A Surfeit of Lampreys

The Great Taste Awards is an annual British food Olympic in which a growing number of artisans (plus an infiltration of industrial wolves in artisanal shepherd’s clothing) enter their products in search of gold, silver and bronze certificates of excellence which they may then include in their labelling and promotion. Because it is run by a professional guild rather than a profit-seeking promoter, the entrance fees are not exorbitant. This is confirmed by 2004’s record-breaking four thousand entries, many from small-scale producers who hope that an award might boost them from cottage industry to modest mass production.

Having virtually destroyed its rich tradition of indigenous food, Britain is now experiencing a burgeoning demand for gourmet goodies. This has created a cornucopia of new products, many of them served forth by ambitious pseudo-chefs with scant training and little taste. After a day’s judging, a Fortnum and Mason buyer spoke dejectedly of the terrible things that were being done to smoked salmon.

If the government believed that the quality of the food we eat was of any real importance, it would publish one of its beloved league tables, compiled from a requisitioned list of all four thousand entries together with their scores. For those who care about what they put in their stomachs, the opening round of the Great Taste Awards is the first line of defense against weapons of gastronomic destruction. In seven sessions running over four days, up to forty judges at a time work in groups of between two and four at long tables where multiple selections of several different kinds of foods are laid out for sampling and judging. Some categories now receive so many entries that they are broken up into subgroups so that no set of judges will have to taste more than about a dozen similar samples in one session.

A necessary exception is made for hot and spicy oriental sauces and chutneys. This year only I and one other judge were prepared to take them on, and so we found ourselves faced with over fifty to work our way through, most of them in a single session. It would have been a welcome challenge had not so many of them been inferior to readily available branded products such as Patak – we were obliged to suffer pain without gain.

One was so fiery as to make us pause for recuperation. A Caribbean kitchen helper sampled it, smacked her lips, gobbled up another spoonful and pronounced it delicious. We therefore gave it the benefit of the doubt, with the recommendation of a health and safety warning on the label. I went home that evening with a churning stomach, unable to face anything for dinner except a grapefruit and a couple of oranges. I’ll spare you my experience the next morning in the smallest room.

At this stage the judging is absolute rather than relative, so it is not yet competitive. One team of which I was a member unanimously awarded gold to almost every entry in a single category. Alas, this is by no means typical. In one category last year there were twenty entries, almost all of which we rated at the lowest possible grade, 1 out of 50, except for one which was so supernally awful that we gave it the invented grade of –1. Not surprisingly, these culinary disasters were aimed primarily at vegetarian pseudo-carnivores.

You might take us for power-mad sadists, ambitious to join that elite band of sabre-toothed journalists, the broadsheet restaurant critics. In fact, of the perhaps half-a hundred judges I’ve worked with during the past two years’ sessions, all were eager to be pleased and were moderate in their criticism, except when faced with an abomination so self-evidently awful as to encourage ribaldry. Within my hearing there were often discussions as to how an entry should be rated, but not arguments.

Not only are the products precisely ranked, but specific faults are noted in order to advise their makers as to how they could be improved. Sows ears and silk purses come to mind. It says much for the generous spirits of Bob Farrand and the staff of the Guild of Fine Food Retailers that they are prepared to deal with the anguished phone calls from producers who thought they deserved a Gold or a Silver but didn’t even merit a Bronze. How do you tell them diplomatically why they got a Lead?

It is easy to identify the excellent, but the later stages of judging are less straightforward. At this point the gold medal winners are compared with each other to arrive at the British regional and foreign national prizes, culminating in the selection of the Supreme Champion. With the possible exception of sport and the stock market, I find competitive league tables problematical. If a food is truly excellent, need it be more or less excellent than another? No one in his right mind would declare a cassoulet superior to a bouillabaisse. Then why must the finest lemon curd be ranked against the finest fish pie? The reason, alas, is that every human activity has become so competitive that enthusiasm cannot be aroused for mere excellence. The media and the public demand that they be told unequivocally which is The Best.

The Supreme Champion is therefore an award concerning which I have personal reservations. As one of last years finalist judges, I watched a celebrated food writer become our self-appointed mentor, loudly evaluating each entry as we moved around the table. I awaited the count with a certain anxiety; it says much for the other judges’ strength of character that they proved to have voted independently.

This year’s format was more shrewdly conceived. The proceedings were videoed, the twelve judges seated in a broad semicircle facing the camera with Chairman Bob Ferrand in the middle – a sort of Last Supper, though the bread and wine did not transubstantiate. Each of the fifteen gold medal foods that had won in its geographical area was passed along the table for us to see, sniff and savour; then each judge gave a verbal opinion and a numerical rating between one and twenty. (Starters alternated so that the same judge did not always have to go out on a limb with the first opinion.) Chairman Bob registered the ratings on his laptop, keeping a running tally and telling us which items were leading. The Supreme Champion was then chosen by consensus.

The video recording, we would later discover, was to be used as a source of soundbites to be inserted into the award ceremony. We each had our moment of celebrity, culminating in an unexpected critic’s prize for the best bon mot. One of my remarks, ambiguously out of context, got a laugh. All’s fair in love and show biz.

At the highest level of culinary excellence there is usually a range of conflicting opinions, even among putative experts; I could easily have been persuaded to shift some of my ratings a point or two in either direction. These variations, I firmly believe, do not relate to judicial competence, but to the fundamentally subjective nature of culinary taste. As Calvin W. Schwabe’s Unmentionable Cuisine demonstrates at encyclopedic length, virtually all non-poisonous (and some poisonous) products of nature, at various stages of carbonization and/or putrefaction, have been regarded somewhere, at some time, as not merely edible but even delectable. (Schwabe’s Berkeley dinner parties were legendary.)

Such relativity of taste is a fact ignored or even denied by those who wish, from whatever motives, to establish and maintain absolute standards. In the wine trade, where the judgments of a handful of experts can instantly be worth millions, a curtain is drawn between the private opinion of the professional connoisseur and the public whim of the punter as revealed in the balance sheet. In order to keep the market turning over, those arbiters of taste whose senses are finely tuned to the greatest vintages must, like impoverished aristocrats, submit to a marriage of convenience in which they publicly smack their lips over mediocrities whose lingering unpleasantness they will rinse away as soon as the cameras are turned off.

Britain’s artisanal food awards do not suffer from such corrupting market-led forces. While the price differential between the cheapest wine and the most costly may be a hundred to one or even greater, among shop-bought foods it is rarely more than three-fold. And though the British fine food industry may be expanding, in our junk food paradise it still represents only about two percent of the total turnover. This in itself is enough to keep the artisanal trade relatively honest. If you are so fortunate as to have a local organic butcher, the chances are good that the sausages he sells for twice the supermarket price will actually taste much better than those made in a factory from recovered animal protein. Furthermore, they will be infinitely more satisfying in every way than the pickled sheep you might once have obtained through a presitigious art dealer – and they won’t require a second mortgage

©2004 John Whiting

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