Getting a taste for Great Taste

I WAS in the Cotswolds earlier this week with a group of other writers and journalists visiting some of the area’s fabulous food producers, and a couple of us were talking about judging for the Great Taste Awards, which are run by the Guild of Fine Food, based in Gillingham in North Dorset.

The producer (Chris Mills of Upton Smokery) overheard us and immediately and proudly pointed out the half-dozen or more of his products which sported one or two Great Taste stars. For those who recognise the distinctive round black stickers with the awards logo and one, two or three gold stars it is an instant promise of quality and “great taste.”

It gives you, the judge, a warm feeling because you know you have contributed a little to helping an artisan business to spread the word about the quality of their products.

Over a period of about two months dozens of judges, drawn from all walks of life, taste a range of products from around the British Isles and further afield, in pursuit of great taste.

This year is the 21st anniversary of what is now the country’s leading food awards scheme, and the quantity and diversity of entries has steadily grown. with a staggering 10,000 products entered this year.

For each judging day, about 28 to 30 judges gather at the Guild HQ to work their way through about 20 different products in the morning and a similar number in the afternoon. We may be tasting artisan ice-cream, tongue-tingling chilli sauces, handmade chocolates, aged beef, hot-smoked salmon, whisky, gin, jams of all sorts, fruit juices, marshmallows, meringues, breads, cakes, Christmas puddings, yoghurts, tinned sardines, and ready meals.

There are specialist judging days for teas, ciders and olive oils, but generally the products to be judged are as wide-ranging as the judges, who can include chefs, cheese-makers, bakers, journalists, cider makers, WI preserve makers, chocolatiers, keen domestic cooks, food festival organisers, farmers wives, organic vegetable growers and many more. Every human tongue has taste buds and you don’t have to be a food expert to recognise great taste.

Because the products are tasted blind, we have no idea who makes them, so we cannot be influenced by our preferences or prejudices. We judge in tables of four, and every product is judged by at least two tables, more if there is a disagreement between those two groups or if a product has that Wow! factor that may lead to a coveted three-star award.

At the start of this year’s judging period, I was on a table with a man from one of the West Country’s best known and most highly acclaimed cheese-makers. At the end of the session he commented that he had always been rather complacent about their awards but that he never would be again, because he understood how rigorous the judging process is and how carefully the judges taste the products and discuss the merits (or faults).

There are many features that make Great Taste Award judging an important contribution to the quality of food and drink in this country, but the over-riding factor is this rigour, tempered with an ethos of positive  feedback and constructive criticism. Founder Bob Farrand and his son John, who now runs the awards, constantly stress the importance of finding something encouraging to say, even if you really don’t rate the product.

It’s an interesting discipline, because sometimes you struggle to find anything positive – you fall back on phrases like “good colour” or “interesting concept.” But between them, eight people (on two tables) will usually find something to say that is helpful or at least not harsh. Sometimes, of course, you really want to say “Why?” or even “Yuk” and you feel that anything encouraging would be a bad idea because this particular product should not be encouraged at all. But these are rare.

It is also a learning process for the judges. We all say that even if you have a bad day, with no three stars and a lot of pretty dull products, you always meet interesting people, you catch up with old friends and you always learn something. At one session, I had a chemist on my table, who dissected the contents of a tea-bag to show us the white “flavour granules” which gave this particular tea its “natural” lemon flavour. Now I look out for the telltale word and spot those little chemical flavour boosters. Cider specialists have helped me to understand some of the skill and mystery of their craft. Cheese-makers have shared their expertise. Experienced chefs have revealed some of the tricks of their trade but also shown the depth of knowledge and creative innovation that goes into an exciting new dish.

We can award up to three stars for the best products and the best of the three star winners will go on to be judged for regional winners and an overall champion for the year. All winning products have their gold Great Taste stars on the instantly recognisable black stickers. We all look out for them with a feeling of pride that we are helping small and artisan food and drink producers to develop and improve their products.

You will see Great Taste stars on products in supermarkets as well as delicatessens and farm shops, and you can be sure that the product deserves its award. So please look out for those little black stickers, support our Great Taste winners and spare a thought for those hard-working judges, chewing, sipping, dipping and crunching in the hope of that occasional three-star Wow!

Fanny Charles