Learning From the Ancients

As students of pizza we spend a lot of time trying to uncover the “secrets” of past masters. We are constantly trying to reach back into antiquity with the assumption that there was a “golden age of pizza” and that it is our duty to resurrect these honored traditions. To a certain extent there may be some truth in that belief. But let’s not ignore the possibility that some of our longing for a so called “true” or Vera Pizza may not be as justified as we hope.  I am referring specifically to the ingredients that we select.

Modern modes of transportation have made the world a smaller place It is now much easier to access the ingredients that we assume are being used in Italy. Coupled with that assumption is the belief that ingredients from Italy are of the highest quality and will produce the best pizza. Certainly in many cases the food products of Italy are outstanding, but let’s take a closer look:

We have all used or heard about the celebrated “00” Flour of Campania.  It is usually very good and, for certain applications, it is the right choice for pizza; but don’t make the mistake of thinking that every great pizza maker in Italy swears by it.  There is a famous expatriate pizza maker in New York who was asked in a recent interview about “00” and replied curtly “I no like”.  On a recent trip to Rome I met with several renowned pizza makers and bakers who spoke lovingly of “Manitoba”, the high gluten flour of North America. In regard to tradition, the fact is “00” is a modern creation. The technology didn’t exist in the past to mill flour of that kind.

You’re a fan of San Marzano tomatoes? Some of them are quite good, but if you conduct a truly unbiased blind tasting you may find that some of the domestic vine ripened tomatoes compare quite well to the best imports. In professional food service the tomatoes from the Stanislaus Tomato Company dominate taste tests and if you can get your hands on a rare can of Bianco-DiNapoli Tomatoes,  which are the product of collaborative efforts between Chris Bianco and Rob DiNapoli, you will be amazed at the quality of these organic superstars. If you consider the fact that counterfeiting of tomato products is rampant in Italy with the seizure of nearly 1500 tons of fake San Marzanos and thousands of cases of spoiled Chinese tomatoes discovered in recent raids the risks become evident.

It is estimated that food fraud in Italy is a 60 Billion Euro per year business, that’s over 90 billion dollars annually, and guess what, a lot of that food is headed here. Right now unscrupulous olive oil merchants are going to jail for selling Moroccan hazelnut oil as Extra Virgin Olive Oil. That Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil on your grocery shelf most likely came from Spain. The majority of high priced “Tuscan Olive Oil” was probably produced in Puglia and shipped to Tuscany in tankers in the middle of the night. Don’t think that this is a new phenomenon. In fact, the one long- standing tradition we can be sure of is that deceit in the global food market has been going on for thousands of years. In Rome there is a neighborhood called Testaccio. It is built on the shards of millions of amphorae, the 70 liter jars that held wine and olive oil that was treasured by the Romans. What archaeologists have found is that the ancient Romans had a complex labeling system in place to assure that the food products they were buying were of the highest quality and true to their stated origins. That’s right, caveat emptor is not just a quaint Latin saying, it is a warning against systematic deception that has gone on since the very beginning of international commerce.

So how do we wade through the confusing and outright dishonest marketplace in our quest to make the best possible pie? It’s really quite simple and is the golden rule of purchasing in my pizzeria: “Your guests don’t eat what’s on the package. They eat the finished product”  Forget about dubious claims of origin or authenticity, serial numbers or approval from any self serving trade organization. Let taste, fragrance and texture be your only guide. This idea is not as heretical as it may seem. In the past several decades the Italian wine industry has taken to modernizing their vineyards and wineries. They have adopted French and American methods and shamelessly blend non-indigenous grapes with their native varietals. Creative geniuses, such as Piero Antinori, had the courage to trust their own instincts and the result was “Super Tuscan’ wines that elevated and revitalized the entire Italian wine industry. Now that artisan pizza making has been firmly re-established the next step is to free ourselves from myth and bias. If we truly want to honor the past pizza masters we should seek what they sought:  excellence, informed only by taste.

 

Comments 

 
#1 TJ 2012-02-28 12:05
John,

I really enjoyed your article. It made me think smile and reignite the fire.

Thank you,

TJ
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#2 Joe A 2012-02-28 13:34
Fantastic article!!! I have come to some of the same conclsions as you indicated here. The whole idea is to really learn the whys and not just the whats of pizza making. Many great products we have here in the USA.

If you ask for 00 flour in Italy...its like going into a Chevy dealer and asking for a Chevy...So what do you want?? a W200? W250, W300, W410?? Then you realize that 00 is a milling/refining process and that many 00 flours are actually made up of a fair amount of american wheat.
So what do you want to use it for...dirct method? Indirect method,Cold Proof, long RT proof, Natural Levain?? Its the masters of the trade that figured these things out and how to apply them, tight lipped about it...peeling labels off of cans of tomatoes, carting trash off in the middle of the night, Making dough when the help was home sleeping.

Todays information age is chock full of information on whats and hows.....but learning why requires you to do the work.
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