Pizza

Why This Chef Puts Seawater in His Pizza Dough

“This way of cooking comes from the Italian fisherman,” says Italian-born London chef Mauro Palomba. “They would just scoop up some seawater and use that in place of normal water. There's something so simple and natural about it.”

by Laura Martin
26 February 2017, 11:00am

For a country so keen to stamp its foot about being an independent nation—now, supposedly, more than ever—it's odd that Britain doesn't make more use of what it has in abundance. Like the stuff we're literally swimming in, for example. The sea.

We're blessed with roughly 11,073 miles of waves washing up on our coastline, but all we can seem to do is dip our toes in it twice a year or post the odd Instagram snap on day trips. As for cottoning on to using seawater in a practical way like other Europeans have for centuries? Nope.

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Marino Bove, Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana-approved pizza chef at London restaurant O Ver. All photos by the author.

Italian-born Mauro Palomba wants to change this as he works to introduce Brits to the concept of cooking with the sea. His restaurant, O Ver near London Bridge, is the first in the UK to make every dish with seawater. In fact, Palomba thinks it may be the only restaurant in the country to make even one solitary dish with seawater.

READ MORE: This Craft Beer Made with Seawater Is (Almost) Hangover-Free

A quick glance over the menu and it's obvious that Palomba is not taking this cooking-with-marine-broth thing lightly. All the pasta is made and cooked with seawater. Vegetables are marinated and cooked in seawater. And for O Ver's signature dish? Pizza, made with seawater.

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One of the 20-litre bottles of seawater used by O Ver. The restaurant gets through 150 litres a week.

"This way of cooking comes from the Italian fisherman in the Mediterranean sea," Palomba explains. "They would be out on their boats and would need to cook food while they were fishing, so they would just scoop up some seawater and use that in place of normal water. When you think about it, there's something so simple and natural about it."

The Italians aren't the only ones to have unearthed this ingenious way of cooking. In Spain, chefs have been using seawater for hundreds of years, from people living in tiny coastal towns who cook with it on a daily basis right through to Michelin star chefs like elBulli's Ferran Adrià or Quique Dacosta deploying it in strange and wonderful ways. Seawater is so prevalent in Spanish cooking that it's common to find big bottles of the stuff sold in supermarkets for home cooks. They even market it as la sel perfecta, the "perfect salt."

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Pizza dough made with seawater.

But Palomba looked closer to his home of Naples when launching O Ver, and the snack the city is famous for: pizza.

"Guglielmo Vuolo is a famous pizza chef from my home city and he was the first one to make pizza with sea water a year ago," he says. "I met him after a few months after his experiment and that's why we began to think about the special uniqueness regarding the seawater."

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Vuolo is from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, who are the gods of the pizza world in Italy. The organisation has the power to declare whether a chef is cooking an authentic Neapolitan pizza or not, subject to them following a very strict set of rules. Last June, Vuolo went rogue and made pizza dough with seawater. The Associazaione couldn't certify it as a Neapolitan pizza, even if they all agreed it tasted great—which they did.

"If you want the Associazione's stamp for your restaurant, you have to respect the rules, 100 percent," explains Palomba. "They're very strict about this. For example, you have to use a certain type of wood oven, or ingredients like San Marzano tomatoes, or a particular mozzarella. It's always about tradition when we talk about pizza. So it's not easy to make them change their point of view. They loved the seawater pizza, and Guglielmo is one of the masters of the organisation and the one who experimented with this pizza dough, but in the end they simply said they're two different things. The pizza is amazing, but you can't call it traditional Neapolitan pizza, it's an artisanal dish."

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Shaping the seawater pizza dough.

So now, the rebel pizza resides in London.

But why does a brine-y pizza elevate itself to 10,000 leagues above a regular slice?

"The truth is that the only difference is that it's softer and less crispy," says Palomba. "It's actually less salty than normal pizza as in one litre of seawater there is 40 grams of sodium, while in the Neapolitan dough we normally put 50 grams of salt. Plus the chemical reaction of all the minerals and flour and yeast means it's lighter and easier to digest."

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If O Ver's first point of uniqueness is making pizza with seawater, it's second calling card is having a pizza chef who studied at the Associazione. Just like Jiro Ono grafting for years to master sushi, Marino Bove spent a decade learning how to make the perfect pizza, has been cooking them for 25 years, and as a result is probably the most qualified pizza chef in the UK to date.

He's also about to make me a seawater margherita pizza from scratch.

Bove starts by hauling out one of the 20 litre bottles of seawater from the restaurant's storage cupboard. The restaurant gets through about 150 litres of it a week, and they source it from an Italian company who take it from a sweet spot in the Med, then mechanically purify it without the use of any chemicals.

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The 400-degree pizza oven.

Palomba helps to translate as Bove starts to mix the seawater with some flour and yeast.

"The chef is trained to know exactly when it's il punto di pasta—on the point of the dough," he explains. The dough is then thrown on the marble counter and kneaded well. Next, it sits for about 12 hours to prove, before the ball is stretched out and toppings are added.

READ MORE: Neapolitan Pizza Chefs Think Pizza-Spinning Is Tacky

Keeping in line with being the best pizza maker creating the best pizza with the best seawater, O Ver uses the freshest, tastiest produce to top the pies. San Marzano tomatoes, pulped by hand each day to make the fresh base. Certified buffalo mozzarella delivered straight from Italy three times a week. Down to the drizzles of organic olive oil or Sorrento lemons, no corners are cut to make this a pizza that would rival the ovens of any Associazione maestro.

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The pizza is shimmied onto the wooden spatula and put quickly into the wood-burning oven, currently roaring away at a face-melting 400 degrees Celsius. While I expect to be waiting ten minutes or so before I can dig in, Bove expertly rotates the pie a few times in the oven adn it's done in a Usain Bolt-esque 60 seconds.

"See, at the bottom on the crust, it's just beginning to brown in places? We call that tigrata, like a tiger," he tells me. It's also known as "leopard spotting" in English, if you're an pizza obsessive.

The pizza cut up into slices and despite the searing cheese and hot oil seeping out, I'm told to eat it the Neapolitan way, folding it over and digging in. It's beautiful. A pillowy dough—not too crispy yet not too heavy—encases the freshest flavours. It's definitely one of the best pizzas I've ever eaten, but it's quite hard to taste anything overtly salty or marine-like, which I mention to the chefs.

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"You can't expect fish to start jumping on your plate or find a sea shell in your food," Palomba laughs. "The test is that's it's really delicate and subtle—even if you're an expert, it's a very subtle difference."

There's clearly something in the water—and there's lots for Europe to still teach this island.

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in August 2016.