Donna Orsetti has one of the sweetest jobs at the San Benito County Fair: judging the preserves competition, where 20 different entries by San Benito County home chefs showcase local fruit and produce that has been transformed into jellies, jams and pickles.
She does not do it alone, though. She is supervised by Janice Alosi, the chairperson for the preserves’ competition and a state-certified preserves judge. And there are a few women working on other fair projects nearby willing to lend their taste buds and opinions to the cause.
“I love being able to see what our county puts out,” Orsetti said. “And I love being able to sit with good friends, hashing it out and deciding on a winner. It is being part of a hometown tradition that I love.”
I have always wondered how the homemade entries at a county fair might taste, so, given the opportunity to sit in on the judging, it was a great opportunity to find out as well as understand how the top items earned their awards.
The judging was held on Sept. 25 in a back area of the fair’s exhibition hall. Each contestant had entered two jars of the same preserve. One is used in the tasting, and the other is put on display with whatever award it may earn.
The entry forms are attached to the bottle merely to identify the contents. While they also include the name of the preserve’s maker, that information is folded under and out of sight until after the winning entries have been decided.
For each category in the competition, there is a first, second and third-place award. If there are fewer than three items entered into a category, an award is not guaranteed if an entry does not meet the standards for that particular product.
The first part of the judging begins before the jar is opened, with the aesthetics of the presentation: a visual inspection of the jar and its contents. With pickles, for example, the liquid in the jar should reach all the way to the top, the rings on the lid should be clean, and the seasonings should not be settled.
On opening the jar, a quick stir with a spoon will give important hints as to quality. With fruit jams, for example, there should be small bits of fruit rather than a consistent puree, it should have some thickness, and it should retain a good color.
Even if most of the standards are met, the slightest deviation from what is expected can disqualify an otherwise great effort.
“You really have to nitpick things apart to get to the top,” Alosi said. “We are going for the standard, so we are very careful to make sure that we taste with that in mind. If you get caught up over what you really like, then you’re not really being fair.”
Both judges have long experience with the fair, with Orsetti participating for the last 10 years and Alosi for 21 years. But for both, after all that time, taking part in the judging is something they look forward to every year. Orsetti said she really appreciates the effort that people put into their entries because making preserves is becoming a lost art.
“I’m hoping that more people will get more involved, and maybe ask their Grandma, “How did you do that?” she said. “We get so caught up that everything comes from this store, I think that people are really missing out. And that’s a shame because these kinds of things just bring so much to the table.”
I got the chance to taste some of the entries with Orsetti and Alosi after the judging was completed and gained some insight into how their choices were made.
Highlights from the tasting
Pickled Brussels Sprouts Noted on the entry form as “Frog Balls,” these were offered to me as the most unusual item in the competition. Normally, I can’t stand Brussels sprouts, but with a red wine pickling that turned the insides a bright pink and a firm and crunchy texture, these were a treat. “I can still taste that they are Brussels sprouts,” said Orsetti. “The red wine serves as a compliment but does not overpower. The overall product is very good and could have been a contender for Best of Show.”
Dill Pickles with Garlic Though truly delicious pickles, these were offered as an example of a very good product that did not win purely because the taste did not match the name and veered toward a bread-and-butter-pickle. Had it been entered as a bread-and-butter pickle, it might have won. “There was just not enough dill,” Alosi said. “And a dill pickle technically does not have garlic in it. It has a good crunch and a nice aroma, but it has to be right according to the standards, not just because it tastes good.”
Zucchini Relish “When you open the jar, it just looks pretty,” said Orsetti. “And when you look at the chop, you know they didn’t run it through a food processor. It is nicely uniform and this person hand-chopped this to get those pieces exactly the same size.” This relish was sweeter and more flavorful than I expected and the mix of intense green and red colors made it visually exciting as well. I had never had zucchini relish before but it was easy to see why this one took first place in its class.
Strawberry Margarita Jam A First Place winner, the intense and distinctive flavor of this jam made it my favorite of all of the preserves I tasted. I would buy a small case of this one at the drop of a hat. The base note of strawberry was evocative of a perfect summer day, with a brilliant aroma, flavor and color. It was fabulously balanced, with the tart taste of a classic margarita lightly swirled through like a piccolo playing in the distance. This won its class and was also a contender for Best of Show. “If you take a spoon and mix it around, you will see how liquidy it is,” Orsetti said. “Her pectin is a little light which does not take away from the flavor but keeps being the overall winner.”
Low Sugar Apricot Jam “It is hard to get the flavor to come through when you go low sugar,” Orsetti said. “You are really counting on the fruit to bring the sweetness. This fruit was obviously picked off the tree at the right time and on the right date. It is wonderful, and it’s the Best of Show.” The flavor of this jam had a freshness and intensity that made it seem like you were eating the fruit straight off the tree. The sweetness was there, but it felt very restrained and natural. Technically perfect, according to Orsetti and Alosi, this was an absolute treat.
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