Sunday, 29 April 2012

Valentine Warner at Pizza Express: a pizza masterclass

On Tuesday evening food bloggers from around London assembled in the downstairs private room at Pizza Express, Holborn. We had been invited to sample Valentine Warner’s two new pizzas for the chain and have the man himself show us how to make them. Well, I didn’t have to be asked twice! I have a huge soft spot for Pizza Express because it’s always a reliable, reasonably priced, good feed (and they quite often have some sort of deal going). I was there like a shot.

So it turns out that Valentine is no stranger to Pizza Express, having worked as a waiter for them several years ago, but how things have now changed! Having offered to produce a new pizza for their menu, Pizza Express granted him creative control over two guest pizzas, the Puttanesca and the Fennel  and Salami, which he developed with their chefs. The former was Valentine’s take on the pasta sauce and a nod to the fact that in Italy pizzas don’t always need to be covered in cheese, the latter, an indulgence in his long standing love of fennel.

First up, the Fennel and Salami. The pizza features the basic passata and mozzarella with fennel salami from Trealy Farm, along with a generous sprinkling of fennel seeds and a restrained helping of chilli flakes. Once cooked, the pizza is topped with rocket and sliced fresh fennel which have been tossed in a lemon dressing. His passion for the ingredients and his enthusiasm for the pizza he had created was apparent and it really came across in the flavours. I LOVE fennel anyway so this was always going to be a winner with me, but the addition of the fennel and rocket  salad with lemon oil made it taste incredibly light and fresh. This pizza isn’t going to be for you if you’re not into fennel, (they even had Trealy Farm create a more intensely flavoured fennel salami specifically for Pizza Express as it was felt the flavour needed to be stronger), but I would urge you try it next time you’re there if you fancy something new because that pizza is gooood!

Next was the Puttanesca, which Valentine himself describes as being a “grown up” pizza. Based on the pasta sauce of the same name, it packs a real punch with salty anchovies, capers, green and black olives, along with the fresh red chillies, lemon oil, lemon zest and garlic oil and finished with fresh oregano after it’s been cooked. These flavours are comparatively mellow in a pasta dish, but generously piled on a pizza it’s pretty intense. Intense in a good way, but I’m not sure I could make my way through a whole one. For me it’s a sharer pizza or the kind of pizza that you would want to get if you were having “one for the table”; essentially what happens when one pizza per person is just not enough!

Valentine’s right, the lack of cheese on the Puttanesca and the strength of the flavours, do make it more of a grown up pizza but it’s still good and worth him taking the risk of being scoffed at by a few purist italians who find the idea of turning a pasta dish into a pizza a bit of a joke. In a way it’s obvious that it would work because those classic flavours blend so well together and even though they’re strong, they aren’t battling with each other.  Valentine insisted on a higher quality of olives than usually found in Pizza Express to be used on this pizza and it makes a difference. For both the Puttanesca and the fennel and Salami, the attention to details and the impact of flavours makes them both worthy of taking a place on the trusty old Pizza Express menu.

It helps that Valentine Warner is friendly and incredibly likeable but the proof of the pizza is in the eating and I definitely think these are going to be big hits for Pizza Express. Me, I have a date with a Fennel and Salami pizza lined up for next week...

My partners in crime  for the night were The London Pizza Bloggers and if you are ever looking for a great pizza in London I would highly recommend them; essentially just a couple of greedy pizza lovers who are making it their mission to sniff out the best pizza joints in London.