Watercress, new business success....
Andy White is the proud owner of a vintage Mercedes German Fire Engine with which he is doing amazing things!
He’s 42 and from North Wales where he lives with wife Vicki and their two young sons. He is a keen sailor and teaches boat building, sailing and navigation at a Marine College but during his spare time has always enjoyed cooking.
As a youngster Andy’s parents owned a hotel and he was inspired by watching his mum cook. Andy has fond memories of visiting food producers and suppliers with her and this experience has gone on to inspire his new passion for producing high quality food and selling it from his unique Fire Truck, FireFeast - motivated by the variety of high quality local ingredients available to him from around the Welsh coast. One ingredient he does not have local access to is watercress but, sensible man, he realised this would be a crucial factor in his success. So, when he read about our Watercress Ambassador Programme he jumped at the chance to be our newest recruit …..
“….Freezing rain, severe gales in Wales and the North West, wet and windy elsewhere with the chance of heavy snow on higher ground: traffic severely disrupted…. and that concludes the weather forecast for Saturday the 16th of December issued by the met office at oh-five-double-oh.”
The announcer’s voice rattled around in my head like hot shrapnel, as I lugged one of my oversized cool boxes up the step and into the butchers to collect the 20kg of brisket and the 1200 pigs-in-blankets that I had ordered for the Old Colwyn Christmas Market.
I was concerned; it was the first outing for my ‘side-hustle’ FireFeast a 1982 Mercedes fire engine that I had been converting into a food truck for the past 2 years. There was a lot resting on this; money, pride, reputation and, above all, my family’s Christmas budget. This had to work.
As I loaded box after box of pigs in blankets into my Skoda Fabia I could see Darren, the butcher, weighing huge slabs of prime Welsh beef brisket in the back of the shop. For the first time since my friend Jim and I imported the Merc truck into the country I was officially out of my depth.
Sure, I could cook, but for 600 people in a gale? Too late now. I was half way back to the Truck with hundreds of pounds worth of stock and a long evening of food preparation ahead of me.
The menu was the only thing I was sure of, the hours of testing and research meant that as the tunes were cranked-up on the Mercs’ sound system I knew exactly what to do.
First on the menu: Slow Braised Welsh Brisket Burgers.
The truck’s commercial oven roared to life and in huge stainless trays the wine, thyme, rosemary and stock were heated, ready and waiting for the seasoned and seared Brisket to begin its long, slow cooking process.
Once cooked this was to be pressed, chilled and portioned ready to be re-braised and served in toasted brioche buns with or without cheese on the day. Hot, hearty and traditional these would be perfect for a winter’s lunch for anyone willing to brave a gale in the freezing cold!
A slab of beef in a bun is a robust dish but it risked being too rich and, dare I say it, too meaty. I needed a full-bodied accompaniment to juxtapose and cut through the meatiness of the beef.
To me fresh, peppery watercress was the only accompaniment that packed enough of a punch for this recipe. I had tried it before and the mustardy flavour married well with the beef and added a fresh crunch to the sandwich. Seasonal and traditional with a vibrant colour, I knew this would work.
Next on the Menu, ‘Sticky Pigs.’ Everyone love pigs in blankets, right? Shallots, sage, Poyton’s chipolatas, streaky bacon and red pepper served on sticks with a sticky Clementine Christmas Glaze.
An hour later with my eyes streaming from peeling shallots I became aware that my playlist had deteriorated to Dolly Parton and the ‘spare’ braising wine had been polished off – I had only completed one big box of skewers.
It was late now, and I needed help (and a lift home). A quick text and my good friend Jon slid open the oversized door allowing strong gusts into the hanger; the wind was picking up now. A steady hand in a crisis, Jon had the remaining sausages ‘pricked and ready to pack’ in no time.
The combination of sweet shallots, butcher’s sausages, salty bacon and my secret glaze tasted great. My wife Vicki had come up with the name ‘Sticky Pigs’ - it was genius, but the appearance of the dish was a little bland and more than a little….’sausagey’.
Enter Watercress - our food hero. Since the 1800s watercress has been used as a classic garnish for pork. Its small leaves look fantastically fresh and with a slice of orange to garnish it, gave our Sticky Pigs a much-needed healthy lift.
With a gale building outside I set my phone alarm for 05:30. I drifted into an uneasy sleep with a lingering aroma of shallots in my nose and the sound of ‘Harper valley PTA’ resounding in my ears – tomorrow was the big day.
The Mercedes powered down the narrow lane, her German engineering was solid and unaffected by the cold weather outside. In the cab my good friend Nidge would, from time to time, calmly suggest slight alterations to my road position from his vantage point on the other side of the carriageway.
In no time at all we were on site and set up. The natural canvas awning rigidly stretched out over the rig and the cold rain was running off nicely into the gutter at the side of the road. The oven was on, the trays of Sticky Pigs were cooking. The fayre started at midday, so we had plenty of time.
As we waited the wind picked up and the temperature dropped further, I used my temperature probe to probe the air -1oC. ‘At least I won’t have to worry about the fridge temperatures’ I thought, as yet another trader’s gazebo buckled and folded under the squally wind.
My friend Simon, used to a life on stage and seemingly unaffected by the pressure, took up his position at the oven. My lovely wife Vicki and our pal Selina both looked stunning as they prepared the serving area; these girls could sell anything with their good looks and gift of the gab.
The event had started ten minutes ago and apart from a few sideways glances from passers-by we were largely being ignored. My heart sank. What self-respecting Welshman would buy glazed sausage kebabs from a German fire engine in a gale?
‘Keep the faith, buddy’, Si encouraged, ‘they’ll come!’ He was right, they did come. They came so fast, wave after wave, buying the Brisket and Sticky Pigs in equal measure, that we struggled to keep up!
Within twenty minutes we stopped asking customers if they wanted their food served with watercress, everyone wanted it anyway– it was an integral part of the dish.
The rest of the day was a blur and apart from the numerous comments about the quality of the food and a dream like visit from Widow Twanky, I remember very little. By 3pm we had sold out of all the food I had set aside for the day. Tomorrow we would do it all again!
Sunday’s weather was a little better, the wind had dropped slightly and there was even some pale blue sky between the sinister dark clouds.
Yesterday we broke even, today we might make a profit. The plan was simple: cook it quick and sell it quick. But after another near sleepless night and a can and a half of energy drink in lieu of a coffee, I was in no state to implement it alone. That day, Selina, Vicki and Simon were relentless – they all carried me.
Customers from the previous day came back for more. New customers came asking for the now famous ‘Sticky Pigs’ even though we had neglected to put the menu boards out.
By half past two we were about to sell out again. FireFeast had been a true success. But as I hung up my apron and walked away from the Truck I didn’t feel the way I thought I would; perhaps it was the lack of sleep, the cans of Monster or maybe the time of year. ‘Sometimes the lessons we learn are unexpected’ I reflected.
For the first time in two days I had a chance to look at what was happening. The rig looked amazing with its red paint work now gleaming in the winter’s sunshine. I had worked hard to convert it, to gain the level 5 food safety certificate and I had overcome numerous other obstacles to get to this point.
This, however, was not my personal success; there was no doubt I had backed myself into a culinary corner with this one, but it was my friends that helped me fight my way out of it.
Looking back through the queue, I could see Vicki, Simon & Selina working tirelessly to sell the last of the stock and Nidge still taking pictures like a paparazzi in the background.
Like a Brisket Burger without watercress, I was nothing without my friends.
What about the left-over watercress? The next day Simon made a cleansing soup, I shared the profits equally and we toasted the start of Christmas in the ‘Mountain View’.
So, what’s next for FireFeast? Will I do it again?
Of course! We already have numerous bookings for summer events and even a festival style wedding later in the year. But I simply refuse to do it without watercress and certainly not without my good friends around me – I could not have done it without either of them!