I have been judging at the Great Taste Awards this week.

Judging rooms at Wincanton, home of the Guild of Fine Food

These awards were set up by the Guild of Fine Food in 1993 and since then thousands and thousands of producers have submitted their products for rigorous judging at these annual awards. Some would say they are the Oscars of the fine food industry but whichever way you look at it, these awards are a fascinating and commercially beneficial process that I enjoy partaking in every year.

I remember doing ‘award-winning’ campaigns at M&S and it was a great generator of sales, especially in the wine category but the kind of uplifts that the winners of GTA see on their products put that campaign to shame. The little sticker that producers can apply once they win can generate three to five fold increases in their volume sales and some won’t even express the scale of the benefit as it is so spectacular.

There are levels of winners with one star being awarded to those products that really do a great job of delivering the taste of their product. Two stars is something really outstanding in flavour and three stars…well three stars come when you experience that moment when words aren’t really enough. A three star product is normally greeted by the judges with gasps, smiles and all round moans of enjoyment. These are genuinely the best of the best.

And some time in the Summer these three star products are once again cooked up for the judges to taste and find the best of the best. Last year they numbered 124 out of the 7500 or so submitted products so just over 1.6%. Which shows how difficult it is to get to this standard. The hard hitting movers & shakers of the food world are wheeled in to give the final winner of all winners judging. And some weeks later they are unveiled at a celebratory event. Last year, the supreme champion was an Irish corned beef from McCartneys of Moira and the year before it was a cobnut oil from Hurstwood farm in Kent.

Supreme Champion!

So what can we learn from all of this?

The first rule of thumb is the credibility of the award itself. The Guild have a good reputation within the speciality food industry and work very hard to promote the credentials of their process. All products are blind tasted and on finding a product to be worthy of an accolade, the judges pass it on to other tables for verification with a robust arbitration panel to keep us all in check. This is all about the taste of the product as that is all you get. A naked, unpackaged, unbranded sample of (hopefully) deliciousness.

The amazing Mike. Judge & jury ... who arbitrates the judging of all 8500 products! What a trooper.

Knowing that this year there are over 8500 products being submitted from over 1800 producers in 290 categories, you will understand that sadly there are lots that do not make the grade and when you sit down at your judging table you only hope that you are going to have a good day. As a co-ordinator, it is my job to record the feedback and to give constructive comment to the producer of products that do not make the grade. Over the past two days, I have tried 113 products from bacon, salmon, pork & chicken meals to jams, curds & marmalades. We were challenged with a plethora of cakes, chocolates & biscuits and cajoled with alcohol, cordials and many other delicacies. Sometimes I wonder why anyone would think a combination would work (rose & fudge anyone?) and at other moments I marvel in the things we are getting to see at our table such as the Zambezi honey last year and today a petit four described as the “resin from manna tree with cardamom, almonds & pistachio”.

Christmas pudding cheese anyone? Just to clarify: seasonal cheese with vine fruits & cherries all soaked in liqueur

I am banned from telling you any of the results until the end of the judging which is going to be in June, but this won’t stop you being able to find all the answers on the Guild of Fine Foods website. Go. See. Try.

What I can tell you is that there are always themes in terms of flavours. Chilli continues to be prominently added in all sorts of ways to both savoury & sweet food and clearly the salted options of salted caramel & salted chocolate have become positively mainstream. This is a far distance from my first salted caramel experience in 2005 at the wonderful Recchiuti in San Francisco’s ferry building. For me, that remains the benchmark for all those chocolate attempts, but don’t take my word for it. Traceability of protein and locality of produce are as important as ever and classic British ingredients are ever more important with experiments around gooseberries, rhubarb, varieties of apple, rapeseed and elderflower all playing their part.

Apart from a wonderful insight into the world of fine food, you also get to meet some real characters playing their part in the food industry. There is a distinct difference between those coming to London to judge and those in the head office at Wincanton, but both venues offer a fascinating cross section of food geeks who spend their time pontificating about all things food. It is such fun for me. Especially as I am accompanied by two good friends who make the whole experience end to end fun.

So next time you are looking out for something different, look for the 3 star GTA label on pack and know that behind that small disc of paper lies a mighty product that really is the cream of the crop.

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