Part 1: Who are we? ALBA’s Philosophy & What makes a great sourdough pizza

In the first of this two-part series, we catch up with our founders, Meagen and Simon, to understand more about ALBA’s vision, working with scientists, and why we decided to use sourdough.

Pizza is the perfect canvas. It is a social food that evokes happy memories, and it brings people together. It has all the components we want in a great dish: fatty, sweet, rich, and complex. But the art lies in balancing the right chemistry to achieve this. So how do we do it? Learn more from Simon and Meagan below. 

How does your experimentation mindset translate to pizza, something that is generally boxed into a stereotype of cultural tradition?

Simon: The dough is a great example. There’s different variables like temperature, time, the type of yeast, the flours, water, and the process and machinery attached to it. With these, we blended different traditions, techniques, and ingredients to create our sourdough, instead of strictly adhering to one single ‘authentic’ recipe. We believe more in this process than the idea that someone’s grandmother’s recipe is the only way. Italians in particular are prone to this kind of thinking. And I can say that because I am Italian!

ALBA goes against the grain, literally. Why is this significant?

Meagan: Before ALBA’s conception phase, we interviewed hundreds of restaurant owners to get a good understanding of why we should go on this adventure in the first place, and to learn more about why our food systems are broken. With curiosity rather than judgment, we asked questions like—do they actually know their supply chain, and are they walking the talk? Where do their products come from, and do they understand the food systems they participate in? Only through traceability, and knowing the intricacies of the raw materials, can we all understand ingredients and how they’re produced, and this has the power to bring positive change—both to the industry and to the consumer.  

Simon: Pizza is such a simple thing. It holds such a big space in social and cultural landscapes: everyone has an opinion on it. With so many loved variations around the world, it’s very accessible to millions of people. But because of this, it has such a big impact. And with impact comes responsibility. So we are exploring this by challenging the very notions of pizzerias. It’s why the idea of creating a more sustainable food ecosystem includes designing second-to-none starters, desserts, and cocktails that are just as important to ALBA as the pizza.

What makes a good pizza?

Simon: We were testing pizzas all around Europe. The best we tried weren’t in Italy but in northern cities like Copenhagen and Berlin; restaurants with more forward-thinking approaches who dared to break conventions and celebrate local craftsmanship. They weren’t using conventional yeasts, it was always sourdough. We were inspired by the fact that they weren’t tied to rigid traditions. 

Meagan: What’s ironic is that baking with conventional beer yeast is a phenomenon that has only arisen in the past 70 years. It has been standardized as the normal way of baking because it helps to mass-produce in larger quantities. But actually, just like with natural wine, sourdough has been forgotten as the original way; its origin dates back several thousands of years. We wanted to shed new light on this forgotten craftsmanship and challenge the way pizzerias are experienced. This is shown through every facet of our brand, including the name: ALBA means sunrise, or new light, in Italian. 

What is ALBA’s pizza manifesto?

Simon: Our 5-point manifesto is the guiding light for our dough development and experimentation process. The first point is that we promote a more sustainable food ecosystem, which is why we produce our own mozzarella with our partner Ideasalentina. When it comes to texture, taste, and appearance, we have a very clear concept too. Our ideal pizza is crunchy, easy to fold, and not sloppy. We wanted ours to have a certain level of acidity and crunch, and to not have too much gluten resistance when you bite the inside of the crust. We play with different textures and flavor combinations, and overall, you should finish with a feeling of lightness. 

Tell us about your 159-year-old sourdough starter, lovingly named Aulus?

Meagan: We experimented with a bunch of different starters: first we made our own, then we took one from my mom, then we acquired one from Iceland, and this process kept going. We decided to move forward with the one that gave us the best results, it’s a secret of course! We are very transparent with the recipe; we even give some Aulus away if someone asks for it. It’s not about ‘copying’ our recipe because sourdough will always take on the microbiome of the person that works with it. 

How do you feed Aulus so that it multiplies to make enough dough to sustain the whole restaurant?

Simon: That’s one of our biggest challenges. It has a feeding schedule just like a baby! You need a special type of flour containing a high percentage of certain shell particles that kickstarts the fermentation process, so that it develops specific bacterias. We use an ancient grain variety called Tumminia to feed our starter, which helps to support more acetic acid bacteria for a more tangy mouthfeel. Another part depends on the vision you have for your dough. 

Meagan: So you feed the sourdough starter with flour, and double the mixture with the right machinery to ensure the pH levels are always in check. We have a little temperature-controlled fermentation chamber that regulates the fermentation cycles accurately. Then we rest our dough for a minimum of 48 hours, which gives it more complex flavors and different types of charring. 

Did you consult with food scientists on all of this?

Yes, not just with scientists but a range of experts. A friend consulted us on the types of bacteria development at various stages of the sourdough lifecycle, and we also collaborated with ETH Zurich, the leading food science university in Switzerland. They gave us a good understanding of the microbiological composition of sourdough.

What is your philosophy around sourcing ingredients?

Meagan: Just because you’re an Italian-inspired pizzeria doesn't mean you need to source absolutely everything from Italy. Having said that, if the highest quality products come from there, we use them. For us it’s about cutting out the middleman and directly sourcing from the suppliers. Working with smaller scale producers means accepting their processes: which is why, for example, we need to pre-purchase our passata for an entire year. It’s a significant investment but totally worth it. It’s also about challenging the norms around craftsmanship, artisanal products, and collaborating with local producers and suppliers. So if that means fresh mozzarella from Switzerland, then that's okay.

Simon: Yes, many farmers produce their own mozzarella, but their milk comes from all over. We actually now create our own mozzarella with our own recipe. We collaborated with Ideasalentina to co-create this product and can trace the milk back to the actual cow. Mozzarella made from raw-milk has an unparalleled taste and we need to have it delivered and consumed every week. It makes sense to know these details, so that our storytelling is honest. 

What grains do you use to create your dough?

Meagan: We use 3 different ancient grain varieties from Sicily, and three grain varieties from the Altbachmühle in Wittnau Switzerland. While every grain and flour type serves a clearly defined purpose, one thing remains unchanged. By going to the origin of the raw material and importing it directly, this enhances the quality of what we produce.

What kind of tomatoes do you use for your passata?

Simon: They’re Brigade tomatoes from a supplier in Sicily that bottles them in glass, not in cans. They’re grown on vines in direct sun, and they’re handpicked, which is a huge thing. It directly impacts the acidity of the tomatoes, as only super ripe tomatoes are picked, so they have a deep sweetness to them. They’re perfect, and they go against the conventional wisdom that only San Marzano tomatoes are the best.