It's just gone 10am on a sunny June morning and a waiter has brought out my third plate of salt. I gobble it, by the spoonful. To my left, on the green-clothed table, is a plastic shot glass containing my next course: a fragrant olive oil from Sicily. Dessert is six different types of smoked ham.
An odd start to the day, but then again, today I'm a judge at the final of the 17th annual Great Taste Awards – the British food world's equivalent of the Oscars – so all bets are off.
Along with a battalion of other food writers, chefs, cooks and assorted TV presenters, I've come to Pillar Hall in Kensington to put my palate to the test, in an attempt to find the best artisan food on sale in the UK. And, as the organisers make clear, it's not something we should take lightly.
The black-and-gold Great Taste Awards logo is a familiar sight to anyone who has set foot in a deli, farm shop or independent shop. It is a nod to consumers that what they are about to lift off the shelf is the real deal and, unsurprisingly, the nation's cheese-makers, vintners, bakers and pie-makers are falling over themselves to try to win one for their products.
You get a clue as to how well regarded the award is among producers by looking at the list of entries, which is longer than your arm.
This year, 7,481 products have passed across the judging tables – an increase of 20 per cent on last year.
John Farrand, who runs the Guild of Fine Food, which organises the event, said: "There is nearly as much crying [as the Oscars] when we call people to tell them they've won. It makes a real difference to the small producers. They can go to the big food halls and say: 'Look, we've won a Great Taste Awards star – you should stock us'."
GTA stars are nearly as elusive as their Michelin counterparts. Of the 6,400 products submitted last year, less than 10 per cent were awarded a star. A mere two per cent won the three-star maximum.
Farrand goes on: "It is a lengthy process – everything is blind tested and tried by revolving teams of judges, but it allows us to properly separate the wheat from the chaff. And give consumers what they want – an impartial guide to what's on offer."
The awards certainly fit snugly into the post-recession trend for posh home dining.
"Everything changed with the downturn. People have less money to eat out, but still want good-quality food, so they've turned to the speciality food sector," says Farrand. "It's a good time to be selling speciality food." On 18 March every year, the Guild of Fine Food opens the Awards and the first wave of produce flows in. By mid-April, the blind tasting is in full swing and 300 industry experts begin tasting everything from smoked duck confit to crunchy English apples.
To win a star, a minimum of 20 judges need to agree that it's of unassailably high quality. To get three stars, it must be deemed flawless. It's at this point that the winners are submitted to the Supreme Panel for consideration. Now if the final judges are made up of the foodie great and good, the supreme panel are the gods (or at least they are a bit more famous).
This year, chef Antonio Carluccio, food writer Charles Campion, blur bass player-cum-cheese-maker Alex James and BBC Radio 2 food correspondent Nigel Barden are lending their tastebuds and stomachs to the fine food cause. The panel's verdict will be announced on 5 September.
My own seven-man judging panel may be short on pop stars, but it's long on depth of knowledge and expertise, even if some of the descriptions being thrown around are a little florid.
"It's like rolling in fresh grass," says the buyer from one of the larger department stores, of some olive oil we've just tasted. Not to be outdone, the proprietor of an up-market deli seated across from us offers "sunshine on the tongue, heat in the throat". Sunshine? Fresh grass? I'm ashamed to admit it, but to me it tasted like a slightly peppery olive oil. Luckily, Giancarlo Caldesi, chef-proprietor of Caffè Caldesi and a bubbling brook of enthusiasm for all things Mediterranean, is on hand with some advice.
"Have you taken part in oil tasting before, young man?" I confess I have not. "Allow me to show you."
"Wrap the glass of oil in your hands – warm it a little to release the aroma," he says, "then sip it, drawing it back over the full range of tastebuds."
And, damn me if I can't taste cut grass. Caldesi is obviously a man to take notice of.
The next dish out is a steaming-hot joint of ham. Tender, slightly sweet with an interesting herby edge to it, it sends us all into paroxysms of delight. The adjectives fly and we go in for second helpings. Surely this is a perfect 10? As I pop the maximum score in the box on my judging sheet, a different plate of ham emerges from the kitchen. But what's this? It's just as subtle, just as well smoked. What to do?
"Keep looking back at your scores," says Nicola Graimes, the author of 20 cookbooks and a veteran of the Great Taste Awards. "That's the secret – don't be afraid to chop and change if a later dish changes how you feel about something you tried earlier."
But couldn't this go on for ever, until my sheet ends up looking like some early cubist painting? How will I know when I've come across the best product? "You'll know it when you taste it," says Caldesi, soothingly. "The taste, the texture – it will whack you; fill your mouth and make you want to find out more about what you're eating. That is the mark of truly great food."
Deciding both hams have sufficient whack to them, I give each a round 10 and leave the task of differentiating to Alex James.
Three hours into the day and my palate is feeling the strain. Is that salt I can taste in honey? Honey in the oil? Because the food is grouped by the geographical region, rather than by type, flavour cross-over is a distinct possibility. In fact, as I'm finding out, it's a certainty. "Water is the key," says Nicola Graimes. "Great reservoirs of water."
A bottle of Evian later and I'm no longer so concerned about the salt intake of Britain's bees. I am, however, concerned about my stomach. By noon, I'm full. My table alone has sampled nine meats, two oils, a pesto and an olive paste, a host of jams and spreads and half a confectionery shop's worth of chocolate, to say nothing of the drinks – both soft and alcoholic.
"That's the pleasure and the pain of being a food judge at this type of event," says Nicola Graimes. "You get to eat all the best food around, but by the end of the day, you don't want to look at another plate of food."
At 2pm, Charlie Westcar, the briskly efficient administrator-in-chief, announces its time for lunch and an assistant zooms around collecting the score sheets.
"If you'd all like to come through we will be serving a light lunch," she announces. A light lunch, after all that food? I stroll out into the room in which my fellow judges are taking their seats. I look towards the buffet table, see the food – and I'm lost.
There, on the two long green tables, is plate after plate of three-star-winning food: smoked salmon, juicy beef joints, seared pork, vast quiches and the largest plate of salad I've ever seen.
That's the problem with Great Taste Awards' food – it is just so damned good.
Five of last year's award-winning products
Six O'clock Gin
Distiller Michael Kain created this gin in homage to his grandfather, a former navy man who would have a gin and tonic at 6pm each day. Lots of fruity flavours and a nice elderflower twist.
Aubrey Allen Fresh Lobster and Fennel Bisque
Creamy yet fresh, this lobster and fennel bisque wowed judges last year. The key, according to Rob Bean, who created it: vast amounts of lobster shell.
Wye Valley Beer Cake
It may be made by a teetotaller, Leslie Cornthwaite, but this moist cake is bursting with rich stout and chunky bits of fruit.
£4, www.franksluxury biscuit.co.uk
Jervaulx Blue Cheese
This mature blue cheese, a creamier version of Wensleydale with lots of blue veining, was a big hit with the judges and came top in the English region.
£1.99 for 140g, www.jervaulxblue.co.uk
Oddono Pistachio Di Bronte
"Faultless," said the judges of this gelato from Sicily. The pistachios used as a base are grown in volcanic soil taken from around Mount Etna and impart an "intensity of flavour and wonderful murky green [colour]".
From £3, www.oddonos.comReuse content