If there was ever an occasion to test the foundations of that old adage 'it's not the winning but the taking part that counts' it would have to be an awards ceremony. You may well have been there before, as a nominee or part of a group, selected as one of the best in your field. Tell me, as you sit there at your table, surrounded your contemporaries who sit serenely on other tables, what's going through your mind? Twitchy, nervous, nails bitten to the quick, waiting, hoping, dreaming for your name to be called out, are you seriously prepared to let the best man win? No, of course you're not. You're in this for the glory, the adulation, the supreme power of being proclaimed the ultimate. To punch the air, to sneer down at your pathetic peers, to grab that oblong piece of plexiglass mounted in graphite and to thrust your groin in the general direction of your applauding, baying audience. That's what you're there for, screw the others for they are losers!
Of course, it can be absolutely crushing when your name is not read out. Worse still is having to smile, teeth clenched, fit to shatter and clap as the winner makes their way to the podium, knowing that later in the evening you will have to shake their hand and congratulate them. When all you really want to do is stick a wooden tooth pick in their eye. Yes, I've been there before (Best Supporting Actor at the Brents if you really want to know). And knowing what must have been going through their minds, the guys from the Hare and Hounds that is, I was surprised that they didn't join me as I jumped up on the table with the intention throwing an empty bottle at the folks from The Swan. Who were way, way across the other side of the room. We should have won Best Gastro pub! Not you, you bastards! In hindsight, the Hare and Hounds didn't join me probably because they didn't know me from Adam and really were happy just to have been nominated. After all, 18000 votes from the good public of Essex had been cast. And that counts for a lot. A lot more than the few judges who decide who the winner should be. But that didn't cross my mind. After numerous pints of Aspall's Cyder, not a lot at all happens up there really. I was just grateful for Sarah of Essex Gourmet and Linda of With Knife and Fork for dragging me back down. If it wasn't for them, I would have surely spent the night with the Witham constabulary.
All lies of course as I was on my best behaviour at the recent Essex Food and Drink Awards and had a great evening at the stunning location of Braxted Park. This awards ceremony is in it's third year now and seems to be gaining momentum as a promoter of all that is good food wise in God's own county. So I was very glad to get the invitation from Sarah to attend. Despite living on it's doorstep (although there was a spat at the table as to whether Upminster actually is in Essex, yes it IS Sarah) I don't really know much about the restaurant/pub scene or about many producers based in Essex. And I feel slightly ashamed by this. So I saw this awards ceremony as a great opportunity to see what's out there. I am certainly going to make a bee line for the aforementioned Hare and Hounds who shared our table because having had a good chat with them, I really liked their approach of making tasty, honest fare from locally sourced ingredients. This isn't *hic* "you're my beshtest pal" talk here but talk of 230 covers on their busy periods. For a place situated pretty much in the middle of nowhere* this speaks volumes to me when pubs around the country are dying a death.
It also seems that I am going to have to check out some old haunts, especially ones that I have left far behind me. Given my locality to some of the nominees, Brentwood was an area that I was particularily interested in and I was happy as Larry that Calcotts Farm got the accolade of Best Farm Shop because it's a brilliant place to go and buy local fruit and vegetables as well as other goodies synonymous to Essex. But my heart sank when Mason's of Brentwood was awarded Best Large Restaurant of the Year. Why? Well the last couple of times I dined there, the whole experience was simply.........meh. The food was good but overvalued, the service so so and the overall atmosphere stilted and stuffy. But that was probably over four years ago and having expressed my ire about the award to friends and family, many have come back saying what a fantastic place it is. So perhaps I should eat my hat, book a reservation and take another peak. As a result of winning Best Restaurant, it's likely to be busy for a while so don't expect a humble pie review just yet. I'll wait till next month for things to die down and for our next lot of child benefit to be paid in.
But like I said a great night with great company (including you Steve), food and wine. Here is the list of the winners. Be sure to check them out should you live or venture into God's own county.
Young Chef of the Year
Beth Blacklock, St Benedicts College, Colchester
Chef of the Future
Thomas Booton, Le Talbooth
Essex Baker of the Year
Humes of Halstead
Best Farm Shop
Calcott Hall Farm, Brentwood
Best Essex Retail Product
Fairfields Farm Crisps
Best Gastro Pub
The Swan, Felsted
Best Traditional Pub
Axe & Compasses, Arkesden (Mr Oliver has made mention of this place recently)
Best Hotel Restaurant
Prested Hall, Feering
Best Restaurant Service
Blue Strawberry, Hatfield Peverel
Best Newcomer Restaurant
The DuCane, Great Braxted
Best Small Restaurant
Contented Sole, Burnham on Crouch
Best Large Restaurant
Chef of the Year
Jonathan Brown, The DuCane, Great Braxted
Terrine of fish and shellfish. Bass, red mullet, monkfish and organic salmon set in a sole and scallop mousselin with crushed peas
*well it's in the deepest and darkest part of the Essex countryside, a place I've never heard of.....hmm, maybe Sarah was right