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GREAT TASTE AWARDS: A Great British Scheme and Some Great Irish Winners!

Winning awards certainly helps to sell food products but, as credibility and consumer trust are key to their long term value, there’s plenty that those aspiring to run similar schemes in Ireland could learn from Britain’s Great Taste Awards.

With all the excitement surrounding the Olympics, and the fantastic success of Team Ireland, the first round of winners in the Great Taste Awards has slipped in under the radar this year rather making its usual bold appearance.

But, in this arena too, Ireland has once again managed to punch above her weight, with a record number of Gold Stars awarded – and no less than seven products from Ireland (North and South) have made it to the Top 50 Foods in Britain.

Huge congratulations are due to all the Irish food producers who have achieved recognition in what the organisers rightfully call ‘the most trusted and recognised food and drink awards’.

Irish products making it into the Top 50 include Rhubarb & Ginger Jam from the wonderful G’s Gourmet Jams of Abbeyleix, Co Offaly; Yeats Country Spreadable Goats’ Cheese by Green Pastures, Co Donegal; and Reduced Salt Smoked Rack Of Bacon from Oliver Carty of Athlone, Roscommon. Two other Irish products also took the top 3-star Gold award: a Hot Smoked Albacore Tuna from Sally Barnes’ renowned Woodcock Smokery in West Cork (the Best Irish Speciality winner in 2009, for their Wild Smoked Salmon), and Connacht Gold Softer Butter made in Ballymote, Co Sligo.

Interestingly, the four ‘Top 50’ products from Northern Ireland are all meat, or meat-based: legendary butchers McCartney’s of Moira had two products listed – Handmade Corned Beef (the 2011 Supreme Champion – and nominated for the top award again this year) and Handmade Sweet Corned Pork – while Moyallon Gunciale (‘an unsmoked Italian bacon prepared with pig‘s jowl including cheeks’) is from Hannan Meats, in the same village. Fourthly, there is Dry-Aged Marrow Butter – yet another an innovative product from the highly respected Kettyle Irish Foods, Lisnaskea, Co Fermanagh. Other Northern Irish products achieving 3-star Gold were Punjana Tea, Belfast and traditonal Rib-Eye Steak from Cloughbane Farm, Pomeroy, Co Tyrone.

None of these is any stranger to awards and it’s interesting to note that Oliver Carty ‘cut and slice more rashers than any other company in Ireland, over 2.5 million rashers per week’, bearing out the Great Taste Awards’ reputation for finding exceptional quality in mainstream food companies as well as highlighting excellent small producers and giving them the lift they need to progress.

A further 33 Irish producers were also awarded coveted 2-star Golds, an achievement described by the Guild as a “tremendous pat on the back for Irish artisan food and drink producers”, and there many more achieving the excellent 1-star Gold standard.

And there is more to come, as major winners in the 2012 Great Taste Awards – including the Supreme Champion, which last year went to McCartney’s of Moira, Co Down, for their corned beef – will be announced in September following the Golden Fork awards ceremony in London. All products on the Top 50 list are eligible for these major awards.

SO WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT THE GREAT TASTE AWARDS, and why should we be delighted that so many Irish products are gaining recognition through them?

What’s special is their independence and honesty, their excellent organisation and thoroughness, the rigorous judging process, the respect they have earned, the power of the logo which has gained widespread consumer recognition – and the fact that the Guild of Fine Foods includes retail members as well as producers, directly helping winners to sell more products. And for Ireland there’s the special benefit of gaining accredited access to the UK market, which is not an easy thing to do.

How Do The Great Taste Awards Work?

Established in 1994, the Great Taste Awards (GTA) are operated by the Guild of Fine Food (www.finefoodworld.co.uk/content/greattasteawards); the Guild is a UK trade association linking those who produce ‘top quality local, regional and speciality food and drink’ with those who sell it – an ideal combination, so it’s very lucky for us that the awards are open to entries from all parts of Britain and Ireland. The Guild also organises the World Cheese Awards, an international event that has earned tremendous prestige and has regularly given top Irish producers their due, proving what cheese lovers here always believed – ie that the best Irish cheeses can take their place among the best in the world.

The GTA scheme ‘encourages and mentors artisan food producers, offering a unique benchmarking and product evaluations service leading to an independent accreditation that enables small food and drink businesses to compete against supermarket premium own label brands’.

Opening for entries in February and closing with the Golden Fork ceremony in September the GTA is a massive undertaking, with over 8,800 entries in pursuit of the coveted Gold Stars this year, all to be blind-tasted by a team of 350 judges over 45 days. The organisation is truly awesome – but the care and attention given to correct procedures has given the Great Taste Awards an unrivalled reputation in these islands.

So, what are the judges looking for? When considering a product for 1-Star (‘A virtually faultless food’), 2-Stars (‘Exquisite’) and 3-Stars (‘Wow! Taste that’) the judges consider ‘Great texture and appearance…quality of ingredients, how well the maker has put the food or drink together. But, above all, they are looking for truly great taste’.

A total of 565 products from Ireland (North and South) achieved this by winning Gold star recognition this year at various levels, which puts the GTA way ahead of any other awards scheme in terms of numbers, yet it is genuinely extremely selective: a tiny proportion of entrants gained 3-Star Gold – just 123 from 8,807 products, and of these twelve were from Ireland (North and South).

How does the judging work? The organisers explain:Working in small teams, experts taste 25 foods in each sitting, discussing each product as a coordinating food writer transcribes their comments directly onto the Great Taste website which producers access after judging is completed. Over the years, numerous food businesses, start-ups and well established producers have been advised how to modify their foods and have subsequently gone on to achieve Gold standard. Any food that a judging team believes is worthy of Gold is judged by at least two further teams. Only when there is a consensus will Gold be awarded – that means at least 16 judges will have tasted every Gold accredited product. For 3-star Gold, every single judge attending the session, which can be as many as 30 experts must unanimously agree the food delivers that indescribable ‘wow’ factor.’

And what should consumers look for? The logo. (‘The Great Taste symbol is their guarantee a product has been through a rigorous and independent judging process. It’s not about smart packaging or clever marketing – it’s all about taste.’)

What is the cost of entry – and is there a downside to the GTA for producers? The entry process is straightforward and the cost of entry is moderate at £49-£67 per product entered (overseas rate), depending on the size of the business (less if turnover is under €1million p.a.) and whether the producer is a member of the Guild of Fine Food; an Early Bird discount also applies to those who ease administration by getting entries in early. Although this can add up where numerous products are entered it represents good value for money, even for non-winners, as there is feedback from judging and a mentoring service included. The downside for small businesses might be supplying the amount of product needed for judging, which can be substantial due to the large number of judges and the fact that repeat tastings are required for the higher levels of award.

As Irish products have proved their worth with such dazzling success at the Great Taste Awards in recent years, it begs the question: do we need a similar benchmarking organisation with real clout in Ireland?

The scale in Ireland is much smaller, of course, so it would not be feasible to attempt anything as ambitious as the GTA. However – leaving aside excellent small schemes such as those operated by Euro-Toques and the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, and awards given by independent guides such as Bridgestone and ourselves, which are based on individuals championing small producers and their products – there is a growing number of awards schemes associated with food festivals around the country and there are certainly lessons to be learned for any organisation aiming to establish a credible reputation for the independence and authority of its awards.

  • This particularly applies to the judging system, beginning with the GTA Entry Form: this includes a maximum 30 word ‘Description of Product’ – unbranded, but including the main ingredients and any traditional methods used in production, breed of animal, variety of fresh produce, if it is organic etc to assist judges in their blind tasting.
  • The judging process itself is exemplary, with small teams of 4-5 judges blind tasting and, with the help of the supplied ‘Description of Product’, discussing a range of 20 or so products (comments are recorded and accessible to producers later, on the Guild website); foods felt to be worthy of a Gold are passed to other judging tables to verify – and only when there is a unanimous decision made will a one, two or three-star Gold accreditation be made.
  • It is interesting to note that GTA accreditation is estimated to have a 3-year life, so products winning in 2009 or before should be re-entered in 2013.

Georgina Campbell

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