It’s all about the taste

Great Taste is the world’s largest, most trusted food and drink accreditation scheme – and its home is right here in Gillingham. Long time judge Fanny Charles takes us behind the scenes on testing for this year’s Great Taste Awards.
Steven Lamb, River Cottage and Lucas Hollweg, food writer and chef in the judging room
image © www.gff.co.uk

If you were lately walking near the Kingsmead Business Park at Gillingham, you might have heard peels of laughter. Go a little closer and the scene looked positively Mediterranean – a group of people sitting on
benches around a wooden table, enjoying lunch in the unseasonable sunshine. It probably didn’t look like work! But the 10 people around the table were having a short break from tasting and testing for this year’s
Great Taste Awards. As a long-standing judge and co- ordinator at the Great Taste Awards, I am used to the
amused head- shaking if I comment that we work hard.
Eating interesting food all day – how hard can that be?
The truth, of course, is that it is hard work, because it is a very responsible job and one which is carried out with real rigour.

Steve Horrell, Roth Bar & Grill in the judging room
image © www.gff.co.uk

Becoming a judge
I have been a Great Taste judge for many years, since the Guild of Fine Food, now based in Gillingham, was in Wincanton near where I live. At that time, I was editing the Blackmore Vale Magazine, and regularly writing about the activities of the Guild, including the Great Taste and World Cheese Awards. Bob Farrand, who founded the Guild and both award schemes – his son, John, is now managing director – repeatedly invited me to come and spend a day judging. I always pleaded the demands of work until one day I didn’t …
So I walked down the road, met some of the judges, listened to Bob’s introduction, spent the day tasting dozens of products – and was hooked. I have been a judge ever since, and for some years also a co ordinator (one of the people who record the comments and stars, where agreed, on the products).
Bob, a writer, cheese expert and author of the excellent Cheese Handbook (2000), always put new judges at their ease by explaining that we “all have the same number of taste buds.” Some people may have more knowledge of specific products – olive oil or espresso coffee, for example – but that doesn‘t mean that your
opinion on the taste isn’t just as valid.

Judges Val Stones, aka “the Cake Whisperer,” and award-winning Indian cook Bini Ludlow.

You’ve definitely seen them
If you are still with me, but wondering what the Great Taste Awards are, the best advice is to look around the next time you are in a supermarket, deli or farm shop. You will soon spot products with small black and gold Great Taste Award labels, with one, two or three stars. They might be preserves or cider, artisan cheese or handmade biscuits, sausages or ice-cream, sea salt or Greek mountain honey.
It’s a simple idea – establish a benchmark for quality and encourage producers and retailers to work together to promote great tasting food, prepared by dedicated makers using fresh, honest and where
possible local ingredients.
Launched in 1994, when fewer than 100 food and drink entries were blind-tasted by 12 experts across five classes, Great Taste is now arguably the world’s leading food awards scheme, attracting around 14,000 entries in 2021. Since 1994, more than 150,000 products have gone through the judging process. Each food
or drink item is blind-tasted by judges from a wide range of food- related backgrounds, including chefs, cooks, buyers, retailers, restaurateurs, food critics and writers.

Antipasto squid tyres
The judges look for truly great taste, regardless of branding or packaging. They take into account texture, appearance, aroma and of course the quality of the ingredients – but above all, doesthe product taste truly great?
On any given judging day, you may have some glorious experiences – a three star hazelnut gelato,
mouth-watering venison salami, oysters fresh from the pristine sea waters off the Irish coast – or some that are anything but …
My worst experience, bar none, still remembered with a shudder, was a dish of seafood, intended as antipasto. It included pieces of squid that could have patched shredded bike tyres, floating in a sea of rough vinegar. It was hard to imagine how this made it out of a test kitchen – let alone why anyone would put it forward for a Great Taste star!
But the horrors are rare – the majority of the products we taste and discuss, thoughtfully, professionally and constructively, are created and made with care, and many will qualify as Great Tastes.
In 2021, a total of 5,383 products were awarded one, two or three stars, of which 497 were from the West Country. This year’s Great Taste judging is now well under way. My most recent experience, typical of the cross-section of people you meet, was a fun and interesting morning with Val Stones, the “Cake Whisperer” and former Great British Bake-Off contestant, and Bini Ludlow, who makes Indian ready meals in Somerset.
The combined taste- buds of a great baker, an award-winning Indian cook and me produced some strong opinions – the pros and cons of a vegan chocolate cake, the level of spicing of a biryani – and stars for several products.
When people ask me why I love Great Taste judging, I have four reasons: I believe that what we do helps to support and promote the work of great artisan and small food and drink producers (and some bigger companies too); I believe we help consumers to discover fine foods they might not otherwise try; I always meet interesting people; and I always learn something new.

by Fanny Charles

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