Column: The Food & Drink Awards

PUBLISHED: 11:36 15 October 2012 | UPDATED: 11:58 15 October 2012

Becky Alexander

Becky Alexander

Archant

THE Food & Drink Awards at St Michael’s Manor was a chance for our local chefs, cooks, bartenders, farmers, bakers, baristas and foodies to put away their aprons and overalls, dress up, and have a good night out.

It is always a fantastic evening, and an opportunity to meet up with colleagues and competitors, and check out what everyone else is up to.

We enjoyed delicious fizz from Flagship Wines and cocktails from Mokoko, while the packed bar buzzed as everyone made the most of a night off.

St Michael’s Manor were excellent hosts again, and the chefs at my table enjoyed the dinner with the locally sourced lamb being the big hit. And then the tension mounted as Radio Verulam welcomed everyone, and started to announce the awards.

I sat with Jass from Mokoko and Andrei from Lussmanns and they went uncharacteristically quiet as the results were read out!

These are the awards that the local businesses want to win, and I was delighted to see some long-standing favourites such as Hedges and Redbournbury Mill do well, as well as some newcomers.

The Foragers at The Verulam Arms won Highly Commended in the Best Restaurant category, and Bakehouse won Best Café, showing that new ventures can thrive and do well. St Albans favourites such as The Pudding Stop and Inn on the Park did well again because, quite simply, they are both consistent and extremely good at what they do.

The biggest cheer came from Ye Olde Fighting Cocks who were delighted to win Best Pub after taking over this famous pub earlier this year.

And the most glamorous recipients, The Bakehouse team, got a huge cheer too, with a couple of people mentioning to me that they’d like to work there...

St Albans places dominated the prizes, so I hope Harpenden and the villages have a resurgence next year. I’m looking forward to the new fish and chip shop, Godfrey’s in Harpenden, and The Blueberry Cafe is one to watch too.

We are very lucky to have such as wealth of good local producers and farms, and good independents in our area, and it is great to see so many of them doing well. They are what make our area an interesting place to live. Well done to all the finalists and winners!

Winners

- Local Producer: Redbournbury Mill (Highly commended: Hedges Farm);

- Local Gem: The Pudding Stop (Highly commended: Heaven is a Cupcake);

- Best Restaurant: Lussmanns (highly commended: The Forager’s at The Verulam Arms);

- Best Bar: Mokoko (highly commended: The Peahen);

- Best Pub: Ye Olde Fighting Cocks (highly commended: The Boot);

- Family Friendly: Inn on the Park (highly commended: Bakehouse);

- Best Café: Bakehouse (highly commended: Soko Coffee);

- The Kate D’Arcy Award for Outstanding Customer Service: Lucy Clark, Heaven is a Cupcake

Young Chef of the Year

Launched for the first time this year, we had over 40 entries for the Young Chef of the Year.

Finalists gathered in the professional kitchens at Oaklands College on Saturday to prepare their starter, main course, or pudding, under the watchful eye of Andrei Lussmann, me, and Mark and Kevin, two ex-professional chefs and now lecturers at Oaklands College.

And lots of parents, family, teachers, college staff and friends stayed to watch, with the occasional nervous parent wandering in to the kitchen to prod at what was cooking (they were swiftly shuffled out!).

Each chef had one hour to prepare their course, and they were judged on how well they worked, their organisation, presentation, seasonality, and how delicious the results.

Andrei and I talked to the chefs as they worked, and were very impressed by how professional and together everyone was.

Of course there were nerves, but Mark and Kevin were on hand to find whisks, adjust ovens, show how to use the chiller, and help whip up new pastry if needed!

After each course we went off for a judging huddle, and debated the merits of seasonal vs skills, and whether we favoured rustic over perfect presentation.

There were so many highlights, but a few in no particular order: perfect macaroons, geranium leaf-infused polenta cake, hand-made tortellini and lasagne sheets, perfectly cooked seabass, hazelnut and blackberry profiteroles, bacon and chocolate brownies (that tasted delicious, honest!), home-made bread, and a light, fluffy soufflé and torte.

And the chefs were all aged 14 or 15. Yes, you read that correctly (how many of you have made your own macaroons?).

The judges were delighted to see such talent and hard work in such young people; many had been practising and perfecting their recipes for weeks, and the results showed.

It was very difficult to choose a winner in each category, as I would happily have finished nearly all of the dishes, but we did make a decision and each worthy winner won £100.

A special mention must go to Chancellor’s School for having two winners. Headteacher David Croston said: “I’d like to congratulate all of our catering students on their cooking. To have two winners in this competition and many other strong entries is a remarkable achievement. I would like to thank our food teachers, Sally Rowe and Michaela Ware for their passion, commitment and inspiration.”

Winners

- Starter: Sam Bailey (14, Onslow St Audreys) Scallop tortellini with seared scallops, spinach and spicy broth;

- Main course: Zoe Antoniou (15, Chancellor’s School) Saffron seabass with crushed new potatoes, griddled courgettes, with red pepper sauce;

- Pudding: Sadie Allan-Kerwin (15, Chancellor’s School) Chocolate torte with passion fruit sauce, and raspberries.

Festival Finale

As promised, the weather was perfect, and the final Food Festival event in St Albans town centre was a huge success. I thought the range and quality of the stalls was the best yet, and huge numbers of people came out to enjoy the food and atmosphere.

The St Albans City Band set a lively tone as we were all waking up in the morning, and I chatted to stallholders as they set up. Dixie’s Cupcakery had baked almost 2000 cupcakes, which just shows how ready you need to be to feed St Albans!

Outside the town hall, Lussmanns had set up a full outdoor restaurant, set with their usual tableware and napkins. A friend texted to say “try the tagine!”, so I think it was a big hit.

Kashu were doing a brisk trade with barbequed sausages while the market was still setting up, and I am sure they stayed busy all day. It was great to see Bourngiorno Italia in the town centre – locals know of the fantastic Italian deli on Lattimore Road, and I am sure many more discovered them today, attracted by the piles of figs, olives, breads, and the charming team.

Funky vans were parked by the town hall, and winner of Local Gem, The Pudding Stop had a lovely display of cakes and tarts.

Alongside Johnnie was newcomer Luke Godfrey with his posh and sustainable fish and chips, and fish finger sandwiches. His shop in Harpenden is due to open in two or three weeks, so more on him soon.

Newcomers Sweet Lily introduced me to their home-made jams, chutnies and other home-made treats, and I bought blueberry and lime jam and pink grapefruit and strawberry marmalade to take home.

Another newcomer, Mauritius Delicious was attracting lots of interest too, with a fab selection of home-made pickles and chutneys.

You could also eat hot food from Bar Meze, Caribbean Kitchen, and from some of our most popular pubs including The Foragers and The Snug. And if you went for the afternoon, there was a terrific choice of cakes, including hundreds of cupcakes, a wide selection of Brit classics from the Bakehouse, and a full afternoon tea from St Michael’s Manor.

In a perfect world I would like to see these stalls in the town centre every weekend. But until that happens, we will have to wait for next year!


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