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Alex James

Alex James: Getting a pizza the action from a master

Rural Notebook

I've been working on a portable pizza oven to go with the mozzarella I'm developing. It's almost perfect. The dough explodes and goes to heaven but the cheese isn't cooking quickly enough. So I'm on a busman's holiday, in Puglia, agricultural Italy, right down the bottom, in the heel, discovering the secrets of cheese melting from the masters. If you want to eat well in Britain, you can these days, probably as well as anywhere, but it still takes a bit of asking around. Even if you try to eat badly here, it's impossible. Italy has easily the best food in the world.

I suppose cooking stuff is not really that complicated, at least, anyone can learn how to do it if they can be bothered. A lot of people are learning, too. Where Italy and probably France have the edge on us is in being able to source good ingredients easily. Part of this is due to the climate, and part of it is cultural. In Britain, food culture is developing, it's fashionable, but here in Italy it's beyond that, it's traditional and they have the best food only because they're the world's best farmers.

For my host this evening, living in the countryside is like living in an enormous sweet shop, surrounded by hundreds of varieties of figs, properly weird melons, ancient olive groves and cherry tomatoes. He farms around a hundred acres, grows everything from his own tea to his own cigarettes, cures his own meat, makes his own liqueurs and serves it all up in the farm he's converted into a luxury hotel.

He snickered at the poor people of Milan who have to eat three-day old figs, the poor souls. It was so refreshing. He had exactly the attitude to people who aren't farmers that we seem to have towards people who are. "You know, it must be tough not being a farmer." He said, with a grin. I totally agree.

Striking gold in Italy

Puglia is olive country, and the ancient groves, stretching for miles, are just coming in to season. There is nothing so pretty as an orchard. Some of the trees, the old grandads, are over a thousand years old and lean over so far that they have to be propped up with piles of breeze blocks. It's surreal, suggests infinity, and the value locked up in those trees is boundless: A goose that lays golden oil.

A common language...

"Why you wanna make smalla hoven for da pizza?" We're starting again from first principles. That's what I love about farmers, so practical. We speak a common language. To make pizza, first build your oven...