Wonderful food, a warm welcome and a beautiful location.

Taste of the West Comes to Manna From Devon

[This is one in a series of blog posts written by Charlotte the Intern.  Tune in daily to find out about what she’s been up to, what she has been learning about, and all of the crazy things she does as part of the Manna from Devon team.]

Well, living with Holly and David has really spoiled me.  I get to learn about and eat delicious food every day, live in one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen, with a view right down to the River Dart and over to Dartmouth, and work on the tons of cool projects that they’re always cooking up (literally and figuratively).  Also, this is the view from my desk at this very moment:

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Poppy likes to keep me company while I work away.

It’s hard to pick a favorite day, each one being so different from the next, but one of my favorite days so far has to have been last Tuesday, when Taste of the West came to Manna from Devon for the final judging of the West Country’s best product of 2013, judged by Mitch Tonks.  I didn’t really know what to expect, but when the good people of Taste of the West showed up with coolers filled with meat, cheese, cider, ice cream, and so many other fabulous West Country products, I knew I was just where I needed to be.

I enjoyed chatting with John and B while we set up the competing products in a line, duck burgers coming shoulder to shoulder with blood orange marmalade and West Country butter.  I wondered how it would even be possible to compare such different products against each other, a challenge that they admitted wasn’t insignificant.  But, they pointed out to me, each of these items is the absolute best in its category, representing the wide range of fine products being made right here.  Choosing the Champion is not simply difficult because each of the products are so different, but more so because each of the products are so uniformly excellent.  Incidentally, it strikes me that this “problem”, of having so many top quality products that it makes choosing one Champion almost impossible, is really quite a nice one to have!

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The table was laden with the best products from all over the West Country.

Then the judging started.  Was I really going to get to taste all of these incredible treats?  Was this real or just a dream?  I was like a kid in a candy shop, slicing off wedges of cheese and topping up my glass with bitter, hoppy ale while giddily spooning more sauce onto my sticky toffee pudding.  Meanwhile, on the more professional end of the tasting table, Holly prepared all of the items that needed cooking while Mitch went systematically down the line, touching, smelling, and tasting each item one by one.  It was fascinating to hear Mitch’s insights as he tasted, noting that each of these producers had attained a level of technical expertise in their craft that truly merits the kind of recognition and support that Taste of the West provides.

It was also amazing for me to see some of the ingenious ideas that West Country producers had come up with; the one that still sticks with me is Black Cow vodka, a vodka made in Dorset from whey.  Yes, whey.  The byproduct of cheese making.  Not only is that an ingenious idea, but the vodka was smooth and delicious, making it a product that is remarkable for its quality just as much as its novelty.

But the winner just had to be the guanciale made by Dorset-based Capreolus Fine Foods.  It was outstanding, with the perfect amount of fat to just melt right on your tongue, and cured perfectly, demonstrating a level of understanding and consistency that is incredibly difficult to attain.  Tasting that guanciale was like a revelation, my taste buds singing with each joyful bite.  I don’t even have a photo of it, it was gobbled up so quickly.

Other remarkable products were Sharpham’s Cremet cheese and Marshfield Farm’s Black Currants in Clotted Cream Ice Cream.  Sharpham’s Cremet is made with goat’s milk and cow’s cream and has the most fresh, creamy flavor of any cheese I’ve tasted in a long time.  And I’ve had a cheese tasting course as part of my degree.  Marshfield Farm’s ice cream was rich and tangy, perfectly balanced between the cream and the fruit and an excellent way to finish off a day of tastings.

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Tasters in action.

Tasting all of the products was obviously wonderful, but I also really enjoyed learning a little more about Taste of the West.  It is a very cool organization, which makes it its mission to find and promote the West Country’s best producers, providing them with the support they might need to expand their presence in markets both here in the UK and internationally.

The work they do is valuable for consumers, like all of us, who are faced with an extraordinary level of choice every day in which food products we can buy.  Often, it can be extremely hard to tell which items on the shelf are truly of the top quality.  But even more importantly, Taste of the West is valuable for producers because it provides resources that help them differentiate themselves from the ever-growing pack.  With Taste of the West as arbiters of quality, we as consumers know we can trust any product they endorse.  This is no small thing, and I think we could use a lot more people doing the type of work that they do.

Huge thanks to John and B of Taste of the West, Mitch, and to Holly and David for including me in this fascinating and delicious afternoon!  I won’t soon forget it.  In fact, I think my taste buds have been far too spoiled to ever let me.

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