This year is the 10th anniversary of these prestigious awards which recognise the very best of the conservation charity’s 1,500 tenant farmers and producers.
We go behind the scenes of the judging process with Helen Beer, deputy editor of the National Trust magazine, who gives a behind the scenes glimpse of what happens during the ‘taste test’ element of the rigorous judging process.
‘Dip your potato in the HerbShroom’ wasn’t a sentence I thought I’d hear when I was invited to sit in on the judging for the National Trust’s annual Fine Farm Produce Awards (FFPA), which recognise the best produce from Trust farms and estates around the country.
The awards celebrate their 10th anniversary this year, and over 100 products are being tested. The HerbShroom – a seasoning made of mushrooms and herbs, if you’re wondering – is the most unusual of the products up for judging, but the entries are diverse and include clotted cream, yoghurt, cheese, beetroot, potatoes, crab, honey, rapeseed oil, beer, English sparkling wine, and an array of different types and cuts of meat.
Judging them are members of the Trust’s food and beverage team, alongside three food experts from Selfridges, under the guidance of Head of Food and Farming Rob Macklin. With a long list of products to get through the day starts early, and the eggs are up first. Entries have come in from the Trust’s home farm at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, and tenant farmers at Ochr Cefn Isa in Conwy. The eggs are looked at in their packaging, which should be neat and professional, and then each is taken out and inspected by the judges.
If you thought all eggs were the same, you’d be wrong. I ask judge Clive Goudercourt, the Trust’s Development Chef, what qualities he’s looking for: ‘The main things are uniformity of colour, and no ripples or dimples, as this shows the hen was distressed when laying,’ he says.
After a thorough inspection, they are whisked away to be cooked, before being examined again in their cooked form, and finally tasted. This part of the judging is blind, and for every entry, a ‘control’ product from Waitrose is tested alongside it to ensure that standards are maintained.
‘The awards are like a kitemark,’ says Rob. ‘We’re giving our endorsement to the quality of the product and they have to meet the grade.’
The look, taste, texture and smell of each product are all very important, as are high welfare and environmental standards. I notice one of the judges sniffing at a raw topside of beef, and ask what scent he’s hoping for. ‘A bit like off milk, but not sour’, was the reply.
Conditions are strict, and for the finely tuned noses and palettes of the judges, it’s important to make sure outside smells and tastes don’t interfere. I’m told that drinking coffee, wearing perfume or using strong laundry detergent can all have a negative effect. Even having paper near the food isn’t safe, as it picks up other smells so easily.
With the judges all passionate and knowledgeable foodies, debates ensue. Some products win universal favour, whilst others split opinion. ‘I’ve seen people arguing for twenty minutes over egg consistencies,’ says Rob.
For winning producers, the FFPA stamp gives their customers an assurance of quality. 2014 overall food winners, Neil and Sally Grigg, impressed judges with the meat from their Ruby Red cows at Burrow Farm, Devon. ‘It’s a massive sense of achievement for all the hard work we’ve undertaken,’ says Neil. ‘It’s a great thing to be able to tell our customers too!’
After four intensive days of judging products and counting the results, the 2015 winners are finally chosen. Will HerbShroom make the cut? My fingers are crossed, I will find out tonight!