Sunday, 9 May 2010

Pass the raw celery, please

People often remark that I don't look my age.  As I am allergic to physical exercise (my latest efforts to attend a gym regularly, as detailed in a previous blog, have inevitably fizzled out), I can only put this down to a mixture of good gene inheritance and a sensible diet. 

How is it, then, that today I consumed enough chocolate, shortbread and crisps to keep an entire sink estate of couch potatoes happy from now till Tuesday week?  Answer: I have spent the day judging the annual Great Taste Awards. 

Manufacturers of just about any foodstuffs can submit their products.  A small percentage are awarded one, two or three gold stars with which they can then emblazon their packaging.  This is a big deal in the food world; it's claimed these coveted stars have turned more than one tiny, artisan producer into a big player.

Clearly, then, it's a weighty responsibility for the judges who include producers, delicatessan proprietors, chocolatiers, cheesemakers, food PRs, chefs and writers.  Big names like Antony Worrall Thompson are happy to take part, even though there is no fee.

The judging takes place at various venues across many days.  At each session, 40 to 50 informed foodies are split into teams of five or six, each ploughing through endless, anonymous samples of sausage, cheese, oatcakes, ice cream and elderflower cordial.  They arrive at a score and write a short report on every item suggesting possible improvements.  Does the balance of sweet and sour in a relish need adjusting?  Would a shortbread be better if it were cut a tad thicker?  A rum truffle tastes terrific but its appearance is offputtingly dull: could the makers give the chocolate shell a sheen? 

If they come across a sliver of bacon, pot of joghurt or square of chocolate with the wow factor, the judges refer it up to the supreme tasting table, the members of which have the final say on how many, if any, of those three coveted gold stars it will be awarded.

As a rookie judge last year, I was astonished to be asked to serve on the supreme table for one session.  I was a bit shy and overawed to start with but, within minutes, had returned to my usual, opinionated, passionate self, and was debating furiously with Charles Campion, food writing doyen of The London Evening Standard, the optimum ratio of crisp crust to squidgy middle in the perfect chocolate brownie.

My session this year took place within the Real Food Festival at the Earls Court arena, so the lunchbreak afforded an opportunity to tour the stalls, sample the wines and stroke bored longhorn cattle and cute little lambs (which will be even more delightful in the near future when accompanied by roast potatoes and mint sauce).

Because cooking facilities at Earls Court are limited, all the hot entries were saved for another day leaving us to deal with things like chocolate, shortbread, potato crisps and chutney.

Gorging on such forbidden fruits might sound like heaven but, believe me, after your seventh fudge sample in a row, actual fruit is what your poor, abused body is crying out for.

But I mustn't complain.  It's an honour to be asked, some (though certainly not all) of the samples are simply sensational, and it's fascinating to meet fellow foodies from every corner of the culinary universe.

I'm back home now.  Sure enough, the initial sugar rush from all those sweetmeats has worn off and I can barely keep my eyes open.  Why didn't I Hoover my flat whilst I was as high as a kite?

I'm about to rustle up a bit of dinner.  I'm thinking a large, crisp, undressed salad followed by a bowl of strawberries without sugar or cream.  Anything lurking in the cake tin or biscuit barrel is safe tonight. 

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