All the de­li­cious. win­ners for 2017.

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IT’S CALLED A LAZY SU­SAN, but the ro­tat­ing tray at the cen­tre of the de­li­cious. Pro­duce Awards was spin­ning at a fre­netic pace. That morn­ing, 10 of the coun­try’s bold­face chefs and cooks had con­vened in Syd­ney for Aus­tralia’s lead­ing show­case of break­through homegrown pro­duce. For two an­i­mated days in June, the learned judges tasted, rated and de­bated every sin­gle in­gre­di­ent from cul­tured but­ter to Wagyu beef, pink salt to green­lip abalone, heir­loom carrot to span­ner crab. In the end, win­ners were anointed, yet not be­fore the serv­ing turntable al­most came off its axis.

Day one kicked off with laugh­ter. When project man­ager Lucy Al­lon re­it­er­ated that tast­ings would be blind, new judge Colin Fass­nidge beamed wag­gishly. “That doesn’t mean you’re get­ting drunk,” de­clared Matt Mo­ran as he and Guillaume Brahimi chuck­led. The trio were the class jesters. In con­trast, Chris­tine Man­field and Alla Wolf-Tasker were com­posed and stu­dious. Mel­bur­ni­ans Shan­non Ben­nett, An­drew Mc­Connell and Ash­ley Palmer-Watts, an­other new judge, were qui­etly fo­cused. Mag­gie Beer and Pe­ter Gil­more, mean­while, shared eru­dite com­men­tary on farm­ing.

“It’s a shi­monita,” of­fered Gil­more when the group ques­tioned the prove­nance of an ex­otic Y-shaped onion rarely seen out­side of Ja­pan; this one hailed from cen­tral New South Wales. The ‘From the Earth’ cat­e­gory was par­tic­u­larly well-rep­re­sented this year, and the judges were elated with the ar­ray of veg­eta­bles. “Quick, get your ute!” dead­panned Wolf-Tasker on view­ing the spread of bio­dy­namic greens, oys­ter mush­rooms and but­ter let­tuces. Some en­trants, like a cheese en­crusted with green ants, drew puz­zled re­ac­tions. Oth­ers, like a rock lob­ster weigh­ing in at al­most three kilo­grams, prompted ex­citable In­sta­gram posts.

The judg­ing ex­trav­a­ganza is the cul­mi­na­tion of months of ac­tiv­ity. Na­tional sub­mis­sions for the an­nual awards, now in their 12th out­ing, be­gin trick­ling in the pre­vi­ous year. A chef must nom­i­nate each can­di­date, while Al­lon en­sures they are sus­tain­able, eth­i­cal and truly in­no­va­tive. State judg­ing oc­curs in March. “We want to spot­light new and na­tive prod­ucts, and out­stand­ingly con­sis­tent pro­duc­ers,” she said. The lengths some play­ers go to are im­pres­sive. A farmer from Vic­to­ria drove her frozen blue­ber­ries to Syd­ney to en­sure their safe pas­sage. Oth­ers sent hu­mor­ous notes to the judges. “I en­joy be­ing your muse, but I long to be your con­cu­bine,” wrote one.

Tem­pes­tu­ous dis­cus­sions marked day two. Af­ter Al­lon and her team to­talled the scores, there were clear-cut win­ners and some prizes to be thrashed out. Man­field praised the ca­pers from South Aus­tralia. “What a great ini­tia­tive,” she said. Fass­nidge was wowed by the or­ganic rice from NSW. “It had such com­plex­ity,” he said. Ben­nett was sweet on the Tas­ma­nian leather­wood honey. And on it went un­til, a few hours later, all the tro­phies had been al­lot­ted. Calm­ness and ca­ma­raderie re­turned to the room. “Maybe we could all go on tour to France next,” said Wolf-Tasker.

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