Pud-Hog: Judge! The International Chocolate Awards.

Crikey O’Reilly! It’s the Pud-Hog’s hundredth post! What better way to celebrate the centenary than by wallowing in chocolate?

That’s right, Ogglers. For those who didn’t already hear me squealing from the rooftops, a couple of weeks ago I was invited to judge the European semi-final of the International Chocolate Awards in London.

You heard.

Pud-Hog. Judging. Chocolate. Funnily enough, I said yes.

What madman would say ‘no’ to this?

Anyhoo, yesterday was my day of duty, so I made my way to the Southbank in earnest, having eaten a scanty old lunch of rice and cabbage (and put on my most sack-like outfit – the bigger the waistband the better).

The plan for the afternoon was as follows: two two-hour judging sessions, for which we would sample no more than twenty chocolates a piece, judging them on the specifics of taste, texture, aroma and appearance (as well as a whole host of other criteria – check out the forms if you’re interested).

Now, I’ve never judged chocolate before (not for awards at least), but I had a sneaky feeling I’d found my true calling…

Before our first session, we were thoroughly briefed on the dos and don’ts of judging, and given handy tips by various members of the Grand Jury. So, should you wish to create your own judging experience:

  • Allow the chocolate to melt in the mouth, don’t chew (ach! Ma Hog was right!)
  • When judging dark chocolate, start with the lower percentages and work up
  • Likewise, leave strong flavoured products – e.g. coffee ganache – to the end
  • Pace yourself – stick to little niblets, rather than eating all you’re given
  • Don’t discuss the chocolate while the room is in sampling mode – or, as speaker Martin Christy put it, ‘Try and contain yourself as much as you can’ [at the International Chocolate Awards?! No mean feat for a Pud-Hog]
  • Finally, be sure to ‘calibrate your palate’ as you go…

For those of you who’ve never heard of Palate Calibration before (like myself, about two days ago), this involves trying four set samples before the judging begins, noting down exactly how they taste (options include ‘woody’, ‘floral’ and… ‘chocolatey’), then retrying them at various stages throughout the judging process. That way, you can remind yourself of how your taste buds are supposed to be working.

Anyway, when at last we were fully equipped – with knowledge, water, spittoons and bowls of soupy polenta (of which more later) – it was time to get down to business.

In the first two-hour session we were judging dark chocolate origin bars (i.e. chocolate from a single origin cocoa bean) and the difference in taste was amazing. It was more like sampling wine than anything else, with flavours changing on the tongue (sometimes subtly, sometimes not), and the more experienced choosing to use the spittoon (not me though. I couldn’t let go).

As well as a great deal of concentration, the process demanded plenty of major palate cleansing. It was at this point that the bowl of lukewarm soupy polenta became my closest ally. Tasting of virtually nothing, with a texture like wet cotton wool, I gobbled it down between chocolates, clearing my mouth with cold water.

Bliss.

Two hours (and fifteen chocolates) later the origin bars were done. And no, before you ask, I can’t tell you which ones I liked the most because (a) they weren’t named and (b) a good judge never tells… Until the results are announced, that is.

Anyway, at last it was time for a break and a buffet, with everyone craving salads and salt (and some obsessives – myself included – unable to resist trying a cream-topped chocolate mousse. In hindsight I probablyshouldn’t have…).

At 4pm we launched into the dark chocolate truffles – much less intense than the origin judging, but (for me, at least) even more exciting. Again we had fifteen samples. Again I gorged on polenta. And by the end, like most of my fellow judges, I was ready to go on a detox.

Must… taste… everything…

Strangely tiring, is chocolate judging. In five whole hours I had sampled only 34 small pieces (and, ahem, a chocolate mousse), but was ready to drop by the end of it. At the bar I listened to tales of mass-sampling with a newfound respect for their tellers: 40 in a single sitting, over 130 in one day…

All that caffeine, all that sugar, all that critical thinking. It’s a blooming hard job, you know.

Still. Would I do it again?

Hell yes.

But next time I’ll try the spittoon…

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