June 5, 2012
It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it! The highs and lows of judging alongside the world experts in chocolate.
What do you do when asked to judge at the International Chocolate Awards 2012 by Martin Christy himself, co-founder of the event and member of the Grand Jury? When asked also to join him and a small select group for the pre-selection rounds, prior even to the European semi-finals? You say YES!! Of course!!
Then you go away and privately quake in your boots. For this my palate would need to be firing on all cylinders, there would be no place to hide!
This is arguably the most extensive, detailed and authoritative assessment of fine chocolate to date. The initial rounds were held in Italy in April, the Americas are up next in New York in September, and then the Grand Final, which takes place alongside Chocolate Week, will see the Grand Jury tasting and championing the best of the best, as the worlds medal winners slug it out back in London in October.
This is huge, and as this is the first year of these awards, I predict it will only get bigger.
The pre-selection found me in Lewes, around a table with a dream team of chocolate tasters. The Grand Jury consists of Martin Christy, Maricel Presilla; James Beard Foundation winning chef and author of The New Taste of Chocolate, Monica Meschini, Italian Chocolate and Tea Expert, Georg Bernadini, German Master Chocolatier and chocolate writer, and Nancy Gilchrist, Master of Wine and taste expert.
Due to the number of samples we needed to assess we were divided into two ‘teams’. My ‘team’ consisted of Martin, Maricel, Monica and me. No pressure then!
The aim of the pre-selection is to ensure an expert assessment of eligibility for the semi-finals. Chocolates that have no real hope of winning an award should not get through to semis, held in The Marriott, County Hall, and the larger panel of invited judges. It also ensures that the sheer number of samples is cut down to a more manageable amount. The semi-finals can then allow the chocolates to be examined in great detail, assessed by a more diverse panel, and reassessed by the Grand Jury before awards are considered.
The pre-selection was hardcore, as there was a lot of chocolate to get through, and we had a great responsibility towards people’s livelihoods and creative ambitions in our hands. There were some real stinkers in the mix! But there were also some things so sublime, that I am busting to tell you about them. However I am sworn to secrecy, if I told you I would have to kill you!
Unexpectedly one of the greatest highlights was not the chocolate but the people I met this week, in particular the Grand Jury members. A group of individuals so knowledgeable and driven, and yet so warm and inclusive towards me, that I felt I had found a spiritual home. I was quickly dubbed by Maricel an “emotional taster”, by which she meant that my feelings about a given chocolate were written on my face.
Fast-forward to the first rounds of the semi-finals on Wednesday in County Hall and I was seated at Maricel’s table being given strict instructions in her amused, but deadly serious tones, to find my poker face now we were amongst company.
In truth the whole event is organised with great precision and attention to detail. The scientist and Seventy% reviewer Alex Rast, has devised with the Grand Jury a method of assessment they like to call “managed subjectivity”. It is a quite brilliant multiple-choice scoring system, which makes it virtually impossible for a judge to misinterpret a given mark. Detailed scoring sheets (available to view online in order to ensure complete transparency) allowed us to give numerical marks. These account for a certain percentage of an overall mark. But key is that each number is accorded a descriptive assessment. This really keeps each judge on the same track, for example preventing two different judges from interpreting a mark of three as different levels of praise. It also prevents possibly unhelpful, personal, comments from intruding on fair judging when palates are a little jaded.
On that note, another of Alex’s innovations is the use of soupy polenta as a palate cleanser. It has a quite miraculous ability to clear away residual flavours or tannins. In addition, to ensure the greatest possible equality during tasting, all the judges took part in palate calibration throughout. What this involves is starting each session with a tasting of four anonymous couvertures. Each taster made detailed notes about the flavours found. One of these couvertures was then re-tasted every five samples, and responses were compared with the initial experience of that chocolate. In this way it was really possible to track how and when our palates might be diminishing or going off.
Three days of semi-finals later, six sittings, three trays of samples per sitting, a veritable ‘Who’s Who’ of invited expert foodie judges having taken part, and the week of highs and lows, discoveries and debate was over, for me at least. I made a fast retreat to Gillrays Bar in The Marriott with Kate Johns, Director of Chocolate Week and co-founder of these awards, to let off steam over a Jubilee cocktail. But the Grand Jury had to sit in deliberation into the night.
The votes have been cast, the stats are being given the most intense analysis, and the Grand Jury have their eagle eyes on it all. Keep your own eyes open for the announcement of the winners, which should come through in about a week. There will be surprises, there will be the potential to fulfil your greatest taste expectations, you will have before you your fastest route to the most exquisite chocolate to be found. That is until the next Grand Final hits town!
Watch this space for my Grand Jury interviews coming up over the summer.