Conversations on Pizza Ovens

It was a misty evening at Mbona. The hills were quiet in the fold of the white blanket that covered them. The wattle wood sizzled in the pizza oven as we started to cook our favourites. The first ones are always duds, until you get the fire and timing right. Or this time, until the oven exploded. Rainwater had been accumulating in the base and had become superheated and exploded, launching shrapnel of pizza and volcanic rock through the chimney and oven door…. It was a gut wrenching boom that signalled the end of the oven that my Uncle Arthur had sent down for us.

The first pizza oven I cooked with was the one my father had built at home. It may have been built by a Portuguese tiler, because it was not domed. It was next to his taverna and lay on a base of stock bricks. The base and top were built with fire bricks and grouted with a fine volcanic ash. The length of the oven was half a cylinder. It was big enough to fit a whole lamb inside. My father had devised a complex quarter inch steel sliding door which was heavy and difficult to use when hot. His favourite food to cook in the oven was kleftiko. He had special ceramic pots that he would fill with lamb, feta, tomatoes and oregano. I suppose also some olive oil and lemon juice; after all, we are Greek.

I learnt how to make pizza from Mr Scoutarides. He was a multilingual talented cook hairdresser and storyteller. He was from Egypt, and made divine little babba which he served hot with syrup and ice cream. So I spent a few times at his restaurant downstairs from my father’s office watching him make pizza, taking notes on the dough. The only other homemade pizza I had had at that stage was Mrs Cerrai’s; thick crusted, delectable but made in a kitchen oven.

I progressed from that oven to the one in Greece. My father built a proper village fourno where the old stables used to lie. In the village there is a sense of economy and efficiency. They flash burn thin vine twigs that heat the oven up in twenty minutes and then bake meat and bread in it afterwards. To do pizza you need a hotter oven and one day I used up the whole season’s supply of wood in my attempt to delight the villagers. My father’s cousin, Costa, was not delighted. A shepherd by trade he just sat there, eating nothing, waiting for the meat.

At my home in Durban I have a gas pizza oven. Not quite the real thing, but for the busy suburban doctor it works well. It works better to remind me of the ovens I have cooked in; all those pizzas I have made.

Last year a restaurateur friend took us to the pizzeria in Sorrento. It was where he learnt to cook. I think I should spend a few days there mastering my pizzaiola skills.

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