At the edge of the vegetable plot was a deep entangled jungle of cherry tomato vines. I set about making the pizza sauceby / October 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
In August we went to stay at our friend Peter’s farm in Bresse, across the river Saône from the famous vineyards of Burgundy. The weather was dry Savannah. Michel, the chicken farmer in the next village, who sold us two of his cou-nu, naked neck chickens, (which he considers to be superior to the famous Poulet de Bresse) raised his hands to the cloudless blue sky, “It hasn’t really rained properly since you were last here. Peter drained his carp pond and there was not enough rain to refill it over the winter, and now—pah—no rain at all for weeks. Well it gives the farmers something to talk about. Oh farmers!” he said as if he did not count himself among their number.
Peter and his family were away and we had the place to ourselves. We fed corn to the geese and to the chickens who cackled and pecked. “Where are your eggs?” I asked.
“Brackkka brac,” said the chickens.
In the yard the earth was baked hard and cracked and smelled of biscuit. The vegetable plot was overgrown with blackberry brambles and raspberry canes and overblown fennel fronds. In the middle I found a runaway zucchini vine full of yellow squash blossoms. I pricked my fingers picking them, stuffed them with slivers of mozzarella and anchovy and deep fried them as an appetizer to Michel’s prized cou-nu roasted simply with a very good gravy and rice.
At the edge of the vegetable plot was a deep entangled jungle of cherry tomato vines. I had to kneel and stick my head deep into the thicket to pick them, many overripe, their skins already split hanging on the vine. The smell was intoxicating. The fruit burst in my mouth, thin skinned, dense with seeds and summer sugar.
We cut them in half for tomato salad. Inspired by the large patch of oregano by the kitchen door I made a Greek salad with capers, feta, and red onion. We made tomates farcie, my boyfriend Adrien’s favourite dish. I made fresh pasta with tomatoes and lasagne with a ragu made from the tomatoes. And then we noticed the pizza oven built next to the brick barbecue on the porch. Peter sent instructions via WhatsApp. I set to peeling the harvest of cherry tomatoes for a sauce. I poured over boiling water and the whole skins slipped off.
A Neapolitan pizzaiolo once told me that he made his sauce with only tomatoes, no garlic, no pepper, no sugar, not even salt. “The salt from the pizza’s crust is enough,” he said. So I cooked my peeled cherry tomatoes, slowly and without any additives. Over a couple of hours, the sauce reduced to a jammy, sweet, tomato slurry.
Adrien built the fire in the oven and the oven walls turned from black to white in the heat. My pizza dough was not the greatest, but I managed to roll it out, spoon on a tomato slick and dot with ragged slices of oozy buffalo mozzarella. Adrien slid the pizza into the fiery hellmouth of the oven. We watched it curl and blister against the fire. It cooked in under a minute and we ate it hot, blowing on our fingers, and then immediately set about making another one.
Pizza is very simple and at the same time very complicated. In the oven the crust must puff and crisp as the tomato sauce thickens and dries and the mozzarella melts. One heat, three different consequences. Each element balances the others in flavour and texture: the salt-sour-yeast crust is crisp against the sweetly slurpy tomato, the mozzarella salts and soothes. Add a few anchovies to make a pizza marinara and discover how the sudden brininess of anchovy is tempered by the soft unctuousness of a mouthful of tomato sauce. We ate amazed.
The next day the clouds gathered. It rained solidly for two days and rivers ran down the tractor tracks in the yard. The geese were happy, but there were still no eggs in the chicken house. I put on wellies to pick tomatoes; they tasted different now, full of water, refreshing, brighter. The slugs emerged to eat the fallen fruit and I collected a handful and fed them to the chickens who set upon them like piranhas.
The storm had blown apples off the trees and we collected windfalls and made tarte tatin. The neighbour who owned the horse farm told us he had seen a ferret stealing the eggs from the hen house. “He is a naughty one! I found eggshells all through the hay bales where he takes them to eat.” So then we checked several times a day before the thief had his chance to come in the night and had soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. I made endless batches of passata out of the cherry tomatoes and bottled it.
In making pizza I grasped, at last, one of life’s elusive essential truths. Deliciousness, happiness, is not a mix or a blend. Respect and celebrate each individual ingredient. Do not try to change them, only encourage them to be their best selves. How to eat is how to live. Life is not perfect; there are rainstorms, flat crackery crusts, not enough eggs for an omelette, wasps buzzing in the muscat grapes, an argument about how to make the caramel for the tarte tatin—but still—it needs only two people, care, love and attention to make a meal into a smile. Watch out for ferrets, never mind the rain, make use of windfalls; it turns out there is more than one way to caramelise apples and the best part of the lasagne is the crunchy corner where the oven has scorched a piece of pasta poking out above the sauce.