More than 1,000 bites, sips, nibbles and swallows were consumed over the course of two days in late August during the judging of the annual North Carolina Specialty Foods Association Product Competition in Raleigh.

The NCSFA is an organization that helps its more than 100 specialty food producers, large and small, strengthen their brands. The association regularly hosts activities for its members, like this competition and pop-up artisan food fairs at state-owned farmer’s markets throughout the year.

“Many producers like the pop-ups better than grocery demos,” said Sherry Barefoot, the marketing specialist for NCDA&CS. Producers are able to sell directly to consumers, and consumers are able to ask questions and sample goods.

A diverse panel of expert judges deliberated on the variety of foods at the competition. In all, a dozen judges from across the state — including yours truly — such as chefs, culinary instructors, recipe developers, food journalists and specialty food buyers participated in a series of blind tastings to select winners in the Pantry, Baked Goods, Deli, Plant-Based Foods, Beverages, Condiments, Honey and Preserves, and Snacks categories. Some entrants chose to insert instructions on how to enjoy each sample while others provided a broad description of what judges would to taste.

Winners were announced Sept. 6 at the annual NCSFA fall conference at WinMock in Advance with the Triad representing nearly a half-dozen winning products this year.

Archdale-based Cherry Orchard Foods’ Bahama Mama Slushy Mix came in Second Place in the Beverage category, which boasted products like kombucha, coffee and fruit-flavored offerings.

Judges sampled the dry mix as well as a prepared slushy sample. The mix is tangy, drawing from the addition of citric acid, and is vermillion-hued from a natural beet powder. A soft green-tea powder added additional color and mellowed out the flavor.

The Second Place winner in the Condiments category went to Honey, It’s Dijon Dill from Little Black Dressing Co. in High Point. This champ had multiple entries including Far East Flair and It Takes Three to Tango. The Dijon Dill is a sweet, thick, honey-mustard based sauce with dried dill, which provided the slightest hint of a tang. Far East is described best as an orange-flavored, peanut-based sauce, while It Takes Three is a blend of bleu cheese, ranch and thousand island dressings. 

Winston-Salem-based Red Clay Gourmet swept the Deli category with Classic Sharp and South Meets East Sriracha pimento cheeses. Lance and Michele Sawyer, former owners of First Street Draught House, sold pimiento cheese in 8-ounce tubs at the restaurant in the Pre-Red Clay days. Each batch is still packed by hand and the offerings have expanded to include cracker snack packs, available at area stores.

Valley Brook Farms, from Greensboro, swept the Honey and Preserves category, beating out nearly 90 other entries with their Flying Habanero Pepper Jelly and Strawberry Habanero Pepper Jelly, which also took the Grand Champion prize.

The Strawberry-Habanero Pepper Jelly, made with NC-based, pepper-infused vodka from Fair Game Beverage Company, is bright with fresh strawberry slices and a medium-hot burn from the finely chopped habanero peppers. Valley Brook Farms recently relocated their operations from Greensboro to Durham.

To try many of the winners and other members of the association, visit the Artisan Food Fair at the Robert G. Shaw Piedmont Farmers Market on Saturday. Admission and parking are free.

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