Last year when I tried my first pawpaw, I had no idea that a year later I would be judging the best pawpaw competition at the Ohio pawpaw festival. Although this was my first experience food judging I did feel somewhat qualified. I have watched CMH Gourmand in judging action many times and as well as eating my fair share of paw paws, I have visited Integration Acres the largest pawpaw processing facility in the world.
If you are unfamiliar with pawpaws here is a quick introduction: pawpaws are the largest native fruit in the United States and the official native fruit of Ohio. They are also an Ark of Taste fruit. They grow on trees in woodland areas in Ohio and 25 other states and have a pale green skin that turns yellow as they ripen. They are amazingly tropical for something that grows in Ohio and are like a cross between a custard apple, mango, guava and banana. The flesh is creamy yellow but have a lot of seeds and bruise easily so aren’t popular commercially.
There were three pawpaw competitions taking place on saturday. The best pawpaw, the pawpaw cook-off competition and the pawpaw eating competition. I judged the first two, but I felt like I had entered the third. I think I ate more paw paws than any of the contestants in the eating competition. I love pawpaws but Saturday was a good lesson that you can have too much of a good thing.
We started at 12.30pm with the best pawpaw competition. The three other judges were Matt Rapposelli (Executive Chef at Ohio University), Debbie Phillips (State Representative, D-Athens) and Scott Bradley (Chef at Zoë’s Fine Dining, whose restaurant we went to on our Slow Food tour in June). Master of Ceremonies and Organizer of the competitions was Barbara Fisher (former chef at Salaam and blogger at Tigers & Strawberries).
This has been a bumper year for pawpaws and we had 26 entries in the best pawpaw competition with some coming from as far as Indiana. Some of the pawpaws were named varieties and others were wild. We judged each entry on appearance, skin surface and thickness, aroma, flavor and texture. We also scored the pawpaws on weight and seeds which allowed us to look at the ratio of seeds to flesh. More flesh is obviously desirable. The pawpaws ranged in weight from 5 to 17 oz with the average weight 8.4 oz. The number of seeds ranged from 5-16 (in general there is a seed for every oz of flesh but some are more seedy than others). With all the entry numbers, weights and seeds being called out it felt like we were playing bingo.
Here are some things I learned during the best pawpaw competition:
- There is surprisingly little correlation between the taste and the aroma.
- There is a lot of variability in flesh color from pale buttery yellow to deep mangoey orange.
- Under-ripe pawpaws are a cure for constipation
- Don’t eat the skin or the seeds (I knew that before, but it’s useful to know)
- Pawpaws are best eaten at room temperature
- The taste is different close to the skin and can be bitter there
- Pawpaws can be a lot riper on one side than the other if one side had more sun.
By the time we finished judging the best pawpaws it was already time for the pawpaw cook off and I was already feeling fairly full of pawpaw. Matt Rapposelli was also judging the pawpaw cook-off and we were joined by Colleen Braumoeller (Slow Food Columbus and manager of the Greener Grocer) and Kelly Kingman, a free-lance journalist and blogger at Hudsongrown.com.
Kelly had been inspired to come to the Pawpaw Festival by reading the book The Fruit Hunters and had driven all the way from the Hudson Valley without ever having tasted a pawpaw before. It was truly a baptism of fire with 39 entries in the competition. Entries were divided into drinks, breads, sauces and desserts, the latter being the most competitive category with 19 entries. Barbara was a whirlwind, slicing, describing and distributing food and managed to keep her sense of humor throughout. The judges had a lot of fun discussing flavors and favorites. I will admit though, that by the end we were counting down the dishes and praying for it to end soon.
Here is a taste of what we ate: pancakes, polenta, bread, spice cake, cupcakes, cheesecake, salad, vinaigrette, chili sauce, chili, chicken curry, mole, deep fried oreos, sandwiches, pies, date bars, creme brulee, brownies, salsa, elephant ears… all of course featuring pawpaw. To drink there was pawpaw lassi, pawpaw wine, pawpaw melomel (honey and pawpaw) and a pawpaw mojito. Foods were judged on flavor, texture, appearance, aroma, originality, use of pawpaw and pawpaw flavor. As a first time judge, at first it was harder to judge originality but by the third cheesecake it was becoming easier.
The winners were announced by category: Best dessert was a pawpaw semifreddo (bottom left, above) with a pawpaw reduction. It was my favorite dish overall and was apparently made by one of the chefs from Fur Peace Ranch. The winning sauce was a chicken curry with cashews which was very popular with the judges, the winning bread was punjabi pockets with pawpaw chili sauce (bottom right, above) and the winning beverage was a pawpaw mojito. Some of the dishes were delicious but you could not taste the pawpaw and the judges agreed that that was an important factor.
Advice for future entrants: Originality is important – try to think beyond the obvious. Odds of winning are lower in the dessert category as it has the most entries. Get someone else to taste your entry and ask them if they can taste the pawpaw. Don’t forget presentation – it scores the same as flavor and is the first impression that the judges have of your dish. Make sure that garnishes are edible (don’t use real pawpaw seeds as a garnish, you could dip some almonds in chocolate to look like seeds).
The judging finally finished around 4.30 and after four hours of eating pawpaws I miraculously found room for an Integration Acres pawpaw pop and a taste of the hand churned Snowville Creamery pawpaw ice cream. This brought my tally up to 25 pawpaws tasted and 41 pawpaw foods. After that it was time to lie down, enjoy a little pawpaw beer and watch some other people eating pawpaws. In the picture below Chris Chmiel, founder of the festival, is introducing the eating competition. Competitors had to race to clean off 20 pawpaw seeds with their hands behind their backs. If only I hadn’t been so full….
The pawpaw festival is a family friendly festival with the laid back feel you would expect from Athens. The weather was perfect and the setting overlooking Lake Snowden was beautiful. I recommend checking it out next year if you haven’t been before. It is also a good excuse to check out the Athens Farmers Market and local restaurants. There are more photos of the festival on flickr and on CMH Gourmand and there will also be some interviews on the next Columbus Foodcast.