All the news and winners from the Great Taste Awards
PUBLISHED: 10:51 27 November 2013 | UPDATED: 10:53 27 November 2013
A day spent tasting some of the finest produce in the country sounds too good to be true. But that was the task selflessly undertaken by Dorset Magazine editor, Helen Stiles, as she made her Great Taste Awards judging debut.
The Great Taste Awards have been described variously as the Oscars of the food world and the ‘epicurean equivalent of the Booker prize’. Top restaurateurs, chefs, food critics, fine food retailers, buyers and cookery writers have blind-tasted more than 70,000 different foods and drink since the Awards began in 1994 – including some of this year’s more unusual entrants, buffalo crisps and goats’ butter fudge.
Now I was to join the other 30 judges, at the invitation of the Guild of Fine Food, which runs the national awards from its brand new headquarters in Gillingham. As a supporter of our local food and drink producers in Dorset, I was honoured.
Bob Farrand, founder of the Guild of Fine Foods, explained why he created the Great Taste Awards: “I wanted an accreditation system that would give small food producers the equivalent of a Michelin star for a restaurant.” The Great Taste awards are divided into one, two and three star award categories. If a product wins a star, its makers can put the distinctive ‘Great Taste Award Winner’ logo on their product. “That logo instils consumer confidence and when you see the structure of the judging you will realise how rigorous and thorough that judging is,” said Bob.
The judging process is indeed robust, ensuring only the finest food and drink are declared worthy of the title. My judging day was one of 50 carried out between May and July, during which products are blind-tasted by at least eight different palates and where constructive feedback for food producers is recorded by the co-ordinator - a specially-trained food writer. To oversee proceedings are two arbitrators – with me, Brett Sutton the multi-award winning head chef from the Eastbury Hotel in Sherborne and Andre Dang, a former buying director at Harrods.
“The idea of the awards is not just about acknowledging who has got it right,” says Bob. “It is also to help producers that still have a little way to go. So if something isn’t working then we want the judges to give constructive feedback to make it better.”
On each table there are four judges, one of which is a co-ordinator who notes down our comments on a laptop, which is linked to a central database. Each table judges 18 – 20 products in the morning and the same again in the afternoon, and as well as our own allocation of foodstuffs, we second-judge products that come from other tables of judges.
Bob introduced me to my table of fellow judges which included a chef, a food writer and a food producer. On the table was a dazzling array of products, divided into categories, with a brief description (supplied anonymously) by the producer. We were given no idea who they were.
I scanned the selection in front of me: jam, chutney, scones, cheese, butter, yoghurt, soda bread and chocolates. A quick look down the list indicates that also on the menu were gluten-free carrot cake, 21-day-aged steak, black pudding, sausages, won tons and ice cream.
We started with soda bread as the co-ordinator read out the producer’s description. “Nice crumb,” says one judge. “Needs more salt,” adds another. The comments were duly typed in. Good effort, but not deemed worthy of a star this time. The soda bread was passed on to four other judges to see if they confirmed or disputed our decision.
Stars are hard earned; four judges have to agree and their decision then has to be backed up by another group of judges. So there is jubilation when a product gets a universal thumbs-up and a star sticker added to its plate. If the second team of judges disagree then the arbitrators step in. It’s not unknown for some fierce debates to break out over the merits of a product. “There was a sweet black pudding from Portugal that divided us. I loved it - soft sweet and full of spices - but others thought it was too weird,” reveals a fellow judge.
A tally of the stars awarded is kept on a blackboard and every now and again a two or a coveted three star pops up. The latter is as rare as hens’ teeth; out of the 9,738 products judged this year only 125 three stars were eventually awarded.
A punchy tomato and chilli relish got a two star sticker from us. We anxiously waited to see if the other judges agreed. Andra tell us “yes”. Later we second-judge a scrumptious rum and raisin ice cream, bestowed with two stars by another table, and it turned out to be another worthy winner. We also dished out half a dozen or so one stars throughout the day but sadly I didn’t get to experience a three star winner.
Bob marvels at how the Awards have grown. “Back in 1994 I was co-ordinating the awards out of our fourth bedroom. The judging, in a catering college in London, took just two hours. I even had to go out and buy some of the products. This year over 400 judges from across the country will taste 9,738 products covering 60 different classes.”
The event is very much a family affair. Bob’s son, John, and daughter-in-law, Tortie, organise the awards while Bob and his wife, Linda, remain closely involved.
The phenomenal success of the Awards, Bob believes, is down to crises such as the horse meat fiasco, which rocked consumer confidence and led to a boost for independent food providers. “BSE made people aware of what was happening to their food,” he explains. “Then foot and mouth devastated our farming industry. One of the few good things that the government of the day did at that time was to create a Foot and Mouth Recovery Programme, which spawned thousands of farm shops.
“Then earlier this year the horse meat scandal got people reconnecting with their local butcher and farm shop,” says Bob, adding. “Farm shops are tremendously important because they are a link between the producers and the consumer.”
It was his Shaftesbury childhood that built Bob’s passion for good food.
“At 14, I had the greatest fortune to get an evening and holiday job at a high-class provisioners called Clarkes in the high street. Mr Perrot, who ran it, had an immense passion for cheese and properly-made British cooked ham. He taught me how to grade cheddar and cook hams. I took to it like a duck to water.”
Bob’s parents were not thrilled about his burgeoning passion for charcuterie and cheese. Perhaps to their relief, at the age of 18, he landed a publishing job in London. Bob soon became involved in publishing food magazines, mainly for the trade, and in 1986 took over a magazine called the Fine Food Digest. “Back in 1986 people’s ideas of fine food was what you bought from a supermarket,” says Bob with a grimace. His research found that an alarming number of delis were closing. “If the downward decline had continued the last deli would have closed in 2000.”
Fired up by this shocking discovery Bob hatched a plan. “Supermarkets were starting to create their Finest and Taste the Difference ranges, giving the impression that they were something very special. I knew artisan producers were already creating something special by making small batches of high-quality food and drink products, using fresh, carefully-sourced ingredients. The problem was they didn’t have the commercial or financial clout to shout about it.”
Bob and Linda set up the Guild of Fine Food as an association for these independent producers, supported by companies involved in the trade, such as Partridges and Fortnum & Mason.
Part of its aim was to provide the sort of training Bob’s mentor, Mr Perrot, had given him. “We wanted to give the people working behind the deli counter knowledge so they could select the right products by asking the right questions of the producers.
“If you are expecting your customer to pay 20 or 30% more you need to know why that product is special and convey that to the customer,” says Bob.
By the end of my judging day my taste buds were exhausted. More than 40 products, from Scottish tablet to hot smoked salmon, had taught me - and my palate - a whole new vocabulary. Although I didn’t get to try zebra, reindeer, kangaroo, goat or horse olive (like beef olive but made with horse) which have all passed over the judges’ tables in years gone by.
The awards are good at revealing food trends and this year it was liquorice - pear and liquorice jam, blackcurrant and liquorice cheesecake and blackcurrant and liquorice chocolate. Not being a fan I was quite relieved not to have to try them.
I tasted a wide variety of food and drink but the complete three star winning collection was extensive, ranging from from damson vinegar and marmalade and whiskey bread pudding to green pepper venison salami and fennel chocolates.
The Dorset three star winners were Dorset Woodland Dairy organic sheep milk natural yoghurt, Wan Ling Tea House’s jasmine green tea pearls and Denhay West Country farmhouse cheddar.
They, along with the other three star winners, went on to compete for the title of Great Taste Supreme Champion 2013. The winner was a Greek-style plain yoghurt from Marybelle Dairy in Suffolk, which had the judges “in raptures.”
When you see a Great Taste Award logo on a product, rest assured that it has been carefully and rigorously judged by people who are passionate about great food.
And if you come across a Great Taste Supreme Champion - well you are in the presence of food royalty and all I can add is: Bon appetit!
Rhubarb, Strawberry & Vanilla Jam - Alweston Jam & Chutney Empire, Sherborne (alwestonjamandchutney.co.uk)
Organic Chicken - Angel Cottage Organics, Sturminster Newton (angelcottageorganics.co.uk)
Ford Farm Dorset Red (cheese) - Ashley Chase Estates, Dorchester (fordfarm.com)
Chesil Smoked Mackerel; Chesil Smoked Salmon - Chesil Smokery, Bridport (chesilsmokery.com)
Blackcurrant Chocolate; Rose Chocolate - Chococo, Wareham (chococo.co.uk)
First Love (chilli and lime infused dark chocolate) - Chocolate Arthouse, Sherborne (chocolatearthouse.co.uk)
Christine’s Frangipane Tart (gluten-free); Christine’s Sticky Toffee Pudding (gluten-free) - Christine’s Puddings, Sturminster Newton (christinespuddings.co.uk)
Brookfield Farm High Welfare Veal Escalopes; Brookfield Farm Veal Osso Bucco - DB Foods, Poole (brookfieldfarmdorset.co.uk)
Spoilt Pig Dry Cured Smoked Back Bacon; Spoilt Pig Dry Cured Unsmoked Back Bacon - Denhay Farms Bridport (denhay.co.uk)
Dike’s Own Cooked Ham - Dike & Son, Stalbridge (dikes-direct.co.uk)
Organic Traditional Ham; Organic Smoked Ham; Herb Ham; Peppered Ham - Dorset Farms, Beaminster (dorsetfarms.co.uk)
Pork and Honey Roast Gammon Scrummy Egg; Pork and Chorizo Scrummy Egg - Dorset Food Company, Shaftesbury (scrummyeggs.co.uk)
St Clements Cake (gluten-free) and Gluten-Free Cranberry & Pecan Flapjack - Honeybuns, Sherborne (honeybuns.co.uk)
Fairtrade Everyday Tea Bags; Clipper Gold Tea Bags; Organic Fennel Tea Bags; Organic Chamomile Infusion Tea; Fairtrade Drinking Chocolate - Clipper, Beaminster (clipper-teas.com)
Tea India Black Tea; Tea India Masala Estate; Tea India Blend; Tea India Vanilla Chai; Tea India Cardomom Chai - Tea India, Wimborne (teaindia.co.uk)
Dorset Tea (blend) –Dorset Tea, Wimborne (dorsettea.co.uk)
Tesco Slow Cooked Steak Stew Teviot - Kerry Foods, Poole
Apricot & Seed Flapjack; Squidgey Chocolate Roulade - Lavender Blue, Gillingham
Lemon Marmalade; Clementine & Chocolate Gluten-Free cake - Leakers Bakery, Bridport (leakersbakery.co.uk)
Long Fermentation Bread; Rye Bread; Spelt Rye; Apricot Lemon & Almond Tart; Prune & Almond Tart; Ham & Cheddar Quiche - Long Crichel Bakery, Wimborne. (longcrichelbakery.co.uk)
Chocoholic’s Choice Chocolate Brownie - Nothing but Brownies, Bournemouth (nothingbutbrownies.co.uk)
Putney (sun-ripened tomatoes, peppers, onions and lemon sauce); Moroccan Beef Tagine; Wasabi Flaming Beans - Olives et Al, Sturminster Newton (olivesetal.co.uk)
Pink’s Smoked Tomato Tapenade with Cashew Nuts & Parmesan; Pink’s Green Chilli Jelly with Lime & Lemongrass; Pink’s Red Chilli Jelly with Ginger & Garlic - Pink’s, Dorchester (pinksfoods.co.uk)
Raw Beetroot and Ginger Muesli; Raw Carrot, Apple & Cinnamon Muesli - Primrose’s Kitchen, Rampisham (primroseskitchen.com)
Dorset Watercress Ice Cream - Purbeck Ice Cream, Wareham (purbeckicecream.co.uk)
Dorset Draft Cider; Jurassic Juice - Purbeck Cider Company, Wareham (purbeckcidercompany.co.uk)
Gluten-Free Chocolate Brownies - Rolly’s Cake Company, Weymouth (rollysbrownies.co.uk)
Black Garlic - South West Garlic Farm, Bridport (southwestgarlicfarm.co.uk)
Rhubarb Extra Jam - Strawberry Fields Foods, Christchurch (strawberryfieldsfoods.co.uk)
Horseradish Sauce; Kashmiri Chutney; Spicy Tomato & Caramelised Onion Chutney; Mild Garlic Pickle; Beetroot & Horseradish Relish - The Cherry Tree, Bridport (cherrytreepreserves.com)
Woodlands Dairy Fig & Apple with Natural Yoghurt - Woodlands Dairy, Blandford (woodlandsdairy.co.uk)
Teaforia Listo Black Dragon Pouchorg Tea Pockets - Zacely, Poole (zacely.com)
Passionfruit & Raspberry Jam - Alweston Jam & Chutney Empire, Sherborne (alwestonjamandchutney.co.uk)
Ford Farm Wookey Hole Cave Aged Cheddar - Ashley Chase Estate, Dorchester (fordfarm.com)
Yeti Semi-Forest Organic Espresso - Beanpress Coffee Company, Poole (beanpress.co.uk)
Black Cow Vodka - Black Cow Vodka, Beaminster (blackcowvodka.co.uk)
Denhay Dorset Drum - Denhay Farms, Bridport (denhay.co.uk)
Honey & Mustard Ham - Dorset Farms, Beaminster (dorsetfarms.co.uk)
Pear Membrillo - Global Harvest, Gillingham (globalharvestdirect.com)
Francis (washed rind cows milk cheese) - James’s Cheese, Blandford Forum (jamesscheese.co.uk)
‘Rise & Shine’ - Organic Maté Lemongrass Tea - Clipper, Beaminster (clipper-teas.com)
Lemon Sponge Cake - Lavendar Blue Bakery, Gillingham
Malted 5 Seed Sourdough - Long Crichel Bakery, Wimborne (longcrichelbakery.co.uk)
Authentic Egyptian Dukkah - Olives Et Al, Sturminster Newton (olivesetal.co.uk)
Posh Toffee Ice Cream - Purbeck Ice Cream, Wareham (purbeckicecream.co.uk)
Natural Decaf Espresso - Reads Coffee Roasters, Sherborne (readscoffee.co.uk)
Mothers’ Ruin Christmas Cake - The Baking Birds, Weymouth (homemadebylb)
Tie Guan Yin Oolong Tea - JiuJiuJiu (999) - Wan Ling Tea House, Blandford St Mary (wanlingteahouse.com)
Woodland Dairy Organic Sheep Milk Natural Yoghurt - Woodlands Dairy, Blandford (woodlandsdairy.co.uk)
Jasmine Green Tea Pearls (Grade A) - Wan Ling Tea House, Blandford St Mary (wanlingteahouse.com)
Denhay Traditional West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, Denhay Farms, Bridport (denhay.co.uk)
For a full list of national winners visit greattasteawards.co.uk