I’ve spent a good part of the last fortnight sitting on the judging panels of the Free From Food Awards – founded by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson of www.foodsmatter.com, and which was set up to reward the innovation of food manufacturers who cater for those with coeliac disease, food allergy and food intolerance.
It’s my third year in the squad, and my second among the final select judging panel. It is, of course, great fun. It was a pleasure a year on to be reunited with my colleagues on the final day’s judging, all of whom far more important than me: Janie Suthering, president of the Guild of Food Writers, food networking queen, Jane Milton, Jeffrey Hyman of FDIN, Simon Wright of Organic and Fair Plus, and Sue Cane, one of the most well-informed coeliacs I’ve ever met. We laughed, we disagreed, we debated, we pondered, we ate. Mostly we ate.
It was interesting and it was challenging. Appraising food sample after food sample, meditating on taste, texture, appearance and aroma, in order to deliver an accurate and by necessity quite rapid assessment, requires surprisingly intense concentration. It forces you too to ponder on the process and mindset of eating and the realities of living on a restricted diet.
But most of all it’s a privilege and responsibility: not only are we charged with rewarding manufacturers, and, especially in the case of a small producer, possibly changing the course of their business forever, but also the onus is on us to come up with a selection of winners which those on restricted diets may look towards as possible candidate replacement foods on which to subsequently subsist.
I suspect I’m preaching to the knowing, but life is obviously difficult for intolerants and coeliacs. There is much to adjust when first diagnosed. The immediate instinct is to seek out replacement products for familiars, as alike as possible to the just-abandoned ‘allergy unfriendly’ versions previously consumed. These may turn out to be merely ‘stepping stone’ products to establish oneself as painlessly as possible on a gluten-free (or whatever-free) diet, or they may become staples for years to come.
There is a lot of experimentation involved: much purchasing of foods. One of the down-sides to the expanding ‘free from’ world is that the wide choice can sometimes be temporarily paralysing. Which – of dozens – to choose?
While it is generally agreed that quality has vastly improved, there is no accounting for diverse tastebuds. One man’s meat etc. You may hate what you buy first, and you may hate what you buy second and third. Repeat this for several foods and you have spent quite a sum on food you dislike. Enquire of any food sensitive – coeliac especially – and he or she will willingly tell you of trial and error purchases of dozens of breads and pastas before a suitable replacement was identified. Baking mishaps with new flours and flour combinations? The gluten-free amateur chef has experiences in spades.
So anything that can help facilitate or shorten this process – to steer people in a direction towards more palatable, agreeable, successful foods – is really important to them. And that was our job, at least as I saw it.
Coming to decisions is not easy. Michelle has just blogged about one of the dilemmas we all faced: in a nutshell, whether to lean towards rewarding excellence in taste from a purely gustatory perspective – or to give more weight to innovation in imaginatively and skilfully overcoming a ‘free from’ hurdle.
As I wrote in my comments, it is a human dilemma – much more than it is a food/health issue it appears on the surface to be. It is not dissimilar to choosing between people: between the gluten-free gourmand who wants to enjoy a fine guaranteed GF chocolate, and the mother unfortunate enough to have to cater for a family with multiple sensitivities (eg wheat, dairy, egg, and soya), who may more highly prize a safer, and more convenient, but taste-wise inferior, product.
How, with only one set of feet each, do we put ourselves into the many pairs of shoes of the disparate groups of people who rely on ‘free from’?
There is no obvious solution. The passion shown by all the judges proved to me that strong arguments were put forward representing all possible standpoints. While some may argue that we have a greater duty to the most severely at risk – nut allergics and coeliacs – in the inevitable mulling-over of the day after, I can’t help feeling that, most of all, the Free From Food Awards must consider everyone who is, well, ‘free from’ – from peanut anaphylactics to lactose intolerants.
And I think we achieved that.
For more on the Free From Food Awards, see www.freefromfoodawards.co.uk
A shortlist will be announced in March. The winners on the 6th April.