In a recent BBC2 series, The Big Allotment Challenge, contestants were set a series of challenges to make preserves from produce grown on their allotments.

Each week, “Best in Show” cards were awarded to the couple who produced the best preserves on the day. Watching the judging, so different to how I judge, prompted me to reflect on the skills, knowledge and experience required to be a show judge.

Training a Show Judge

In the UK, formal training of preserves judges can be traced back to 1928, when a kitchen for teaching domestic food preservation was opened at the Long Ashton Research Station, Bristol University. One of Long Ashton’s programmes examined the development of preserving methods for domestic consumption. This led to lectures, publications and courses. By 1932, members of the Women’s Institute (WI) were attending preserving courses organised by staff at Long Ashton. When the Station closed in 1977, the WI incorporated their courses into Home Economics and Judges’ certificates.

During the mid-to late-1990s, when I trained to be a judge, I took part in rigorous courses of instruction in making and judging preserves. This was followed by months of practical judging, shadowing some of the most experienced judges in the country, and judging as a trainee under supervision. To complete the training there was a nerve-wracking practical exam, which still haunts me.

As a judge I expect to have a clear, up-to-date knowledge of preserves, including products masquerading as preserves; an ability to evaluate and a desire to encourage exhibitors. I was trained to be impartial, suppress preferences and avoid developing a personal resistance to a type of preserve. When judging, I was encouraged to disregard my high personal standards and evaluate the standard of entries presented to me on the show bench.

Judging in Practice

Whenever I receive a schedule for judging, I check which preserves are in the competition. If I haven’t made any of the preserves for a while, and if the season allows, I will make them. It reminds me of the skills required for each preserve to be made successfully, and enables me to comment with authority. Throughout the year, I make a range of preserves to keep myself up to date with different recipes and the effect of variable weather on fruit and vegetable harvests. I continue to exhibit to maintain my personal standard and to remind myself of the time and effort needed, as well as to enjoy the occasional drama of competitions.

Giving appropriate feedback to competitors verbally and in writing is a skill acquired during years of frequently making, tasting and judging preserves. I can never be 100% certain as to what went right or wrong in a jar as I was not present whilst it was being made. However, there are common faults which reappear frequently and new ones as some poor quality recipes and methods become popular. If a preserve tastes less than exciting, I think it but don’t say it. I once attended a masterclass from a judge who tasted 30 jars of chutney. Not once could I read her thoughts from the expression on her face.

With my comments, I aim to be helpful, encouraging, precise and relevant. If I see the comment ” a nice jar of jam” or ” a good try” without further explanation, I assume the judge is inexperienced. I make a positive remark, followed by constructive criticism. By explaining what might have gone wrong and how to put it right, should encourage the exhibitor to enter again. I follow a mark scheme with points for the external standard ( the container), and the internal standard, colour, quantity, quality ( consistency and texture ) and flavour and aroma. Using a mark scheme usually means that all the jars are judged consistently and finding the winners will be straightforward.

A new judging season beckons and as I pack my judging kit for World Jampionships, and other competitions, I’m hoping to learn from the jars I taste, and from fellow judges as there is always something new to learn as a show judge.

More posts relating to The Big Allotment Challenge

Preserve Your Own – Strawberry Jam

Preserve Your Own – Rhubarb Jam

Preserve Your Own – Strawberry and Black Currant Curd

Preserve Your Own – Sweet Corn and Pepper Relish

Preserve Your Own – Tomato and Pepper Chutney

Preserve Your Own – Redberry Jelly Recipe

Preserve Your Own – Piccalilli

Preserve Your Own – How to Make Syrups and Cordials

Preserve Your Own – Fruit Butters & Cheeses

Preserve Your Own – Preserves as Gifts

Containers and Covers

show judge

show judge

Man made Marmalade