Good is good, great is better

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How a small business in North Dorset took over the food world. As the 2024 Great Taste judging starts, Fanny Charles hears the story

2023 judges Julius Roberts and Philli Armitage-Mattin
© Guild of Fine Food
(Sam Pelly)

Thirty years ago, publisher, author and cheese expert Bob Farrand was asked to put on a special feature at a wholesale food exhibition at Wembley. He decided on an event to recognise and reward outstanding food and drink products.
There were about 200 entries, from the UK only, for that first event which would go on to become the Great Taste Awards. This year there are more than 13,500 entries, from across the world – from Australia to Yemen, from tiny countries that are barely a pin-track on the globe, such as the African island of Sao Tome, to some of the biggest – China and the USA. The respect in which the awards are now held is reflected in the diversity of products, from some of the world’s best loved cuisines to exciting new ingredients, from Korea to Panama, from Papua New Guinea to Fiji.
The Great Taste Awards are now the world’s leading food accreditation scheme. They are run by the Guild of Fine Food, and based on a small industrial estate at Gillingham.
The Guild, which also runs the World Cheese Awards, was founded by Bob Farrand and his wife Linda.
It is still very much a family affair – Bob is now the chairman, his son, John, is managing director, and John’s wife Tortie is the special projects director. Tortie is head of Great Taste judge recruitment, as well as running the Dorset judging venue at Guild HQ (there is also a London judging venue at the Guild’s base in Southwark).

From left: Roland Barthelemy, Bob and Linda Farrand

Great is better
Back in the mid-1990s, Bob was becoming seriously concerned at the impact that supermarkets’ own brands – particularly those claiming to be the “best” or the “finest” – would have on small and artisan producers in the UK and abroad, whose products were genuinely outstanding but who could not compete on price with the supermarkets: ‘They were persuading people that this was the finest food available – and I felt this was prejudicing people against the makers of fine food, which was more expensive.’
He talked to a friend, the legendary New Zealand-born chef, broadcaster and food writer Glynn Christian. ‘I said, I’m going to start this awards scheme – the Good Taste Awards. Glynn said: “Good is good. Great is better.”’
The name was, of course, perfect.
Two years later, the new awards were run alongside the World Cheese Awards, which had started a few years earlier in 1987. That year there were about 400-500 Great Taste entries.
All the entries were judged in a day, and that continued to be the pattern until entries hit more than 1,000 in 1999.
It became clear that it was getting too big for a single day’s judging. Venues changed over these early years, including various locations of the Fine Food Fair, and at the Business Design Centre at Islington. Awareness of the new scheme increased with the occasional celebrity judge, including chef Antonio Carluccio and broadcasters Gregg Wallace and Anneka Rice.
But nobody could have guessed how this project would grow. ‘You don’t even contemplate how big it can be,’ Bob recalls. ‘We didn’t have any idea it would become as big as it has.’
One significant step into the international food scene came with the involvement of Ireland’s Bord Bia, the state agency also founded in 1994, to promote sales of Irish food and horticulture. The country’s excellent dairy and meat, particularly, are still regular top Great Taste Award-winners.
Around the year 2000, Bob and Linda moved to Gillingham, and a few years later they began to run the awards from a two-storey building near the old milk factory in Wincanton. For the first time they had an on-site kitchen, although storage continued to be a problem until 2015 when they moved to the current site on the Kingsmead business park, on the Shaftesbury side of Gillingham. Here the Guild has plenty of room for its offices, for the Great Taste judging sessions and for training (food and cheese training programmes are a big part of the Guild’s work). It also provides a warehouse with good access for food deliveries.

2023 judges from left: Abby Allen, Ravneet Gill, James Golding © Guild of Fine Food (Sam Pelly)

Open for entries
Entries open early in the year. By mid-February this year there were more than 13,500, from most European countries and from dozens of places around the world. Judging starts in early March and runs, with breaks for Easter and bank holiday weeks, until June. The various awards (one, two and three stars) are reported in the summer, and the final category, regional and international winners are announced at the Golden Forks evening in September.
Judging takes place in Gillingham and Southwark, with some judging, such as tea or espresso coffee, at specialist venues. On judging day there are usually six or seven tables, with three or four judges at each, one of whom has a laptop to record comments and any award.
A number of ambient temperature products will be laid out on the table – bread, cheese, honeys, chutneys, jams, preserves, oils, vinegars, nibbles and sweets. Other products – hot from the oven (meat, pies, ready meals, soups), or frozen (including ice creams and gelati) – come out during the course of the judging day.
Each product goes to at least two tables and to more if it is either suggested for two or three stars, or if there is a disagreement between tables. There are always experts in different foods in the room – on any given day, there will be one or more experienced cheese or honey or chilli judges, preserve makers, bakers, taste and spice experts and others.
For a product to achieve three stars the judges in the room have to be virtually unanimous. It has to be outstanding – it’s not easy to quantify or define a three-star, but you know it when you taste it, and ‘Wow!’ does tend to be the common word.
Of course, the report on the product has to include some proper description and explanation – what is it that makes this product special? Why does it taste so much better than another similar one? What is so good about it?

Tortie and John Farrand

A food producer’s view
One of the unique features of the Great Taste Awards is that all products are judged blind – judges do not see any branding or packaging, or any names that might identify the producer. Country or place of origin may be included in the description, and is often helpful for judges in understanding territorial or regional distinctiveness.
The value of the Great Taste Awards to producers is summed up by Amanda Streatfeild, who with her husband George ran Denhay, producing award-winning farmhouse cheese and bacon for many years.
They were one of the producers to take part in the first ever Great Taste Awards.
An experienced cheese judge herself, Amanda says: ‘The judging at the Great Taste Awards is the most rigorous I have ever come across, so achieving any kind of star gives a real boost to you and your team. Over the years, the awareness of those stars on products is increasing, and we are always proud to put ours on our bacon packs. It is a brand that supports small upcoming producers alongside established brands.’
Capreolus Fine Foods Ltd, the charcuterie business founded by David and Karen Richards at Rampisham, near Evershot, won many Great Taste stars, single, two and three, and top awards including, in 2019, the Charcuterie Product of the Year for guanciale, and last year their coppa was in the final 16 for the Great Taste Golden Forks supreme championship.
David says: ‘Great Taste is the single most important competition for food producers in the world. It allows you to calibrate your product against others, and to see just how good you are. It gives you really good feedback, about what is good and what is not so good. If you take it on board, it gives you the opportunity to come back next year and maybe do better. It is vitally important for small producers – comparable consultation and feedback would cost thousands of pounds.’
Great Taste is important, he says, not only for food producers but for consumers. Even bus travellers in London can discover Great Taste with the distinctive gold stars and black labels on posters advertising food and drink products in the capital’s bus shelters.

The view from the room
The role of a food and drink judge may sound rather romantic, but it is a serious and responsible task, says managing director John Farrand: ‘Every judging team and judging room is put together to give a balance of expertise and discipline within food and drink, and we attempt to balance age and gender too. All the products are blind-tasted with each entry going on a journey around the room to achieve an aggregated rating – no award, one-, two- or three-star. A minimum of six and a maximum of 24 judges will assess a product depending upon that journey.’
The co-ordinators, who report the feedback and awards (if any), include top food writers, broadcasters, journalists, people with specific expertise and some representing the influential body of social media food campaigners and commentators.
One of the long-standing and most experienced co-ordinators is Sarah Newitt, a copywriter by profession, who has been a member of the judging team since the early 2000s.
She recalls how she got involved at the White Lion Inn in her home village of Bourton:
‘A gang trooped past post-lunch, Great Taste Award badges pinned to their chests… The temptation to accost was irresistible. Talk of venison, pickles, bread, local cheese, the quality of the pub’s fish and chips, details of the lunch they’d just enjoyed and the fact they were down a judge the following week launched my “career” as a co-ordinator. Nearly 20 years on, I’m still co-ordinating and still loving every minute of it.
‘Back then, many of the judges were local WI members. What they didn’t know about the set of a jam or the fluffiness of a Victoria sponge wasn’t worth knowing. Now, judges are drawn from a broader church… the breadth of knowledge is astonishing and the generosity of spirit of those who happily give their time to judge the number of products that cross the accumulated palates of the GFF team is equally astonishing.
‘I’m there to taste, judge, listen and distill the opinions of all the judges on my table, turning them into constructive feedback for the producer. There is no right or wrong. If we’re flummoxed by a product, there is expert help somewhere in the room, but we are constantly reminded that these are the Great Taste Awards and must be judged as such. Every entry goes through the same process; sighs of delight (or sometimes not!), a flurry of chat, I write, read back the words and amend if necessary, then I press send and it’s on to the next product. Usually 40 or 50 a day…
‘What do I get out of it? The privilege of helping artisan producers improve their offerings; the camaraderie and joy of spending time with fellow foodies; the friendships that have evolved over the years and the sheer fun of the day.’

2023 judge and Masterchef winner Eddie Scott
© Guild of Fine Food (Sam Pelly)

Food roots and routes
Judging the Great Taste Awards is an eye-opener – even if you are experienced in other aspects of the food industry. It gives you an insight into where some of our most-loved and commonly used foods come from, and the food routes that bring great tastes – and Great Taste Awards – to our larders and tables. It also introduces you to ingredients you may have never previously encountered – wakame (Pacific kelp), kokum (a wild mangosteen, a tropical tree-fruit from south east Asia), timmur (a Nepalese pepper), camu camu (a rainforest berry that is rich in Vitamin C).
Then there are the specialist terms that you learn along the way – syneresis, which is liquid oozing out of foods (as can happen with some soft or cream cheeses, jams or jellies), brusted or brusting, which means pulled (as in pork) or lyophilisation, a scientific term for freeze-drying. My personal favourite new word so far this year is merroir – like terroir, but from the sea.
The sheer geographic scale of the entries is amazing – products come from nearly 110 countries, crossing land, language, cultural and economic barriers (not to mention the challenge of import regulations).
Exciting products this year on the judges’ table may include desert honeys from Saudi Arabia and the Yemen, mountain forest honeys from Greece or Romania, vanilla from Sao Tome and French Polynesia, chilli from China, Fiji or the Philippines and black peppercorns from Panama. In previous years, judges have been wowed by three-star Kampot peppers from Cambodia and a soy sauce from Taiwan that won the Golden Fork Best of the Rest of the World award.
Hungary produces some of the world’s finest paprikas, from sweet to mouth-tinglingly hot, the Czech Republic’s preserve makers create jams with unusual, flavourful plums, sesame seeds come from Sudan, the Lebanon contributes tahini and za’atar, and entries from the USA, home now to some first-class artisan cheeses, include a cheese that is washed in Atlantic sea-water.
Nearer to home, there are farmhouse Cheddars and other fine examples of the dairy culture of the South West, jams and preserves from country kitchens on the Cotswolds and the beef, lamb, pork, bacon, venison and charcuterie the West Country is known for.

The Great Taste Awards team at the Golden Forks

Future trends
The Great Taste judges learn to spot trends in the food industry. Over the years there has been a marked growth of vegetarian products, and now in the number of vegan foods – an estimated 12 percent increase in 2022 alone.
Korea has firmly stamped its spicy, tasty cuisine on our palates, and ingredients or sauces such as gochujang, kimchi or kombucha are now regularly entered, often by English producers. Fermented products are big news, both for their lively taste and their benefits for our dietary health.
Raw food is making some waves, as are raw spices rather than spice mixes, natural sea salts from around the world, and new or familiar ingredients used in innovative ways – chipotle peanut butter, chilli and yuzu marmalade – are all bringing excitement to the table.
John Farrand sums up what Great Taste means in its 31st year: ‘Great Taste has contributed not only to the growth and recognition of thousands of small to medium-sized food and drink producers, but has also contributed to the growth of grocers, delicatessens and farm shops over the last 20 years.
‘This is not “fine food” in terms of caviar and smoked salmon. Great Taste celebrates a good sausage roll, a well-brewed bottled beer and an excellent jam – worthy, well-made food and drink with simple ingredients that, obviously, taste great.’
Wherever you travel across Britain and wherever you shop, from city supermarkets to farm shops in Dorset or Dumfriesshire, you can be sure to see that distinctive round black label with the gold lettering and stars – a promise of Great Taste.

gff.co.uk

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