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What is Great Taste?
Words by Max Fletcher; Illustration by Ada Jusic
Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 5: Food Producers and Production.
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I first became cynical of food awards about ten years ago, just as I was starting out in the tea industry. When you enter any trade you have an amateur interest in, you quickly have the wool removed from your eyes — I was surprised to find out that so many small companies bought their teas, even ones marked as premium, from the same two or three German blenders who had the market on cheap, industrial blends cornered. I was also amused to see that some single estate teas being sold by small, boutique companies as ‘unique’ had actually emanated from us. All these teas were being entered for the same set of awards ─ the German companies practically sold them on how many stars they got; I even noticed some of our teas had won awards but the accolades were going to the companies who had bought them rather than the actual producers in China and Japan.
There was another reason that I started to feel these awards were a scam. Tea already has awards in countries of origin which are hyper-localised and judged on the basis of things we don’t privilege so much in the West. A Long Jing’s taste might be fleeting, but it should be pure and fill up the entire body. A dancong might be judged on its longevity; a puerh on its qi. There are multiple intersecting cultural reasons why a tea might be more valued than another, as well as things like age, altitude, or the exact location of the trees. The knowledge on how to judge these teas often stays within their regions ─ what would British judges know about any of this?
You might well ask why should we care about awards. Farming and food production is a long, thankless process; awards are often the only way that the people who make our food ever get the credit they deserve. And yet, what are we valuing with these awards? What are we saying is important and not when it comes to assessing our food? And who is saying it? And who are we saying it for? I must admit, I was excited recently to hear that a producer had sent us his most prestigious tea of the year to try, which had recently won a big award. I asked whether it was because of the production method or the age of the trees but the answer I got was curious: “No, it’s because it tastes great”
And with that, here is Max Fletcher on awards and great taste. Welcome back to Vittles!
‘What is Great Taste?’ by Max Fletcher
When Silvija Davidson was growing up in Lancashire, her garage was always full of sauerkraut. Her family were émigrés from Latvia and arrived penniless, so there was a lot of amateur food production. ‘But quite good food production’, she clarifies. ‘We would go foraging, so we would have barrels full of salted mushrooms to last the year’. When her father went fishing he would exchange any leftover fish for venison from the local park rangers; eels would be cured in his smokery.
Davidson’s childhood taught her to appreciate foods which, in those days, were not in vogue. It also taught her how to discuss them: the quality of each potato; whether a particular fish was muddy or not. ‘I was just so used to discussing everything on the plate and appreciating the nuance of very simple food,’ she says. ‘It was the European peasant thing to do.’
When she discovered the writing of Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, Davidson realised it was possible to translate an intellectual and sensory interest in food into a living as a food writer. One of the books she went on to write is called The Language of Taste. It’s an unusual, slim volume – just 150 pages – and it outlines the desirable characteristics of thirty-four broad categories of food by instructing the reader to observe a distinction between taste and flavour. There are only five discernible tastes, Davidson points out – sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami – and these are not subjective. Flavour, by contrast, is ‘hugely dependent on […] retro nasal receptors’ and is ‘highly individual’. Once you know how to taste, you can judge anything, from haslet – the traditional Lincolnshire pork meatloaf which should, apparently, have ‘a robust flavour but a tender texture’ – to kefir quark.
The Language of Taste is not commercially available. It was commissioned by a company called the Guild of Fine Food to provide information on each of the categories judged by its most famous offshoot, the Great Taste Awards. The range of produce the awards judge is so diverse (pretty much everything except wine, baby food and fresh fruit) that, in Davidson’s words, ‘it’s impossible to expect every judge to have technical knowledge of everything.’ The Language of Taste compensates for this lack, and over the years the book has grown to accommodate the ever-increasing diversity of entries the award receives. These changes are a good barometer of food trends; recent edits, for instance, include more detailed entries on fermented foods, and Davidson is currently considering whether to include anything on dietary supplements. ‘Do they really have a taste?’ she wonders, though some of them must: this year, among the thousands of starred entries for marmalades, balsamic vinegars and honeys was a cacao and collagen drinks powder.
When the Guild of Fine Foods was founded in 1992, the chief criteria against which most retailers judged food was cost. European supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl had recently invaded Britain, undercutting Tesco and Sainsbury’s and setting off a race to the bottom in terms of price. Unable to compete, independent food retailers declined. According to the Guild, there were ‘no more than 1,400 independent fine food shops’ left in 1993 – that’s roughly one for every 41,000 people.
To help counter this downward trend, Bob Farrand, founder of the Guild, started the Great Taste Awards in 1994. Initially, the awards only provided feedback to producers, aiming to revive artisan production by encouraging higher standards. But in the early 2000s, when producers started advertising the accolade on their labels, Farrand realised it had potential as a consumer-facing award too. The number of entries jumped accordingly: in 1994 fewer than 100 products were judged; in 2000 there were 1,500; in 2020 there were 14,000. Today, Great Taste is the most prestigious food award in the UK – producers pay the Guild to enter the competition, and pay extra to use the black-and-gold roundel if they win, hoping that it will do for them what it has done for producers like Blanka Milfait, whose Winnebago is emblazoned with the two gold stars she won for her marmalade in 2013. She now runs a factory and in 2017 was voted one of the top twenty-five businesswomen in the Czech Republic.
Like many of the producers it serves, the Guild is a family business. Bob Farrand’s son John is the current Managing Director; he is a bluff, friendly man who embraces our discussion as a welcome distraction from the reality of running an award. ‘It’s romantic and lovely to be sat in the room, judging the food and drink,’ he says. ‘But actually, behind the scenes, we’re spreadsheet people.’ When asked to situate the awards in the market, he holds out his hands. ‘Some products have their technical industry assessment process, like the Cup of Excellence for coffee, which is over here,’ he says, gesturing with his right hand. ‘And then over here,’ he says, indicating with his left, ‘there’s the fluffy, consumer, glossy magazine, giving-it-out-to-anyone-because-it-suits-them-editorially kind of award.’ He places Great Taste closest to the right, but not wholly there.
If the award had nurtured a more specialist style of judging, it could be less fluffy, more serious. In the early days, Great Taste used to judge each category separately, meaning one person would have to sit and taste twenty olive oils in a row, or twenty types of jam. They still, for logistical reasons, judge some products separately – tea and coffee, for instance, since they require special equipment to prepare, as well as beer and cider. But usually the categories are mixed – a methodology known in the trade as ‘monadic’ – which means you might taste a collagen powder right after some haslet. It’s a style of judging that seems counter-intuitive, but monadic tasting can help ensure a product is rewarded on its own merit rather than comparatively, and it also elides subjective bias. Because each of Great Taste’s 500 judges taste a largely random selection of only around 50 of the competition’s 14,000 entries, a single palette will never dominate. On top of that, products are tasted blind – judges only know about the product’s ingredients, production methods and country of origin, so that neither price nor packaging can distract from the product’s taste.
On the day of judgement, the mood at Great Taste is frenetic: Karyn Noble, a food writer and coordinating judge, describes it as ‘incredibly fast’. Each judge has around four minutes to assess each product – this includes tasting, discussing and writing up feedback for the producer. ‘We run through the emotional gamut of being curious, frustrated, bewildered, excited, and occasionally exhilarated if we find a three-star product,’ Noble says. Three or four judges discuss a product, and feedback is typed up by a coordinating judge. It will then passed to another table who either agree or disagree with the previous verdict before passing it on, until at least three tables have confirmed the award status and the number of stars. This means one product will normally go through around 9–12 judges before its fate is sealed.
At the combatively named Superior Taste Award (Great Taste’s more high-minded continental cousin), Ferran Centelles, formerly master sommelier at El Bulli, describes a rather different atmosphere. Run by the Brussels-based International Taste Institute, judging for this award is conducted in formal dress – and in complete silence. Images of these sessions show serried ranks of betoqued chefs sporting the medals or sashes they’ve been awarded by their governments, while uniformed flunkies stand at the ready as though it’s an ambassadorial reception.
‘We always follow a very strict methodology,’ Centelles says. ‘We’re not asked if we personally like the product, but rather if it is well made and how its organoleptic characteristics compare to those expected for its category.’ Products do not receive written feedback, but rather a percentage which represents a weighted average of the product’s scores in the five so-called ‘International Sensory Analysis criteria’. This is just another way of asking judges to reward food according to its ‘appearance, aroma, texture and taste, as well as how all elements come together’, which is how this process is termed in The Language of Taste.
Despite superficial differences, these awards are, in reality, very similar: they both refine the spectrum of taste into a discrete percentage point or agreed-upon number of stars. The verbal feedback Great Taste entrants receive, however, often emphasises how subjective taste can be, even among experts. A few years ago, London’s Catalyst Coffee entered Great Taste with their ‘coffee sriracha’, a hot sauce made from coffee grounds. It didn’t win a star, but Catalyst was surprised by the unconstructive and internally contradictory feedback they received. The first table said that their condiment had a ‘deeply unpleasant’ texture. The next, however, described the condiment’s texture as ‘pleasingly creamy’. The same table also said that ‘the coffee element lets it down very badly’ – this, despite having, a few sentences earlier, called the coffee ingredient ‘a great USP’. Catalyst ignored the comments, and the sauce has since received a cult following. Other producers, even those who have won stars, have mentioned similar ‘baffling’ feedback.
Naming an award Great Taste of course begs the question: According to who? There is no way of knowing exactly whose taste is being privileged: unlike the International Taste Institute, the Guild does not publish a list of its ‘jury’. Noble says she has judged alongside ‘chocolatiers, food buyers, chefs, recipe writers, food PRs, deli managers and cheesemongers’; one might wonder what kind of formal expertise a food PR might have, or how well an expert on chocolate might judge cheese, or vice versa. One producer told me they saw a judge, who they ‘knew categorically hated cheese’, judging cheese. Another producer who entered was surprised that one of the judges was an investor in their company.
Even Davidson acknowledges that the judging style has its limits. She recalls one judging report which praised a bar of chocolate for its ‘really interesting green flavour’. As a well-known expert, she recognised that this, in a technical sense, was a fault, the result of either under-roasted or under-fermented beans. Similarly, having tasted very mature balsamic vinegars, she is sceptical when judges enthuse over young examples, ‘even if they’ve never had one that’s three years old.’
The heads of real connoisseurs will probably not be turned by Great Taste. It’s most useful for people with a general interest in food but without the time, money or inclination to try every product for themselves – consumers like author Joel Golby. ‘I think about it like films,’ he says. ‘I could spend all year watching obscure Scandinavian subtitled stuff, or I could just watch everything that’s shortlisted for Best Picture at the Oscars and have more or less as good a time. I don’t mind outsourcing taste when it comes to certain things. When I’m trying to decide between two six-pound jams then I normally go with the one that has an award sticker on it.’
Its potential to speak to this market makes the award most attractive to new producers looking to break through, or established brands looking for validation – and of the two, it perhaps best serves the latter. Bill Dowling of Compton McRae, a deli based in Dorset, near one of Great Taste’s two judging facilities (the other site is in Borough Market), tells me that while the awards help his staff pitch products to undecided customers, obscure products struggle to sell even if they’ve won awards. For multi-nationals, on the other hand, Dowling believes that the awards can serve as a relatively cheap way of getting expert feedback, regardless of if they win. And for every Blanka Milfait, there’s going to be a landslide of corporate winners. In 2021, twenty-eight years after the awards were founded to counter their influence, Aldi won ninety-six stars and Lidl won seventy.
In 2016, Anthony Heard, the founder of London-based Cypriot cheese producer Kupros Dairy, won two stars for his fettle. In 2020 his halloumi-style anglum became one of the 1.5% of products awarded a full three stars. Heard, however, doesn’t place much weight on this, and not just because his sales didn’t shoot up. ‘I don’t believe the cheese was merited on the things I would merit it on,’ he says. The central problem is that ‘Great Taste doesn’t reflect or differentiate products which have been toiled over and food which has been outsourced by a contract manufacturer.’ Heard asserts that producers who know the rules of the awards are at an instant advantage. ‘As with any award system that has a formulaic approach,’ he tells me, ‘you can learn to game it’, but there is no consideration for the things you can’t game: the ‘quality, philosophies or ethics’ of a producer’s ‘actual work’.
Davidson was closer to these types of evaluations in her previous role as Chair of Slow Food UK, an organisation which won’t support any product that isn’t connected to a local tradition of some kind, regardless of how good it tastes. They primarily work in Italy, where some food traditions remain unbroken in the present day – in Britain, the organisation seeks to revive ‘forgotten foods’ like Shetland Reestit mutton and Devonshire Quarrenden apples. While Davidson mourns the scarcity of such foods – ‘I’m occasionally reminded what a good cherry might taste like,’ she says, ‘I only have about four or five a year’ – she came to find Slow Food’s approach restrictive. Working with Great Taste, she feels free to admit that an Iranian saffron is the most amazing saffron she’s ever encountered. ‘But Slow Food wouldn’t be interested in that, unless there was a particular community in Iran that they felt they needed to support’, she points out. ‘Slow Food exalts tradition at the expense of taste.’
Heard, however, is adamant that any kind of award or certification constrains producers; he sees them in the same light as copyright or trademark patents. ‘They’re all just another form of narrow-visioned gatekeeping built on corporatisation that tend to prevent creativity, increase entry levels and exclude those who don’t interface,’ Heard laments. ‘These things are really only there to perpetuate themselves rather than to merit a producer’s achievements, and this type of power relationship is very tired. But you go along [with it] because to not is probably more harmful. Residing in obscurity and etherealism doesn’t sell food; […] using the tools of a financialised world does.’
Awards have perhaps always been inextricable from capitalism. Pick up a legacy product such as Menier chocolate or Bacardi rum, and you will see emblazoned on its label various medals awarded at the many world’s fairs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; these showcased, in the words of the 1851 Great Exhibition, ‘the works of industry of all nations’. These competitions judged products according to less hedonic criteria than Great Taste. The Council Medal, for example, which was the Great Exhibition’s highest award, was judged according to ‘workmanship, beauty, utility and adaptability’. It went to things like Gail Borden’s ‘meat biscuits’, dry disks of pulverised beef mixed with flour that could be preserved almost indefinitely, but which were so disgusting that Borden was ultimately bankrupted. Another medal was given to Peter Lawson for his ‘scientifically arranged collection of the vegetable products of Scotland’.
When judging food, we’re bound to privilege certain criteria over others, and this means that no award will be perfect. We could take that as an injunction to abandon awards altogether – or we could take it as encouragement to think more seriously about how we judge what we eat; we should become as critical of awards as we are of food. Perhaps, in a hundred years, we will regard Great Taste, with its blindness to the contextual factors surrounding food production, as a historical curiosity. Until then, however, when Karyn Noble is judging, she knows what the bottom line is. ‘Regardless of what it is, what it looks like, where it’s from or what ingredients are used,’ she says, there is only one thing that matters: ‘Is it great taste?’
Max Fletcher is a writer based in London. You can find him on Twitter at @max123fletcher.
The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/