Last Wednesday and Thursday were spent in Dublin, having been invited to chair a day and a half’s worth of judging sessions for the inaugural FreeFrom Food Awards Ireland, launched at the end of 2015 by John Burke of GF Life Ireland, a long-standing fellow judge on the FreeFrom Food Awards (UK). It was a maiden visit to Ireland, and I was taking over from David Johnstone and the FFFA UK’s Michelle, who had been chairing on Monday and Tuesday (read Michelle’s write up here).
The Irish format was very similar to the established British one. During a category session, panels of between 8 and 12 blind taste all entries individually, and in relative quiet (so as to not influence others), writing down their thoughts and giving marks out of ten – on the basis of such factors as taste, innovation, nutritional profile, usefulness, originality and more. Ingredients are available to judges (so the food sensitive can avoid any allergens), and at the end marks are totalled and results are used as a springboard to detailed discussion – sometimes heated! – before final decisions are made.
I have redoubled respect for Michelle, who unflappably chairs two long weeks’ worth of such sessions in London, year in, year out, and remains full of energy throughout. It’s not that chairing is especially difficult, per se, but it does demand concentration: that you remain fully alert to conversation and judges’ mood when decisions have to be closed in on, and that you highlight any matters that may not have been given due consideration – given that the natural inclination is to heavily weight in favour of taste. Such aspects may include precautionary allergen warnings, numbers of free from claims, suitability to a wider ‘free from’ consumership, usefulness, innovation and nutritional profile.
I felt it important to challenge decisions, not to get judges to necessarily change their minds, or for no other reason than pure wilful disagreement, but instead to ensure they were secure and confident in their choices. If decisions are right, they should stand up to scrutiny – which mostly, but not exclusively, they did.
It’s also vital for judges to understand how important their undertaking is. A win for a small company can mean a phone call from a large supermarket. Wider distribution can – it is no exaggeration – not only change the livelihoods of the company manufacturing the product and its staff, but also the lives of those on restricted diets. Decisions are important, carry responsibility, and shouldn’t be rushed.
I met a great bunch of people – which is really what made the trip for me – including Wholefood Revolution‘s Michelle (whose arrangements of entries on napkins were an artistic highlight) blogger Donna, aka Gluten Free Cailin (‘cailin’ being Irish for ‘girl’), Maria, editor of Slainte Magazine (‘slainte’ being Irish for ‘health’) – and too many others. Gaelic pronunciation was a glorious education, in fact – those words are pronounced, approximately, caleen and slancher, but neither was as much of an eye-opener as Baile Atha Cliath – the Gaelic for Dublin – which, my garrulous cabbie reliably informed me, should be rendered as, again approximately, barley-uh ah-ha clia.
Of the discoveries at the table, there was a diverse (and rich) collection of artisanal cakes and treats (above left), some unusual raw / vegan chocolates – as well as a seaweed-flavoured chocolate – a two-dozen strong panel of crisps and snacks (from which I’m still recovering – although most of them were impossibly moreish) and some pretty good Christmas offerings, which, despite the Spring sunshine, still tasted good to me. From my limited exposure and flying visit, free from in Ireland seems to be in fine fettle, although my judges told me that some products (eg polenta, Nutribix) still either hadn’t yet arrived or were still tough to get hold of, while others (paleo / raw goods, chia, quinoa) appear to have made their mark.
What I did notice was the difficulty in finding vegan and vegetarian food-to-go options at Dublin airport – which stood out even more given the relative ease of finding GF sandwiches. In one outlet, there were abundant prepared salad options – but not one was vegetarian (each either had prawn, tuna, bacon or chicken – and sometimes more than one). I could see no vegetarian sandwiches either – bar an egg and cress one, which happened to be gluten-free. Either the veggies were flying in force that day, or you’re better off as a coeliac than a meat-avoider in the Emerald Isle, it seems to me.
But as for the Awards, for a first year, the team appeared to be remarkably well organised. Well over 300 entries, I hear, is no mean feat for an inaugural batch, and that takes some organisation and management. John, ably abetted by members of his family and the terrific Emma Clarke Conway, have clearly done a mighty fine job.
The team insisted and reinsisted I take some food in my hand luggage before I took my leave, and I eventually gave in to the power of Irish persuasion and departed with a packet of four mince pies. I hope they’ll forgive me that I left them with the same chatty Irish cab driver – who this time, on my return to the airport, regaled me with tales of Irish politics, banking woes, women’s hurling, Dublin rush-hour traffic (surprisingly bad), and its architecture (much of which he appeared to credit the British for). I hope he enjoyed his pies as much as I enjoyed my trip …
Winners of the FreeFrom Food Awards Ireland will be announced on June 9th.