My Day As A Great Taste Award Judge By AJ Stanning
My first day as a Great Taste Award judge started in a post-drive daze after a rurally-eventful two- hour journey from Oxfordshire to Dorset; I ventured along single-file country lanes, through sporadically torrential rain, overtaking tractors and passing loose sheep to arrive at the HQ of The Guild of Fine Food. (Nb. After living in the Brecon Beacons for nearly two years I feel completely qualified to impart my knowledge of how to drive by loose sheep; it’s about 29 mph, any slower and you will cause mass panic on the hillside. You’ll thank me for that one day.)
Every judge who comes to the tasting room at the Guild of Fine Food over the requisite 50 different judging days has extensive tasting qualifications and experience as well as a depth of industry specific knowledge. I found myself sitting alongside butchers, farmers, cheese makers, food buyers, trained chefs, food writers and critics. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to be surrounded by some of the best and most experienced palates in Europe.
So, after successfully evading the sheep, navigating the route and thoroughly enjoying a journey without having to share such a small space with loud toddlers, or quiet toddlers listening to the impossible-to-ignore-excitable narration of Imelda Staunton reading A N Other Julia Donaldson book, I felt that my brain was in a reasonably grown up and professional place and ready to focus fully on judging. I’ve always been passionate about food and blessed with a very sensitive palate, which only increased after having children. Please don’t ask me why or how – I have absolutely no idea. Impressing the head co-ordinator Silvija Davidson on the judging table with a discerning palate, was definitely my goal for the day.
The Great Taste Awards are the “Oscars” of the food and drinks producers’ world. My foodie sister-in-law actively refuses to buy any new products without a Great Taste Award sticker and she is certainly not alone in the trust and esteem these awards encapsulate. Guild director Tortie Farrand, daughter-in-law of the Guild’s legendary founder Bob Farrand, explained that the demand for the “Top 50” list and the Great Taste Booklet (A buyer’s “guide to the most coveted fine food and drinks”) is on pre-order literally months before publication. The demand from the country’s top restaurant, deli and retailer buyers clamour to stock or use a “top 50” product. Of course, the beauty of the Great Taste Awards is that a Supreme Champion may well only have a very small production capability. If this is the case, retailers such as Harrods, Selfridges, and Fortnum and Mason’s may compete to sell the product knowing they can only stock it for a limited few weeks.
After years of wine, beer and food tastings and exams, I am prepared. I have brushed my teeth with scentless toothpaste, not worn perfume and most importantly I’ve avoided alliums for at least 24 hours. (Not only do they wreak havoc with your palate but aren’t ideal when making friends, and even less desirable when sitting in extremely close quarters with three other judges possessing superior olfactory, which is well and truly engaged.) Sylvia, Freddie, Natasha, Barry, Annabel and Emma – you’re welcome.
I cannot quite describe how excited I was to get started. These are the GREAT TASTE AWARDS. Nothing but the best, most exceptional flavours will even be considered for any sort of star. But with overall flavour enjoyment comes the texture, the appearance and the experience of tasting something for the first time. As judges we have very little description to go on. All products are blind tasted, this means the kitchen team has pain-stakingly decanted and transferred every last product to blank dishes or plates, even chocolates with a brand stamp has to be smoothed over with a hot palate knife to remove evidence of its provenance. There is a sheet in front of each judge giving details of everything your table will taste, the category for example “conserve” and then around 10 words of explanation from the producer might say “Hand cut Seville oranges, soaked in raspberry vodka” (before anyone gets excited I have actually fabricated that description– although I agree it sounds delicious, who doesn’t want vodka for breakfast?).
After tasting five or six products which we agreed were ok but not worthy of a star, I started to feel a little concerned, “Sylvija, will it be obvious if we get a three star product?” Sylvija has been working with the Guild for years, she is the head co-ordinator with an exceptional palate and a wordsmith to boot. (I want her to adopt me.) “Yes.” She assured me, “It is usually very obvious when something is that exceptional and I tend to mark down rather than up. After all, the arbitrators and the two review tables are there to ensure consistency and fairness.”
When it finally happened, it was obvious. So obvious. Something that tastes so incredible you literally cannot find a single thing to fault. I mean nothing. The day I judged the highest accolade, 3 stars, was given to just three different products out of around 250 tasted, and two of them started on our table. And you really did just know. The texture of the 3 star products is just as you would expect, not too chewy, not too crunchy or pappy, just so. The appearance is appetising. The aroma often mouth-watering, preparing you for something truly exceptional and when you finally finish discussing every element possible, you finally taste the product and the flavour fireworks go off. You get that little dizzy buzz in the back of your brain when you have tasted something really that delicious. You slightly forget yourself for a minute. In your professional capacity as a food expert you immediately lean forward to try it again knowing, nay hoping, that it is going to be equally exceptional a second time around. But of course it is your professional duty to make quite, quite sure that it is. Everyone on the table gets a little heady, the mood has changed. The comments and critique has gone rather quiet and rather one-dimensional as everyonr struggles to say anything much more than, “Wow, oh wow, the texture is wow and the taste is just…wow.” Eventually you float back down to the table and start to remember how to say intelligent things again. And find the right vocabulary to encompass what “wow” tastes like for the co-ordinator to put on the feedback document.
It’s nerve-wracking to give 3-stars. 3-stars are rare and have to be qualified by many judges. So after confidently agreeing that we put the product up to be considered as a 3 star rating, the product sails reverently off around the room for the other judging tables to pass judgement. Met with a real seriousness as you overhear the next judging table coordinator say, “Oh look a referral.” Finally, the product goes through the two review tables and on to reach its final judgement at the Arbitrator’s Tasting Table, where Joanne Myram and Brett Sutton literally tower above the rest of the room. Brett tastes it, a small nod and heads over to our judging table where we await our judgement, “Well done guys, spot on, that’s a 3 star.” Jilly rings the bell, Brett rolls his eyes, everyone applauds and the 3 star rating is announced.
When I think about it, I can still taste some of the products we judged that day, they were that good. However, secrecy is maintained until the end so we still have no idea who made it or where it came from, so despite several more days of judging since then, I too will join the list clamouring for a Great Taste Book 2017.
Written By AJ Stanning