I have been AWOL from my website – absent without leave – but all for a very good cause. I have been leading a judging panel for my professional body, the Guild of Food Writers, for their Awards in recognition of work published in 2020. I headed up the Food Writer category judges, for works published in magazines and newspapers.

It all began back in December with contacting Guild members whose names had come out of the proverbial hat to judge. Generally people are delighted to be asked and, with few job opportunities to take people away from home in the winter months, there was a ready acceptance of the judging invitation. Last time I had been involved the number of entries was in the teens and so I was saying it wouldn’t be too onerous. That was a mistake as there were thirty entries this year, each of five articles. That’s a lot of detailed reading to do in a four week period.

We received entries in March from national and regional press; from people who wrote for one publication or for many; from those who were subject specific and others who could – and did – write about everything and anything in the food world. There were pieces about local food producers needing direct sales support during the Pandemic; about towns and cities that usually thrive on food tourism with speculation as to how or if they would re-open. There were laments from people used to cooking for others and now just feeding themselves, crying out for the conviviality of a shared meal. Of course there were plenty of amusing stories about making do and substituting ingredients, and odes to the joys of sourdough baking aplenty. If ever there was a mixed bag of entries this was it with every piece demanding that every word should be read and considered. It was a satisfying yet exhausting process and one that was very good to be involved in.

Perhaps the actual process of judging was so tiring as entries came in as links to files or on-line publications. Just as people talk about Zoom and Teams fatigue so screen reading is very tiring on the eyes. Luckily most of my proofing work for my books was done way before the digital age and on paper but the few times that I have had to proof on-line have certainly been more trying.

Of course I cannot tell you anything about the long-list, short-list or winner at this stage with the Awards party being on-line in June. The Guild has had some wonderful Awards events over the years in places as diverse as the London Canal Museum in King’s Cross with its incredible ice well, essential for establishing an ice cream trade in London; the Fishmongers Hall on London Bridge (the food there was incredible!) and the sublime Delfina in Bermondsey where I became friends with the incredibly talented chef Maria Elia. Latterly the parties have been at Opera Holland Park but as they are always a Hot Ticket in the food publishing world it will be a virtual event again for these Awards as we steer cautiously out of COVID restrictions.

I’d like to give a big shout-out to my fellow judges who made the whole process of coming to our shortlist and winner decision so very enjoyable. They truly reflect the diversity of the Guild and all have their stories to tell.

Pete Brown, champion of traditional British food and drink

Pete Brown is an expert on beer and consumption cultures and that is how I first heard of him. Based in London, he is currently chair of the British Guild of Beer Writers and is often a guest on BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme. He seems most interested in the very convivial and fun side of the industry – a good pint and a bag of crisp, freshly fried fish and chips. What’s not to like about a man who can base a career on that?!

Sarah Giles is a writer, editor and blogger on food and gardening and hosts a blog about cooking from her veg plot in East Sussex. There are several people who are members of both the Food Writers and Garden Media Guilds and there is an insatiable appetite for reading about veg growing and what to do with the produce – although getting people to pick the fruits of their labours is often the most difficult bit! So Sarah already knew Barbara Segall, the fourth member of the judging team, through their shared double Guild memberships.

The Great British Bake-Off launched Chetna Makan into the world of food writing and TV in 2014. Her way of combining the best of British produce into a healthier style of Indian cooking, from street food to family dishes that she enjoys at home with her family in Kent, is delicious. Although baking remains her great passion she is championing a lower fat way of cooking authentic Indian food – to meet public demand and so that she is still able to indulge her sweet tooth.

I think I first met Barbara Segall, the final member of our judging team, at a salads and herb day for the Guild of Food Writers in the early 90’s at West Dean Gardens as part of the first Chichester Food Festival. Her lifetime’s work in horticulture was recognised in the autumn of 2020 with the Institute of Horticulture’s President’s Award. Barbara is someone who has always been there, sharing her huge knowledge, especially of herbs. We don’t see each other often enough.

As you will have gathered The Awards a pretty high-powered affair and would not be possible without sponsorship. The Food Writer Award is sponsored by Kamado Joe BBQ’s which are serious pieces of kit. Reading through the list of sponsors for this year I was delighted to spot Farrington Oils, producers of cold-pressed rapeseed oils (only olive oils should be referred to as virgin or extra virgin oils). I visited Duncan Farrington many years ago with the Guild and LEAF and was hugely impressed with what they were doing back then. They remain the leader in the highly competitive field of rapeseed oils and dressings as far as I am concerned.

Now the judging is done and there is much to catch up with on my blog. Hold tight – there might be a flurry of posts!