Archives for posts with tag: Great taste awards
Let the judging commence

Let the judging commence

I have been judging at the Great Taste Awards again this year. It seems that ever more people understand the benefit of submitting a product and getting an award if simply to gain some sort of stand out in the plethora of products that sit on the supermarket shelves.

The judging is done blind so you don’t see the brand or packaging, but are simply awarding really well made, great tasting product. Sadly you have to wade through stuff that won’t win in order to find those pearls who will receive a star and ideally 2 or 3 stars.

Delicious duck eggs

Delicious duck eggs

It’s funny how euphoric a judging table can be when they find a great product. You instinctively get it when something really well done crosses your palette and over the past few days we were lucky enough to have a few of those. An incredible pistachio ice cream…. a 25 year old balsamic vinegar from Pedro Ximenez grapes…. a coconut & vanilla yogurt … a clever combo of passion fruit & tarragon sorbet (who knew that those two complemented each other so well?)…. some really wonderful cheeses… beef …. pork/bacon… and duck eggs. The list goes on. Sadly the list of scary stuff is also there, but you have to block that out.

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One word – why?!

The whole process takes a few months to be concluded due to the sheer scale of the awards now that they are so established. In fact the Guild of Fine Food are celebrating their 20th year of hosting these awards which deserves an award in itself. The team are well versed on handling the thousands of products that cross their threshold for judging which includes unpacking them, cooking them, preserving their secrecy and then managing all the admin that follows. All we have to do is sit at a table, eat 40 odd products and type in comments. I always see judging as a representative of the hosts so that if someone does buy a product that has one of those stickers then the Guild can be proud of what they have bought. I also think it is critical for us to provide feedback to the producer which we do on a computer system that they can then access to get all the feedback.

Stripes of Rapeseed gold - it makes me smile

Stripes of Rapeseed gold – it makes me smile

The other joy of going to the awards is driving down there to deepest darkest Dorset just as the rapeseed fields come into bloom. Even on a dark dingy and very foggy early morning, the vibrant yellow fields lifted my spirits. Sadly they weren’t as fulfilled when they tasted some of the rapeseed oils but you can’t have everything. Certainly those flavoured with chilli came with a kickstart.

Chilli is always one of those ingredients that producers think will add value to their product. They seem to put it in anything: salmon, oils, chocolate, even ice cream. Chilli has been a bit of a trend for a few years now and every year I like to discover what the next one is. I am told last year was the year of the salted caramel so was gutted that I wasn’t free to judge due to work commitments as I love salted caramel. In fact I fell in love with it some 9 or 10 years ago when I did a trip to San Francisco with work and tried Michael Recchiuti’s version at his Ferry Building shop.

Chocolate the Recchuiti way

Chocolate the Recchiuti way

All these years later, who knew it would become so popular. And there were quite a few stragglers pushing that flavour this year too. In fact there were quite a lot generally pushing variations on a salt theme So what was the fashion this year,  you ask? Well it was for far healthier/fresher ingredients.

Sometimes it was simply adding in freshness through herbs like the aforementioned passion fruit & tarragon, or the chocolate I tried with rosemary flavoured salted caramel. And other times it’s the use of the latest trendy superfood ingredients, with Baobab featuring a few times. This African fruit really has seen an explosion in the past year so watch this space. But the most predominant fashion was in the whole gluten free, wheat free, dairy free, vegan food fad with a whole host of products boasting what wasn’t in there as much as what was. Funny! So in deference to all of this, I end my entry this week with a full on dairy indulgence.

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Yum

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I can’t believe it is already September and that the dark nights are rolling in. Another sure sign that this month has arrived is my annual trip to the Speciality & Fine Food Fair. This event is a good gauge of the artisan food business in the UK as it showcases the winners of the Great Taste Awards as well as housing over 600 stands of premium small producers. I am always amazed at the range of products and collection of empassioned producers who are working exceptionally hard to maintain a foothold in the food market.

Lauden Chocolates

Lauden Chocolates

There were of course the usual suspects in much the same place as last year, sitting alongside the speciality chocolate fair, which is always an enjoyable collection of products. I especially enjoy catching up with the wonderful Lauden chocolate team when I am there. They are thankfully going from strength to strength. Who knew when I searched ‘chocolatier, Leeds’ on Google for a project I was doing a few years ago that my path would cross with such superb people at an early phase of their chocolate empire building.

Steven persuaded Sun to join him in sunny Leeds from her home in Singapore....the rest is historic chocolate and much much more.

Steven persuaded Sun to join him in sunny Leeds from her home in Singapore….the rest is historic chocolate and much much more.

It’s couples like Steven and Sun who epitomise the commitment that is needed to build a food business. To this day, Steven is still working at his full time job which he has continued to keep his head above water whilst also supporting his dynamic wife and their growing chocolate business in the other half of his 20 odd hour working day. It is so pleasing to see their Marc de Champagne chocolates awarded the lucrative 3 stars at the Great Taste Awards, sitting alongside the passion fruit chocolate that also won 3 stars in 2010. These are without doubt the best chocolates on sale at the moment.

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The other sweet treat that seemed to be more featured than ever is the marshmallow. I think there were four stands selling the fluffy stuff, all hand made by women who have created their brand and range somewhere on the kitchen table. Copper and Cane won my heart because founder Hazel Wright toasted her creations on a mini campfire reassured that she had just the right texture to maintain its shape whilst getting the perfect charred treatment.

City bakery

I was first won over by marshmallows at the City Bakery in New York when I saw the hunks of the white stuff top their signature hot chocolate. It seemed only marginally more popular than their incredible chocolate cookies. Now the marshmallow has a career of its own. I still think it is best in a hot chocolate and that every cafe should have a signature version of that.

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Talking of hot chocolate, I also enjoyed meeting the team from Hasslachers hot chocolate. This hunk of a chocolate bar encapsulates the best of Colombian chocolate and you can melt two squares in hot milk and sweeten with their organic  cane sugar for an authentic chocolate experience.

I realise that I have only written about sweet things this time and that is not really a reflection of the many many wonderful products that I saw this week. So to restore an element of balance, I will end with one other beautiful creation which was presented so well at the show. These sample tubes were so very visual and I loved the packaging of this whole range of oils and balms (balsamic vinegars with honey). So I leave you with hot paprika seed oil.

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This week I have been catching up on Raymond Blanc’s How to Cook Well series on BBC iplayer. I’m not normally the biggest fan of his shows, but I like the set up of these and to be honest it is great to be able to fast forward through the less interesting stuff onto those recipes and processes that interest me.

I like the restaurant tips but my favourite bits of programme are those he shares with an expert in a related field. There were two that particularly caught my attention. Firstly there was Dave Pynt. I was peeved when I realised I missed his Burnt Enz pop up last year as I have had Etxebarri at the top of my dream list for some time now, and this would have been my closest connection which didn’t involve a flight. So to see him doing fabby things with leeks, scallops and a firepit just made me sad….and as committed as ever to get to that Spanish top 50 restaurant. Anyone fancy?

Nathan Mills with Raymond

Nathan Mills with Raymond

But the recipe of all recipes that tempted me was the slow cooked Asian flavoured beef shin, although I would replace the papaya salad with something more hearty like mash! Raymond shared this segment with butcher Nathan Mills of The Butchery fame. Nathan claimed he was the only London butcher cutting from the carcass but that simply isn’t true as I have been working for the whole of this year with the guys from Laverstoke Park Farm and both their shops on the farm and in Twickenham work with carcasses which are delivered direct from the organic, biodynamic farm. Still, Nathan did demonstrate the benefit of carcass butchery showing a host of cuts that are not generally available. I immediately rang the Twickenham shop manager, Andy, ordered my piece of beef shin and planned a weekend feast.

Laverstoke Park Farm Shop in Twickenham

Laverstoke Park Farm Shop in Twickenham

There is no doubt that buying meat from a qualified butcher is the best way to go and when the meat is as wonderful as this, I feel a responsibility to do something special. The hanging carcasses in the shop are fabulously visual and not just for theatre, but genuinely the best way to retail meat. In the hands of qualified farmers and butchers, you understand the full value of great quality meat and how you should be eating it.

Shin of Laverstoke Park organic beef

Shin of Laverstoke Park Farm organic beef

Butcher and shop manager Andy cut me a wonderful piece of beef shin which was the centrepiece of a fabulous lunch housed chez Jones. Their rooftop terrace is a celebration of Eug’s greenfingers and as it is right in the heart of Westminster, you are greeted with the chimes of Big Ben to remind you of the day passing in glorious sunshine. JR was also in attendance and at the last minute the lovely Mr and Mrs Flapjack Foods joined with award winning produce, more of which later. So the pressure was on to do the shin justice.

The pig looks on...

I have to admit that I did adapt the recipe a bit. Firstly I substituted lovely banana shallots for white onions to add more sweetness and then I upped the ante on all the Asian flavours. Half a chilli was now 2 chillis, 1/2 tsp five spice was more like a tblsp and I kind of splashed around with the other ingredients to really bump up the volume. In the end, we agreed it was absolutely the right things to do and could even have stumped up a bit more. We went with stir fried noodles with garlic broccoli and ginger carrots to accompany and four and a half hours later, lunch was served.

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Everyone agreed it was totally yummy and I would certainly make it again. Very easy, very tasty and a great example of the benefits of slow cooking.

2* Great Taste Award Carrot cake from Flapjack Fabulous Food

2* Great Taste Award Carrot cake from Flapjack Fabulous Food

Dessert was presented by Mrs Flapjack Fabulous Food. It was her signature carrot cake which recently won TWO stars at the Great Taste Awards. The best in carrot cake class by a whole star and well deserved it was too. She and hubby make the most wonderful cakes for their business alongside a whole host of other yumminess and we all understood why she was such a winner this year.

Chez Jones rooftop revelling

Chez Jones rooftop revelling

So another lovely weekend lunch with friends, sunshine and lovely food. As they say on Masterchef…it doesn’t get better than this.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me which is why this post is well overdue. This time last week I was climbing a mountain! … literally. But enough of me as there has been loads going on in the food world too and with so much to report, I am inundated with topics to cover.

A perfect pasta bowl from the lovely Il Leone Mastrantonio, Cape Town

I was catching up on the results of the latest Zagat London Restaurant Survey earlier on this week as voted by the public. Interestingly, Italian maintains its position as the most popular cuisine, driven by the fact that people choose to eat it more frequently than French which is the second spot even though their restaurants rate higher individually. Japanese food came third. Despite the big fashion for British food, only one in ten people voted it their favourite style of food to eat so it was way down the list.

Chef Patron Daniel Toledo of Il Leone with my friend’s wonderful daughter

What is it about Italian that rings true with us all? Maybe it’s the chefs themselves. Personally, I was hooked the moment I met Daniel Toledo at his restaurant Il Leone in Cape Town. And his food was equally beautiful.

Seriously though, I think there are some clear reasons why we all relate to this type of food. Firstly it is the simplicity. Most dishes take a few authentic ingredients which are simply prepared and cooked with all the flavour coming from the base product itself. This simple way of eating has also scored well with the Zagat guide who have concluded that we are all moving away from formal dining experiences towards something more casual which offers value for money.

The second reason we all relate to Italian is that it is quick to cook so we can all have a go at home without a great investment in time or energy. There are some basic tips that are passed down from Nonna that really do transform recipes and these are worth getting under your belt. I learnt a few tips of my own from Mamma Agata when I did her cookery course in Ravello on the Amalfi coast a few years ago now.

Mamma Agata in her kitchen

Mamma and I went to the market every day to pick our ingredients depending on what was fresh that day. But what I loved even more than that was the fact that she topped those up with items from her garden. She simply shouted out of the window and minutes later her husband would come in armed with stunning stuff plucked fresh from their garden which overlooked the beautiful Amalfi coastline. Lemons, tomatoes, eggs, aubergine, their own olive oil…it was endless. Once the food was ready, we sat outside taking it all in and enjoying the fruits of our labour.

Dinner with Mamma

Clearly the third element to make up the art of Italian cookery comes with the ingredients themselves. We all know that authentic San Marzano tomatoes transform a dish and thick skinned juicy Sicilian lemons have a following of their own. As for burrata….what can I say? Creamy cheesey heaven. So, it was fascinating to see an Irish company win the Supreme Champion of the Great Taste Awards last week with their unique Italian Guanciale.

Hannan Meats of County Antrim are experts in gourmet meats supplying top restaurants and hotels in both Northern Ireland and the UK. They were approached by Italian chefs and restaurants to develop Guanciale which is a traditional ingredient in many pasta dishes. This product is rare in Italy so the fact that a Northern Irish company is making it at all is very impressive. This is a dry-cured bacon made from pigs jowl with a mixture of herbs and spices, garlic and red wine and is used as an alternative to pancetta in many central Italian recipes. The judges at Great Taste were unanimous in making Hannan’s Guanciale the overall winner having judged over 8800 products in the past few months. So Italy wins again.

All this talk of Italian food is making me hungry. I think I will go back to Il Leone’s prawn pasta myself tonight for dinner. It is a tried and tested favourite of my own.

Mamma’s Amalfi lemons