Last week I spent a fabulous couple of days judging for the Great Taste Awards Northern Ireland roadshow. Wednesday evening, after a ridiculously stressful flight, and several glasses of wine, I was on my way to Belfast. If my flight wasn’t delayed I wouldn’t have seen such a beautiful sky as the one you can see below, so I am thankful for that! First night I was exhausted and went straight to my hotel to eat welcome cake and bathe with my complimentary rubber duck. Standard.
Thursday morning, after my Ulster fry, which contained one of the best (voted) white puddings in Northern Ireland, I was off to the Belfast Met College to start judging!
I had a great table, including the producer of Jawbox Gin, a new firm favourite of mine which I will talk about later! We were graced with some really tasty products, notably the oysters in the picture below. These are sitting firmly in my top 3 oysters. As everything is judged blind except for the producers blurb, all I know so far is that they were grown in the A classified waters of Carlingford Lough. They were beautiful. Plump, with a gentle salinity, elegant sweetness and a long lasting finish. I loved them so much that we kept asking for more. They were truly stunning and I cannot wait to find out more information once the results have been published.
We had a meaty morning, with some 28 day Glenarm Shorthorn Ribeye dry aged steak, traditional pork sausages and a couple of gammon joints. One notable entry, which I do not have pictured, was a Northern Irish Roast beef ready meal. It wasn’t much to look at, except its immense portion size, however the flavours were all there. The carrot and parsnip mash tasted fresh and crisp, the mash was buttery, stuffing tasty and peas which tasted like peas. We were so impressed with the little dish, as were the room and the arbitrators. A really nice surprise for us judges, which is what Great Taste is all about.
My afternoon session was with an old judging buddy of mine, Nick Baines, and Gerry from Jawbox Gin. We had a lovely chat, tasted some fine products and learnt a thing or five from each other, so an afternoon really well spent. A delightful team.
We tasted through a plethora of baked goods, plus a large variety of other entries. Below you can see a hand sliced, superior Irish Organic smoked salmon using a 100 year old Belfast recipe. This was a real treat. A subtle smoking, and flesh which melted in our mouths, it was a delight to taste and so moreish that the plate went back with the most pathetic of scraps, supposedly to go around another judging table. Whoops.
Our table tried several breads and soda breads of varying recipes, the above being a fruited loaf.
The striking green liquid above was a treat. A fresh lovage oil made with a single seed rapeseed oil. What flavours! The colour was bright, the flavour was clean and vegetal with real celery hits and the oil was of good quality. Definitely one to watch!
Friday morning I was co-ordinator, and on my team I had two brilliant palates. Stephen Jeffers, principal of the Belfast Cookery School and Manus Jamison, head chef at the Londonderry Arms Hotel. I couldn’t have asked for a better tasting team for the day, and I was extremely happy to work with them on their first judging session.
We tasted through a nice variety of products including yoghurts, cheeses, honeys, various baked goods and dressings. It was a fascinating experience with two chefs, explaining recipe technicalities, and coming up with constructive help for any recipes which needed looking at. Notable products from this session were a raw pine and heather honey from Northern Evoia, and a honey and wholegrain mustard which our table wanted to take home.
In the photo above Stephen is cutting a hand prepared fresh reared turkey with a complex stuffing and sage butter. I must say I did leave Belfast with a meat hangover, and had to use Saturday as recovery day just eating seafood and vegetables to recover.
Judging was super this year with some really memorable characters who I would love to and will keep in contact with. Thanks to the Guild of Fine Food once again for everything they had done along with several supporters in Northern Ireland.
My next post will be about a particularly interesting visit on the Thursday evening at Hannan meats.
I look forward to sharing those pictures and telling my story on that one very soon! Here’s a cheeky sneak peek…