Judging the Great Taste Awards
I can't lie: it's great being a judge. It makes you feel big and clever. I judged at the Cordon Vert Vegetarian Chef of the Future competition last week and it was actually a bit weird. Everybody there had been watching the finals of Masterchef and as a judge I felt under pressure to behave like a scary person. I thought about it and came to the conclusion that that is actually what contestants want from judges - the prize is worthless unless the judges appear to be really hard to impress. It's all a game, of course.
This week I'm judging for the Guild of Fine Foods Great Taste awards. Actually, I've trained as a 'judge co-ordinator' which means I am in charge of typing all the comments from a table of judges into a computer. It's my job to try to make all their comments into a reasonably coherent paragraph of useful feedback for the producers who expose their foods to our scrutiny. It's also my job to try to make sure that we don't get bogged down with bickering, or bulldozed by bullies. Some people are pretty opinionated.
Actually, I quite like having opinionated people on my team. It's a chance to learn something interesting, if for example one of the judges on your table is an expert in fruit liqueurs, or pie crusts or even, would you believe, the niceties of butchery. I'm perfectly happy to bow to somebody else's expertise, as long as they are genuinely knowledgeable and not just imposing their random views on the rest of us.
I'm here all week (as the stand-up comedians say) and I guess it's inevitable that my fellow judge co-ordinators tend to share their views on the people they have worked with during the day. The organisers mix teams up for each new judging session so you never know who you'll be working with. I'm already hearing dire warnings about certain people who are overpoweringly assertive and rather rude, without actually having any outstanding expertise. At the other end of the scale, there are judges who have trouble expressing their opinions and seem to think that grimaces and shrugs can somehow be translated into sensible comments by the person tasked with the typing. Bit of a dead loss, really, it's no good saying things are 'nice' or 'disgusting'.
This is especially the case when we are given bits of meat or fish to judge. Obviously, I duck out of these and that is considered to be OK, thankfully. To be frank, the first time I walked into the judging room, the smell of freshly cooked meat and fish almost made me gag. But I got over it. I can type up other people's opinions about meat but if they say that it looks 'nice' I have to ask them why. What is it that looks nice to them? It makes you feel like an alien.
Occasionally, we get special 'vegetarian' foods - a pie, a quiche, some stuffed veg and a ratatouille. As the results of the judging are still under wraps, I've got to be a bit careful about what I say. Every time a vegetarian dish arrives at the table, I feel as if it's my duty to stand up for it. I'd like vegetarian dishes to get lots of stars, to show they're just as good as meat dishes - or better. Sadly, so far the veggie fare has been pretty embarassing. Today, we did have one quiche which was exceptionally good. The butcher on my table said he really liked it - and that I could quote him. Not sure I'll make a convert of him though.
Sitting by a blazing fire in the pub this evening (can't believe the weather is this grim in Dorset in mid-May), with two fellow judges, we fell into conversation with a couple who were interested in what we were doing. They said that it must be great fun. Hmm. Well all right, it is quite good fun, but there are downsides. The sore throat from shouting ('I've written Attractive presentation, no detectible ginger, one judge felt the nuts were too soft, do you agree?'). Exhaustion from the general full-on-ness of it all, and having to be scintillating during lunch breaks whilst holding a paper plate. And, whilst happily (and unlike some of my colleagues) I have not experienced out and out nausea, I can report slight heartburn, acid stomach, serious loss of appetite, motion sickness in an overcrowded taxi and rather demanding bowels. Not surprising when you realise that today I have tasted in the region of eighty utterly random foods - cakes, pies, icecreams, pasta sauces, salad dressings, mustards, granolas, cheeses, chocolates... actually it's making my stomach churn to think about what I've prized between my lips today. Not a lot of award winners, and that's a good thing, because there are 9,800ish entries this year and it would devalue the awards if everybody got a star. You have to earn these babies. They've given me a very nice badge.