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Off to the Fair

Today, a break from all the wine content (but please don’t forget to vote for my LCBO blog challenge entry) for a brief guide to entering your preserves for competition.

To be honest I had never done this before this year. So, take this as a rough beginner’s guide and not as expert and sage advice from on high.

I started my quest for a ribbon by asking We Sure Can! author Sarah Hood for her advice. Sarah was good enough to point me in the direction of fellow WSC contributors Shae Irving and Yvonne Tremblay. Yvonne is a five-time grand champion at The Royal Agricultural Winter Fair (“the big show” for fairs here in Southern Ontario) and Shae has a bunch of posts on her site Hitchhiking to Heaven about entering the Marin County Fair. These include results from this year and results from 2010 with her guide.

With Shae’s advice in hand I made the early decision to start by entering the Beaverton Fall Fair. I’m lucky to have that choice because that’s where the cottage is with the garden that grew some of the produce I preserved. If I’d had to enter the Royal (which I guess is the closest fair for Toronto, where I live) I would have faced much, much stiffer competition.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t a bit intimidated by going up against the ladies of Beaverton (I looked and couldn’t find another guy listed as winning a ribbon in any of the categories) but The Royal is obviously more intense. Not only is prize money ten-times what you get for each place in Beaverton but they even go to the length of vaccuum-testing each entry. (Does anyone know how this works? Shop-vac to the lid and if it comes off you’re disqualified?)

The Royal is also a two-jar fair while Beaverton only requires one. I’m not sure if they open both or not but the problem you face either way is that once open those jars have to go into the fridge and be eaten within about a month or so.

Here lies another good tip: If you’re allowed to, submit entries, especially jams and jellies, in those 125 ml Mason jars. I think these are slightly less likely to have flaws like floating fruit and you’re also sacrificing less of your supply to immediate consumption.

The compeition.

My biggest tip from this year’s experience is to find the category where you’re at your best compared to the competition. My apple jelly won a third-place ribbon because there were only three entries. Entries in categories like strawberry jam, peach jam, peaches in syrup, and dill pickles reached into the double digits. The mustard pickle I entered also faced a limited amount of competition but it’s also a recipe I’ve made a bunch of times and I’m confident is better than average.

My third-place apple jelly. Note the Canadian system where red ribbons go to first place, blue to second, and white to third.

My third-place apple jelly. Note the Canadian system where red ribbons go to first place, blue to second, and white to third.

Finally, as Shae says know the rules. I ran into some problems getting the organisers to send me Beaverton’s detailed rules but it turns out that’s because they don’t really publish them. I turned to the website for the Sunderland Fall Fair (Sunderland is close to Beaverton) for a better idea of judging criteria.

Other than good seals the big things to pay attention to are: proper head space (use your plastic blue ruler-thing if in doubt), clear jellies, proper set, and no foam on the top of jars.

Entries that didn’t win ribbons for me this year were peach-bourbon jam, and my wild grape-wild apple jelly.

Best of luck to everyone who is thinking of entering their preserves in a competition for the first time and please feel free to leave any questions in the comment section below.

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Posted in: Events, Jam, Jelly, Pickling.


  1. Congratulations on your fair experience! I’m glad you’ve shared your story and added to our pool of tips. I wonder what it is with peach-bourbon jam. Mine flopped, too!

  2. foodwithlegs says:

    Hi Shae,

    Thanks for commenting and for all your great advice. I can only imagine that among a sea of sweet peachiness the alcoholic spike stands out even more.

    I’m hoping you read this and can help me with a question: I’m wondering what the point behind the two-jar entries is? Is the idea that only Jar A is opened, judged for taste and then picked up (or refrigerated) while Jar B remains sealed and on display with any ribbons while the fair runs? I wondered about this because my jars were dropped off Thursday night, opened and judged, and then left at ambient temperature until Sunday. We happened to have a particularly cold mid-September weekend and they were in a dark spot of the unheated Scout Hall so I was fine eating what was left but otherwise would have been leery.


  3. At the Royal, they use one jar for judging and another for display and later sale to benefit the event. You don’t get anything back from them.

  4. By the way, am I missing something, or didn’t you tell us how many ribbons you won in total? Enquiring minds want to know!!!

  5. foodwithlegs says:

    Wow, Sarah, nothing back and an entry fee to boot? I can’t imagine the judging jar has much eaten from it. The ones I entered at Beaverton had a tiny bit from each–the size of the point of a plastic spoon, naturally–of them.

    Four categories entered, two of which took home third-place ribbons. I wasn’t in contention but as far as I could tell Beaverton doesn’t have any cumulative “Best of Fair” ribbons or special sponsored ones.

  6. SB Canning says:

    Great job on the ribbons. Sometimes they will send you a check after they have tallied everything. I got a check two weeks later from one of the fairs I enter this year for $60. I was pretty happy when I saw that. Maybe the checks “in the mail”.

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