Valentina’s view from the Midlands Produce Awards judging
As soon as I swept into the centre of town I was immediately struck by the contended grandeur of Royal Leamington Spa. The wide, tree-lined avenues and solid elegance of the huge, creamy Regency houses gives it a very special and rather aristocratic vibe.
The very popular and well-attended Leamington Food & Drink Festival took place in the Royal Pump Room Gardens, which unfortunately were not looking at their best this year due to ongoing works. But once all the stalls were up and the space was filled with happy visitors braving the slightly wet conditions, nobody really noticed the underlying mess.
The Leamington Food & Drink Festival, now in its impressive 11th year is a very well organised and chilled free event that brings together about 130 exhibitors, from local restaurants and pubs to a whole host of local street food sellers and producers. The Royal Pump Rooms no longer contain spa facilities, sadly all that bathing and taking of the salutary waters ended a long time ago, but there is a museum and an art gallery inside the building that is the backdrop to the festival.
This time, the elegant Fisher & Paykel trailer was not our judging space but we were in a lovely cosy tent well out of the rain, and this is where our three very strict judges convened to begin the process of judging all the entries from the East and West Midlands region.
With me this time was Alison Swan Parente, founder of the amazing and extraordinary School of Artisan Food and recently one of the judges on the BBC TV series Top of the Shops; the outstandingly well prepared and diligent John Wrigley – a local farmer and past judge of the Produce Awards; and standing in for an absent Glynn Purnell was the super enthusiastic and delightful chef proprietor of local Queans Restaurant, who took to the process like a duck to water and kept us laughing throughout the 22 tastings we had to work our way through.
I asked her why her restaurant is called Queans and she told me it is a word connected to her Glaswegian roots, where the word means “badly behaved, impudent girl or woman” – I’m very happy to report that Laura was neither badly behaved nor impudent!
I asked her why her restaurant is called Queans and she told me it is a word connected to her Glaswegian roots, where the word means “badly behaved, impudent girl or woman”
The Fisher & Paykel ovens really had to work full tilt this time, as we had lots of free-range meat entries that needed perfect, even roasting before they could be tasted. And as usual, those amazing ovens did not let us down, despite being on the ground in a slightly muddy, damp field – as ever I was really impressed with the cooking results.
We also had to judge and taste several aesthetically stunning entries from Wye Valley Salads, including a beautiful and very extensive collection of 26 edible flowers, some of them more palatable than others but all of them extraordinary to look at! I was amazed by the very definite chickpea flavour of the very pretty chickpea flowers and I think I speak for all the judges when I say that the whole experience was a real revelation for us all, what a treat! I mean, when does one ever get to taste so many edible flowers all in one go?
The latest venture from the “garden bowl county of Herefordshire”, where the growing happens, is Barbe di Frate, or agretti – an Italian green vegetable that I am very familiar with and which was also entered for judging.
This spindly, grass like vegetable is slightly sour, reminiscent of sorrel....
This spindly, grass like vegetable is slightly sour, reminiscent of sorrel, and like samphire is delicious when steamed and dressed with a little extra virgin olive oil or melted butter, but can also be eaten raw in a salad and is fabulous with pasta when sautéed in chilli, garlic and olive oil.
I was thrilled to introduce my judges to this little known but scrumptious vegetable, it deserves to be better appreciated. Barbe di Frate, by the way, means Monks Beards.
Congratulations as ever to all the successful entries that have been shortlisted for the finals at Borough Market with Pru Leith next month, and my sincere commiserations to everyone who didn’t quite make it through.
There are still two more rounds of judging: at the Abergavenny Food Festival next weekend, and then at Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival at the end of the month. So not long to go before we can find out whom our final winners will be!
Hope to see you at Abergavenny or Aldeburgh!
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