A traveller returning from abroad will often recall the street food from their holiday with great enthusiasm. Authentic cuisine cooked up with crude instruments in the open air can be very special. Weary businessmen perch on stools outside portable noodle stalls in Japan, sticks of Satay sizzle on open air grills on roadsides in Thailand, while in Europe the French flip Crêpes on street corners and Germans cook up hearty Wurst with sweet mustard.
Let’s blame the weather for the lack of traditional street food culture in Britain. Our moderate temperatures and plentiful rainfall are, for most of the year, certainly not conducive to ‘al fresco’ eating. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I need at least a couple of pints before I can contemplate tackling most of the things cooked up in the food vans on our streets. Rubbery Doner kebabs with meat content of unknown origin, gristly burgers, and grease-saturated breaded chicken sitting in heated glass boxes – it’s not great is it?
I was therefore pleased to find out about Pizza Artisan, a pizza van complete with an internal wood-fired oven that parks up on St. Aldate’s most evenings. Paul Tong, 44, stopped driving taxis and started dishing out roasting hot discs of artisanal deliciousness from his custom-made van in 2010.
We all love this emblematic Italian dish, but pizza from a wood-fired oven is especially good – great pizza needs extremely high temperatures. Paul feeds his blistering furnace until it reaches 320ºC, when it will be hot enough to properly caramelise the cheese and crisp the base. The Pizza Artisan owner and his team make fresh sourdough pizza dough each morning, also preparing a homemade tomato sauce and a selection of tasty toppings. The range of pizzas on offer is not extensive, but each involves a very attractive combination of ingredients. The finished pizzas are garnished with whatever the customer could desire – rocket, parmesan, fennel seed, basil, chilli, oregano or balsamic vinegar. I took home a ‘Madonna’, involving caramelised onions and chilli, perfect with an ice cold Nastro Azzuro lager. The pizza was full-flavoured and extremely satisfying. The dough had an indulgent sponginess to it, while managing to retain a crispy exterior.
Paul was inspired when he noticed a wood-fired pizza van in France. “I saw someone doing a similar thing in France in the 1990s, but he wasn’t doing it well. I thought that not only could I do it better, but that this is the kind of thing that would do really well in Oxford. I then learnt to make real homemade pizza from a lad from Naples,” he said.
Pizza Artisan is open every night apart from Monday until midnight, although Paul was keen to mention that they stay open later if the customers keep coming. You can ring ahead to place your order and even eat your pizza in G&D’s, just over the road. You pay a small charge for a sticker that allows you to scoff your food while it is still hot in Oxford’s own ice cream café, while getting 50 pence off an ice cream if you want to finish your meal with something sweet.
Paul and his van are a very welcome addition to Oxford’s limited street food scene. Let’s hope that others follow suit and allow us some respite from the chips and cheese merchants. Pizza Artisan shows that speedy, convenient street food can be of high quality, crafted with skill and passion.
This article appeared in the Oxfordshire Guardian in June, 2012.