Tag Archives: judging

Third year a charm

When the email inviting me to once again participate as a judge of this year’s Free From Food Awards dropped into my inbox a couple of months ago, I started the necessary planning to ensure I could get to London and be away from home for a couple of days. Mike was booked to work from home for my 2 days of judging, I arranged for a bed at the FFFA headquarters and my annual leave was booked from work. It seemed as if everything had been meticulously planned and since the start of the year, I’ve been counting down excitedly to the days themselves. Needless to say, and just in case you hadn’t picked up from the tone of my above writing, things didn’t quite go as expected and life once again proved that even the best laid plans can go awry.

First of all, my arrangements to go the night before my first day of judging had to be tweaked when Mike was due to be working over 2 hours away and wouldn’t be home before 7pm that evening. The thought of the 2 hour train journey late at night and then travelling on to the FFFA house with the likelihood that I wouldn’t arrive much before 10.30pm that night meant that instead I had a quick rethink and booked myself on to the 6am train the following morning. With the tickets booked, it looked like everything was back on track and it was full steam ahead once again.

And then ‘flu struck; and with 50% of the household taking to their beds, I suddenly had to rethink it all. I was reluctant to give up my third year of judging completely and so reached an agreement with my husband in his sick-bed that I would head off on the 6am train as planned, but instead of having some time to myself and staying in London, I would instead return at the end of the day and pick up my nursing duties where they had been left off over 12 hours before. It would mean a long day for me with not much chance to rest and recover, but I knew that the day itself would rejuvenate me as I spent it with the fantastic bunch of fellow judges that have become friends over the last couple of years.

My choice of category this was “store cupboard”, something I hadn’t previously judged and one that I had found quite intriguing in previous years. This category encapsulates a vast selection of products that could be found in your kitchen cupboard (flours and packet mixes), fridges (mayonnaises and sauces) or freezers (cook from frozen goodies). With 49 items to taste, evaluate and score, this is a long day, which contained a lot of laughter thanks to the people I was with. I’ve made no secret that the last 12 months at work have been challenging ones and it proved to be a real reminder of exactly what is important in life and provided a focus on just how lucky I am to have such opportunities away from the 9-5 drudgery of the day-to-day.

There were a lot of products for us to try and some were definitely better than others. I think it fair to also state that some were better received than others, with the occasional one leaving us all scratching our heads as to why exactly they’d been entered into the awards. With a choice of 49 different items to taste during the day, I wanted to bring you the highlights as I saw them and although not all were safe for M, they would all be an ideal addition for G. In no particular order, I loved these:

Orman’s Vegan Easy Egg – a fantastic egg replacement product that produced an omelette that not only tasted just like the real thing, but had a similar texture as well. I hadn’t come across this before, but I absolutely loved it.

Probios Mayorice – a rice-based mayonnaise that was a good alternative for regular egg mayonnaise and, even better, was pretty much M-friendly (allowing for the fact that we have no idea whether he can tolerate mustard or not!).

Thai Green Curry sauce – I can’t remember who this was made by (Co-op maybe?), but it was a delicious and aromatic version of this popular Thai dish. Marketed as gluten-free, but sadly not also dairy-free as the manufacturers had decided to use double cream to thicken the sauce. Despite that fact, I enjoyed the mouthful I had.

Spice Sanctuary’s GF Asafoetida – This is one I’d never heard of, but is a fantastic gently aromatic spice blend that can be used to replace onion and garlic in your cooking. Not an inexpensive option, but you only need a little to flavour your dishes.

I once again had a fab day finding new products and taking some great options away with me to experiment with at home. Judging finishes this week and the results will be announced at the Awards ceremony in a couple of months’ time.

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Back to the Judging table

Today Mike and I have enjoyed what feels like a rare day off together. We’re away from work, away from home and away from the constant complexities of parenting 2 children with an interesting selection of food allergies between them. Instead, we have been privileged to spend the day in London as part of the judging panel for the Free From Food Awards 2017 (#FFFA17). You may remember that last year saw my debut in this exciting role and, thanks to the generosity of my Mum in providing some invaluable childcare and the need for a “normal” person in the selected groups of tasters, Mike was able to join me in the experience. It was last year’s involvement that kicked of an exciting year of opportunities for us all: from discovering our very own set of superheroes including the wonderful Ryan of Borough 22 to attending the Awards ceremony with a broken leg; not forgetting the introduction of GalaxyGazer and Marvin to their own readership and my involvement with the Free From Eating Out Awards 2016 – gosh, what a busy year it has been!

Our day started off a little later img_13641than normal with the “Meaty and Fishy Ready Meals” category. I enjoyed some of the new products that I discovered when judging this round last year, though was disappointed to find it difficult to find some of my favourites once the Awards were over. I was looking forward to seeing what new products I would uncover this year, especially seeking out anything suitable for G. Much as I enjoy cooking and usually prepare all our meals from scratch, I love finding those quick alternatives that will make busy evenings just the tiny bit easier. There were some great foods on offer, including a delicious gluten-free quiche from Asda, some highly contentious coronation chicken sausages and a great selection of microwave-able meals. To my delight, I came across 3 dishes that I thought were absolutely amazing and would be more than happy to buy for G. The first were the most delicious Sweet Quebec sausages from Slightly Different Foods. All foods are initially judged blind so that our opinions are not unduly influenced by any preconceived ideas img_13671about any of the suppliers or manufacturers of these products. I was thrilled to discover after the tasting who had made these sausages as we had stumbled across this company at last year’s Allergy and FreeFrom Show and our lengthy and enthusiastic conversation with owners, Sonia and Steve, evidently encouraged them to submit an entry to this year’s Awards. The sausages contain that classic Canadian combination of bacon and maple syrup and are bursting with flavour. I have no doubt that G will absolutely love them and the simplicity of the ingredients makes them a great choice for many with food allergies.

Next was a fantastic Chicken Tikka Masala with rice, which was unexpectedly manufactured by Pure, better known for their range of dairy-free alternatives to normal margarine. I had absolutely no idea that they made other free-from foods and this curry was beautifully fresh with a great selection of vegetables and even some quinoa included in its list of ingredients. Finally was my run-away favourite, a beef casserole with dumplings from Tesco, which is gluten-, dairy- and egg-free. The meat was tender, the gravy rich and the dumplings a surprise bonus on an already superb ready meal. I’m not convinced that G would choose either of these 2 options for an evening meal, but I would be more than happy to serve her both.

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A Power of Superheroes

What is the collective noun for a group of superheroes? Any idea? I didn’t know off-hand, but as I looked around the room at the amazing group of people gathered to celebrate the 2016 Free From Foods Awards this week, I realised that that’s what I was in the midst of: enough superheroes to make any allergy sufferer’s heart flutter. Ever since I spent a fabulous 2 days judging these amazing awards at the start of February, the ceremony had promised to be the highlight of my season and, with M and G in their new role of diary contributors to the Foodsmatter newsletter, the whole family was lucky enough to be invited to attend.

13095812_10153421370696123_3435156642706845396_nM’s broken leg required some significant amendments to our original plans, but we were determined to get the family, wheelchair and all, to the event, held near Regents Park, London at the rather impressive Royal College of Physicians. We planned to leave as soon as the children finished school, which left ample time to reach our destination and even allowed strategic stops along the way to primp and preen ourselves for the evening. We all had new clothes for the occasion and G took the matter so seriously that she hand-wrote a note for her hanger to remind herself not to wear them before the day itself. Our journey started well and as we travelled along the motorway, the children took turns to pick songs for us all to sing or compared what cloud creations they could spot out of their respective windows. Naturally things couldn’t continue in that relaxed manner and we soon joined a queue of stationary traffic that had me biting my nails and stressing to the hilt that we wouldn’t reach London in time. Fortunately for all concerned, Mike has a much calmer Cg-yOG8WIAAwdZYhead than me and was our nominated driver for the night. The traffic eventually started to move, we crept past the accident site and soon were back up to speed and on our way without me completely losing my cool. We stopped just once and Mike, G and M were all able to nip into the service station toilets to glam themselves up for the evening. I was too anxious about our timings to take 5 minutes out to change myself and the following hour or so was filled with moments much reminiscent of Dirty Dancing – remember Baby changing on the back-seat of Johnny’s car? – as well as hysterical giggling from M as I contorted my body into unbelievable positions to don my own new outfit.

Of course, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. We arrived bang on time and thanks to the helpful College staff, we were able to park in their car park to ease the burden of manoeuvering M and his wheelchair around. Convoluted lift systems negotiated – seriously complicated as we had to go down from the ground floor to the lower ground floor before taking a different lift up to the first level – we were finally there and the children were thrilled to receive name badges of their very own. From the moment we stepped into the room, I was surrounded by a group of innovative, interesting and fantastic people who all had one thing in common, their passion for the freefrom market. Some of them I had had the honour to meet at one of the judging sessions, others I know from social media, whilst others I’d never met before, but as we made our way across the room, being hugged and kissed by new friends and old, I realised that I really did feel at home with them. We parked M’s wheelchair close to the stage so that he could observe all the proceedings with ease and my thanks go to the Romer Labs UK representatives, one of the Awards sponsors, as they made sure he could see what was happening at all times.

Michelle Berriedale-Johnson was the emcee Cg_buJJW4AUTEpIfor the evening and the awards presented by celebrity chef, Antony Worrall Thompson, who gave what has to be the quote of the night that “..free from people should not be seen as niche people but normal people..”, which was great to hear. It was wonderful to see so many creative and innovative producers receive commendations for their hard work and the winners were all deserving in their categories. It was good to remember some of the fantastic new foods that I had tasted and wonderful to see G so excited about the gluten- and dairy-free offerings available that her own mini fist-pumps could be seen as she heard who the winners were. The full list of winning entries can be found on the Awards website, but a special mention must go to the winner of the FAIR trophy for the Best FreeFrom Food 2016, Nutribix. I was particularly thrilled to see this breakfast cereal win, not least because I had been fortunate to judge the Breakfast products category in February and absolutely loved it. Nutribix is an amazing product, reminiscent of Weetabix and unlike anything else available on the freefrom market at the moment. nutribix-awt-mmoWe’ve still to track down a box in our local supermarkets for G to try, but I’m even more determined to get my hands on some now that one of my favourites has won the overall title.

It was an unmissable night and we could easily have stayed for hours chatting to the other attendees. G and M were on best behaviour and did some impressive networking of their own – politely introducing themselves and chatting confidently to the adults in the room. I received several compliments from those they spoke to, which makes me immensely proud. G was absolutely buzzing from the thrill of having canapés and a buffet that were, more or less, all safe for her and certainly enjoyed the food – the surprise hit of the evening being water buffalo canapés which she declared “delicious” and helped herself to more as soon as she could. It was wonderful to have the time and opportunity to put faces to names of so many other allergy bloggers and companies out there and whilst I won’t even attempt to list them all for fear of forgetting someone, they know who they are and I can’t wait to the next opportunity to meet up. The free from community can sometimes be surprisingly small, but it is also very close-knit and these are people that I’m delighted to be able to describe as friends. Even better, we already have a date in mind and many of us will be able to reconnect at the Allergy and Free from Show at Olympia, London during the weekend of July 8-10th. There’s also the Free From Eating Out Awards coming up later in the year, which is looking to recognise nationwide chains as well as independent restaurants who go the extra mile to provide safe meals for their allergy-suffering diners.

Special mention has to, of course, go to our very own superhero, Ryan from Borough 22 doughnuts. He got one of the loudest cheers of the night, partly aided by our very exuberant family, as well as 2 very much deserved Highly Commendeds for his doughnuts. The highlight of M’s evening was meeting the man he now terms his “personal chef” and even more thrilled that Ryan signed his cast too. It says a lot about the difference this man has made to M in such a short space of time that today even his teacher understood why M was so excited to have met “the doughnut man” in person.

Oh, and I still don’t know what that collective noun is, but I rather think “A Power of Superheroes” fits the bill perfectly! MzQ1QzM3M0E4MzFCNjM4QjYzMUY6YWUxNzkyMGNiZWRkMjJhNGIyYWI2YTNlNDZiNGJjODM6Ojo6OjA=

Inside the Free From Food Awards 2016

I’m writing tonight’s post in the peace and quiet of the hotel room in North London that has been my home for the last 2 days. It feels a little surreal to be away from my sound proof bubble at home, where I desperately try to ignore the perpetual chaos of family life that swirls around me and I can’t quite get used to being able to write completely uninterrupted by demands for food or drink or the need to referee between any 2 of the other 3 members of my household. It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve been counting down to these days away for months and have had to work incredibly hard to not spill the beans about my involvement with this year’s Free From Food Awards, #FFFA16. I feel incredibly honoured to be included on the judging panel and have enjoyed every moment of this experience.

fffaFor those of you who are not in the know, the #FFFA are the brainchild of Michelle Berriedale-Johnson and were launched in 2008 to celebrate excellence and encourage innovation within the free from food industry. Each year a group of judges from across the allergy and free from community are invited to taste a variety of new free from products and rate them on quality, usefulness, innovation and nutritional value. The foods are all tasted “blind” in the first instance, with names and packaging removed so that the products really are assessed on their own individual merits. Then follows an active discussion as each individual judge is asked to help reach a group consensus on the category winner and which other products deserve to be shortlisted, commended or given a highly commended award. Given the judges have a variety of backgrounds from free from food professionals to health professionals and from allergy sufferers to allergy bloggers as well as the occasional “normal” person to compare each item to their non-allergy counterpart, you really do get a rounded point of view about what makes the highest quality free from product. Believe me when I say that any manufacturer who wins a category is producing something that has impressed across the board.

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This is what judging confectionery looked like!

I was keen to judge the Breakfast and Tea-time categories as I felt these were areas where it would be amazing to find some new foods to tempt G and was delighted to be included not just on those panels, but on those for Confectionery and Meaty & fishy ready meals too. The ready meals was a real added bonus for me as, whilst I cook from scratch 95% of the time, the option to have some good gluten- and dairy-free meals stowed in my freezer for those occasions when a quick meal is needed for G was incredibly attractive. The number of entries was overwhelming to a #FFFA16 newbie and I was extremely grateful to Ruth at What Allergy who had advised me to skip breakfast that first morning to ensure I had space for all the foods I’d be trying. With 36 breakfast products, 22 confectionery items, 32 meaty & fishy ready meals and 26 tea-time treats to taste over around 12 hours, no wonder I left London feeling extremely well fed.

Even better I found some great new-to-us foods that I thought G might like to try and these are my top picks from each category:

  • IMG_0089Breakfast: Nutribix – a great alternative to the well-known breakfast brand, Weetabix. These were MEWS-free, taste delicious and would definitely provide a hearty, healthy and filling breakfast. I particularly liked that they were so reminiscent of their wheat-filled counterpart, a cereal that G had loved when she was tiny in the days before we knew she needed to be gluten-free.
  • IMG_0093Confectionery: Eskal Chocolate Wafer Rolls – I have to be honest and say there was a whole host of amazing chocolates for this category, which left me in some of a chocolate-induced haze by the time we got to the end of the judging session. However, these wafer rolls were the stand-out product for me as they were light whilst still being indulgent, deliciously tasty and would make a great accompaniment to a bowl of ice-cream for that extra-special twist. The only downside is that they currently contain soya, especially as they are amazingly gluten-, dairy- and egg-free.
  • Meaty & Fishy Ready Meals: I can’t begin to tell you how impressed I was with the vast range of free from ready meals that we got to taste and, to my delight, this category produced 2 top picks for me. The first is one that G will love and that would have ticked so many boxes for M pre going elemental. Tesco is adding a gluten-, dairy-, egg- and soya-free scampi to their own brand Free from range, which I’m sure will prove to be a huge success with many allergy families.IMG_0094[1] I’m so excited for it to hit our shelves in the next couple of months and can’t wait for G to try it. My other choice is something I know G won’t want to try, but it ticked so many boxes for me as it was tasty, free from and could be prepared in the microwave in less than 5 minutes, truly the quintessential ready meal. Better Than Rice Chicken Massaman Curry introduced konnyaku rice to me, which has a completely different texture to normal rice and I’m looking forward to trying it out with M. He might not be able to eat the rest of the dish, but with such a limited diet, this new rice will bring an interesting twist to mealtimes.
  • Teatime: By the time my fellow judges and I reached this final category in my judging timetable, I was definitely suffering from a little food fatigue. As M calculated for me when I got home, I had tried over 100 different free from offerings in my 2 days away and had enjoyed a good many of them. doughThe teatime category was again filled with a delicious array of biscuits and cakes, but there was one product that for me stood head and shoulders above the rest: the amazing Borough 22 doughnuts. These were impressively gluten-, dairy-, egg- and soya-free and also vegan, but most definitely not flavour-free and were the biggest hit of my #FFFA16 experience. I know that doughnuts are one of those indulgences that so many allergy sufferers really miss and these will more than ably fill a definite gap in the market. Not only did I get to savour them, but even better, the #FFFA16 team offered me the remaining 6 doughnuts to take home for G and my girl has been delighted to receive this treat.

My thanks go to Michelle, Cressida and the rest of the team at the #FFFA16 for their welcome and commitment to encouraging development in the free from community. I loved every moment of my time as a judge and have met some great individuals who work in different aspects of the allergy world and were a lot of fun to work/eat/disagree with over the 2 days. The shortlist of contenders for the final awards will be published on February 10th and the winners announced at the awards ceremony in April. I can’t wait to see who won in each category and share some more of these innovative products with you.

Some of the amazing free from cakes