FreeFrom Food Awards Ireland 2018

Cressida checks out what it is like to actually judge a freefrom food award – and goes whisky tasting while she is at it!!


Cressida's skilled eye inspects a pizza base at the FFFA Ireland....

I’ve never judged at the FreeFrom Food Awards in the eleven years they’ve been going because I’m busy running them and I know what the products are – but I have long been curious about the judges’ experience! So when I was invited to judge at the FreeFrom Food Awards Ireland I jumped at the chance.

I know that judging freefrom is a tough business: the judges go in fresh faced and eager, and can come out looking like they‘ve gone five rounds in the ring, such is the furious debate over and analysis of each product. But I didn’t know why. After discussing the merits of rice cakes, now I do.

Foodcycle“What is a rice cake for? Is it a snack or a treat? Should it be built to hold a topping? How well does it hold that topping? Is it a ‘bad’ thing that a sweet rice cake has as much if not more sugar than a triple chocolate chip chocolate dipped cookie, because the perception of the rice cake is that it should be healthy? But why? Why does the rice cake have to have the halo? Does the cookie actually deliver more in terms of nutrients because it is more than just rice and sugar?” And all this before we even discussed the freefrom pros and cons of rice cakes!

It is wonderful and exhausting, and I found myself enjoying getting really stuck in to debates similar to those I have heard played out over the years because this time I did not feel fiercely protective of the products. Running the awards means getting involved personally because large as the freefrom market is (latest figure for 2017 is £800m) it is still only a fraction (around, probably less than 1%) of the food sector overall. Companies making freefrom foods give so much energy, emotion and attention to detail because the cornerstone of freefrom remains providing for the allergic community, those who cannot risk consuming even a trace of allergen for fear of suffering a severe or potentially life-threatening reaction.

What’s the history of the FFFA Ireland?

FoodcycleThis is the wonderful John Burke (entering up the judging spreadsheet – with me double checking that we have got everything right!) John has been judging at FFFA for years. Having been diagnosed coeliac as a boy he brings decades of experience to the sessions. He is a harsh but fair critic of the products we set in front of him, and brings his knowledge to bear on the final judging day where we hammer out who gets the overall prize, the winner of the FAIR Trophy for the most outstanding product of the year.

A couple of years ago he decided to start the FFFA in Ireland and using the FFFA as a basic template has done this very successfully. It is a formula that works – companies trust these awards because products are tested blind and the standards are high. Winners of awards go on to win contracts all over the food scene from retailers to foodservice.

Altogether, the experience was wonderful – and I now have an insider’s understanding of how judges behave, what sorts of things they need to know and why. From a judges’ perspective I am proud to say that back in the UK we provide our judges with everything they need to judge the products, and that their expertise is invaluable in determining the ‘values’ of a particular freefrom product.


Extra-curricular, non-freefrom Irish fun…

The first things you see when you come through arrivals at Dublin airport are large posters advertising Ireland’s whiskeys. And the first night we found ourselves at a whiskey tasting at The Rag Trader where six measures of Ireland’s finest were laid out. Bewhiskered whiskeymen from the distilleries pitched the qualities of their drams whilst a band played us twinkly folk melodies by the fire. Yes, it sounds like a tourist attraction, but why shouldn’t it be?


Whiskey/whisky is by far the biggest food/drink export of the UK, bringing us £1,819 million in 2017, followed by salmon that brought us a mere £407m in comparison! (Figures courtesy of Irish whiskey exports in the first three quarters of 2017 were already €412m (figure courtesy of Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland).

The second night we went across town to another pub and drank two gluten-free draught beers – and IPA and a stout – the most amazing experience for @gfbeerexpert Sue Cane who has not drunk draught beer for ten years… As Sue says: “It was lovely to stand in a pub for the first time in 10 years drinking a glass of fresh beer. Not bottled, but poured from a keg and enjoyed in a pub where the partnership between brewery and bar ensure the beer is always at its best.”

FoodcycleHowever, aside from whiskeys & gluten-free beer, we didn’t get much chance to eat out, what with all the foods we were tasting in the judging sessions, so here is @wellfedcoeliac Emma Clarke Conway on Eating Out freefrom in Ireland:

“The degree to which dining out for those eating freefrom has improved hit me recently, when I complained to a restaurant about the quality of their gluten-free bread. Gone is the day when a dry salad was your only choice. Throughout Ireland, from cafés to pitstops to exotic city eateries, everyone is jumping on the freefrom bandwagon.

As a coeliac of 42 years, this is terrific. Most offer at least one freefrom option, with many that can be adapted. Many offer gluten-free pasta, pizza in some cases and often a dairy-free option.

However, caution – while EU Allergen Labelling makes serving staff and chefs aware, I find this has done a slight disservice to those of us who require food to be prepared not only without gluten (or other allergens) added, but minus cross contamination by other foods. For example, on asking about chips I was told:
‘They are gluten-free, we just cook them in the same oil as breaded foods…’ I have even been asked, 'How sensitive are you?'

Legally required Allergen menus make it easier for those with allergies or intolerances to eat out – but it comes with a caveat. Ask the question: are efforts made to ensure that it remains free of said allergen during preparation? 
There are a lot of places doing great things – some of my local restaurants make an excellent effort with gluten-free and will amend and adjust things as needed, so in my experience eating out is a lot more pleasant and enjoyable than it used to be. 

Restaurants nationwide are stepping up, but there’s a way to go up the ladder. I am delighted to see the progress – and may the climb continue.”

If you have any queries or would like to talk to us about the project - please email Michelle