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WITH GREAT TASTE COMES GREAT RESPONSIBILITY ///

It seems silly to say, but you know you're in safe hands by the coffee you're given before judging starts. A quick glance over at the coffee machine and the bag has that unmistakable indicator of quality; black circle, gold trim, "great taste" emblazed across the centre. This one has two stars, or at least it looks that way from where I am sat, achieved by less than 10% of entries and deemed 'outstanding' by the greats of the industry. And me. The coffee is strong yet nuanced; there is citrus going on and a nuttiness reminiscent of macadamia. It really is outstanding and I am also probably very wrong. I don't do coffee judging. 

What I do judge is the general days, along with speciality days of spirits and hot sauces. Second year running now with a lot of days under my belt, yet I am still a novice. There are judges who have been doing this for years, back in the days when it was over several days not four months. There are famous chefs and winners of Masterchef and owners of magnificent restaurants and distributors and industry experts and writers and editors and authors of cookbooks and oh, if this place was to set fire, I would absolutely be the last name to be mentioned in the subsequent newspaper article. Two sessions a day, each with one or two strangers, each session an opportunity to learn from someone way better at this than I. The saying "every day is a school day" has rarely been more appropriate. If I look like I've been dressed like my mom it's because I'm trying to dress for the role. I haven't. She is dead. 

The day starts 10am sharp after the coffee is downed. A small speech is delivered, ground rules are set, the team is introduced. You start with six, maybe seven foods on the table, your plate, lots of cutlery, water, and a laptop. There could be anything on that table on the general judging days; scratchings, crisps, olive oils or flavoured vinegars, biscuits, and pasta sauces. The beautifully decorated cakes, the cheeses, and the prime cuts of animal tend to catch the eye, but I quite enjoy the randomness of a fried egg, a nut, or the thing that looked and tasted like a Dairylea triangle. One morning I started with three steak and kidney pies before moving on to two curries, which may have been my finest hour to date. They move the products around to multiple tables depending on how they are scoring. By the time lunch comes at 1pm you've had thirty maybe forty products. An hour later at 2pm you go again with a similar amount. You don't want lunch on those general judging days. Some go for a walk for an hour, others go for a pint or glass of wine. You tend to do whatever helps to get you hungry for the afternoon again. I think you all know what my choice is. 

Those judges are hard to please, but then I suppose they have to be in order to separate the great from the merely very good. Drawing on a lifetime of knowledge and some of the very best palates in the country, they break down the dish to its fundamentals before deciding if it is no stars, one (simply delicious), two (outstanding), or three (exquisite). Around 80% of products leave with nothing, the bulk of the remaining get a star. A small amount gets two having been passed to likely all of the tables, whilst three is reserved for the very rare case of all judges bestowing it the top score. When it happens a bell rings, everyone gets their phones out whilst we whoop and cheer like Americans at a golf course. It doesn't happen much; once a session if you're extremely lucky. I'm plucking figures from the air here, but I believe from around 20k products judged last year less than 500 got the maximum award. I'd go so far as saying it's ruined shopping for me; I simply do not walk past a three-star item anymore given I know just how good they are. The Great Taste Awards are the true barometer for quality. I’m incredibly lucky to be a part of the process. Website →
TWO CRITICS, ONE CAFE ///

Over the space of five days this idiot got the chance to go for lunch with two titans of the food writing world. Their destination? A tiny café in Stirchley serving the most incredible home-style Sichuan cooking. Fortunately both loved it, I got to get drunk on two expense accounts, and the city of Birmingham had lots of great coverage. Everyone’s a winner Baby, that’s no lie. You can read Jay Rayner's piece here, and Tom Parker Bowles here. More very exciting trips are planned soon and as my Dad pointed out “at the very least it’s some quotes for that bloody website of yours”. 

AND ANOTHER SHAMELESS PLUG ///

Do you like food and drink? Why are you here if  the answer is no?

A year in the making and not a minute too sooner; we’ve taken London’s excellent magazine Cibare and given it a Brummie edition. Expect recipes and intelligent writing from some great writers alongside useless odes to white sliced bread from this pleb. It has reviews and even a doggy page at the back. Find it at present in Grace & James, Tropea, QBox, Pure Craft, Hatch, Peacer, Dark Horse, and Hazel & Hayden. More places in due course (hit me up, venues), or you can always order it online here →

Recently on the blog ///

Pasta perfection at Trullo

A Vimto Burger at The Cambridge. Yes, a Vimto burger.

Solihull finally has the restaurant it needs in Toffs

Hide has a lot of explaining to do. Go see the teacher after school. 

Each week I'll be sharing an insight into my food and drink highlights. 
Dishoom at Home

Dishoom sent me a grill kit with lamb chops, murgh malai, and black dhal amongst other things. They win clearest cooking instructions by a mile. Also, extremely tasty. Order here →

Harborne Kitchen

Went and said goodbye to the fabled onion course at Harborne Kitchen. You’ll be missed, brother. Luckily the new dishes are exceptional. 
Website → 

QBox

QBox kicked it out the park with this rather beautiful buttermilk dessert, with rhubarb and almond. Dan can cook. He can really cook. 
Website →

Yarty's

Yarty’s have changed my life forever. This black vinegar is astonishing, and I’m saying every kitchen needs it for the simple reason that every kitchen needs it. Adds umami and acidity to just about anything. Order here →

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