The Joy of Food Tasting

4

Great Taste Awards 2015 – My Day of Judgement! 

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The Great Taste Awards promote the very best of what local, independent, national and international retailers – have to offer. They are organised by the mighty Guild of Fine Food, established 1995, located in Gillingham, Dorset, and organised professionally, politely and to perfection by an able and talented family run team.

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The Guild’s raison d’etre is to support and promote speciality food producers and the independent delis, farm shops and food halls that sustain them. It has over 1300 members. It organises and implements a network of activities designed to promote excellence in all sectors of the trade and build closer links between producers and retailers.

The Great Taste logo is now widely recognised, setting products apart from the rest – a logo that says this producer cares about its product – love and time has gone into it.

And is it popular with producers? You bet! The Guild had to cap this year’s entry to 10,000 products. Judges come from a wide range of backgrounds to ensure each product gets a fair crack of the whip – over 400 judges over the course of 50 days meet in teams of 4 or 5 throughout the months of March to June to get through this wealth of culinary craft – to decide which ones get awarded the logo and up to 3 stars – all of the entries are, of course, blind-tested. Last year, only153 foods achieved the highest and most coveted rating of three stars. 697 foods grabbed 2 stars and 2531 were awarded a 1 star. That means only 34% of entries were accredited – it’s tough, but those who get that cherished black and gold sticker to pop on their produce value it highly. Winning is important to the producers as it differentiates their products from the norm and means the customer has a guarantee that the products they buy have a reliable seal of approval based upon great taste… not marketing.

This was my second year and this time I was better prepared for the challenge that lay ahead – it is quite an assault on your stomach lining if you do not pace yourself – wise not to have a big breakfast and wise during the day to sip lots of water and have palate cleansing slices of apple on hand. The day began at 10.00am and the first session lasted until 12.45pm. My table had 15 items to judge – however, that is added to as other tables pass on entries that need a second opinion to confirm a rating. By 12.45 we had tasted 27 different products which ranged from exotic fruit juice to marmalade to hand crafted chocolates to game terrine, Christmas pudding – a real feast for the eyes this one as it was topped with gold leaf (!) – green tea ice cream, olives, smoked duck and honey.

IMG_5535 Goldfinger’s Pud?

 A well-earned break allows judges a chance to mingle, chat, swap experiences and general networking.

The second session began at 2.30pm and lasted until just after 5pm. The judges are not in the same groups for the afternoon allowing a wider variety of opinion. I tasted 25 products bringing the total to 52 for the day. This year I felt a lot better on the way home, and my stomach was not the washing machine it felt like last year! The second set of products we tasted included cured camel meat – no getting the hump jokes, please – fudge, Iberico ham – stunning – Bronze free range roast turkey, Piada flat bread, salsa verde, lamb stock, rapeseed oil, chilli jam, venison sausages…..wow…it was a real feast for the senses. Of course, we only taste a small mouthful of ech, but there is always a temptation to have a second mouthful of some and occasionally a third – always a good sign for the chances of that product getting close to the 3 star award!

IMG_5533 A stunning game terrine was one of the highlights of the day for me

Is it enjoyable? It sure is – the company of other foodies, from a wide range of backgrounds – food festival organisers, cheese makers, chefs, writers, bakers, organic veg box producers to name but a few – makes it a delight and an education. It is also a privilege to taste such provenance and to know that you have a say in helping many producers hopefully get the rewards they deserve. I loved every minute of it – it is hard work – but immensely pleasurable and satisfying.

Long may these awards last and, if you have never visited the Guild’s website you must. Or catch them on twitter @guildoffinefood

And here are just a few of the varied foods I tasted!

Salmon and leek tarts and hand made choices filled with orange ganache

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IMG_5540 IMG_5541 Chilli pickle (left) and leavened cake (right)IMG_5547

                                  

               Orange liqueur (right))

    pistachio truffles (below)

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Bronze free range turkeyIMG_5545

IMG_5543 A red traminer ice wine jelly – I cannot tell you how good this was!

Zesty lime – filled chocolates            IMG_5539

And in the pic below – taken just before the tasting began – i am on the table far left in the specs looking studious!

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Great Taste Awards 2014

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Great Taste Awards 2014

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.

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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.

IMG_5131  My morning group

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!

IMG_5125 From panettone to Iberico Belotta Ham IMG_5126 I tasted  it all!

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