Tales and Tips from the County Fair

I came home from the 2010 Marin County Fair with a fistful of ribbons for my preserves. Nine in all, for my seven jars. Did this surprise me? You bet it did. I’d never entered a fair before, so I didn’t know what to expect. But I’m a perfectionist and obsessive about details, so I’m guessing those things worked in my favor. What I want to do here is tell you a little bit about my experience and give you a few tips for entering your local fair, in case you want to give it a go next year.

At first, I was suspicious of all those ribbons. I figured our little fair didn’t draw much competition. I know there aren’t nearly as many people preserving food here in Marin as there are, say, in more rural Sonoma County, just to the north of us. And Marin uses an American system of judging for most preserves, which means entries are compared against each other. (Some fairs use the Danish system, in which entries are judged only against a scorecard, rather than being judged against other entries. Under the Danish system, there could be multiple blue ribbon winners for just one type of jam, if more than one achieves a perfect score.)

Also, I wondered about our judges. Who were they? A few ladies from down the street, I guessed. But it turns out they’re real pros. (Not that ladies from down the street couldn’t be that, too.) They’ll judge almost fifty different fairs this year.

I learned that our judges, too, use a scorecard (pictured below) and that if they don’t find an entry that deserves a blue ribbon in a particular class, they simply won’t award one. I started to feel better about my prizes — and the little bit of money I won to go with them.

As one example of how judging works at our fair, no one took home a blue ribbon in the “Other Jelly” category. Other Jelly, like Other Jam, is a tough gig. It encompasses all the jellies that aren’t one pure flavor (apple, plum, grape, and so on). Anything spiced, herbed, or peppered will end up with the Other Jellies. So my Apple Earl Grey Almond Jelly was judged against Homegrown Rose, Wild Gooseberry, Habañero, and Rosemary Mint, to name a few. The judges found a flaw in every jar, so top honors went to the Homegrown Rose, which won a second place ribbon.

Here’s how the ribbons sorted out, with links to the recipes published on this blog.

  • Meyer Lemon Marmalade: Best of Show for Marmalade, First Place Lemon Marmalade
  • Red Wine and Clementine Stewed Apricots & Prunes: Best of Show for Conserves, First Place Conserve
  • Apricot Jam: First Place Apricot Jam
  • Strawberry Balsamic Black Pepper Jam: Second Place “Other Jams” (Thanks Sarah & Alec!)

Here are my babies, home from their exciting trip to the fair . . .

Now, competition may not be your thing. I’ve thought a lot about why I enjoy it, but that’s another post entirely. If you’ve never entered a fair before and are thinking you might like to go for it, I have a few tips that really helped me out as a first time exhibitor.

The obvious: It’s all about flavor and texture. As you can see from the scorecard above, those things are 70% of the game at the Marin County Fair and most others. So far, I’ve learned a couple of interesting things about flavor and texture. One, as mentioned above, is that county-fair jam recipes tend toward the sweet. Because most of my jams are reduced sugar, I won’t enter them in the fair — unless they make a special division for that someday. (Wouldn’t that be a good idea?) The other is that it’s traditional to add pectin to county fair recipes. On that score, I’m just going to fly by the seat of my pants, because none of my entries contained added pectin and I did okay.

Whatever recipes you choose, you don’t get to play the game at all if the judges don’t open your jars. My tips are about how to get your stuff to the fair in the first place, and how to please the judges before they even put spoon to mouth.

Tip #1: Learn the Rules

Many preserves are disqualified because the jammer didn’t RTFM. The manual, you know? Every fair has one. For instance, the person in front of me in the drop-off line was sent home because she brought only one jar of apple butter, and the fair requires two identical jars of everything entered.

It’s easy to learn what the fair wants from you. As soon as you can, get the handbook from this year’s fair and peruse it. (Many, including Marin’s, are available online. If you can’t get yours online, call your county or state. There’s almost always a fair office where you can get on a mailing list.) Then, be sure to find out when next year’s handbook will be published and get that when the time comes. Requirements do change from year to year.

Pay particular attention to deadlines. Our fair has one deadline for entry forms, another for dropping off jars to be judged, and yet another for picking them up. It sounds like a lot, but if you know your dates well in advance and mark your calendar, it’s no sweat.

Tip #2: Make a Canning Plan

This isn’t as onerous as it might sound. You don’t have to decide right now everything you want to can for next year’s fair — though it may be fun to dream about it. All I’m saying is that you probably don’t want to wait until next May to start canning for a summer fair.

Typically, all preserves entered in a fair must be canned within a year of that fair’s opening day. For some ingredients, that means you’ll be canning next year’s entries now. For example, the apricot jam I make this month will go to the fair next year.

Here’s my easy system for putting away potential entries all year long: For everything I preserve, if I think there’s even a slight chance it’ll be county-fair appropriate, I’ll can two jars “like I mean it.” I’ll use the best scoops of my mixture (not the stuff left at the bottom of the pan with less fruit in it), identical jars, precise head space, clear labels, the works. Then I’ll put those jars into a special cabinet away from heat, light, and other disturbances. Come next spring, I’ll evaluate what I have and decide what to enter.

Of course no system should be rigid. This year, I knew I wanted to make my Apricot and Prune Conserve for the fair, but I wasn’t completely happy with the batch I’d canned in winter; it was too stiff. I wrote it down on my entry form anyway and canned another batch the week after I turned in my form. I’m glad I did, too.

Tip #3: Neatness Counts

Who isn’t favorably disposed toward a pretty jar? Judges surely will be.

Jars. Make sure your jars are the required size and that they’re flawless. If you’re required to submit two jars, be certain they’re identical. For example, if they’re two regular half-pint jars, they should be from the same manufacturer in the same style. You wouldn’t want one to be quilted and the other clear.

Head space. When canning, watch your head space. The head-space measurement should be accurate for the recipe you’ve chosen. I heard that some judges measure head space with a ruler. Are you going to get out your tape measure every time you fill a jar of jam? If you are, I’m scared of you. I wasn’t that careful, but I’ve learned where 1/4″ and 1/2″ are by getting to know the measurements of the threads at the top of the jar.

Storage. Store your jars with absurd care. Find a location that’s cool, dry, and safe. Don’t let your jars tip on their sides or be turned upside down, because you don’t want to muck up the head space. (It should be as clear as possible, without food particles stuck to the glass or lid.) As always, you should store your jars without screw bands, but when it comes time to choose your bands, inspect them carefully to be sure they’re not dented or rusty.

Polishing & Labeling. Before you take your jars to the fair, gently wash them and polish them with a clean cloth. Be sure they’re neatly labeled with all required information. (Marin wants precise information on the bottom of every jar; I secured mine with clear packing tape. On the jar lids, I used my regular labels, making sure they, too, were carefully applied. I got totally carried away, making sure to line up the text on my labels with the manufacturer’s name on the jar.)

Now that the fair is over, I’ll turn a jar upside down so I can show you the label:

Transport. Take care with how you transport all that hard work to the fair. It would be a drag to go through all of this and dump your jars because you had to suddenly brake along the way. I set aside a couple of the original cardboard boxes for the canning jars and took my entries to the fair in those. I didn’t put them in a jammy car seat or anything, but you know, it might not be a bad idea.

Finally, think about what else you might want to bring to the fair. It’s entertaining to read about the other contests in the handbook: photography, winemaking, birdhouses, floral arts, every imaginable kind of baking. Here’s a photo of this year’s Best of Show Backyard Compost.

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