There is, of course, a good reason why I travelled 1,827 miles from Halifax to Catania, Sicily.
It was not the Winter sunshine. It was not even the chance to visit Salzburg, Venice, Rome or even Naples on the way.
It was the chance to learn how Sicilians make a pizza!
The venue for this discovery of the secrets was the Restaurant Jonio at Camping Jonio in Catania under the regime of Antionetta.
For those of you who are unaware, the pizza originated in Sicily, if not in Catania itself. S it is here we had to come to learn the secret of the perfect pizza base.
Should it be thick or thin? What flour is correct? Do you have to have one of those ovens that look as if they were really designed to house small bats?
First, Antoinetta introduced us to the ingredients.
1Kg 00 Grano Tenero
1Kg Semola Rimacinato Grano Duro
100 grams Unsalted butter
1 tablespoonful dried yeast
1 tablespoonful Salt
1 tablespoonful Sugar
2 tablespoonsful Olive oil (Extra Virgin, what else is there?)
The mixed flour is important as the soft 00 flour provides the mixing properties that deliver a truly elastic dough whilst the hard grain semolina flour provides the lightness.
All the ingredients are blended together by machine for about 20 minutes. Antoinetta saw no advantage in doing this by hand – it just tires you out!
Having said that, the next stage was to take the 3Kg lump of dough and to beat it into submission on a bench.
I am not clear why but Antoinetta’s enthusiasm for this violence did not encourage me to be seen to enquire if it was necessary…
The dough was then parcelled up by weight; in this case 1 Kg lumps, before being placed on teflon-coated trays to rise.
The trays were left in an unheated cupboard for around 2 hours to rise. The ambient temperature would have been about 22°C.
While we waited for the dough to rise, we discussed the great mystery of how we had seen less than three kilograms of ingredients weighed out to make 6 1Kg balls of dough.
Clearly, there was a secret of Italian cuisine that was not being shared with us and, perhaps, this was why pizza was such a staple of the country’s take-away industry…
Sadly, the truth was prosaic in the extreme. While we hadn’t been paying attention, Antoinetta had mixed a second batch of dough!
Now should have been the point where I was to learn the spinning dough trick. The flashy bit when the chef spins the dough ever thinner by throwing the dough in the air using centrifugal force to do the work.
Sadly, Antoinetta just laughed at me when I asked if this was not part of the procedure.
However, the spreading out of the dough on the oven trays, by merely pushing it about by hand, did give me a chance to hide behind a pillar and ask which was better, thin base or thick base?
I got my answer in the manner which owed more to Joyce Grenfell than Delia Smith. If you eat pizza in Sicily, where pizza was invented, it will be thin base. In the North of Italy you will get thick base. Clearly, the reason for Tuscany believing that thick base was a good idea was sheer ignorance on their part.
Now the tomato paste is spread on the dough.
I knew that it would be important to discover the ingredients of this concoction and asked her.
Again, the response brought into question the wisdom of me being allowed out without benefit of a collar and lead, “Pomadori – tomatoes, eh?”
The tomato covered dough bases were now put in the oven warmed to 200°C and cooked for about 20 minutes before the strange ritual of what I could only see as checking the baby’s bottom.
After about 20 minutes, Antoinetta would open the oven door and lift a corner of the pizza to check the colour of the bottom. Only when it reached a golden brown were they taken out for the remaining ingredients to be added.
Let me make it clear that the oven being used here was no ordinary domestic affair. This beast is about twice the size of the cooking cavern. The remainder is taken up by a boiler full of water which enables the oven to mix heat and steam.
In the case of the pizzas, Antoinetta assured me that no unfair tactics were being employed and the steam capability was not being used.
When it comes to the toppings, I got the impression that the way was to add whatever you fancied – or had left over in your fridge or larder. The topping is just an incidental add-on. The important part is the cooking of the base. That was now complete.
For the ubiquitous Margherita, all that is required is Mozzarella cheese and a dusting of Parmesan.
And don’t forget the Organo!
Anything that is put on top of the pizza base is already cooked so the last stage of warming the whole pizza is simply a matter of getting things up to serving temperature.
before being taken to the table and enjoyed by the assembled students of the day…
Mi dispiace, something must have distracted me from taking a photo of the meal before we had eaten it!