A blogger goes judging

One of the perks of the blog is being invited to do some amazing things - from taster menus at top restaurants to providing coverage of festivals.  Every so often something comes up that I would never be able to do if it wasn't for the blog and judging at Wales the True Taste is one such thing.

If you've not heard of it before, Wales the True Taste is a Welsh Government managed initiative with the simple aim to promote the best food and drink Wales has to offer, raising awareness amongst consumers and increasing the usage of Welsh products by the hospitality industry.

This was the second year I've been invited to judge, having spent a day in Swansea last summer at the final days judging, albeit a little closer to home in an unusually sunny Cardiff.  The judging took place over two days and was held at the Cardiff City football stadium.  Myself and fellow judges were welcomed by head judge, Peter Jackson (no not *that* Peter Jackson, *this* Peter Jackson) who explained that we'd be split into groups of 3 and given a category to judge over the two days. 

My fellow judges were my dear friend Mark Adams (better known as the writer of Corpulent Capers) and Sally Owens, pastry chef of the Wales Culinary Association and lecturer at Coleg Llandrillo Cymru.  Sally's expertise was much appreciated as our category become apparent - cake, or to give it its full title "Sweet Products (cakes, desserts and puddings but not including confectionery)".  Over the course of the two days we were to judge 111 entries to the competition on the following criteria:

Is it what it says it is? Authenticity Is it what it says it is?  If something is described as having a certain attribute - e.g. being a lemon sponge, does it contain lemon and is it spongy. 

See Does it look appealing? Ultimately would you buy it on look alone

Smell Does it smell appealing? Is it overpowering or artificial?

Inspect Is it cooked evenly? How does it cut? What's the texture like?  In terms of cake this could mean checking for an even distribution of ingredients and weather it has baked correctly.

Taste Does it taste nice?  Is it overpowering?  Can you taste the main ingredients (back to our lemon sponge - does it taste lemony enough?)

Each product starts off with 100 points and judges can then deduct points for flaws in each category - from 1 point for a small flaw up to 5 for a major flaw.  All products are tasted blind in that all packaging or identifying markers are removed before they get to the judges so there can be no accusations of bias - great if you know a lot of small producers!  We were also assigned a scribe who recorded our marks, comments and any feedback we wanted to give to the producer.  This could be anything from "you need to overhaul your recipe completely" to "some vanilla in this would work beautifully".

The overwhelming product in our category was cake - fruit cakes, loaf cakes, chocolate cakes, sponge cakes, iced cakes, drizzle cakes. You name it, we probably ate it.  The first day was slow going and whilst our team of judges jelled quickly and our scores were fairly consistent, we struggled to gain momentum.  The cakes were of varying quality and we spent a lot of time in discussion rather than moving on.  At around 2.30pm we cracked - having eaten around 40 cakes we were completely sugared up and all getting the giggles.  Our patient scribe managed to get us back on track and we finished the day having sampled 49 out of the 111 cakes.  The thought of having to come back and judge another 62 cakes was turning our stomachs and all we could think about was steak and roast dinners.

Day 2 got off to an early start and we quickly hatched a plan to save our sanity - we grouped the cakes together into similar types (e.g. bara brith, brownies, iced cakes) and would spend less time discussing the bad, instead focusing on finding the good.  We began at 9am and by lunchtime we had whizzed through over 30 cakes.  After a break for lunch (oh smoked salmon sandwiches you were such a welcome sight!) and a catch up with our fellow judges, we sat back down and finished off the remaining cakes.  Speaking to the catering team, 5 cakes had been entered but had never arrived so by 2.30pm we were done and feeling very pleased with ourselves.

Whilst we know what our favourite products were over the two days we have no idea who they are made by or where we (and you) can get our mitts on them until the award ceremony, to be held later this year at Builth Wells.

So what did I take away from this experience?

When baking at home, use the best ingredients you can afford.  Your guests will thank you for it.

Butter will always taste better than vegetable oil but make sure you use unsalted unless you want a very odd tasting cake.

There are a million different interpretations of traditional recipes such as bara brith and Welsh cakes.

There is definitely such a thing as too much cake


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