Thank you, Cat, for agreeing to our email interview.
First, would you tell us how long you've been writing about food and judging chocolate?
I have been writing about food for the last few years. I have a baking column, a kind of first person narrative, tales from my kitchen, under the name Cookie Bellair. I write that for Cakes & Sugarcraft Magazine. If you look of my website; Chocolate Couverture, I have an archive of those articles on the features page. I have also written for The Spectator, for it’s food supplement Scoff, until that sadly became defunct last year.
As to judging chocolate, formally that is, The International Chocolate Awards this year was my first gig.
How did you get into writing about food?
I have always been a foodie, and taken my cooking, and eating, very seriously. I have cooked for other people, not just in my home, but bringing food to them, for as long as I can remember. About a decade ago that became something I was being asked, and then paid, to do. So for a couple of years I was working quite hard as a private caterer, everything from parties to full blown sugar-rose topped wedding cakes! My strength is really the sweet stuff.
During that time I met Beverley Dutton, whose businesses include Squires Kitchens Cookery School, where I teach baking occasionally, and Duttons Publishing. They publish Cakes & Sugarcraft and various wonderful glossy wedding cake magazines. I have always loved to write, and food is a natural subject for me, so all the while I had been writing about the cooking I was doing. Beverley asked to look at my writing, then rang and offered me my own column the next day.
Is the competition to be a food writer fierce? How do you get yourself noticed?
Yes the competition is very fierce. I was at the Guild of Food Writers Annual Awards Ceremony the other night, and looked about me at a room full of the great and the good of the industry. There is a lot of talent, and you have to knock on doors really. I was lucky in that I was already working for someone whose empire includes both cookery schools and foodie publishing. And Beverley Dutton is very supportive of those people she feels have talent. I couldn’t ask for a better or more inspiring mentor.
Well as I said, I have really only just started. But my special interest in chocolate has been life-long. As a child, particularly when in France where I have family and there was more variety available, I used to buy the best bars I could afford and I would compare them. I think I even made notes!
As an adult, I have written about chocolate for Cakes & Sugarcraft in some detail. I was aware of an increasing focus on it in terms of my interest, I was doing a lot of tasting, going to events, and focusing on it in my baking too. So I launched my website, and I have progressively been meeting and working with more and more people in the industry. They appear to have recognized in me a useful palate. It is on the back of that that I was invited, first to judge the semi-finals of this inaugural International Chocolate Awards, and then even to be involved in the pre-selection rounds.
How many times have you been a judge?
So I have been a judge for the pre-selection rounds, and then the European semi-finals, this first year of awards. I don’t yet know what the rest of the year will bring for me. The Americas round will be held in September, and then the World Final is in London in October during Chocolate Week.
As a starting point nothing would be considered fine if it had any fats other than cocoa butter, or any artificial flavours. Of course any really off notes would be a no-no, for example chocolate ought not to taste of coconut. You also want a good texture and melt, with a small enough particle size. If something is a rustic product, with an intentionally different texture then that might be acceptable. But otherwise texture, and also quality of tempering and a good colour are basic points.
Beyond that, while each judge will inevitably have their preferences, you have to know how to recognize and reward quality. That would mean knowing when the beans have been well treated, not burnt. You need to be able to tell if you have indifferent beans masked with an excess of cocoa butter or sugar.
It is also important, and really of growing interest to all chocolate experts, to be aware of when a chocolate is true to the personality of its type of bean. Maricel Presilla (Grand Jury member of The International Chocolate Awards) has a great knowledge and focus on this. For example a Madagascan chocolate is likely to contain a fair amount of red fruit notes, even tropical fruit flavours. Whereas a Nicaraguan can have olive notes. Both are correct, you might like one more than the other. But a chocolate that is celebrating the true flavours of the bean should be rewarded.
As to your point about competition standards or individual judges standards being important. I don’t know how other competitions are run, but Martin Christy (co-founder) and the rest of the advisors on The International Chocolate Awards have gone to great lengths to develop judging forms and methods that ensure that the achievement of an award, or rejection of a chocolate, is not at the mercy of when, or by whom, it is being tasted. The process is an elaborate one, involving blind tasting, groupings of judges, very detailed forms and the like. It is also all done with absolute transparency, so all to view on their website.
I was very impressed by how much is done to ensure fair and expert analysis.
I have tried many palate cleansers, and have also been lucky enough to benefit from the work done by Alex Rast on this. He is a scientist and chocolate reviewer for SeventyPercent. His discovery is that the best for really clearing away all tannins and residues is utterly plain soupy polenta. It sounds odd but it truly works. And you need a glass of water on your judging station too!
Prior to the International Chocolate Awards there was extensive test judging, which included palate tests. It was found that 20 chocolates was the maximum for most people before their palates started to go off. So we tasted between 15 and 20 chocolates only per session as an upper limit.
Have you found that your work as a food writer and judge has impacted your everyday enjoyment of food? If so, would you give us an example of this effect in regards to chocolate?
On my enjoyment no, on my waistline, quite possibly! Actually I think it has increased my enjoyment. Knowledge is a wonderful thing. Firstly in that understanding of an individual chocolate, its beans, its history, how it is made, gives me a great appreciation of it. Secondly, I now know about so many fantastic chocolate makers and producers that I may not have come across if I hadn’t been so focused on it. And there are more wonderful things being produced all the time. I love my job and truly look forward to all the tastes and discoveries.
Thank you so much, Cat, for this interview.