When I received an email inviting me to judge in the heats of the True Taste Food and Drink Awards 2011, I seized the opportunity. Tasting the best food and drink Wales has to offer, and getting paid for it? Yes please!
A WAG-funded initiative
Organised by the Welsh Assembly Government, the annual True Taste Food and Drink Awards, “reward innovation and excellence in food and drink.” Every year, hundreds of Welsh food producers, retailers and hospitality figures enter their prized produce in the hope of winning an award. Each entry is judged several times by a panel of specialist judges, among whom include food bloggers, chefs, food producers, academics and farmers, to name a few.
Winning an award means the True Taste Award logo can feature on product packaging and in advertising, and winners feature in the True Taste magazine, online and in the press. This gives an invaluable advantage over rivals in an increasingly competitive environment.
The winners are announced at a prestigious awards ceremony in Autumn.
A day in the life of a True Taste judge
On the morning of Wednesday 25th May, I arrive at University of Wales Institute in Cardiff (UWIC) Western Avenue campus at about quarter past nine, where I am escorted to The Food Industry Centre. Entering a room full of people sitting around tables, I am given a name-tag and shown to a seat.
Sitting at my table are two lead judges and a scribe. Deiniol ap Dafydd is owner of Blas ar Fwyd in Llanrhwst – a delicatessan, restaurant, wine merchant and catering service which received a Gold True Taste award last year. Suzanne Davies is an event chef and demonstrator, keen to promote the value of local and seasonal produce. Both have been involved as judges in previous years, and they are judging in a series of heats being held throughout Wales at the moment.
After a brief introduction, Deiniol and Suzanne give me an idea of what to expect throughout the day. The sixteen entry categories are divided amongst the groups, and each group have been allocated particular categories for judging. A quick glance at my marking sheet reveals my group will be tasting condiments, sauces and chutneys, cheese, organic produce, fruit and last, but definitely not least, icecream. Good job I didn’t eat breakfast, then.
True Taste: truely significant
The room falls quiet as the chair of judges, Peter Jackson, introduces himself. President of the Welsh Culinary Association, it’s no doubt Peter knows a thing or two about Welsh cuisine. As he explains how the judging process has evolved throughout the lifetime of the awards, I begin to realise, in a way I hadn’t quite grasped before, their significance for the Welsh food and drink industry. The organisers make a deliberate attempt to hold the judging heats in the same venues every year in a bid to remove any potential variables — an indication of just how serious the True Taste Awards are.
Another factor that has remained constant is the matter of who cooks the food. Peter introduces the Welsh Culinary Team, several expert chefs dressed in crisp, white overalls and aprons embossed with the True Taste logo. They have been responsible for cooking award entries for nine of the ten years in which the competition has been running.
Every product is stripped of its packaging and labelling in order to disguise it and avoid any bias in the judging process. Instead, each one is identifiable by a letter followed by a number, which corresponds to a product on the marking sheet. Producers are responsible for delivering their entries to the judging venue in time for them to be sampled, and for attaching the correct labels to them.
The marking scheme has five dimensions: authenticity, see, smell, inspect and taste. If an entry is lacking in either of these areas, we are entitled to deduct one point for a minor fault, three points for a medium to high fault and five points for a major fault.
Authenticity is a question of whether the product fits its description, and 10 points are available here. As long as the description is accurate, there’s no reason why anyone should lose out in this section.
‘See’ is a trickier one, with 15 points up for grabs. As Deiniol explains, we should be looking out for the colour and appeal of the product. As the day progresses, it becomes obvious that producers can easily lose points here.
Worth 10 points, the smell of a product can be difficult to judge because some entries, like icecream, don’t really have a smell. In this case, we can’t deduct points for something that isn’t meant to be there. But where products have a natural smell, we may choose to deduct points for an overpowering aroma or for a product that lacks a scent that should be there.
The 15 points available for ‘inspect’ require us to take a closer look at each dish, to cut it open and examine it in detail for a moment, to look for qualities like freshness, consistency and so on.
Last but certainly not least, the category of taste is worth 50 points. Naturally, this was a common way in which points were lost by producers. We can deduct points for taste if a particular ingredient is too overpowering, or perhaps not strong enough, for example.
Food, glorious food
Between our groups, we tasted around 250 products throughout the day, so instead of trying to write about every single one I tasted, I’ve written about my most memorable entries. I won’t be going into too much detail about each one because the awards are still being judged, so it’s essential I remain neutral. Although I have written about specific entries, this does not necessarily mean either one was high or low scoring — just that it sticks out in my own mind. My views do not necessarily represent the views of the whole group.
The biggest category our table are judging is condiments, sauces and chutneys, and some of the entries prove to be so spicy that we have to pace ourselves by sampling some cheese and icecream in-between. Dipping a chunk of bread into a hot pepper sauce, I ensure it only soaks up a speck of the stuff. And rightly so – the initial taste is very peppery, and as I swallow my throat tingles as an intense heat takes over my mouth. The whole table is blown away by the fieriness of this sauce, and we’re all agreed it should come with a health warning!
Another interesting entry in this category is a strawberry jelly with a hint of chilli. I probably wouldn’t put these flavours together myself, but it’s a good job someone has. The fruity strawberry is complimented by a warm kick produced by the chilli, and it’s tempting to eat mounds of the stuff on top of crackers.
Just like cheese. I enjoy eating cheese, but at home I rarely venture beyond cheddar. We taste several cheeses produced in Wales, all of which are deliciously creamy and moreish. The one that makes a lasting impression on me smells and tastes very strongly of garlic. Some may find it overpowering, but I found myself nibbling chunks out of it in-between entries. Definitely one to ward off the vampires.
Deiniol is very knowledgeable on Welsh cheese, and it’s interesting to hear him describe how each cheese has been produced. Knowing how much work goes into making each one makes the role of a judge all the more important.
The fruit section comes as a healthy, welcome break after endulging in cheeses Finally, something I can gorge upon without feeling guilty. It’s easy to forget that a tomato is actually a fruit, and a delicious one at that. As you can see from the picture, these ones have a clean, shiny skin and a juicy centre. I’d snack on these at home with salt and pepper sprinkled all over them, but they’re just as nice on their own.
|Salad doesn’t have to be dull.|
The lamb is just as delectable – an elegant rack of ribs cooked to perfection, a beautiful pink inside. After just one morsel, it’s clear to see the Welsh Culinary Team are well deserving of their roles as True Taste chefs. This would go down a treat for a springtime Sunday roast. I’d love to polish it all off, but we still have six icecreams to get through.
When I first found out I was going to be a judge in the heats of the True Taste Food and Drink Awards, I couldn’t see what could be easier than getting paid to taste award-winning Welsh cuisine. With hindsight, though, I now realise how challenging it can be to have to judge so many different foods in such a short space of time. Tasting several different icecreams in a row, for example, it takes lot of concentration to really be able to differentiate between each one. Finding the words to say exactly what you think about a certain food can be just as difficult. And as I found out, even when you tell yourself you won’t over-indulge, you still do.
The 10th annual awards night will take place in North Wales on Thursday 20th October, 2011. This year, 16 categories are in place, in a move to account for all areas of the food and drink production, retail and hospitality sectors.