by Mike Clancy

Mike Clancy

Mike Clancy, blog author

I blame it all on Jon Ables. Had he not knocked on the door of my Adelaide student flat on that hot February evening back in 1971 I might never have developed the depravity I live with today. But that was 40 years ago and I have learned to adjust to my affliction.

I had only just moved in. It was the last year of my postgraduate course and I had a thesis to write. The month previously I had left the college in North Adelaide that had been my home for the previous three years. College life was fun – too much fun and now I had to focus.

His call was unexpected. I opened the door to see the Incredible Hulk standing in the porch. Jon was a Texan and a postdoctoral fellow working in our lab. He was a typical brash Dallas man but a good humoured guy. “Grab your things, Mike”, he said “We’re going to my place and I am going to teach you to cook pizza.” He added as an afterthought “Oh and grab a notebook so you can write the recipe.”

Armed with my notebook, which in those days was made of paper and required a pen or pencil to activate it, Jon took me by the shoulder and to his car parked up the street. “Mike” he said, “if you can cook pizza, two things will happen to your life. You will never go hungry and you will never be short of girls.”

That sounded like a plan. Despite the passing of 40 years, it was an evening that I remember well and one that changed my life.

A cultural diversion is in order. The Australia of my youth was very different from today. Back in 1971, there was only one place in Adelaide where you could buy pizza; Mario’s Pizza Bar on the corner of Hindley and Morphett Street. Together with the Pie Cart on King William Street, Marios was a refuge after late night revelry and an opportunity to sober up (or at least line the stomach before continuing to binge).

I am not sure whether it was a 24-hour operation, such things did not exist at that time and after all, Adelaide had only just shucked off the ‘six o’clock swill’. But as I remember it, Mario’s was never closed.

It was a place of debauchery. Mario was a middle-aged Italian who always looked dishevelled as though he had just been beaten by his wife. A cigarette always hung from his mouth and we all sat around a circular bar that had a pipe in the middle of it enclosing a dumb waiter. The pizzas were ordered by Mario shouting into a tube, and twenty minutes later, a pizza appeared from the bowels of the earth. What went on down below was anyone’s guess. Was it a den of vice? Was it the secret Adelaide headquarters of the Mafiosi? Or was it just the kitchen? Surely not! There had to be more down there than just a kitchen.

Mario’s pizzas were all we knew. They were 8’’ in diameter and the crust was one inch thick. (One inch equals 2.54 centimetres for those who are imperially challenged.) The standard topping, aside from cheese and tomatoes, was ‘Russian salad, a strange creamy-brown coloured concoction with bits of meat and vegetables buried within it and which would not have looked out of place on the pavement late at night outside one of the pubs. In that situation you would have walked around it rather than put it into your mouth.

But that was pizza as we then knew it.

Jon, bless him, opened my eyes to another dimension. His pizza was THIN CRUST and not a doorstop. His pizza was loaded with goodies like Polish sausage, capers, stuffed olives and oh so much more. His pizzas were divine. I wrote down the recipe like a dutiful scribe at the feet of his master.

I hate the man. After that experience there was no going back to Marios. His pizzas were passé. I had discovered a whole new world and I set out to conquer it.

I bought oven trays (it was a couple of years later that pizza trays came onto the market), I made surreptitious trips each weekend from my home on Greenhill Road to the Adelaide markets in Grote Street. It was there that I discovered that there was more than one type of sausage. I discovered salami, pepperoni, Greek olives and so much more. I was on the primrose path to decadence and I was loving it.

Jon was true to his word. I never was hungry. I discovered that pizza was just as good taken straight from the fridge as it was from the oven. Girls from college started coming around and invitations to my pizza parties were eagerly sought. Sometimes I had to pinch myself to make sure it was all real. I had never had such attention. Friends, usually drunk, turned up on my doorstep late at night demanding that I cook pizza.

My lust for pizza has lasted a lifetime now. The toppings have changed slightly – no… dramatically, but the base that I make has never deviated from Jon’s original recipe. The sauce has developed over time. And despite the myriad of permutations and combinations we have today, I still maintain that there is nothing so fine as a pizza home-made and from scratch.

‘Bless you Jon.’ ‘Curse you Jon.’ Whether I bless or curse the man depends on whether I am waiting for the pizza to finish baking or whether I am sitting back with a bloated belly.

I still have the notebook I grabbed that day and it formed the basis of my first recipe collection. Nowadays my kitchen recipe book takes a different form, except of course when I am cooking pizza.

Pizza is certainly the food of MY life.

Postscript

Sadly I lost touch with Jon. I last heard he was working for CSIRO in its radio astronomy department; but that was 20 years ago. My search on LinkedIn and elsewhere has brought to light many with the same name but never the big, humorous Texan I knew so well.

Sadly, since writing that piece, I learned that Jon past away around 2005. He will be well remembered.

The original recipe as I wrote it

with comment italicised

Ingredients

Garlic salt
Basil leaves
Stuffed olives
Ground chillies
Crushed red pepper
Sage
Continental capers
Old hickory smoked salt
Polish sausage
Parsley flakes
Leggo’s tomato paste
Mozarella cheese
Tomatoes

8oz cup warm water and 1oz dried yeast – combine these. (these days I add a little brown sugar and use low-fat milk instead of water)

Add 1½ cups of plain flour and stir until smooth.

Add 1 dsp of olive oil and a tsp of salt.

Add in a further 2 cups of plain flour and mix as well as possible.

Dump on a lightly floured board and start kneading until it becomes a smooth elastic ball.

Put in greased pan and allow to rise, approximately 2 hours

Pat down and chill until ready

Sufficient quantity for three 9” pizzas.

Divide into 3 parts. Roll out and out into greased trays

Add the trimmings, mozzarella, tomato paste and the garnishing. Cook approx. 20–25 mins at oven temp 400°F (200°C)

In those days, the sliced mozzarella was placed first with the tomato paste on top of it. Now we do it the other way around.

Since then I have adapted the tomato paste. I finely slice a couple of onions, chop up several cloves of garlic and sauté in olive oil until they begin to caramelise. I then add a mix of passata and tomato paste or a can of diced tomatoes and simmer for 20 minutes or so. As seasoning I add sea salt flakes, ground black pepper and a dash of Tabasco sauce.

I then let it sit and cool for several hours so that the flavours infuse.

The base recipe is perfect and I have never varied it.

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Recipe books - the old and the new

Recipe books - the old and the new