Ah yes, the eagle-eyed among you will observe that this week’s Sunday installment is suffering from two day delay syndrome. What can I say except that a week spent in the U.K. will do that to a body, and I did, as you will see, have some rather important foods to attend to while I was there.
Thank you for the loan of your taste buds.
My guess is that everyone there had been more than happy to volunteer the use of their taste buds for the day (and a fine collection of taste buds they were, belonging, among others, to buyers from such as Fortnum & Mason and to respected food writers like Joanna Blythman, Charles Campion and Xanthe Clay). And I know that I had be only too delighted (charmed! honoured!) to pack my palate and get on a plane in order to participate, and all this despite there being no guarantee that potatoes would feature (and sure enough, despite their undoubted potential to taste great, spuds didn’t feature on this trip, except on the fringes and in conversation, with at least one exchange including the suggestion that a post about the decidedly dangerous weapon that is the potato cannon might provide appropriate grist to my mill – but I digress).
Established by Bob Farrand in 1994 with the aim of identifying and promoting the best in speciality food and drink from producers throughout the U.K. and Ireland, the Great Taste Awards have grown to the point where almost 10,000 products were submitted for consideration this year (with almost 25% of those coming from Ireland, north and south). All entries are blind-tasted over the course of more than 50 separate judging days – including, for the first time, three days of judging in Dublin last April, which I was very pleased to attend (and scribble about in the Sunday Times, too).
Each Great Taste entry fails or succeeds on its own merits, gaining one star for a near faultless food, two for a product deemed outstanding or three for that rare bird that possesses the ‘wow’ factor. At judging sessions, all products pass to at least two tables of four to five judges; two star candidates may get passed to up to six different tables; a three star contender will tour the whole room and, along with the adjudicators who oversee proceedings, everyone must agree on its worthiness.
As consumers, the results of this lengthy judging process are signalled by distinctive black and gold Great Taste stickers, dotted about deli and supermarket shelves. For producers, stars can translate to better recognition and better sales – or a “bloody avalanche” for the highest rated products, which is how Peter Hannan, meat supremo and MD of Hannan Meats in Moira, Co. Down described winning the Great Taste Supreme Champion award in 2012 for their Moyallan guanciale – an unsmoked Italian-style bacon: “The world comes to your door if you come out of Great Taste with a few good awards,” says he (and, needless to remark, what the world finds when it gets to Moira – which also produced the 2011 Supreme Champion, with George McCartney’s corned beef – is some very fine meat indeed). Whether star-worthy or not, however, all producers get feedback on their products from the judges, who are encouraged to be constructive in their comments and to suggest ways in which products can be improved, which, along with the transparency and rigour of the judging system, is one of the great features of Great Taste.
For those entries reaching three star level – and this year there were 125 such products from a total of 9,738 submitted – there is a further process of narrowing into a list of Top 50 foods, regional champions and an overall Great Taste Supreme Champion; it was the making of those final selections that was the task at hand for the 40 or so judges present in Dorset last week. Seated in groups of six, each group spent the morning tasting and scoring around 20 of this year’s three star products. From ice cream to cider and beef to bread, each product brought with it the possibility of being even better than the last which, as a judge, is a rather pleasurable position to be in. The top 15 products from the morning’s deliberations – which included an impressive five from the island of Ireland – then went forward for further consideration by a supreme judging panel in the afternoon, whose scores would determine this year’s king of the Great Taste castle.
As an observer at the final session, it was interesting to see how many of the contenders – from a cut of beef to a tub of yoghurt – were elemental in nature, seemingly simple products but ones based on skillful crafting of the best of raw materials (the phrase “it’s only yoghurt” might as well have been banned from the afternoon’s vocabulary); and the merits of every food were discussed, from a single minded jelly, pure of purpose, to an ice cream with unusual and finely balanced flavours, to pies that surprised and delighted.
And though I do not know who made the top products – and nor do any of the other judges – we will all, I suspect, be looking out for our favourites when the results are published, with star ratings to be released imminently, and major winners, regional champions and the Supreme Champion to be announced on 9th September at a presentation dinner in London. Of course, I have some ideas about the probable identity of the Supreme Champion but, like everyone else, I will have to wait and see. What I – and my taste buds – can guarantee, however, is that it will be nothing less than truly great.