Why I love January – and the FreeFrom Food Awards!

Catherine Rose of Sweetcheeks and the Printworks Kitchen explains

BBQ

Not to gloat but January for me is a pretty awesome month. My parents looked at me in disbelief when I said I’d be working two jobs throughout January so that I could come back to Foods Matter and help with the Free From Food Awards again. Well, I asked/pleaded/negotiated and Michelle took a deep breath and agreed to let me come back and help.

But what’s so great about the Free From Food Awards that I’d want to work two jobs for a month and totally knacker myself out? The answer is “What is not so great about the Free From Food Awards?” (Hereafter known as FFFA to save character count!)

It’s incredible to work on the FFFA because they are actually so much more than just awards. It’s not just a rosette on a prize but it’s something that the whole free-from industry comes together on – whether its suppliers, consumers or food industry experts.
Being at Foods Matter when the awards are going on is like Christmas all over again; the chaos, joy, military precision of timings.

In the kitchen is myself and Katherine (with a K) puzzling over a recipe whilst a pot simmers, frying pan is soaking in the sink (lack of non-stick pans was last year’s challenge) and a pinger is pinging for one of 3 ovens!
Upstairs is Cressida who is chopping chocolate, buttering bread, filling water jugs and preparing paperwork.
Sue is making epic coffee. And Alex is eating biscuits - probably.
And amongst all of this is Michelle who is the epitome of calm with a clipboard after hurriedly typing up the previous day’s results.

And then, the judges arrive. It’s wonderful. The judges are from all backgrounds: bloggers, product developers, buyers, manufacturers, marketers, and hungry, allergy-stricken individuals looking for something that makes them go “WOW”. There’s such a mixing pot of experiences to share even before judging starts.

But this collection of judges also points at something else: an understanding of the free-from industry as a whole and how we can work together to develop it. As the judging starts, the comments on a product’s ingredient use, taste, availability, ingenuity and sheer necessity begin as judges' personal experiences play a role in how the product is judged.

Expectations within the industry are higher every year as technology, product development, consumer needs, awareness and understanding of the issues spread. In many cases, the free-from products are already at parity with the quality of 'omnivore' products but availability is still a problem. Those small ingenious suppliers creating stunning puff pastry or nut free peanut butters (for example) need to get their products into the mainstream – and these judges and the prestige that winning an award confers definitely starts that ball rolling.

Then there’s follow up, which can be experienced in its fullest sense at the Allergy Show in Olympia every summer. And that is the consumer’s experience.

One of the hardest thing being a free-from consumer is watching incredible, exciting products starting to emerge. Often these products cost 4 times the price of their ‘regular’ counterpart and they are often gambles. By that I mean, you get them home only to be quite often disappointed by the quality or taste. I’ve had that recently with some gluten free products I bought in Selfridges (no names mentioned). Totally disappointed in the quality even regardless of the extortionate price they were charging!

But imagine now that you could check out a list of FreeFrom Awards' winning products that really could make a difference in your life and be assured that you wouldn’t be wasting your money.

For example, a few years ago Swiss dairy-free cheese maker, Vegusto, won their category and the overall award at the FFFA. How incredible to be a vegan or follow a dairy-free diet and find a 'cheese' that didn’t taste like chalk and really was worth the money!

So the awards helps the consumer in a massive massive way.

As far as the industry is concerned, they can only be helped by competition. Last year Feel-Free’s donuts were a standout entry into the awards and made me realise that my own company, Sweetcheeks, needed to up its game (even though ours are baked and vegan etc etc). But think of the improvement in pasta or bread over the years driven by competition. And how large supermarkets now invest in small FFFA winning brands and their genius product developers.

FFFA

What I guess I wanted to say is that the FFFA really are a wonderful pillar of the industry we all play in. And before you say anything, there is no gun to my head and I’m not angling for a pay rise. I genuinely relish this month I get to spend at Foods Matter as I personally get a deeper insight into this industry and meet incredible people doing incredible things. And I get to help and be a part of something that really is driving the industry forward in an incredibly positive way.

Post Script: I realise I’ve made this whole thing sound too awesome and now everyone will probably want to take my role next year, so just to throw you off…it’s really awful here. Honestly. I’m just masochistic.

January 2016

For the winners of the last 8 years' FreeFrom Food Awards see here; for hundreds of freefrom food see here.