by Myrna Robbins
With pizza competing with fried chicken as South Africa’s favourite takeout, and our chefs pulling out the stops to create the country’s best pizza, it’s difficult to imagine life without this versatile Italian culinary classic.
Yet back in the mid-20th century, pizza was on few South African menus. Italian immigrants to the US introduced them to hungry Americans in the early 1900s and Italians held prisoner of war in the Western Cape during World War II showed local farmers how to make them. Today, take-out pizzas, fresh or frozen, are basic fast food items across the Western world, and the annual Global Pizza Challenge South Africa sees chefs from all nine provinces competing for one of several prestigious prizes.
The definition is simple: a flatbread usually topped with tomato sauce and cheese before being baked.
That’s the basic that originated in Naples more than 200 years ago, followed by Italian variations like calzone and stromboli.
The former resembles a Cornish pastry, as the rounds of dough are filled, folded over and edges sealed while the latter – named after the volcanic island because of the way cheese bubbles out of the base during baking – is a rolled pizza.
As in most other countries, South Africans took to pizza with gusto, enjoying the classic toppings, like Margherita, Neapolitan, marinara and capricciosa, and then experimenting with typically South African ingredients, a trend that is much in vogue today.
Which brings us to the eighth annual 2016 Global Pizza Challenge which saw more than 90 chefs enter their creations into categories that included poultry and meat, seafood, vegetarian and speciality/dessert.
The contest took place in Joburg last month at the annual Food and Hospitality Africa show, better known as HOSTEX, where national co-ordinator Martin Kobald assembled a team of judges (including a master pizza-maker from Italy) to find the stars of the show.
The overall winner was Jodi Ann Pearton, a Silwood-trained chef who has stacked up numerous gastronomic awards and now runs her own consultancy, the Food Design Agency in Gauteng.
From a rustic hilltop restaurant at Lord’s Guest Lodge outside the village of McGregor, Matt Bronkhorst was the sole Western Cape winner, following on his partner Collin du Plessis’s previous victories in the vegetarian category.
Their delectable range of large, thin-crusted pizzas is ample proof that the best pizzas are not the prerogative of pizzerias.
The other three runners-up – Carmen Kobald, Thulani Mtshali and Ghandi Saliji – are from Gauteng.
The winners took home a substantial cheque and a range of hampers, along with the prestige of national recognition. Judges remarked on the increase in use of smoked ingredients and typical South African flavours among the toppings.
Across the country, pizza chains are fiercely competitive, which helps keep prices reasonable.
Home cooks can choose from using supermarket frozen bases or making their own – which is the simplest task, involving white bread flour, dried yeast, olive oil and warm water.
Along with the traditional round pizza, parents can opt to make large rectangular bases for family meals and children’s parties, as cutting into squares is easier than wedges.
Gluten-free toppings, vegan – and even Banting – bases can all be catered for at home. Apparently flaxseed and sunflower seed “flour” make acceptable Banting bases, while I have made enjoyable – although not authentic – pizzas using crisp-baked mashed potato shells for those on a wheat-free diet.
When it comes to toppings, the choice is virtually limitless: the classic spread of tomato finished with mozzarella can be sandwiched with vegetables, fruit, seafood, poultry and meat of every kind.
The 2010 winner of the SA Global Pizza Challenge, well-known chef Neil Jewell of Franschhoek assembled an all-South African topping of Karoo lamb, brinjal, peppadew, buchu and a sweet sauce for his pizza.
Among the most popular global combinations are chicken, red onion and parmesan, spicy sausage, red pepper and mozzarella, and caramelised onion, anchovy and olive, sparked with fresh rosemary.
Seafood fans settle for a mix of calamari, shelled prawns, black mussels and chopped parsley, vegetarians like spinach and feta with ricotta, and gourmets partner their cap classique with pizzas topped with cream cheese, smoked salmon and capers.
Looking ahead to July 4, we can raise a glass to the US of A with a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, its double-crust well-filled with ricotta, crisp bacon, cheddar and mozzarella or give a nod to the Pacific for an Hawaiian, which pairs pineapple pieces with diced ham and shredded mozzarella.
Going Greek will see toppings of tomato, oregano, red onion, black olives and crumbled feta, while Mexico adds finely chopped red chilli to a mix of spicy sausage, pepperoni, onion, and green pepper to their flatbreads.
And so to dessert: not as well-known as its savoury cousins, sweet pizzas are easy to make and a good stand-by when time is short.
Think chocolate, and pre-bake your thin base glazed with melted butter. Top with a dark chocolate sauce, then scatter over white and milk chocolate chips and return to the oven for a couple of minutes until they melt.
Or turn to seasonal apple and dried cranberries for a stylish finish, the fruit tossed with sugar, butter, lemon juice and cinnamon.
Or throw caution to the wind and use a choc chip cookie recipe to make a base, bake it, then frost with vanilla icing and finish by drizzling with butterscotch. Purists will shudder, but every child at the party will applaud.
Whatever pizza you choose, make it Italian-style – prepare with care, bake it with love and eat it with gusto.