“Would you be interested,” the email from a friend read, “in judging for the Blas na hEireann awards on Saturday afternoon? The category is ‘Bacon and Bubbly.’”
“I’m in,” I emailed back.
Judge bacon, I thought? I’ve been training for that since I first ate solid food at six months old. And bubbly? Who doesn’t love a good Champagne or Prosecco?
Blas nah Eireann, The Irish Food Awards, are the premier competition for Irish food products. Over 2500 entries are judged each year, vying to win the prestigious Gold, Silver, and Bronze awards. Judges, I read on their website, “come from a wide range of food backgrounds; they are chefs, restaurateurs, academics, journalists, authors, caterers…” I started to get nervous at this point “…and enthusiastic home cooks.” There it is, I thought, that’s me! I cook, and I am nothing if not enthusiastic! Still, it felt daunting to be among such experts.
I saw myself sitting around a large table with food experts of every stripe, keeping a low profile, eating bacon and quaffing Champagne–almost a brunch-like atmosphere. Maybe there will be mimosas, I mulled. And the cráic should be massive.
When I first set foot in Ireland in 1972, Irish food was, how can I phrase this…filling. I remember my first dinner at a cousin’s house in Mayo. The usual suspects were arranged in the center of the table: cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and some type of meat boiled until it was beyond recognition. It could have been a bowl of stewed prunes as far as I could tell. This exact dinner was repeated multiple times on that trip. I have a vivid memory of a young cousin coming in from the farm yard, sitting at the table, pulling his penknife from his pocket, wiping it on his pants, spearing a spud from the bowl, cutting it up into pieces that he dipped in salt, and using the knife to pop them into his mouth. Like I said, filling.
But what a revolution there has been since that time. We are surrounded in Dingle by superb beef and lamb, most of our veg comes from just over the Connor Pass, and small craft producers along the West coast make cheese and chutneys and ice cream and sweet and savoury snacks. Irish food producers and chefs are known throughout the world for their quality and innovation and Blas na hEiriann honors them. And I was going to be, in a small way, involved. Plus, it was bacon.
An hour later, an email arrived from Blas na hErieann, with directions to the event, details about the judging procedure, and rules about social distancing and sanitation procedures. So, I realized, no large table with the banter about the entries flying fast and furious among the judges.
And one other thing: the category now read Bacon & Carbonated Drinks. Could that mean choosing either Pepsi or Coke to accompany the bacon, I wondered? I’m more of a ginger ale man, myself.
Saturday afternoon I arrived, early as usual, at the venue on Grey’s Lane and, after washing my hands in the sink near the front door, was shown to my seat at a small table in the corner by a woman wearing a face shield. On the table were hand sanitizer, Dettol wipes, plastic cutlery, a stack of paper towels, and two bottles of water. A plastic lined rubbish bin sat on the floor beneath the table. I removed my mask and waited.
Around the room, separated by at least two meters, were a few other tables equipped like mine. Soon the other judges trickled in and found their tables: a chef, a woman who runs food tours in Dingle, and a professor of food science. I felt a bit intimidated.
A fellow who seemed to be in charge explained the process to us. Individual samples would be brought to our tables, which we would evaluate on attributes such as Appearance, Aroma, Taste, Texture, and Market Appeal. We were to rate them on a scale of 1 to 12 in a program that we accessed on our electronic devices. The evaluation program was developed in conjunction with food scientists from universities in Ireland and has been adopted by other food competitions around the world. I was impressed, though I wondered why the scale went up to twelve rather than ten. It must be like the amp in Spinal Tap, I reasoned. If ten is the best, twelve must be better.
“We’ll start with the carbonated drinks,” the woman in the face shield announced.
The first sample arrived at my table, delivered by a different face-shielded woman.
“This is an apple cider,” she told me.
I lifted the sample to my nose and had a good whiff. I took a sip and rolled a drop around my tongue like I was sampling a fine whiskey. I swallowed, then tilted back in my chair in contemplation before turning to my I-Pad. I was still flummoxed by how I was to rate the texture of a liquid when the face-shielded woman set the second sample in front of me announcing, “This is a raspberry infused tea.” I scrambled to finish rating the first sample before tasting the tea. I gave the tea a better score on texture because it had bits of raspberry pulp floating in it.
I managed to get a bottle of water opened to cleanse my palate before the face shield was back. “This a kombucha tea,” she said.
I can truthfully say that I can think of no earthly reason to drink kombucha tea. I find it vile stuff. But in the interest of science and the promotion of Irish producers, I took a taste. It confirmed my preset opinion.
We worked our way through nineteen samples–some good, some bad, and some, I must say, quite tasty. There was another cider that caught my fancy and a lemonade that was outstanding. This is the price that must be paid to identify the very best, I reasoned.
But now we were moving on to bacon. I took a sip of water in preparation. I was born to do this.
“This is unsmoked gammon.”
Let’s do this, I thought.
Wait, gammon? Aren’t we judging bacon? You know, rashers and such. Maybe one or two pieces of streaky bacon for variety.
It turns out that the term bacon in Ireland refers to a large variety of cured pork products. Gammon – like the piece in front of me – ham, back bacon, streaky bacon, bacon chops – all dry cured or wet cured, and smoked and unsmoked.
“Collar bacon, smoked,” the face shield put another plate in front of me. I cut a small slice.
“Ham fillet. Dry-cured.” Another bite. And a sip of water. Enter my ratings.
“Green bacon.” Bite. Sip. Ratings.
“Streaky bacon.” Sip. Open the second water bottle. Sip. Ratings.
“Back bacon.” Sip. Sip. Sip.
And so it went, through twenty-five samples of bacon and two bottles of water. Bacon makes you thirsty.
At last we were finished. We binned our detritus into the receptacle, tied up the bag for disposal, sanitized our table, and put our masks back on before standing up to leave.
“I’ve met my salt quota for the week,” I said to the chef as we made our way to the door.
“I would murder for a pint right now,” he responded, “but the pubs are still closed.”
I left the venue and popped into the cheese shop next door for a tub of Dingle goat cheese. The proprietor is also a chef, teacher, and judge for Blas na hEireann. We talked about the awards and their importance to Irish food producers.
“I worry that I may have been a harsh judge of some of the products,” I confided.
“Don’t you worry, Jim,” he assured me. “The only way to improve your product is to hear what others think of it. The good ones will tweak this and change that and come back next year with something better. They need and want your opinion. There are no overnight successes.”
We also talked about the contrast of tasting bacon and kombucha.
“I mean,” I said, “even bad bacon is still bacon, but kombucha?”
“Tasting for Blas na hEireann is like life, isn’t it?” he answered. “One day you’re tasting steak, and the next vinegar.”
Isn’t that the truth, I thought. I picked up my goat cheese and headed home.