A Good Food Experience: The Day I Spent Judging Charcuterie


The Good Food Awards, now in its fourth year, celebrates the kind of American made food we should all be eating more of — the responsibly produced and the lovingly crafted. This year marks the largest pool of submissions, 1,450, and the first where all 50 of the United States are represented.Categories include beer, charcuterie, cheese, chocolate, coffee, confections, oils, pickles, preserves and spirits.

The judging is done at a blind-tasting event held in San Francisco in September and winners are announced in January. For this year’s event, they’ll crown the winners on January 17th, 2014. Those doing the judging include artisan food makers, chefs, farmers, writers and die-hard foodies. This was my second year serving as a judge. Last year I tasted preserves opens in a new tab; this year charcuterie was my category. 

I’m passionate about a wide variety of food topics, but my expertise is in meats. I worked for Prather Ranch Meat Co. opens in a new tab for about half a decade before coming to Whole Foods Market®.

There were some really heavy hitters on hand including Bruce Aidells of Aidells Sausages opens in a new tab, Chef Paul Bertolli of Fra’ Mani Handcrafted Foods opens in a new tab and Chef Jan Birnbaum of EPIC Roasthouse opens in a new tab. The tasting itself was run by a few really great folks like Eric Miller from Mission Cheese opens in a new tab and Aaron Rocchino from The Local Butcher Shop opens in a new tab.

During a tasting judges sit at a table of three. I was paired with two of my favorite kinds of people: a chef and a farmer.One of my judging partners, Chef Christian Graves opens in a new tab, runs the kitchen at Jsix in San Diego, California. Jsix is highly regarded for the quality of its seafood, but it has a growing reputation as a charcuterie destination. Christian is one of those mad scientist chefs always trying new things, which lead him to start curing his own meats.

My other partner, Charlie Thierot, farms hogs in Chico, California at Llano Seco Rancho opens in a new tab. The farm has been in his family for 150 years. A unique feature of his operation is that his hoop house and field raised pigs are dry-fed on wheat and corn grown on the ranch. More than anything else, an animal’s feed affects the quality of its meat.

Here’s how the tasting works: Each team of judges is assigned a geographic region of the country’s charcuterie to consider. Our group was the South, which was apparent in our first flight, which included a molasses sweetened ham with a sharp bourbon bite and a nice chaurice.

Chaurice is a sausage you find in New Orleans. It has the creaminess of bockwurst and the soft chunkiness of boudin. Heat ramps up and then backs off just before becoming too intense, tailing off pleasantly, like pulling your hands away from a campfire.

The job of the first round was to eliminate choices for the next by group consensus. Important details, like fat distribution and texture separate the good from the excellent. One of the most important things I considered was that the cure didn’t overpower the animal’s natural flavor.

The second and final round was judged by individual scoring, rather than group discussion. Standouts for me were a rolled pancetta with butter soft rivers of fat cutting through mild pork and a salami with its exquisitely tender pieces of fat balanced by the addition of hazelnuts.

Hands down the most interesting thing I tried was pickled beef tongue. It‘s smoked and pickled whole, and then sliced. Flavor-wise, I’ve never really had anything like it. It introduces itself as the best cold roast beef you’ve ever had before revealing a deep mushroom-y earthiness. At the end, it leaves you with an almost imperceptible fermented sizzle that disappears as quickly as it came.

If all this talk of charcuterie has whetted your appetite, stop by and chat with one of our Team Members in the Meat, Prepared Foods or Cheese departments. They can help you pick out winning selections and suggest wine and cheese pairings. A charcuterie plate is a perfect start to a cocktail party and it works as a simple appetizer for nice home cooked meals. 

Do you have any favorite cured meats?

Food photography by Jonathan Fong for Gamma Nine Photography opens in a new tab, courtesy of Good Food Awards.

Explore More