G.R. Gemin's Sweet Pizza: A Treat For All Ages
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Some books cry out to be cooked. This one, pressed upon me by my twelve year old daughter, sang with all the resonance of a Welsh Miner’s choir.
Sweet Pizza, by Italian-Welshman G.R. Gemin is a charming and funny book about a greasy spoon café, the value of a functioning espresso machine and the operatic thrill of first love. Beyond that, Sweet Pizza holds a valuable lesson about how all our lives are enriched by the inclusion into our society of many cultures.
Vito Merelli, was an Italian immigrant to the town of Byrn Mawr, South Wales. He toiled in the coal mines, alongside dozens more immigrants, until he could gather enough money to open Café Merelli, a classic Italian café, in 1929.
Vito’s great-grandson has always taken it for granted that he will be the fourth generation of Merelli’s to run the café.
‘He was Joe Davis, heir to Café Merelli of Bryn Mawr. If it was sold he’d just be Joe Davis who lives in a house.’
The trouble is Café Merelli’s not making money anymore. The High Street is dying. Joe’s Mum has worked ninety-six thousand hours behind the counter – she worked it out on a calculator one day when business was, as usual, slack. She has had enough and wants to sell up. Café Merelli is about to close its doors and Joe is heartbroken.
Nobody believes that a fourteen-year-old boy can rescue the ailing business. His Mum and Dad, and his best friend , Combi, all think he’s mad or deluded or quite possibly suffering the effects of a blow to the head at rugby training. It seems that only Joe’s grandfather, Nonno Beppe, understands that this small, dilapidated coffee shop is a physical link to their Italian forbears. It is the symbol of everything they have endured. Café Merelli defines who they are.
‘In the café I felt safe, see – it was my territory. My café.’
Nonno’s stories of how the Merelli’s have survived far worse times than this give Joe the courage to fight. Listening to Nonno’s opera CDs, Joe becomes infused with the passion of a real Italian. He sends to Italy for re-enforcements, quite pretty re-inforcements it turns out, and begins the battle to restore Café Merelli to its former glory.
With the rousing chorus of Va Pensiero from Verdi’s Nabucco ringing in his ears, Joe herds customers in off the streets and learns how to cook a mean Spaghetti Putanesca.
‘He’s gone all Italian,’ said Mum.
We know Joe has become a vero Italiano when he develops all the appropriate hand gestures and approaches the town councillor to ‘make him an offer he couldn’t refuse’.
When writing for children an author can’t rely on the knowledge or experience of the reader to fill in any gaps. Children’s books demand a clarity and completeness that isn’t required in books for adults. Gemin provides context for Joe’s determination by allowing Nonno Beppe to fill in the history. It is Nonno, an Italian version of Roald Dahl’s Grandpa Jo, and his accounts of the real experiences of Italians in Britain during World War 2, who gives this book its satisfying depth of flavour.
The best children’s writers manage to distil the essence of big ideas and emotions into simple words and short sentences. Gemin, again like Roald Dahl, knows that children might not know much about the plight of economic migrants but they do understand food. Food provides a sort of shorthand for emotions. Children understand that greasy fried chicken is a guilty pleasure. They understand that to refuse food is an insult. They understand that mothers dish up their love, daily, on a plate. Italian children probably understand this better than most.
Gemin uses the universal language of food to allow children better understand the difficulties of fitting in without losing your identity.
Sweet Pizza made me think about the value of holding on to the best of what has been passed on to us from the past and sharing it with the future. There are no recipes as valuable or beloved as those we inherit from our family. To break that link with the past seems a terrible and unnecessary cruelty.
Perhaps, we shouldn’t try to homogenise migrants into a melting pot society but rather enjoy Joe's idea of a smorgasbord featuring all the best bits. Better again, all the best bits with a few new creations to boot.
The sweet pizza of the title is Joe’s own invention.
Joe licked his lips and an idea tingled in his head. ‘Sweet pizza.’
‘I just thought – pizza but with sweet stuff on top, instead of savoury.’
‘Never heard of it,’ said Combi.
‘Be nice though – sliced apple and banana, sprinkled with coconut or cinnamon.’
Combi’s eyes glazed over and his mouth dropped open, showing Joe the mashed up pepperoni and cheese. ‘Where can you get it? He asked.
‘You can’t,’ said Joe. ‘You’d have to make it.’
‘Oh don’t do that!’
‘Describe something nice and then say it doesn’t exist.’
In addition to a recipe for basic tomato sauce and a few excellent pasta dishes, Gemin provides a recipe for sweet pizza. The base isn’t really pizza dough; it’s a very easy pastry made using olive oil instead of butter. I was dubious but delighted to discover it makes a delicious, biscuit-crisp tart. Option One is true to Joe’s vision of a very simple and healthy dessert or after school snack. Cooked banana is quite the revelation.
To create a second option, the Sweet Party Pizza, I let my kids loose. Even the littlest children could have fun making this as you really can’t go wrong.
My third option, and personal favourite, is the Sweet Cheese Pizza. This could make an amusing, and delicious, alternative to a cheese plate.
For the base:
250g plain flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp caster sugar
50 g olive oil
50 g milk
50 g water
1. Joe’s Sweet Pizza: 2 apples (cored and thinly sliced), one banana (peeled and sliced), ½ cup of desiccated coconut and 1 tbsp of sugar.
2. Sweet Party Pizza: 100 g dark chocolate, one banana (peeled and sliced), 1 cup of blueberries, 1 cup of raspberries, ½ cup of mini-marshmallows and ½ cup of flaked almonds.
3. Sweet Cheese Pizza: 250 g red grapes (halved lengthwise or sliced), 150 g ricotta, 1 tbsp fennel seeds (whole or slightly ground using a pestle and mortar) and 1 tbsp brown sugar.
Preheat the oven to 200˚C (400˚F, Gas 6).
My preferred method for making the base, which saves greatly on washing up, is to place a large mixing bowl on top of a digital weighing scales and then add the ingredients one at a time.
Begin by adding all the dry ingredients. Mix them together briefly before making a well in the centre and adding the liquid ingredients. Hold the bowl with one hand and mix with the other until a ball of dough forms. It only takes a few seconds and you don’t have to knead it at all. If the dough is too wet to handle, sprinkle in a tablespoon of flour and mix again. If it is very dry and crumbly, add another tablespoon of oil.
Roll the dough out on a floured surface. It should be quite thin; 3-4 mm is about right. Then, slide the base on to an oiled baking tray.
Add the toppings of your choice.
Bake for 15 minutes.
Each of these pizzas is best enjoyed warm. We enjoyed some custard poured over Joe's Sweet Pizza.
A few sprigs of sweet geranium finished the Party Pizza.
The Sweet Cheese version was enhanced by a generous spoonful of honey drizzled on top.
Edit May 15th, 2017: Congratulations to G.R. Gemin on winning the prestigious Tir na nOg 2017 award for best English language book set in Wales.