Friday, 13 March 2015

The Medium of Cake

As well as horses and other farm animals, one element of an agricultural show that I particularly love is the displays of entries in the growing and making sections. There is usually a whole pavilion devoted to these categories. Here one can examine at close range the fleece of many breeds of sheep, as well as a variety of handmade food and homegrown fruit and vegetables.

One of the things that I find intriguing about the exhibits in this area of the show is the methods by which the results of the competitions are arrived at. In most cases, the reasons that allow one entry to gain ascendancy over all its rivals remain entirely mysterious . The entry next to the winner usually looks pretty much as good - at least to the uninitiated eye. What are the high priests of egg judging and tomato grading seeing that I am missing?

Here, for instance, are the winning eggs at Royal Canberra Show this year. While their box was a nicer shade of fawn than the others, the eggs themselves looked pretty much like the eggs on each side of them, eggs that had been passed over for any recommendation - missing out even on that miserable accolade that marks you out as just minimally beyond mediocre, the "Highly Commended" card
 Personally the tomatoes on the right look more enticing to me than the winners, but what do I know?

 Then there are the flowers. These are chrysanthemums, I think - or are they dahlias? If they are chrysanthemums, their growers get a mention somewhere in my first novel. Behind those bright tousled flower heads, there lies a world of envy and desperation, apparently
While I do not wish to sound like Nigel Molesworth's grandmother when she "hound and persekute all shopkeepers" - ("She take you along and you have to listen while she send for the manager. She sa I have dealt here for 30 years why can you not deliver on tuesdays ect while I try to pretend I am not there chiz, also the gorgonzola is not wot it was. Personaly I think no gorgonzola is worth sending for the manager for but it must be diferent I supose when you are 723") - I cannot restrain myself from saying that the Jams, Spreads and Preserves section is definitely not what it used to be.

Only a decade or so ago, you would stand agog, awed by ranks of jars that almost glowed - apricots lurking in amber syrup, plums arranged in deep red depths, each slice placed with such care that the patterns created were equal to those in the mosaics of Samarkand. Mind you, my mother reckoned the same jewel-like jars were entered year after year (the great beauty of preserves is that they do not go off, I suppose, so reuse is an intrinsic danger in competitive circumstances.) Maybe the powers that be finally twigged and rules have been tightened. Anyway, whatever the reason for the change, this is the dismal result:

I will spare you the class called novelty items made from fruit and vegetables - a rabbit made out of a rockmelon narowly beat a monstrous sheep made from a cauliflower an eggplant, grapes and two leeks. No-one should have to see such things. Really.

Instead let's move on to cakes. Once again, the underlying principles guiding the judges eluded me. Why did this win first prize:

while this limped away with HC?
These girls seemed as puzzled as me:
Or perhaps they'd never before realised that cakes did not always have to arrive in cellophane packets, made my unseen hands in factories faraway.

Meanwhile I'm still wondering how this coffee cake rose to the top of a very packed field - (and does anyone else agree that coffee cake is one of the best cakes imaginable, especially the icing?) - when it looks to me to be very heavy and damp:
I suspect a touch of dirty dealing at the crossroads.

I was also amazed to find that there now exists a whole new class, devoted entirely to men. It is called "Man's favourite cake", which I thought indicated that a woman was supposed to bake the recipe that was the favourite of a man in her family. However, it turned out that it was a section in which only men entered - and therefore I assume only they can enter.

Is this a case of discrimination? If so, against whom? Should we women insist on being included in the men's category, or is it merely a sign that the lady judges decided the poor dear males who had suddenly decided to don aprons and get out the sieves and measuring jugs would never stand a chance against their female counterparts?

I'm guessing the latter - no man, it was assumed, could possibly cut the mustard against his sister bakers. I am reminded of the young woman who moved to Yass recently and was thinking of entering the Yass show sponge cake category. When a relative asked how the young woman should go about applying to do this, the show official paused for a moment and then pulled out a form. Handing it over, she observed: "Your grand daughter is either very good or very brave."
Anyway, this man looked like he wasn't satisfied with the standard of the judging, (there's no pleasing some people):

Okay, now we come to the crunch. I may have spared you the novelty animals, but I cannot pass over so easily what must be the most misguided initiative I've ever come across in any field of human endeavour (oh all right, I am, not for the first time, exaggerating, particularly in the context, as we shall see - but only slightly).

This latest example in the long and dismal trail of human error throughout Western history was the baking category introduced at this year's Royal Canberra Show in order to mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. For one year only, (I hope), the bakers of Canberra and its surrounding regions were invited to commemorate the First World War through the medium of cake.

They obliged with

a) a cake depicting a particularly black and muddy trench, complete with Tommies:

b): a cake covered in poppies and icing whose colour presumably evokes the glow of endless shelling and fire and as a result suggests to me that it must be borderline poisonous

c) a cake with a digger's hat on the top of it and blackened sides interspersed with grave markers:

d) a khaki cake decorated once again with a grave stone, plus poppies that look worryingly like blood clots:
e) and the winner, another, more skilfully fashioned hat, atop a cake decorated with the figures of weary soldiers plodding across a blackened landscape against a lurid sky:

Helen Garner once remarked that the cake decorating sections at agricultural shows are just a form of showing off, (a criticism that could also be directed towards writing, of course, or almost any field of human activity, if one was feeling mean-spirited, but anyway).

Certainly these cakes - or at least the winner - show astonishing skill. What they do not show is good sense. After all, the main function of cake is to be appetising. Essentially, if any of these settle permanently into the domestic cake repertoire, I will eat my hat - and, of course, if they do, I will probably also eat their hat.


  1. When it comes to cakes, I don't want to see anything that would be out of place in a Victorian teashop. As for World War One memorial cakes, it feels quite wrong to eat them, as if there's some form of transubstantiation involved.

    Changing the subject completely, you tweeted yesterday about Kenton Archer. You might be amused to know that when he's not recording The Archers in Birmingham, he works with me.

    1. Crumbs, (good cake segue there, I hope you'll agree), your Kenton friend certainly let it rip the other night re credit cards and brothers who say one thing and do another. He must still be hoarse from all that shrieking. He's right about one thing, (yes, I am now mistaking the character for your actual friend), though - Australia is an expensive place these days. It's quite surprising to come abroad and realise you are being fleeced each day at home