I like to think of the Good Food Awards as the premiere red carpet event for folks who love food. It's a talent-filled event that celebrates everything right in the growing real food movement. Top-level food makers, farmers, food journalists and independent grocers, organized by Seedling Projects, created the Good Food Awards to recognize the very best in local, artisanal foods.While flavor is certainly a major consideration, what makes the awards extra special is that each contestant must also demonstrate a commitment to responsible agricultural practices through the sourcing of their ingredients.
Who gets to decide the winners? Great question. Blind tastings were held back in October. Judges were drawn from all over the Bay Area’s food scene including such culinary luminaries as Sam Mogannam, the owner of Bi-Rite Grocery, Margo True, the food editor of Sunset magazine and…me.
Initially, I was given the choice between judging cheese and preserves. I kind of overdid it with dairy the last time I went on a cheese tasting (thank you Cowgirl Creamery!) so I went for preserves.
My fellow judges were seated three to a table in a room full of other judge’s tables. In our area there were three or four tables of preserve judges who would be handling different regional jams. Further out were the tables for the other categories like spirits, charcuterie and bread.
The two people seated with me were the owner of a food photography app called Foodspotting and a lawyer for an angel investment group focused on small food vendors. All three of us were new to the world of jam judging, but quickly figured out the ropes.
Each table was served by a judge’s assistant who filled us in on all the things we should be looking for in our preserves (which are further classified in subcategories like jam, jelly, marmalade and fruit leathers). The labels of each jar were concealed with tape, so all we knew about each were the ingredients.Was the seal tight an intact upon opening? Each time the assistant opened a jar we listened for the hard crack of the seal breaking or the smooth sloop of a vacuum being filled. Once open, how was the headspace of the jar? Too close to the lid might indicate unwanted fermentation. Too far from the lid demonstrates sloppy packaging.
Color should be vibrant and representative of the ingredients listed, not dull or muddy. The flavor should be good, but balanced. Capturing fruit picked at the peak of season can bring a preserve from good to excellent and shows a deeper knowledge of the farming process.
Just like there are fashion trends, there are trends in jam. In years past zany flavor combos like rhubarb and bacon were popular. The most exceptional jams this year tended to be very simple affairs with one or two key ingredients. A sweet Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato jam and a simple peach jelly were true standouts. That said, this was definitely the year of lavender.
In my opinion, the best flavors were from the Midwest and Northeast regions of the United States. These preserves tended to be the simpler one or two ingredient batches. They’re a little less flashy, but stand out with a sturdy traditional vibe that professionals in the food business always dig.
We also tasted some small batch vinegars. That was a bit of a surprise because vinegar is not what you’d think of as a preserve, but they were in the category anyway. If you haven’t taken a shot of pure homemade vinegar, you haven’t lived. There are subtle, almost kombucha-like flavor notes that I’ve never experienced from mass produced vinegars.
The final round of judging was fairly intense as we debated the merits of our favorites and had to make hard decisions. Was the egg yolk creaminess in a sweet caramel spread too thin? Is the Fresno chili pepper jam a little too hot? When you’re trying to decide between equally excellent flavors, the smallest details matter.
In the end, I think the winners can be assured they got a fair shake from really thoughtful people who know their food. Any of the jams I tasted would’ve been a standout at breakfast or brunch and I’d seriously recommend picking up a jar or to from whoever wins.
If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area on January 19th, I highly recommend stopping by the Good Food Awards Marketplace to get a taste of what all the contestants have to offer.
What is the most amazing or unusual jam you’ve ever tasted? Tell me about it in the comments below.
Second photo by Jonathan Fong; third photo by Marla Aufmuth.