Behind the scenes at the judging process of the Blas na hÉireann food awards

Last year's winner, Irene Queally of Pip & Pear.

Today the winners of the Blas na hÉireann food awards will be announced. Marjorie Brennan went behind the scenes at the judging process, which saw ‘sensory analysts’ at UCC put more than 2,500 products to the test.

PASSION. If I had a euro for every time a tearful contestant on a reality cookery show proclaimed their ‘passion’ for food, I’d be writing this from a seafront apartment in San Sebastian. 

The P word has become one of the most abused and devalued in the culinary world. 

But if you want to see enthusiasm and love for food in action, look no further than the people behind the Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Awards.

Artie Clifford is one of the founders of the awards, which form part of the Dingle Peninsula Food Festival, one of the country’s most recognised food events, which takes place this weekend. 

He tells me how the awards, now in their eighth year, came about.

“I was discussing with a friend how we had to travel overseas to get recognition for a food product from Ireland, that there were no accreditations here at the time.

“The natural solution was to start it ourselves, which is what we did, in 2007. At the time we were involved in the Dingle Food Festival, and we had a lot of good people around who were willing to pitch in. 

"The first year we put a call out we had 400 entries. It was very small,” he says.

On the shortlist: Geraldine and John Lynch in Macroom, Co Cork, above.
On the shortlist: Geraldine and John Lynch in Macroom, Co Cork, above.

Clifford was keen on offering something different from other awards and accreditation processes and ended up enlisting the assistance of UCC and the University of Copenhagen.

“I looked at other awards schemes, how they were judged, and I wanted to come up with a fair system that meant a level playing field — that small producers could compete at the same time with large companies. 

"I spoke to Joe Kerry in the Department of Food Science in UCC, told him what we wanted, and he said sensory analysis was the way to go — judging food by appearance, taste, texture and aroma. 

"We wanted to bring the science and the producers together, while allowing a one-person operation to compete against a 100-person company.

“That’s what makes it a unique judging system,” he says

This year, the awards had 2,500 entries. Contenders go through an initial judging process in UCC, and are then whittled down to a shortlist which is judged at the food festival in Dingle. 

What does he think the impact of the awards has been?

“Hopefully, it’s encouraged all food producers to up their game. The winner is Irish food. We’re renowned for it, for having the best raw ingredients, the quality of our land, water, meat; so an Irish producer has an advantage at the beginning once they start using core Irish ingredients.

“That’s what leads to quality products. The other thing is that our accreditation is now the most highly recognised in Ireland, so if people see a Blas sticker on a product they’re more inclined to buy it because it’s been singled out by a panel of over 350 judges.”

While the initial concept of the awards was to recognise producers, the awards are now helping to create business and jobs, and sell products that might never have been exported.

“I’m proud of what it’s done, it’s evolved and exceeded my expectations,” says Clifford. 

“Blas started in accreditation, but we’d now see ourselves as working with the industry for the industry. We have the best of raw ingredients — once you start with the best you end with the best.”

A man who knows a lot about those raw ingredients is Kerry. I meet him in his office, which is more like a professorial grocery store, packed with a cornucopia of food products.

I’m here to talk about the science behind the awards, but Kerry’s enthusiasm for all things food-related means we go off on all kinds of enjoyable tangents. 

His official title is academic director of the Blas na hÉireann awards but his involvement now goes way beyond that remit.

“Other awards didn’t have the scientific basis we brought to this. I don’t want to put people off by using the word science. 

"We want to make it accessible, using it as a tool so people have confidence in the process, that it’s not biased.

“We’ve had international media such as The New York Times saying they had never come across such an impartial awards — all determined on taste. 

"Our job here is not to pick winners, it is to make the process of doing the food awards that bit more comfortable for the organisers and panels in Dingle, who get to taste the best products.”

Kerry says this two-stage process also benefits retailers and buyers who get to sample products which have already been highly rated.

“The head purchasers at Harrods said what they tasted in Dingle would beat most products hands down. For us, that’s a gold star from someone who is actually in the market of buying food products,” he says.

When Kerry became involved in the Blas awards, he had no inkling about how it would develop.

“I’m all about jumping in with two feet and dealing with the consequences after. The only awards I knew of were the Great Taste awards. I had a bit of an issue with having an awards system that, as I saw, was an English accreditation. 

"We would tell everyone how good and clean and environmentally friendly our food production was but we didn’t recognise it ourselves in some way. It was a no-brainer.” 

All of the work for Blas is done in a voluntary capacity by Kerry and his team in UCC.

“Blas is not a money-making racket. It was set up to make things better, to improve standards and food quality. That was the whole point with doing something scientifically based — the numbers don’t lie.

“We got into it, not because we classed ourselves as ‘foodies’ but to actually do something about what we were talking about. I’m in the public service and that means something to me. 

"I try to demonstrate that as much as I can. It’s not all about getting a pay cheque and saying ‘that’s my hours punched in, I don’t have to do any more’. 

"I’m getting paid well to do my teaching job, I could just wrap it up and go home in the evenings but I’ll take calls at home in the night from people I know who are stuck and need testing to be done.

“For me, passion is about demonstrating that you’ll go out and do stuff and help people. Nine out of 10 may not recognise that you’re doing it. 

"We barely cover costs, we do take a certain amount of money from each sample but that gets pumped back into improving things year.

“After the end of the judging process this year, we had so many samples, I had to speak to the technician here in UCC about buying about €5,000 worth of racking to go into our freezers,” he says.

Kerry and a team of 20 from UCC will have been in Dingle since Tuesday prepping the samples for judging on Thursday.

“The week in Dingle has become the platform that the industry didn’t have to meet each other. Every pub is full of people who wouldn’t meet or be in the same place as each other all year long. 

"They might usually see each other as a threat but when they are socialising, all the barriers break down. Distributors, retailers, producers are all there exchanging information and learning from each other.

“Amid all of that are the people with their food stalls actually doing the thing that we are rewarding. I take great comfort from the Dingle conversations. I’m really buzzing when I come back. The food industry will always do better when they talk to each other.”

IRENE QUEALLY

Chilled baby food company Pip & Pear took home gold, silver, and bronze at last year’s Blas na hÉireann awards. For founder Irene Queally, it represented a huge leap forward. “I was hoping we’d win just one. I really couldn’t believe it, I was on a high.”

Irene and her husband Bill opened No 9 Barronstrand St restaurant, Waterford, two years ago. As a mother of two young children, she was conscious about providing healthy food for babies and toddlers and began to test dishes in the restaurant. 

“It was great because we got really good natural feedback. People would tell us what they did and didn’t like — in a test group, the set-up can be false.”

Irene had seen a gap in the market for chilled meals — to provide the best alternative to home-cooked food for time-strapped parents.

“When my son Luca was born, my mother-in-law gave me an Annabel Karmel recipe book. When it came to weaning I hadn’t a clue, but I loved making the food from the book. 

"I found I’d be licking it as I made it. That didn’t happen with the jars and pouches of baby food.”

On the back of Blas, Irene developed the range further and launched in SuperValu and Aldi this year. 

“Blas really validated the quality of what we were doing. I love the fact that it’s taste-tested, it’s all about the quality.” 

Irene is now concentrating on building the Pip & Pear brand. 

“I don’t have a degree in marketing or anything, but I think a lot of parents are warming to the story, they get it. Parents in general want the best for their children, and it’s great being able to give it to them.”

JOHN LYNCH:

Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella is a unique product already making a big impact in outlets throughout the country. 

Farmer John Lynch set up the company in April with the help of cheesemaker Seán Ferry and Lina Racine, formerly of Bord Bia. 

His has the only buffalo milking herd in Ireland and all the milk is turned into cheese on the farm.

Lynch was delighted to make the Blas shortlist on the company’s first submission to the awards. 

“I was absolutely thrilled because it’s a special product. On the farm there are 175 animals and we’re milking 65 at the moment — we calf about 60% in the spring and 40% in the autumn, so we supply milk all year round, and cheese all year round as a result.

“We’re supplying a lot of the multiples as well as restaurants and hotels. We’re happy, everything we’re making we’re selling, and if we had more we’d sell more. We’re growing at the right pace, we’re making between 1,000 and 1,500 kilos a week.

Lynch believes the exposure provided by Blas will help the company’s growth.

“Our plan is to grow employment. We employ five people at the moment, and another person works on the farm. We’d hope to grow to 10 because we’d see production going as big as 2,500kg in the next couple of years. We plan to go into different cheeses. 

"We’ll see what suits us, because you need another cheese for those times of the year when you can’t sell all the mozzarella — halloumi seems to be working well.”


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