One of the best things I’ve done in the last three years is to judge the BBC Food and Farming Awards. Contrary to what the name suggests it’s not all about prize heifers and outsize marrows though it does include awards to food producers and farmers but also features school and other institutional cooks, food markets and drinks.
The aim is to shine a spotlight on the unsung heroes of the food and drink world, individuals who are doing an amazing job that might not otherwise come to light.
The high-powered panel of judges, which this year includes Yotam Ottolenghi, Angela Hartnett and Stefan Gates together with Sheila Dillon and Dan Saladino from the BBC Food Programme, is divided into pairs on the basis of their expertise. My category, with fellow judge mixologist and vermouth producer Jack Adair Bevan, was best drink producer.
The first task is to sift through the hundreds of applications which can come from self-nominations or from fans who have heard about the awards. A couple of our finalists had no idea they’d been put forward.
What we’re looking for is something which makes a producer stand out, particularly over the past twelve months. We rule out new start-ups on the basis that they haven’t really had a chance to find their feet and generally businesses that have been established for a long time unless they’re doing something new or which represents an emerging trend, an example being one of our finalists, the Scottish fruit winery Cairn O’Mohr (right) which reflects the growing interest in wild plants and foraging. We try not to over-represent a category so we’d be unlikely to pick three brewers from the north of England, for example.
We also look for something quirky that makes a business stand out. A couple of years ago when I judged the food shop category it was the fact that our winner, Edge Butchers, had its own abbattoir attached to the shop, making the journey for the animals they slaughtered as short and stress-free as possible. Another finalist, fishmonger Veasey & Sons of Forest Row in Sussex had their own fishing boat while our third contender, The Courtyard Dairy in Settle, matured their own cheeses in the manner of a French affineur, resulting in the most amazing crumbly Lancashire cheese I’ve ever tasted.
Last year beer writer Pete Brown and I were bowled over by Ed and Robyn of Square Root, a young couple in their twenties, who were making wonderfully natural-tasting sodas in Hackney - a godsend for the growing number of people who don’t drink. It was great to go back and visit Ivor and Susie Dunkerton of organic pioneers Dunkertons Cider, a producer I'd first interviewed when I was writing for the Times in the early '90's. And we loved the story of how school friends Sion Edwards and Tom Warner of Warner Edwards had teamed up to make world glass gin in Northamptonshire including a rhubarb gin from plants that were originally grown in the kitchen gardens of Buckingham Palace back in the reign of Queen Victoria. We love a captivating story of someone who is reviving a lost tradition, doing something for their community or fulfilling an unmet need.
This week Jack and I flew to Edinburgh then drove up to Perthshire to visit Cairn O’Mohr whose products include a wine made from oak leaves, a very fine elderberry wine that would do duty for a claret and a crazily good sparkling strawberry wine that you should definitely order in for Wimbledon. Then it was back by train along the dramatically beautiful coast of Berwickshire and Northumberland to Huddersfield to visit Magic Rock (above) one of the most successful craft brewers in the country with its own American-style tap room.. We were impressed by them because they are great innovators with a crazy selection of beers that are bringing people (especially women) into beer to whom it had never really appealed before. (My own favourites were the best-selling Cannonball, a German style wheat beer called Salty Kiss and a brilliant session ale called Simpleton that's just 2.6% ABV)
Two weeks prior to that we were in the wilds of Wales, visiting Andy and Ann Hallett of Hallets Real Cider (right) intrigued by the fact that Andy, a former engineer, had made much of his equipment himself. They make a beautiful, handsomely packaged cider that would deserve a place on any dinner table. I wish people would drink beer and cider with meals more often, not just in the pub.
On Tuesday the judges reassemble, report back and vote on the final winners. This is the hardest part - you don’t want anyone to lose. Then we have to keep the winners under wraps while dying to tell everyone about them. You won't know who they are until the awards ceremony takes place on April 28th but let me tell you that any one of them would be a worthy winner.
The most humbling thing is the impact being selected for the awards and featured on the Food Programme and other BBC programmes makes to the lives of our finalists. a prime example being the Hang Fire Smokehouse which has opened its own restaurant and published a book since they won the award for best street food producer last year.
In a world dominated by supermarkets it’s heartening to know that so many people do appreciate and use their local shops and producers but I’m aware there are many individuals we didn’t get a chance to consider. It’s up to you to nominate your favourite one next year!
You can find out who the other finalists were on iplayer and the BBC Food and Farming awards website