As the countdown continues for this year's 14th staging of the prestigious Jamaica Observer Food Awards on Thursday, May 31, the panel of judges, including a specially invited trio (our new managing director Danville Walker, TV producer Anthony Miller and his bestie, art dealer Susanne Fredericks), communed at the tres chic Spanish Court Hotel for yet another round of tastings. So what made its debut at the table last Monday? Breads from German born-cum-St Mary resident Stephan Hufenbach; ackee wine and sorrel blush from winemaking entrepreneur Howard Coxe and Stephen Collings; papaya, mango, cherry and other fruit wines courtesy of development economist-turned-budding wine enthusiast Earl Bartley; and gourmet-styled meals incorporating the range of Island Spice's offerings, whipped up by Jacqui Tyson and introduced by Muna Shadeed, director of the spice-making company. Former Dessert Caterer of the Year winner Katherine Tait brought the evening to a close with a presentation of decadent treats that satisfied the table's sweet tooth.
Our Daily (German) Bread
The three-hour judging session began with Hufenbach, who runs the Sun Bread Bakery at Paradise Jamaica hotel in Oracabessa, St Mary, introducing his variety of breads — light and dark rye rolls, grain baguettes, butter rolls, twist baguettes, loaves with vanilla filling and poppyseeds, and cheesecakes — to the judging panel. Hufenbach, along with his partner Nikola Distler (who assisted with serving duties and the offering of Danish butter) are making inroads in the local bread business, having secured orders from the German, Chilean and Spanish embassies as well as Goldeneye hotel and Jamaica Inn. Talks are to be had, Hufenbach told the judges, with the British High Commission and the American embassy as prospective clients. The general consensus was that the breads, while not common to a Jamaican diet, were in fact pretty fantastic.
"I normally wouldn't have had these," judge Annaleisa Lindsay remarked, "since I would not have had occasion to, but they are good."
Sips of Ackee
Next up were novelty beverages: ackee wine and sorrel blush made by Howard Coxe of Journey's End Wine Company. Coxe told the room that he is currently building a distribution network for the drinks, particularly the ackee wine, which was launched at last year's Denbigh Agricultural Show and is currently available at Loshusan and Empire supermarkets, as well as Things Jamaica. He also revealed a well-received commemorative bottle of ackee wine (retail price: $1,500), specially made to mark Jamaica's 50th anniversary, that will be available at next week's Jamaica Manufacturers Association Expo.
The judges were taken with the sleek, sexy design of the bottle and suggested to Coxe and his business partner Stephen Collings they consider marketing it in London during the summer Olympics.
The Economist Becomes Winemaker
On the heels of ackee- and sorrel-flavoured libations came another local winemaker. Earl Bartley, a development economist with the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, shared that he stumbled upon the idea to make wines after living in Turks & Caicos for a brief spell, and brainstorming how to preserve sapadillas (naseberries) that were going to waste. On his return home, the idea still burned within him, and eight years ago began Bartley's experimentation with making fruit wines from sorrel, mango, papaya, ginger, and cherry, bottled under the Mango Valley label. Bartley said that after almost a decade of research and development, the wine will soon be available to the consumer market
The 'Spice' of Life
After 40 minutes of sniffs, swirls and sips of locally made wines, with the judges putting forward their critiques, the evening had a most welcome interjection - a four-course meal prepared by Jacqui Tyson and introduced by Muna Shadeed, director of sales and marketing of Island Spice, whose company's spices and sauces were used to make the dishes. Making its way from the kitchen to the judges' plates were: coconut-crusted fish fillet and smoked marlin dipped in a pineapple ginger jelly; fried chicken drummette drizzled in tamarind pepper jelly and pig's tail sautéed in tamarind pepper jelly; a spring roll made with sweet and sour sauce; and a chicken liver pot pie with puff pastry on top, made with meat sauce. Shadeed informed the gathering that Island Spice, started by her Lebanese transplant father Faraj Shadeed, has grown exponentially from its original 500-square-foot space to its present 25,000 square-feet plant at Bell Road in Kingston, and exports mixed blend spices and sauces to overseas markets such as Miami, London and Germany.
With the judges' memories still fresh with Katherine Tait's amazing Oreo cheesecake from last year, the woman who snagged the Dessert Caterer of the Year at the 2011 Jamaica Observer Food Awards was back before the judging panel and impressed again with a double-whammy: caramel brownie cake and passion fruit cheesecake. It came as no surprise that each forkful of the moist, not-overly-sweet dessert disappeared quicker than the forkful before. Tait said that following the announcement of her Food Award win, she saw an uptick in sales of her custom-made desserts.
Thursday Food shares scenes from last Monday's judging session at the Spanish Court Hotel.
(Photos: Marlon Reid)