Working in PR, I often urge clients to enter awards, but until recently I’ve never taken on the mantle of a judge myself. So, when Taste Buds Editor Jennie asked me to go along to the Great Taste Awards, I jumped at the chance.

I was fortunate to judge at a session that demanded the sampling of many products (there are specialist judging days and I’m putting my hand up pretty fast next year for the cider-testing). As it was, my three fellow judges and I – on table four – tasted a wide range of produce, from honey and chutney to chocolate, fish, pork, sauces, soft drinks and rapeseed oil. It’s a challenge to judge rapeseed oil on its own, believe me.

I was struck by how rigorous the process was. It wasn’t just a case of saying “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” Personal preference has to go out of the window. As a non-meat eater, I found myself tucking into a piece of crackling – needs must, I thought.

The judges discussed, argued a little, put up a fight for our favourite products and flavours, and just about reached an agreement every time. The ultimate accolade at Great Taste is a three-star award. But even when our table thought we had a three-star winner, it had to be verified by other judges – who might not have agreed.

After my experience, I asked Jennie, a seasoned awards judge, what she thinks makes a good judge: “Impartiality. It’s not about your personal tastes, so if you don’t like a particular product that you’re judging, you have to focus more on the flavour, and think about what it would go well with.”

Jennie says it can be tricky when you’re judging a product you’ve never tasted before as you have nothing to compare it to. “At some awards, such as the Taste of the West’s, there are experienced chefs to refer to if you’re not sure. Over the years, I’ve learned that it really helps to strip a product back, to the salty, sweet and bitter.”

Food and drink producers entering awards must have an element of confidence in their products, so what happens when it’s clear that something just doesn’t make the grade? “It’s a big responsibility, particularly with small producers – you feel that their livelihood is in your hands,” says Jennie. “When you come across an entry that isn’t up to scratch, the best thing is to give solid, professional feedback. Think what’s missing – does the product need more seasoning or improved consistency? A good judge will always find the positives, and it’s important to be able to say something encouraging.”

Jennie’s husband, Jeff Cooper, thinks judges with a media background are a perfect choice, as we’re trained to think objectively and consider every angle of a story. He’s seen another side of food awards, when judging product packaging for Food & Drink Devon. His career as a graphic designer comes in handy, he says. “It’s easy to say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover,’ but packaging plays an important part in what we think of a product even before we taste it. A customer will automatically make an assumption based on package design, such as whether a product is premium, mid-range or budget.”

Packaging may only be a small part of the mark in food award judging, but it’s still crucial to get it right. Jeff says it needn’t necessarily be complicated. “Bell & Loxton Rapeseed Oil, for example, uses striking, effective packaging. The gold on the label represents the colour of the oil, while the opaque silver bottle suggests a premium product. It has a practial purpose too – the oil is kept in the dark for optimum flavour.”

He agrees that not every quality food product needs flashy packaging, but it must be good quality. “If you buy bacon from a farm shop, it might just come in plastic wrapping – but the wrapping still needs to be robust and safe from splitting.”

Alongside product awards are the hard-fought dining awards, which cover everything from cafés and tearooms to pubs and fine dining. After my product judging, I was asked by Taste of the West to be one of their judges. I’ve visited amazing cafés and restaurants that I wouldn’t normally go to, and been astounded by the quality of food and the extraordinary commitment to local sourcing.

How important is it to enter for a food and drink award? Jeff concludes: “Winning an award can make a big difference to both producers and consumers. If a product has a shiny sticker proclaiming it to be judged and approved, the consumer is likely to want to try it, and the chances are they’ll come back for more. This means an increase in sales – and everyone is happy.”

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