our time together………a labour of love that stole 6 months of his life…. in the most romantic of thefts. A sliding-chain BBQ rack adjustable over a coal-pit, a fully working wet area and a pristine and spartan preparation space play second fiddle to the toy I’m currently drooling over like a loon – Paulo’s spectacular Wood Oven.
The reason for the flour is to establish the exactness of the heat – it’s the “canary in a coal-mine” no other method is as precise not even the high-tech – a good oven chef will know by gut when the oven is ready – the flour validates and…lets be honest looks incredible – it is pomp and circumstance…it is quintessentially Italian – all style with maybe just a little substance.
Our pizza’s are given up to Hell’s maw…delivered by wooden paddle and gritty semolina – one Calzone and one Pizza. The Calzone enjoys just a little more proximity to the engine of heat. Paulo knows exactly where within the oven his pizzas should be positioned in order to optimise the yeast reaction and coax perfect cooking – the instant the soft dough touches stone it springs into life, it bubbles and rises, it looks like a flower blooming and within seconds it takes on the familiar characteristics of the perfect oven pizza.
Paulo nurtures and encourages, he uses the paddle at precisely the right time to lift the dough allowing the heat to flow between it and the base-stone, he gentle turns and dances with it’s until after exactly 90 seconds the Pizza and Calzone are swiftly removed and slid with the same paddle onto large oak boards.
“A pizza should spend no longer than 2 minutes in a wood oven – any more and it either burns or it just dies slowly as a result of insufficient heat. The second it slides from the paddle onto the stone it must react – the dough must instantly rise and bubble and char – if not then it will be dull and tough. The dough must have bite and chew..it must have a degree of elasticity to it and this is only possible under the right conditions – anything less and you are simply making flatbreads”.
Paulo is first generation Italian living in the wilds of County Wicklow just South of Dublin city, he is a restaurateur, a cook, a writer…….a gentleman, a soft soul, a mystic. I met Paulo only once before he passed away, I spent time in his presence and shared his home and his food and I fell in love with this human being. Our meeting was as a result of our mutual love of the kitchen and in particular cooking out-doors….and even more ‘in particular’ cooking pizza….out-doors.
♠ Parma Pizza ♣
Prep time: 3-4 hrs ♦ Cook Time: 2-3 mins ♦ Total time: all day if you feel like it ♦ Serves 1
♣WHAT YOU NEED♥
- 250 grams strong white bread flour
- 2 x 7 gram packs of dried yeast
- 175 grams of luke warm water (yip, weigh it)
- 150 mls of good olive oil
- Parma ham – about 6-7 slices
- 1 fat ball of buffalo mozzarella
- 1 can of tomatoes (I used cherry, use what you fancy though)
♣HOW YOU DO IT♥
Kick off by combining the yeast and luke warm water and let it hang around for a few minutes – let the yeast ‘waken up’ and get bubbly.
Next lug in some good quality olive oil – or feel free use our own Irish Rapeseed and In as big a bowl as you get get your hands on combine the flour and the yeast mix
At this stage the work really starts and this is exactly where you soul comes in – from this point on if you are in a bad mood then leave the room, leave the pizza alone, it needs none of your bad vibes! Have a beer and come back when you feel better!!
Bring the dough together with your pinkie or a fork – both are good
Next get ‘free range’ with things – turn the dough onto a floured work top and start kneading. There is a skill set to kneading dough for bread…which essentially is what this is – in order to allow the yeast work and rise the dough you need to active the gluten in the flour and this only happens with a robust kneading – so stretch, pull, massage and get personal with the dough…..15 minutes minimum!
You will know when the dough is ready, it will become smooth, silky and uniform – form it into a tight ball and if you poke it with your finger its should easily spring back – you’re now good to go. Pop it back into the bowl and lug in some more oil.
Next cover the dough with a dry cloth and leave in a warm place to rise for a couple of hours. Your opportunity now for a trip to the pub……….Your dough will happily bubble away in the bowl and rise by at least double but you can leave this longer..Ive left bread dough for 2 days and its knock out! Next get you tomato sauce on the roll – sling them into a pan and simmer for about 10 minutes – season well.
Remove the tomato sauce and allow to cool completely – this process allows you to remove any bitterness in the toms and at this stage you can get really funky – add garlic, herbs, onions – anything you feel to super charge the base sauce.
As the sauce cools you can now start creating the base – turn the dough out and knock it back (beat it down!) then begin forming into a traditional base shape
Two ways you can go now – use your hands and fingers and push the dough into the traditional shape but in this example and becuase I want a think and crispy base I go at it with hands then a pin and roll it super thin – 1/2 cm!
Another option here – to use a pizza stone or a pizza tray. In my opinion (and it is my opinion mind) domestic stone suck…they are to small and too much of a faff…I use a Pugliese bought pizza pan which is about 16″ and slotted to allow the intense heat through. You can pick these up in good catering stores.
Drape the dough into the pan – and fork it to allow the heat in and around.
Next the fun bit – assembly and final bake. Spoon the sauce over the base liberally…BUT…not so much as you end up with puddles, this will stunt the dough for baking properly. Next add the ripped or sliced Mozzarella cheese – using Mozza’ is only a personal preference, try Ricotta or Stracciatella as alternatives…knock your socks off!
All that remains now is to put this baby to bed – sling straight into an inferno of heat (or as close as you can get) – you’re oven needs to go all the way to 250c at least and the door has gotta have a good seal! Bake until the dough chars, the cheese melts and the whole thing moves around the pan if you shake it.
FANCY A BEER?
TRY THIS – if you can get it this side of Puglia!