By Larry Blagg
Last month, 21 top-class bakers and pastry and culinary chefs who won baking contests in Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Singapore, and 13 university professors, power bloggers and press personnel came to the United States to experience first-hand the annual grape harvests in the Napa Valley and the San Joaquin Valley.
In addition to harvesting grapes, watching the grapes get carried off to the crush for winemaking and laying the grapes down on paper trays to dry in the sun and watch as they turned into California raisins, the five-day visit also included visits to bakeries and lectures from the bread and pastry professors at the Culinary Institute of America’s St. Helena, Calif., campus.
They really got to taste the fruit head-on.
However, what was truly inspirational was looking on as these professionals prepared their own winning entries and served them to the board members of the Raisin Administrative Committee, which oversees all export programs by the California industry.
Their ingenuity and artistic ability to produce their winning formulas on equipment never before seen was something of a small miracle in itself.
It’s interesting to be a marketer and salesperson and think that I’ve done an excellent job of describing the history of our industry, the care with which the farmers take in producing superior quality and safe foods, and the skills needed to process raw materials in finished products. Any good marketer or salesperson believes that they’ve communicated that process well, in person, in print or electronically.
However, what a difference it makes to actually participate in the harvest.
Under cloudless skies and in nearly triple-digit temperatures, these professionals took the ripened fruit and set it up for crush or drying. They then followed the process into the production plants and saw the labor used to clean, size, remove foreign materials and then package, load and ship the finished products to their markets, which are 5,000 to 7,500 miles away. They now understand intuitively the value of these products that they order from their in-country wholesalers and importers and acknowledge that such physical work is exceptionally demanding.
These bakers, chefs and teachers not only experienced the unique climate of California and the skills needed to produce their favorite wines and raisins, but they also enjoyed the chance to become friends with the farmers and packers who produce them. And most importantly, these ambassadors from Asia will go home with stories to tell their friends and co-workers about the hospitality of Californians.
One young chef from Japan, for example, Taizo Yoshikawa of Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel, parlayed winning the California Raisins’ Iron Chef Competition into an opportunity to become the personal chef to the U.N. Ambassador from Japan. Yoshikawa and his wife, Yumi, now reside in New York City and took personal vacation time to join the group and share in the experiences of the week.
And yes, each of the winners’ products will be turned into commercial products for sale in their retail outlets and restaurants.
Last month, the process started anew as I flew to Chicago to take part in the first judgment of the second annual America’s Best Raisin Bread Contest at Kendall College. This year, we received nearly 50% more applications than from the first year’s contest. On behalf of the California Raisin Marketing Board, we were in the process of determining which artisan and commercial bakers and baking students will become finalists and head off to the American Institute of Baking October 8-9 to hopefully become a winner in an American contest.
Stay tuned for the results of the finals, more California hospitality and a taste of the fruit.
Editor’s Note: Larry Blagg is senior vice president of marketing for the California Raisin Marketing Board, Fresno, Calif. To learn more about the contest, visit www.loveyourraisins.com.