Free From Food Awards 2012 – The Judging

This post was meant to go out a few weeks ago, but I couldn’t quite finish it for various reasons.  Now the winners have been announced, it seems a shame not to publish it, so here it is:

It was great to finally meet Michelle Berriedale-Johnson at the Free From Foods Awards judging ( back in February.  I have been intrigued by some of her blogs and it was really good to be able to shake the hand of such a dedicated advocate of free from foods and other products for allergy sufferers everywhere.  I was only there for one day out of a week of judging, but it was a fantastic day and I also got to meet some fellow judges who were all lovely and interesting people from different backgrounds. These included Jackie Mitchell – Freelance journalist (@jackiemitchell), Hulya Erdal – Chef (@madebythechef), John Burke – blogger (@gflifeireland) and Sue Cane – Beer Writer (@gfbeerexpert).

There were four sessions planned for the day and all tastings were to be blind, ie no packaging or other indications as to who produced the products.  Our task was to mark each product out of 10 giving consideration to things such as taste, texture and appearance as well as other criteria such as quality of ingredients and innovation.  The last one was quite important and if a product really filled a niche in the market by being different, free from multiple allergens, healthy AND tasted good, it scored really high!  After all the entries had been tasted and scored we were then shown the packaging. What followed then was usually a fairly heated discussion where we attempted to identify the products that would be shortlisted as well as the winners and highly recommended.

We started on “Savoury Biscuits and Snacks” in Michelle’s kitchen.  It was quite surreal nibbling on crackers and crisps in silence to avoid influencing the other judges! Some products were very nice, and it was comforting to be able to safely eat crisps with a flavour other than ready salted for a change.  A few of the products I recognised such as Juvela Crostini Bites and Crazy Bakers Half Pipes, but quite a few were new to me such as the Darling Spuds Potato Chips and Conscious Foods Millet Crackers with Rosemary – both of which I thought were very good.

Next we were testing “Foods manufactured for food service.”  This means foods that are destined to be available either in outlets such as coffee bars and supermarket cafes or for restaurants and catering in schools.  This was a fairly small, but interesting category with samples of pasta, pasta sauces, chicken nuggets, batter etc to try.  It was interesting to note that some of these products were aimed specifically at children and were milder in taste than you might expect in a normal sauce for example, however I liked them all.  This was quite a hotly contested category with issues such as cost versus quality being raised particularly with the products intended for use in schools.

After a quick (and necessarily very light) lunch we were on to testing “Scones, sweet tarts, bakewells, cake bars, muffins etc”.  This was a large category and there was a diverse range of products from extremely healthy Almond, Apricot and Tahini Flapjack from Sugargrain to indulgent treats such as Triple Chocolate Cookies from Co-Operative Foods. I really liked the Asda FreeFrom All Butter Lemon Sicilian Shortbread which I recognised as I eat them (in moderation of course) anyway!  I also really liked Sweetcheeks Almondies, a delicious concoction of something that tasted mostly of marzipan!

Into the final stretch and the last category was “Cakes and cake-mixes”.  This again was a very large category (although not as large as last year I hear) and we were faced with a huge table groaning with the weight of cakes in all shapes, sizes, colours and flavours. Now this may sound like heaven to some people but after a full day of tasting, it was actually quite daunting.  Nevertheless, tasting proceeded and we managed to get through them all and after the usual slightly-heated discussion, came up with the shortlisters and winners.  I really was amazed that there was such a difference between the worst cakes (trust me some really were not nice) which were solid, cloying or artificial tasting and the nicest ones which were either light and fluffy, or fruit filled and tasty. For me Sweetcheeks maple & pecan cupcakes were far and away the best.

There were a number of products which were clear winners as they were scored highly by everyone, but there were others that some judges loved and some hated (I call this the Marmite effect).  If it had been on taste alone it might have been easier, although there are still those that prefer things slightly sweeter or less sweet than others, but when you have to take into account the quality of the ingredients, the innovation and whether they are not only gluten free, but egg free, dairy free and nut free as well, it is much more difficult.  However, one of the hardest things about the judging, which I hadn’t considered in advance, was the need to be objective.  For instance, how do you judge fiery hot crisps and traditional fruit cake when you can’t stand either of them and would not dream of buying them?  You have to put aside your personal likes and dislikes and judge on the given criteria – which is actually quite hard!

The shortlist of all those products we thought deserved a mention, along with the potential winners of course can be found here:

So overall, it was was a great day (and a well spent day off work) and I really enjoyed meeting everyone and tasting lots of new and lovely products and can’t wait for the announcement of the winners at the Free From Foods Awards party on 17th April!


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