There are things you do that you hope will become traditions and for me being a spirits judge is one. Judging the spirits category for the Great Taste Awards was one of those things for me. I went down to the Guild of Fine Foods last year and really enjoyed the experience. Sadly, my ambitions were seemingly thwarted as the date I was booked in for the 2020 judging was cancelled, like so many other things, due to Coronavirus. However, when I recently posted about my disappointment on Instagram, the Guild reached out to me, letting me know that judging for the Great Taste Awards 2020 had resumed, but with reduced numbers of judges on each day and increased social distancing. They invited me down.
Now this was very convenient to me because a. I am allowed out of the house now and b. I’m not pregnant anymore. So it actually worked out better to go to London this week, although it was an absolute SCORCHER. Some 35 degrees at least, according to my phone while we were there. In the relatively small room of the Guild building we were limited to 10 judges for each session, each with a clearly delineated workspace and personal set of materials – a laptop for recording notes, glasses, water and tonic, spitoon and the like. In between each session everything was of course thoroughly cleaned and disinfected and social distancing of 2m was observed throughout.
This meant that we worked in pairs as per last year, but took our own notes and comments down. It is such a useful experience to meet up with fellow professionals and recalibrate your palate. I spend a lot of time trying to write objectively about the quality of food and drink. Judging food and drink with other experienced judges and specialists really helps to test your assumptions. What does a good gin base spirit really taste like? Do I know what the very best absinthe is like in terms of flavours and textures? If I wanted to buy a toffee vodka, what would I be looking for?
This year we went through fewer samples too – allowing time for everyone to write judging notes. So it was a more considered approach in some ways. I really enjoyed the chance to test the waters (as it were) with my fellow judges. As you can imagine there are a few laughs along the way with spirits judging but with some of the quite out there flavour combinations we are seeing as people become more and more desperate to find a unique selling point in a saturated gin market, it can be quite exhausting – and not just to the palate!
Of course, I can’t divulge the discussions or scores, even with a blind tasting, but suffice to say I actually awarded 3* to two products this year. My first ever 3*! I look forward to the results being published so I can try to guess if the other judges agreed with me in my assessment.
Given that the Guild of Fine Foods is literally a stone’s throw away from Borough Market it would have been rude not to run through when I had the chance. I had very limited time (although we finished the morning session a little ahead of schedule) so I posted in the Guild of Food Writers Facebook group for recommendations of what to do and determined to follow up on as many of them as I could.
Now when it came to main meals, I was very tempted by some crispy chilli squid I’d seen in the fish market section, but it was a little anemic in appearance. I hit upon Oroshi and was glad I didn’t. Forgetting that it was a Tuesday, I hadn’t realised the Chancellor’s 50% off ‘Eat Out To Help Out’ scheme was in effect. I was a little disappointed to see that all of the vendors that were participating seemed to have put on a special menu to maximise the benefit from them, but not so much for the customer (except the Iraqi grill place – that place looked FINE – next time…) But the Oroshi Bento lunch menu was too tempting.
Homemade lemonade, shiso and pickles, gyoza, a bento plate – all for £10. I thought it was cheap, it really took me a long time to cotton on!! However, I loved it all. The pork gyoza were proper pot stickers with a lovely texture from the crispy base and a succulent filling. The chilli topping was spiced but not overly spicy. The vegetables with my bento were a little on the cold side but I loved them all – especially the aubergine, and the katsu chicken was fresh and crisp. Just incredible. I was frankly amazed that I got pretty much the whole bar side to myself. It kicked off as I left – just look at the image above for how busy it was moments after I walked away!
The most interesting thing I saw perhaps was just on the exit of the market, where a bunch of construction workers from a neighbouring site were leaning up against the walls of the market to eat their homemade packed lunch. Not a one of them was in the market, ‘eating out to help out’ – despite having the option of 50% off and one of the best places in the country to get food, arguably. It just goes to show that the economic stimulus is definitely about business first and not customers, and perhaps Borough Market is still not as accessible as it could be, which is a massive shame.
Next up was an unmissable recommendation from Bread Ahead doughnuts. When former Masterchef winner Julie Friend gives you a foodie recommendation, you darn well listen. Because Julie knows her onions. And her doughnuts. This was absolutely flawless. Perfectly fluffy dough, crisp exterior and perfect sugar coating – with a hugely generous filling of vanilla cream (with real vanilla of course). I’ve heard tell that the lemon meringue doughnuts are equally tantalising.
And finally, I went for the Ginger Pig recommendation. Out of so many fat traditional sausages I opted to bring the Boy home a generously sized set of Gloucester Old Spot native rare breed sausages, as well as a huge slice of traditional sausage roll. I regret none of these decisions.
Have you been to Borough Market? Where should I go next time I get let loose in the area?