Well, last Monday was one of the highlights of my culinary life so far. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a judge at this year’s prestigious awards held at the head quarters of The Guild of Fine Food in Gillingham, Dorset. It was one magical day.
The Awards were set up in 1994, judging over 80,00 products in that time, all blind tasted by judges who discuss the merits of each product in the search for those that deserve to be championed and given the Great Taste logo. And that is what it is all about – taste – the kind that stops you in your tracks and makes you go – Wow! The judges come from all areas of the food world – people who run delis, food writers, journalists, experts, cheese makers, farmers, to name but a few – and even a blogger – me!
I arrived at 9.30am and was given my badge and table number. There were about 10 tables – each table with 4 judges – one who is armed with a laptop and collates all the notes – it is vital for the producer to get thorough feedback – and even if the product was not liked we had to find something positive to say, as well as how the product could be improved.
It is a very smart outfit, The Guild of Fine Food – there is a super kitchen with chefs preparing any foods that needed heating or cooking exactly to the entrants specifications. Friendly staff on hand to deliver food to your table or move it on.
We were looking to award up to 3 stars – if you gave no stars – then a second opinion had to be sought form another table. Similarly if you awarded any stars that also needed to be confirmed by other tables. We tasted 18 products allocated to our group, but ended up tasting over 25 with products winging in from other tables to be affirmed or countered. The morning tastings took us from 9.45 until 1.20pm to complete. I had to have a very, very light lunch as I was already feeling quite full! The afternoon session, where the groups were mixed up again, lasted from 2.40 until 5.20pm.
In the morning session I tasted several varieties of juice drink – from apple to aloe vera – several types of artisan panettone – chocolate – olives – cornichons – jams – a variety of cooking sauces – sherry vinegar – pork sausages – soft cheese – manchego cheese – high quality ready meals including lamb shanks in a rosemary and red wine jus, Thai chicken, lamb saag and a lamb ragu – organic soups and fruit breads. In the afternoon the gastronomic assault on my taste buds and stomach lining continued apace with potato crisps – more cooking sauces – Iberico hams – gravadlax – goats cheese from Extremadura – sobrasada – harissa marinated chicken breast – hand made Scotch eggs – marinated mussels – more juices – hand made biscuits, fruit cake and a chocolate spread – oh and a remarkable passion fruit marshmallow!
I really enjoyed the companionship of the other judges and I learned a lot about the art of tasting. I met some fabulous people (a guy who tastes tea for a living – an owner of a liqueur company – a food writer – several magazine editors – a past winner of Master chef and some folk who work for the BBC’s Saturday Kitchen programme) and I tasted a lot of wonderful food and drink, as well as some produce that was positively not great at all! We were lucky enough on my table to come across a couple of products that we awarded a 3 star to and which were confirmed – and I tasted other tables 3 star recommendations too that were divine. But I cannot tell you which they were! The tastings last for a while yet – they had 10,000 entries this year!
I did not realise before today just how much hard work goes into such awards and how tough it is to be a judge…in a very pleasant way of course! It is a lot of sniffing, looking, sipping, eating and discussing feelings and impressions with your fellow judges – as well as drinking a lot of water in between each item to cleanse the palate. The time flies.
By 5.30pm my stomach was putting up the ‘Closed’ sign….but what a day it was. My dreams that night were full of food!
My thanks to Tortie Farrand and all the marvellous people who work at The Guild of Fine Food for inviting me and for giving me an experience I will not forget for a long while. I hope I get to do it again!
Follow the awards daily on twitter #greatasteawards