Confessions of a food award judge

What should a peppercorn taste like? Last year, I sat on my sofa surrounded by lots of small jars, listening to spice expert Ben Hitchcock talk about aroma, texture and colour. By the end of the Zoom call, I understood the theory. I could crush a peppercorn and look for the oils, crunch it between my teeth and identify brightness and sweetness and depth. But could I differentiate between a good peppercorn and a really great one? Tasting, in isolation, something that I would realistically only ever eat in combination with other ingredients felt a little artificial. Doing so in literal isolation, save for a sleeping baby, only added to the strangeness.

Judging a product solely on its own merits is the bread and butter of food produce awards. I have judged both the World’s Original Marmalade Awards and the Great Taste Awards, which is how I ended up on the peppercorn Zoom call. I have judged transcendental cheddar and truly unpleasant dumplings. I have spent days sitting in a hushed room filled with tables, as half a dozen people meticulously taste one spoonful of marmalade from hundreds of jars.

Scientifically, “taste” has just five elements: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savoury (or umami). These are objective characteristics. Really, when we’re talking about judging taste, we should say “flavour” — the combination of taste and aroma. But practically, culturally, we often mean much more than that. Taste is texture, pleasure, experience — a complex mix of the objective and subjective. It’s not just senses, it’s sensibility.

Every year, thousands of growers and producers put their faith (and money) into a whole host of awards, hoping their products will appeal to the taste buds of a panel of judges. We now have individual awards dedicated to pork pies, sausages, cheese, chocolate, kebabs and porridge.

The Great Taste Awards, run by the Guild of Fine Food, are the big kahuna of UK produce awards, their one-, two- and three-star ratings emblazoned on jars and bottles of all kinds. They began as an exercise in giving feedback, not stars, to smaller producers. In 1994, a panel of 12 experts, convened by Bob Farrand of the Guild of Fine Food, tasted just under 100 entries at the inaugural awards. (The Guild is a family-owned publisher of industry journals and also organises the World Cheese Awards.) Since then, the scale and scope has increased exponentially.

Last year, a mammoth 14,205 entries were judged across 90 days at multiple locations. The logistics are mind-boggling. Every one of those entries must be logged, their packaging disguised, the food prepared according to the producer’s instructions, served, distributed among judges, redistributed for further judging, and then stars and feedback logged for the producers. This continues every day for three months. As Nicola Swift, who has worked in product development for both big supermarkets and small independent businesses, tells me, “It’s the only big award that’s arguably meaningful to the consumer. It does genuinely drive sales for many brands.”

The awards cover pretty much everything, from the things you might expect (cheese, ready meals, jam) to ones you might not (bee pollen, sea salt, duck fat). All these items are judged blind and without embellishment. Salt is eaten solo. Olive oil is drunk from a shot glass. When the awards began, products were judged within their own category. All the honeys or all the ice creams would be tasted one after another.

Now the approach is cross-category. In one 20-minute period of judging in 2018, I tried a ready meal of shepherd’s pie, followed by an ice-cream sandwich and then a lump of stilton. But this cross-category judging is deliberate. The idea is that the products are judged on their own merits, rather than in comparison or competition with one another. And, of course, it prevents palate fatigue; as food writer Diana Henry tells me, “I’ve judged chocolate awards and I was shocked at how quickly I became sick of chocolate.”

The Great Taste Awards are lyrical in their judging, deeming an entry “simply delicious”, “outstanding” or “exquisite”. This will determine whether it is awarded one, two or the coveted three stars. Co-ordinators for the awards are trained and given a Guild of Fine Food-produced manual, The Language of Taste. Each product is tasted by multiple judges at multiple tables (including a referral table that acts as a safety net or sense check) until a clear consensus or aggregation is found. But the judging comes down to something akin to gut instinct. As the Guild of Fine Food itself puts it on its website, “Above all else the question remains — does the product taste truly great?”

Perhaps this sounds flimsy, but I think there’s truth in the idea that you simply know it when you taste it. Taste doesn’t necessarily defy analysis, but that analysis is almost retrospective, a breaking down of why something is good or not. When volcanic pili nuts from the Philippines landed on my judging table for the Great Taste Awards in 2018, my whole group went very quiet, then very loud, before said nuts were urgently, joyfully passed around to other tables.

Those nuts went on to win the Supreme Champion award, which is given to the overall best product that the judges tasted in any given year. Patrick Bingley, co-founder of the much-starred hot sauce and ferments company Eaten Alive, tells me he believes in the process, despite its subjectivity: “As a producer and a chef, you know when you’ve nailed it, and those products always seem to get recognised.”

It’s the middle ground that’s more difficult. The awards that I have been involved with pride themselves on providing detailed feedback to all entrants. The stated purpose is to help producers improve their products, but it’s also self-serving: the awards ultimately depend on entry fees and repeat custom. There’s nothing more motivating than a near miss.

When Jaki Morris entered the Marmalade Awards for the first time, her entry was highly commended but didn’t receive a medal. The feedback said that her marmalade needed a touch more acidity. “I thought, what do you know? But then I decided, no, look at the feedback and work on it.” She entered again the following year and that marmalade won double gold for the best artisan traditional marmalade in the competition and was then stocked in Fortnum & Mason. This year her marmalades ultimately received a bronze and two silvers. Is this down to different batch ­techniques, the vicissitudes of citrus fruit or the taste of individual judges? Morris is withholding judgment. “Until I get my feedback, I have ­absolutely no idea.”

Her experiences with the Great Taste Awards have been even more confusing. In 2021, her raspberry jam won a star. But the following year, a marmalade that had received a near-perfect 19.5/20 at the Marmalade Awards was “slated” by Great Taste. The feedback included things she found random, like an “aroma of Seville” despite the fact there was no Seville in the marmalade. When they invited her to re-enter this year, reminding her of the constructive feedback she’d receive, she declined. She told me: “Actually, I didn’t find it constructive, I found it crushing.

Do I really want to pay that amount of money to have my heart trampled on again?”

In response to Morris’s dissatisfaction, the Guild invited her to spend a day judging with the Great Taste Awards so she can see behind the curtain, which she has accepted. John Farrand, managing director and the son of founder Bob, tells me this is an important part of the process when entrants are not satisfied, and that those who do take up the offer are “incredibly positive” about the experience.

The Great Taste Awards have come under criticism for setting themselves up as arbiters of an impossibly wide range of tastes. While judges are food professionals, they are not specialists — or rather, they may well be specialists in a couple of areas. But the breadth of products makes it impossible to be specialists in everything they are tasting. A former judge, who wished to remain anonymous, tells me they grew disillusioned with this aspect of the process: “The Guild will argue that every product goes to several tables for judging, but I don’t think this compensates for the lack of genuine expertise on the judging tables.”

Farrand argues that the broader specialisms of the judges make the process more relevant to the wider population of food lovers. He insists that the process is tightly controlled. “Taste itself is subjective, but we have created a process which makes the subjective objective.”

I’m torn on this point. On the one hand, what do I know about what makes stand-out kimchi or morcilla sausage? From chocolate tempering to beef marbling, there are many technical aspects to food production. If you don’t understand them, how constructive can your feedback really be? On the other hand, do you have to be an expert to judge whether a food tastes good or not? These are, after all, consumer-facing awards. As Swift observes, the awards are intended as “an overall benchmark of quality”. The breadth is the point.

The economics of produce awards are complicated. While the Marmalade Awards are a charity, the Great Taste Awards are a commercial endeavour. Entry fees are based on company turnover, with prices ranging from a members’ early bird price of £43 per product for companies with less than £1mn turnover to £270 per product for supermarket own labels. If you’re lucky enough to win an award and you want the official sticker on your jar, that’s extra.

Even with the sliding scale, costs for smaller producers can be prohibitive, whereas supermarkets often see food awards as a cheap way to do market research. Dan Lepard, food writer and head judge of the Marmalade Awards, explains: “If you get a dozen entries in commercial jars almost identical save for minor changes, it’s clear that the company is looking for feedback in some way. There’s no plausible way that all these jars would be destined for retail from the same retailer, as they’d compete with one another.”

The anonymous former Great Taste judge I spoke to felt that these awards have lost their original purpose, which was to raise the profile of small producers against giant, often budget, supermarkets: “I wasn’t alone in wondering why this mass-produced stuff was allowed into the competition when its supposed aim was to showcase independent artisan producers.”

Farrand maintains that the awards’ focus remains on the independent producers: “Ninety per cent of our entries come from the smaller, artisan makers. Only 10 per cent are from the larger producers associated with the supermarkets. They are the ones, if successful, who have the budget to shout about it and therefore the perception might be that more awards reside in our supermarkets.” And these awards do help bridge the gap between David and Goliath. As product developer Swift points out, “The Great Taste Awards give small producers an opportunity to be listed by bigger retailers. So it can genuinely be a useful mechanic.”

Produce awards have a dual role: to promote high-standard, well-produced food, and to judge it. These two roles are sometimes aligned with each other, and sometimes at odds. To buy into these awards, you must accept them as imperfect — but isn’t that true of almost any award or competition? And if a supermarket hacks the system but drags a couple of artisan producers up with them, is that so bad?

Just a few months after my peppercorn-tasting workshop, the overall winner of the Great Taste Awards was announced: Kadode’s fermented fresh green Kampot peppercorns became the 2022 Supreme Champion. Was this wonderful serendipity? Or were the judges inadvertently primed to pick peppercorns as their hero product because we had been so well coached on their nuances? Honestly, I’m not sure. Ultimately, you may have to taste — and decide — for yourself.

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