Three hours was all it took, however, for a revealing, if not altogether flattering glimpse of the British organic movement - for, when the organic lobby is good, it is very very good, and when it is bad, it is shambolic.
Also judging everything from organic cornflakes to steak to guarana coffee substitutes were: Matthew Fort, the Guardian's food editor; Michael Raffael of Caterer & Hotelkeeper; Henrietta Green (no relation), editor of British Food Finds; Dr Angelika Meier-Ploeger, dean of the the Department of Nutrition at the University of Fulda in Germany; and Sarah Jane Evans, editor of BBC Good Food Magazine. Vocal but not voting, Miss Green's miniature dog, Violet, growled intermittently under the table.
Charlotte Mitchell, chair of the Soil Association, wandered in and out of the tasting room, and Robert Slater, a cheery and charming sous-chef from the Swallow Hotel in Birmingham, prepared some of the meat and vegetables
The categories sounded straightforward enough: dairy, baked goods and flours, fresh produce, meat and poultry, ready meals, preserves and condiments, snacks and confectionery, beverages. Yet the headings, better suited to supermarket aisles than tasting tables, cloaked pockets of sheer anarchy. Take condiments: a single sample of cider vinegar competed with olive oil, sunflower oil, mixed herbs, ketchup and honey. In the event, a clean-tasting sunflower oil from Midsummer Foods won.
Not only were we too often judging fish against fowl, we were also too rarely presented with the best of a class. The Soil Association says entry invitations were sent to every registered organic producer in the country. This disqualified small food producers who are organic in all but name, but who refuse to pay Soil Association fees (from pounds 100- pounds 300 upon certification, from pounds 100- pounds 300 each year and from 0.01 to 0.25 per cent of their turnover).
But two-thirds of those paid up and certified as organic failed to send samples. And those who did had to pay another pounds 25 fee. According to the organisers, 350 invitations were sent out to producers and 99 samples received.
Neither were the best of organic imports sought out. Olive oils are a good example. We had the greasy and harsh Astron Messinias oil, sold mainly in health food shops, but not the best organic olive oils sold in Britain: the Greek Mani and Spanish L'Estornell.
When it came to fruit and vegetables, we were offered better samples, if not variety. Yet you cannot taste an uncooked new potato. Sainsbury's Little Gem lettuce won, and good it was, too. This caused some embarrassment, given Safeway sponsored the competition. Safeway has shown an admirable commitment to organics, stocking 200 lines in all of its 350 stores, but it had not entered any of its produce; as sponsors, it felt it would be improper. Officers of the Soil Association felt no such compunction.
The dairy category was particularly disappointing. Cheese was the worst. Jane Maskew of the Specialist Cheesemakers' Association, knows of only 10 certified organic cheesemakers in Britain.
An organic certificate is no assurance of quality. Randolph Hodgson, founder of Neal's Yard Dairy in London, the nerve centre of the farmhouse cheese movement in Britain, says the best cheeses tend to be made along organic lines but without certification. The sad irony, he says, is that 'entirely rubbishy' factory-made cheese can be certified as organic if the producer buys in organic milk. At least one Philadelphia-style cream cheese we tasted conformed to that description.
Even the simplest category was mishandled. Sainsbury's entered a good milk. Organic milk is running off most leading supermarket shelves these days, at an average of 34p to 36p a pint compared with 30p for conventional milk. An obvious public service would have been to test the full range of supermarket organic milks, yet we were offered only one alternative to Sainsbury's organic cows' milk: Bonsoy Soya Milk, whose only conceivable virtue to its selective buyers is that it is not a dairy product.
We had two plain yoghurts to judge, one from Sainsbury's, one from Yeo Valley dairy near Bristol. Sainsbury's was good; Yeo Valley's was delicious and it won.
The snacks and confectionery category attracted the likes of Whole Earth crunch bars, competing against Green & Black's dark chocolate, a gourmet item containing 70 per cent cocoa solids and organic vanilla. Green & Black's won.
In the ready meals category, the wholesome but (to me) vile-tasting baby food, Baby Organix, provoked much discussion about what babies like and dislike. We agreed that spinach puree was good for them, so Baby Organix won.
Meats tended to be poor quality, a random choice of cuts and even charcuterie. Lots of bready sausages should have been entered under the flour category. A smoked bacon from Graig Farm in Powys tasted good and was praised by the chef for the way it fried. It won - but it had help from the cure. It is a shame that the unsmoked meats showed so badly.
By far the most impressive category was for baked goods and flours. It had almost 30 entries, more than twice the number of any other category, including: loaves from the Village Bakery in Melmerby, Cumbria; Cranks; Boscombe Manor of Boscombe, Dorset; and the Fine Ladies Bakery in Banbury, Oxfordshire.
Best by far of the prepared breads were those from Boscombe Manor Bakery (Christchurch Road, Boscombe, Dorset, 0202 301968). Matthew Fort and I especially admired its white flour loaf, which was lightly sweet.
Of the prepared baked goods, the Duchy Original Oaten Biscuits, written about by Joanna Blythman on these pages earlier this year, won for sheer excellence, in spite of arguments about elitism and the involvement of the Prince of Wales.
In fact, the Prince's biscuits provoked the hottest debate of the day. Among the baked goods, the best range we had to taste were the organic flours, but they had been pipped to best of category by a royal biscuit. So we broke the rules and accorded the top award, the trophy, to the superb flour of Little Salkeld Watermill in Penrith, Cumbria, one of the few remaining watermills in the country (see right).
Then we staggered off, dyspeptic, to watch Baroness Trumpington open the awards ceremony.
And, finally, the winner is . . .
AFTER much complaint and criticism, it is a pleasure to heap praise on Little Salkeld Whole Wheat Flour, the trophy winner of the 1993 Organic Food Awards. This product was notably better than the competition in its category, though it was a strong group that dignified painfully low standards in other categories.
Challenges came from the whole wheat flour of two leading organic millers, Shipton Mill and Marriages, whose products are sold in most healthfood shops. There was also an excellent whole wheat flour from Sainsbury's, and a small sack from Mill Green, another working watermill in Hatfield, Hertfordshire.
All the flours were made into whole wheat loaves, employing a minimum amount of salt and super fresh yeast supplied by Kensington Place restaurant in west London. All the breads were good. Two stood out. The loaf made from Sainsbury's flour was sweet and fresh tasting. The Little Salkeld loaf had the same sweetness, but with strong earthy tones as well. Every judge commended it.
Nick and Ana Jones bought Little Salkeld Watermill six years ago. He is an arts administrator, she a weaver. Yet their first reaction was to work the mill. 'We instantly realised it was entirely important and musn't be turned into a house, or taken to bits, that we must save it,' says Mrs Jones.
They hired a miller, Derek Martindale, who now mills some 200 tonnes of organic wheat a year, as well as rye and barley. 'We only use English wheat,' says Mrs Jones. 'It's just a policy. We think it's the most tasty. We buy a load at the time; we don't mix it. Every load is slightly different. We can always say where the flour that we're using comes from .'
The single-batch approach undoubtedly explains the distinctive flavour of Little Salkeld whole wheat flour. The other factor is freshness. Every sack of flour is distributed within a week of being milled. The sawdusty taste of many flours may be due to those long sell-by dates on the packets.
The Joneses refuse to sell to supermarkets, and deliver only within an 80- to 100-mile radius (as a watermill, it cannot work during a drought). But the vast majority of us who live farther away may order by post.
Little Salkeld Watermill, Little Salkeld, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 1NN (0768-881523). Mail orders from 1.5 ( pounds 1.10) to 29 kilos ( pounds 13.95), plus pounds 6.20 postage.
Midsummer Foods Organic Sunflower Oil, from pounds 2.05/500ml in healthfood shops.
Yeo Valley Organic Natural Yoghurt: from approx 39p/150g in selected Holland and Barrett shops and Tesco supermarkets.
Graig Farm Organic Smoked Bacon: available from the farm at Dolau, Llandrindod Wells, Powys (0597-851655) for pounds 3.13/lb and sold in a dozen shops. Ring for stockists throughout Wales and borders.
Sainsbury's Little Gem Lettuce: 65p/200g in outlets stocking organic produce, approx 200 of 330 stores.
Baby Organix baby food in flavours including carrot, spinach and mixed vegetables, approx 69-75p/190g jar. Available at Sainsbury's, Safeway, Waitrose, Tesco and Wm Low supermarkets.
Golden Promise Organic Beer: approx pounds 1.40 per 500ml bottle, available in off-licences and supermarkets.
Duchy Original Oaten Biscuits: made by Shipton Mill, Tetbury, Gloucestershire GL8 8RD. Approx pounds 1.30/300g, available in specialist delicatessens and food halls.
Green & Black's Chocolate: from pounds 1.89/100g in delicatessens and healthfood shops.
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