Food awards: let's hear it for the independent

You won't find many of the winning products at the Great Taste Awards in the supermarkets - not even those frequented by Jamie or Delia. These prizes champion the little guys, says Jenni Muir
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"Mmmm," moans Diane Bennett, as she swallows another scoop of fiery lime pickle. "That's the sort of thing I sneak to the fridge to eat by the spoonful late at night."

Judging the diverse categories of the Great Taste Awards certainly requires an iron-clad stomach (Diane's roster for the afternoon included 10 hot chutneys, 10 types of coated nuts and 10 milk chocolates), but it's astonishing how judges can keep nibbling at the best of the entries.

In the end, the lime pickle took a bronze award while golds went to caramelised shallots from Mrs Pook's Kitchen and mostarda di voghera from Giudetti Fine Foods. But don't be surprised if you can't find these items on the aisles of your local supermarket. The vast majority of products entered into the Great Taste Awards, organised by the Guild of Fine Food Retailers (GFFR), are exclusive to the independent trade and the competition is speedily growing in esteem because of it.

Diane, who is co-owner of the prestigious west London delicatessen Mortimer & Bennett as well as a committee member of the GFFR, highlights the frustration many independent retailers feel with food importers and manufacturers. Having promoted an exciting new line to their opinion-forming, foodie customers for a year or so, the deli's supplier achieves a supermarket listing and stocks for the deli dry up. Like many innovative retailers, she is fed up to her discerning molars of being imitated by supermarkets. Only this week Diane Bennett threw out a group from one major multiple who wanted to photograph Mortimer & Bennett's shelving in order to show how they could improve their own stores' merchandising.

The Great Taste Awards has grown enormously since its 1994 début, when the organisers realised that so many esteemed brands were missing from the competition that they went out and bought them so judges could conduct a credible survey. Now Bob Farrand, the director of the Guild of Fine Food Retailers, shakes his head in bemusement at this year's 1,875 entries in 105 classes, some of which were so large that they had to be broken into two, demanding 160 categories overall and 100 judges assessing products in four sessions over two days. It is indeed an organisational nightmare, and one requiring full commitment from the judges.

So why do it?

Bob recalls: "A lot of artisan food producers can't afford fancy packaging and marketing programmes. I wanted an award scheme based on the question every human being asks about food: 'What does it taste like?' – and then to discover which is the best."

The judging is always conducted as a blind tasting. "The beauty of it," says Bob, "is that it takes away people's preconceived ideas. As with any competition, there are some judges who could be considered to be pro-supermarket lines, and others who refuse to believe a food is good unless it's produced by one person working at a kitchen table. Blind tasting really sorts the wheat from the chaff."

Occasionally it proves that good brands are available in supermarkets – this year, for instance, Duchy Originals performed well, as did Bonne Maman, the popular French jam. But as Bob points out, while you may find Bonne Maman's apricot jam in Tesco or Sainsbury's, the gold-award-winning cherry and kirsch jam is a line currently available only in independent stores. Diane Bennett admits that there is a select band of speciality "über-products" that earn their shelf space no matter who else stocks them – Wheat Wafers is one – but as far as she is concerned, a successful future for the independent trade relies on small suppliers working closely with small retailers.

"It is difficult for suppliers to expand their business relying solely on the upmarket independent trade, which is obviously not large. But a fast-growing band of suppliers is exclusively committed to the independent trade because they have experienced how fickle supermarkets can be." Furthermore, she adds, supermarkets may try out some trendy lines, which staff in the stores don't know what to do with or where to find. "We had a customer in here just the other day buying Argan oil from Morocco," says Diane. "It is theoretically available in Sainsbury's, but when she went in there to buy it the staff told her they'd never heard of it."

Mike Cook of The Foodfinders, which supplies Bonne Maman and other products to the independent trade, ran an independent store himself for six years. He believes that this is why the speciality fine-food trade can prosper alongside supermarket chains. "Any consumer who wants to understand food better needs the help of retailers who know their stuff. As a fine-food retailer, you're a source of inspiration and information – a public service to make food interesting."

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