The Long and Winding Road
As for a lot of people’s careers my move into making confectionery was luck, combined with one thing leading to another and a dash of serendipity. There were several steps along the way.
In 2005 I decided to retrain as a journalist and started a distance learning course in periodical journalism with the NCTJ (National College for the Training of Journalists – http://www.nctj.com). My aim was to rekindle my longstanding interest in food and drink and my love of writing. Completing the course was only the beginning and being then thrown into the world of dealing with busy magazine editors was a complete shock to the system. Overcoming the catch 22, which all newbie journalists face, of needing that first job to gain experience having no experience to sell yourself in the first place had me stumped for some time. Similarly, rather arrogantly imagining my first work would be with some of the larger national food and drink titles I was soon pared back to size with a dwindling income. Some wound licking and a considerable amount of persistence eventually paid off with a few small commissions from titles as varied as Speciality Food Magazine to cash strapped foodie websites needing content.
As they say you make your own luck and mine gradually changed for the better. I was asked to write some pub reviews for the dedicated Kent County website www.yourcounty.co.uk, which has since gone from strength to strength. Similarly a let down editor at Sussex Life needed a writer for a feature on Heathfield, Kent to promote the town and give publicity to the upcoming Heathfield Show.
Click on interview below to enlarge.
One thing led to another and I was soon approached to become the freelance food and drink editor of two other Life titles: Hertfordshire and Essex. My brief involved interviewing chefs and restaurant managers at some of the best restaurants and pubs in the counties, writing reviews of meals at the same and putting together foodie news for each month’s issue. Admittedly being paid a pittance took the shine off but I thought I’d give it my best, especially as I was given the promise of a pay review after 12 months.
Surprisingly writing the restaurant reviews was always the hardest task. Speaking to people subsequently it appears on the surface the dream job, which is how it appears at first. Over time, however, it becomes harder and harder to write anything original and to avoid cliche ridden pap (I’m not the only one to experience this effect – read any restaurant review and I bet you’ll soon come across lines such as: “I plumped for the rack of lamb in etc. etc. and it didn’t disappoint”.
I preferred to carry out the reviews at lunchtime but, even with the lure of a free lunch, finding an available friend to take along was always difficult. So ‘Johnny no mates’ it was for most of the time. To avoid sticking out like a sore thumb drizzled with pesto I concocted various stories to make my arrival more believable. Which restaurant manager’s suspicion wouldn’t be aroused by the arrival of a suited customer arriving to eat on his own at lunchtime. One of my solutions was to book the table for two on the pretext of a business lunch and then on arrival explain my partner had been called away on pressing business at the last minute. My cover for still coming along anyway was that I’d heard good reviews, had been looking forward to the meal and had decided to still come along anyway. As far as I know this worked a treat; you can always tell if your cover has been blown by the sudden onset of fawning servitude and apologies for the most minor food or table indiscretions.
Often it was the simplest of dishes executed well that remained the most memorable. I can still see and taste fillets of plaice, just poached, with buerre blanc and served with roasted tomatoes on the vine and a neat square of pommes dauphinois at a small European restaurant in Harpenden.
Interviewing chefs and restaurant managers was the most enjoyable task. I found I had a natural skill in initially making my interviewee feel relaxed such that they felt more comfortable in opening up. This is where the real stories lie; no one wants to hear some public relations cliche ridden waffle. The art was combining the chef’s story, using brief family background to understand why food and drink appealed early on, followed by training and finally how they started to develop and express their own style. The interview was set up to appear that we were chatting over lunch, which consisted of two of the best dishes on the menu. However with pub and restaurant time always at a premium we only got a chance to taste the dishes, while I recorded the interview out of the way of setting up the tables for lunch service. Towards the end of the interview the photographer would arrive, decide on the best setting to show off the decor and get us in position for a, sometimes rather cheesy, wine glass clink.
Once back home my task was to weave together the personal detail of the chef, the aim and ambiance of the restaurant, detail of the dishes and wine we were served and pull it all together in a coherent and entertaining tale. As I gained more experience in writing and started to ‘find my own voice’, as they say, I realised creative writing is akin to juggling a set of balls. The balls are defined as different pragmatic factors such as grammar, word and sentence choice, combined with the story you are trying to express and its only then the creative possibilities of word play, humour and emotion are freed to bubble to the surface and bring the piece to life.
One of the highlights of my time as editor was a visit to the restaurant at Brocket Hall, Auberge du Lac – www.brocket-hall.co.uk . Take a look at the restaurant setting in the image gallery down by the lake. The restaurant is inside an impressive 18th century hunting lodge, the decor of which oozes restraint. The food and wine is superb, while the setting makes it one of the most relaxing places I’ve ever been to eat. Nothing snooty about the service either; the staff genuinely want you to enjoy your experience there. Of course you’re thinking ‘and just how much does this cost?’ – well take a look at the lunchtime menu, okay it’s gone up since I went but even now £39.50 for three courses including two glasses of wine. You could rack that up quite easily at a Cafe Rouge! Of course you’ll be moving in a different circle of clientele as my sister in law and me found when just delving into our main courses as a private helicopter, on silent running, landed outside on the lawn.
Time on my hands
The assignments I was given took up a good proportion of my time and they were certainly mentally stimulating however I’ve always had an element of ‘hands-on’ drive to my personality, which I found writing didn’t satisfy. Through some of the quieter times I started to toy around with chocolate confectionery; it was something I had always had at the back of my mind to try. I always liked a good toffee when I was younger and decided to recreate one of my favourites: a thin toffee bar covered in milk chocolate. Testing recipes for the best toffee took ages. When you’re not really sure what you’re doing, through inexperience, everything takes twice as long because taking the plunge with a decision requires a lot of thinking about the best way forward. Through a combination of internet research and finding obscure confectionery books I eventually concocted a product with a pleasing flavour. Finding the correct texture again took many hours of testing. A compromise was needed between a toffee soft enough to chew pretty much straight away, without it pulling fillings but at the same time robust enough that it didn’t droop when pulled out of the dipping chocolate. I even experimented with chilling the toffee in the fridge before dipping to harden it. What I didn’t realise was that dipping cold toffee into tempered chocolate would knock the chocolate out of temper and result in a grey, mottled appearance known as bloom.
(If you’re interested in the technicalities of chocolate and tempering the website www.seventypercent.com is a comprehensive resource, with a friendly and helpful forum of people from around the world.)
So finally feeling good about the product I had conceived and with more than a little excitement I delivered it in simple hand tied bags to the few farm shops that had agreed to run it as a trial. After a couple of weeks I returned to find sales were completely underwhelming. Feedback from customers repeatedly led to the conclusion that with the rising cost of dental work customers were no longer prepared to risk their bridge work on toffee, however delicious. The second blow that I was finally let into was that handmade chocolate confectionery is quite a seasonal product with sales dropping to virtually zero during the warmer months from May to October. With bills still dropping through my letterbox and frequent wolf footprints at my front door I had to find an alternative.
Hope sprang eternal as ever and before long a good friend, Scott, working at his farm shop in Biddenden, Kent, asked if I would be able to make a good crumbly fudge. He knew there was a good market but had so far been unable to find a producer. Product development had always been one of my secret passions – so the challenge was on!
With the common male trait of trying to figure things out on your own and not asking for help I blundered about in my kitchen at home making pan after pan of sweet gloop that resolutely failed to turn into fudge. if any batch did work it was by complete accident leaving me agonising as to how it had happened. Unfortunately if a pan of fudge fails there is little you can do about it. Some books suggest it can be recooked but I’ve never found this very satisfactory. So at one point, after a series of failed pans the domestic rubbish bin was starting to weigh far beyond the usual limits of household rubbish. The rubbish men soon cottoned on and refused to take it away – as they are perfectly entitled to do if they suspect trade waste is being put into domestic bins. This left me with the sticky problem of what to do with tens of kilos of semi set gloop. I was reduced to taking it into the centre of town in smaller carrier bag batches and dropping it off in street rubbish bins. I’ve no doubt the council weren’t best pleased!
Over time I gradually pieced together the many factors that have to be exactly right for any recipe to work well and consistently. Many readers will have experienced just how tricky it can be to heat and boil any milk based recipe. Once it comes to the boil it foams almost instantly and unless you’re quick off the mark will boil over the sides of the pan and burn solid onto the hot cooker. Other temperatures are also critical; both the temperature the fudge is boiled to, as well as the temperature it has to drop to before mixing can start. Keeping the inside of the pan walls clear of sugar crystals toward the end of cooking is vital too, as the cooked fudge will latch onto any crystals present, which then spread quickly throughout the entire batch and lose you the required melt in the mouth texture.
Times were very different at the start of 2008. We were mostly blind to the recession around the corner and consequently selling into new outlets was a breeze. It was a matter of pitching up at the farm shop or tourist attraction and asking to speak to the manager or manageress. A quick try of a sample and a run through of product range and pricing more often than not led to a new customer. One thing gradually led to another and soon I had a regular list of customers asking for repeat orders. It all sounds so easy and straightforward but at the time I still had no concept of what the fudges should be priced at to achieve any sort of profit. My pricing was merely based on a quick look to see what everyone else was charging combined with my idea of what I would pay. The idea of carrying out a proper costing of ingredients and labour to get at any true figures was to me complete anathema.
As the business continued to grow the practicalities of home production became more problematic. I was starting to use larger and larger quantities of sugar and not wanting frequent trips to the cash and carry I would buy ten 25kg bags and secrete them around the house in the hope they wouldn’t be discovered my soon to be ex-partner. Starting to use commercial cooking pans on a domestic gas cooker led to another set of problems. Some of the heat was directed up the tiled wall behind the cooker. It was never designed to endure such heat and it wasn’t long before the tiles started to drop off in succession.
A new start with a unit
The only logical next step was a move to new premises. However by this time in 2010 the recession was a reality. Politicians reassurances that it was just a blip sounded hollow and, with hindsight, their supremely hopeful quotes of already seeing the green shoots of recovery now just sound ridiculous. Luckily O’er the Moon sales hadn’t been really affected and so I started to look for premises against the advice of several doomsayers. Living in Maidstone at the time I looked locally in the press and on the internet but little was obvious. An advert in the farming section of the Friday Ad brought a bit more promise. A farmer just the other side of Lenham had a milking parlour he had been planning to refurbish for some time. We arranged to meet and on a particularly blustery day he showed me round. There was considerable work to be done as the parlour hadn’t been used for years. Open beams in the ceiling, holes in the concrete floor, electrics and water supply that looked pre-war did little to inspire. The farmer was realistic and put forward an offer to ask for quite a reduced rent in exchange for my work to refit the building. With nothing else in the offing it seemed the only way forward but the prospect of keeping up production at home, while refurbishing the parlour had the prospect of a sisyphean task.
As often happens in life when you’re in a corner with no semblance of escape a chink of light or luck takes you down a new road. While at a farmers’ market I heard a rumour of a vacant unit out near Cranbrook. Apparently a woman producing organic ready meals had been an early casualty of the recession. Even the premium end of the market consumers were watching the pennies. I contacted the owner, Tom Jones (he must have suffered with that name!) to get the details. I arranged to look round and after some trouble finding the particularly rural location came across a large apple store, which had been converted into several units. The unit I was looking at was about 1000 sq ft and as it had been used previously for food the floor was painted and even some of the stainless steel cladding on the walls remained. Tom told me the apple store had been cork lined in its day to keep the apples cool and it consequently still worked in the summer. That it was insufferably cold on a sharp January morning wasn’t mentioned – I would discover that for myself.
I initially thought fitting out the unit couldn’t be that hard. How wrong can you be? It was another task I had never experienced. Visiting another producer who had made all the mistakes already to suss out their layout would have been the obvious way forward. However in my rather withdrawn and shy mentality at the time I preferred to go it alone once again – idiotic in hindsight but that was me then.
I at least formed a plan of some sort. Working through the processes of cooking the different products I designed how the different sinks, tables, shelving & freezer should be co-ordinated. Keeping costs down had been my mantra from the outset and I consequently started looking for second hand items at catering equipment wholesalers I could find on the internet. Visiting a couple it soon became clear that any good equipment they held was snapped up immediately leaving behind some very sorry looking examples. Yet another return to the drawing board led me to that other stalwart of general rubbish, Ebay. However I was surprised to find a manufacturer in the north west who was happy to weld tables to your specifications before couriering them down. Before long I had 2 six foot stainless steel tables and a double and single sink. Finding a suitable cooker was to be a more time consuming problem. Commercial six ring gas cookers with ovens in reasonable condition often sell for about £500-600 each; way beyond my budget at the time. After weeks of searching to find an alternative and even considering one of the larger domestic cookers I came across an aluminium table top cooker. They are designed for outside catering, where a lighter option is required. Winning the cooker on Ebay was a major coup for me, especially at the bargain price of £60. A longish drive over to Wivenhoe near Colchester led me to a guy who was selling off all sorts of catering equipment from his business from which he’d recently retired. Handing over my £60 he offered an array of other equipment to go with it for free. I was once told you meet very few Good Samaritans in life & I’ve found it to be the case however he was one of the few.
Getting the water supply connected to the sinks and gas supply to the cooker initially seemed fairly straightforward tasks. However after numerous phone calls to commercial plumbers and gas fitters I still didn’t feel instilled with that much confidence. Finally I found professionals who could actually do what they said they could do at a reasonable price. Similarly getting an extraction hood made up and installed over the cooker seemed to take an age. I managed to contact the previous occupant of the unit, Kate, to ask what she had done with her old extraction hood. Sadly she had sold it back to her fabricator, who had subsequently cut the steel up for a variety of projects. However the fabricator did agree to making up another at a good price.
By this time months had passed. My initial estimate of two months for the fitting out of the unit had more than doubled and I was well into the busiest part of the year. Juggling the fitting out and keeping up production at home had me using all the hours in the day. Taking a quick rest in my car at lunchtime outside the unit one day I fell asleep for some time. The occupants of the units either side must have wondered what I was up to. Subsequently, Tony and Jo, with their outside catering business on one side and Dave and Priscilla, with their furniture restoration businesses on the other have become good friends.
New Product Development
When talking to customers and retailers about new products they often seem to have the impression that as the business is in the cottage industry league this implies having plenty of spare time to potter around the kitchen trying out new product ideas. The reality couldn’t be further away.
The process of creating a new product starts with a general inkling that the availability of such a product is limited or even non existent, combined with enthusiasm that there may be good demand for the same. In the earlier days of O’er the Moon I couldn’t understand why I was unable to find many producers of good quality, chewy toffees or caramels. A few companies still seemed to be manufacturing, such as Walkers: but their offerings seemed somehow dated. To me it seemed such an obvious gap in the market and so, energised with this information I started on the long path to a new product. After searching existing products both in a variety of shops and online it was possible to deduce the current leading flavours.