It’s been a busy couple of days, explains Kaye Howells, a slow-walking, slow-speaking woman in trackie-daks and glasses. As we – me, Kaye and a salivating bloke – unload crate after crate from the back of her freshly washed ute, a sweet, buttery aroma drifts up and hits me, right in the olfactories.
Now, don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not me the blokes are salivating over, or Kaye. It’s the baker’s dozen of cakes we’re hefting into the brand new community sports stadium in Bunyip, a one-street, two-pub town lurking 80 kilometres east of Melbourne in the wake of the Princes Highway, like the mythological Aboriginal swamp creature the place is named after.
It’s not a big birthday bash, or a christening, or even an overly indulgent afternoon tea. It’s a competition: the Country Women’s Association’s (CWA) cookery competition at the Bunyip Agricultural Show.
Our arms full, we make our way to the back of the stadium, past locals strong-arming trestle tables and display boards and show items into place. Gerberas in a pretty parade of colour run the length of one wall, while neatly arranged, larger-than-life home-grown vegetables have taken root in the other.
At the back, in the ‘cake corner’, a table is fast filling with home-made baking. There are carrot and fruit cakes, and all manner of slices. Shortbread, pikelets, muffins and the Holy Grail: the sponge.
‘I was baking all day yesterday, and got up at six this morning to do my scones and pikelets,’ says Kaye, growling good-naturedly as the bloke – a helpful local – lifts the edge of a tablecloth doubling as a fly cover for one of her crates, and tries to take a peek at her creations.
I don’t blame him. I too am hoping Kaye will give me a sneak preview, or even a taste of her home-made goodies. But no such luck. The cakes go straight into the hands of the stewards: a capable, no-nonsense gaggle of CWA ladies sorting the entries into 18 sections, giving each a coded label, and awaiting the arrival of the judge.
Australia has gone crazy for competitive-cooking reality television lately, with programs such as MasterChef, My Kitchen Rules and Come Dine With Me regularly scoring massive national ratings. In fact MasterChef, now in its fourth season, is the fourth highest-rating television program in Australia in the last decade; only major sporting events have the power to pull more viewers to the box.
Yet food competitions are nothing new. Grandmothers, mums and aunties have been proudly laying out their home-made jams and scones and sponges for expert prodding, tasting and sale at rural shows, fundraisers and school galas throughout Australia for decades, while the Bunyip Show has been held every year since 1900.
CWA Creative Arts Committee Chairman Wendy Earwicker grew up on a local dairy farm in Bunyip, and is in charge of today’s event. She remembers both her mother and grandmother entering CWA cookery competitions. ‘In the old days, they used to cook a lot of classical, traditional English things like lamingtons and apple pies,’ says Wendy, who hasn’t missed a show since she was 11. ‘There was a lot of baking at home when I was a child. As kids, if we wanted to listen to the footy on the radio on a Saturday afternoon, we had to bake cakes! She wasn’t subtle, my mum. So that was us on Saturday afternoon; there was always something in the oven.’
When the family packed up Wendy’s mother’s house after she died in 2009, they found a first prize card from 1932 for one of her specialities: quince jelly.
‘She won that prize for years,’ Wendy remembers fondly. ‘She even won it the year before she died! She had a lifetime of cooking, entering and winning, and was extremely good at shortbread; she usually won the prize for that too.’
Kaye is a country girl herself. She married a local, and has been entering the Bunyip Show’s cookery competition for more than 20 years. Cooking is a favourite hobby, she says, and a pleasant relief from the life-or-death nature of her job as a midwife.
‘You don’t make sponges, do you Kaye?’ asks steward (or ‘CWA chook’) and fellow competitor Lorraine Stephenson.
‘No way! Dissolving the sugar, that’s my problem. When I’m making a sponge, I feel as though I’m making a pavlova.’
Lorraine nods. ‘I use a method where you don’t dissolve the sugar at all. I put the eggs and sugar in together.’
‘I’ve never been taught to make a sponge,’ says Kaye wistfully.‘You don’t whip the egg whites until they’re fluffy, like you do for a pav?’
Lorraine shakes her head. ‘The secret to making it nice and light is to beat the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer for 10 minutes. But that puts a lot of air into it, so then you need to tap the tin on the table to disperse some of the air bubbles.’
‘You don’t add the yolks?’ asks Kaye.
‘Oh no. No, no, no!’
We’ve moved on to discussing the finer points of fruit cakes – like coating the fruit in flour to stop it sinking to the bottom – when there’s a flurry of activity at the other end of the stadium: the specially-trained CWA judge has arrived.
Pam Mawson is a slender woman, dressed like the others in comfy trousers and sensible shoes. She’s wearing Easter-themed bunny rabbit earrings, and has brought her own chopping board and set of newly sharpened knives. ‘It takes about a year to qualify as a judge,’ she explains as she sets herself up on the table, arranging the knives and board with surgical precision. ‘You have to sit exams, and practise alongside an experienced judge.’
I’m excited. I’ve been promised that I can sit beside Pam and taste the cakes – all of them – as she does, as long as I don’t give any opinions. For a foodie with a sweet tooth, this gig is about as good as it gets. I even turned down the cheesecake on offer at lunch to make sure I had room for cake, cake and more cake.
Competitors choose which kind of cakes to make by consulting the Schedule, a show-specific document that charts categories for every competition taking place in the stadium. When I express surprise that there are no pavlovas, Wendy explains that the cookery schedule is adjusted every year, to create variety and reflect cooking trends: a craze for carrot cake with cream-cheese icing swept through the district in the 1960s, for example, and they’ve featured on the Schedule ever since. Swiss rolls, by contrast, were popular for many years, but fell from favour in the 1980s.
‘The Schedule is the Bible,’ Lorraine whispers in my ear. ‘You’re not supposed to ice the cakes unless it says it in the Schedule. It stops judges from inspecting the top of the cake for cracks. So if it says no icing, there’s no icing.’
Pam is no Matt Preston, but she knows her baking. ‘The name says it all,’ declares Pam, picking up the first of five nut-and-date loaves. ‘If you call it a date loaf, then you expect it to taste of dates. But if it’s a nut-and-date loaf, then you expect some nutty flavours. I’m going to be disappointed if I don’t get that.
‘I’m using all my senses,’ continues Pam, turning the loaf from side to side to ensure it is evenly cooked, and inspecting the bottom for rack marks – a big competition no-no.
‘Rack marks are the sin of sins,’ says Lorraine, who is starting to sound like some sort of cake-baking oracle. More so when she adds that, to avoid rack marks, you simply need to put a teacloth between the cake and the rack.
‘I can see it, I can feel it, I can smell it,’ Pam continues, ignoring Lorraine’s interjection. She takes up her largest knife, dissects the loaf and gently lays it open for examination. ‘The fruit and nuts should be about the same size. They’re well distributed here, and there are no huge air bubbles in the cake. It’s very nicely cooked.’
Pam cuts a triangular sliver from the heart of the loaf.
‘If something’s going to go wrong, you’ll find it here, right in the centre,’ she explains, making the sliver even tinier by cutting it in half with another, smaller knife.
She pushes one of the morsels towards me. ‘There you go, there’s your bit.’ I watch, crestfallen, as Pam pops the other, teeny-tiny morsel into her mouth, closing her eyes and absorbing the texture and flavour of the loaf.
Is that it? So much for an afternoon of being made to eat cake until I’m begging for mercy: even Barbie eats bigger portions than this. But I’ll take what I can get, so I follow suit and consign the morsel to my cakehole. My senses are assailed by a sweet, nutty aroma and taste. It’s moist and heady and delicious.
It’s also gone in an instant. But I come to realise as we look, touch, smell and taste our way through the categories that the old adage of quality not quantity is spot on.
After Pam’s multi-sensory, measured assessment of each category, the goods are handed back to the hovering stewards, who take them away for wrapping. The cakes are going to be on display at Show Day tomorrow, so the ladies want them looking their best. By the time they’ve finished, you can’t even tell Pam or her knives have been near them.
Of course, there’s more to the CWA than scones and country shows. As Australia’s largest women’s organisation, with 44,000 members across 1855 branches in every state, the CWA has been active since their formation in 1922, working to improve the lives of rural women and children.
The CWA is a non-party-political, non-sectarian and non-profit organisation, the stewards – all long-serving members in the seniors’ bracket – tell me over a trestle-table lunch of club sandwiches and quiche. ‘It has parallels with the feminist movement’, reckons Dawn, a softly spoken woman with faded blue eyes and shaky hands. ‘The CWA has been hugely empowering for country women,’ she adds.
‘Back in the early days, it enabled us to come together and garner strength in numbers,’ she says, and those nearby nod their agreement. ‘It helped us to have some influence on our men folk, and on what happened in our community.’
But things are different now, continues another, all matter-of-fact. ‘Yes, our attrition rates are atrocious,’ Dawn agrees. ‘We’re going to be the last generation of Country Women.’
CWA membership peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, when women stayed home. Country life could be isolating, and attending CWA meets was a way of staying connected. Today, they’re struggling to recruit young rural women, and they don’t know what to do about it.
‘Women today are too busy juggling home, family and work commitments to bother with the CWA. They’re not interested,’ adds Dawn’s neighbour, almost gleefully. ‘They don’t want to spend their weekends baking, they want to go out for coffee. They want to travel. Good for them, I say. Good for them!’
Things have changed in the kitchen, too. The preparation and processing of food by large multinationals means that what mums used to make, they can now buy. For committed competitors (‘show cooks’), improvements in home refrigeration technology mean they can bake some cakes a few weeks ahead of time and keep them on ice, then pull them out on the morning of the show. Provided, Lorraine advises, it’s a frost-free freezer.
‘Freezing won’t suit all cakes, of course – anything with a chocolate topping, for example. The topping will go all cloudy in the freezer. But it works a treat for sponges!’
In the last five years, Wendy has noticed an increase in exhibits from men, especially in the preserves category. ‘Men are really getting into making jams and chutneys and relishes,’ she says. ‘They’re quite experimental; we’re seeing some interesting herbs and spices and mixtures. There’s usually one cooking entry from a man every year too. Sometimes, they even win!’
Lorraine says, ‘We don’t like to waste anything. But if you’re making a competition cake, you shouldn’t scrape the bowl out, because on the edge of the bowl are all the bits of flour and stuff. They’ll make the cake lumpy.’
While even Kaye will admit to buying the occasional jam- filled lamington, the women insist no one has dared try to pass a store-bought or packet-mix cake off as their own (although packet mixes are allowed in the children’s section). ‘No one will ever get past me,’ Pam says proudly. ‘I’d be able to tell. They’ve got a distinctive tang, and they look very processed.’
Not everyone thinks the CWA is past its use-by date. When early this year Germaine Greer was asked during a panel discussion, ‘The F-Word: A Day of Feminist Debate’, which organisations aspiring feminists could or should join, she advised women to join the CWA. Greer went on to note that environmental issues often accompany feminist concerns, and she’s right: when it comes to safeguarding the land, the CWA is no slouch. Over the years, they’ve tackled drought and flood relief, coal-seam gas mining, salinity levels, sustainable farming, and more.
Farming folk have long preserved every single fruit of their labours. ‘My mother and grandmother would use every piece of produce from the property,’ remembers Wendy. ‘There were no shops handy, so if you didn’t preserve your fruit and vegetables when they were in season, you didn’t eat them for the rest of the year.’
The next day, in the cake corner, it’s clear from the embossed prize cards the stewards have carefully affixed to the first and second place getters in each category that Kaye has cleaned up. She has taken out top spot in eight sections: carrot cake, orange cake, sultana cake, boiled fruit cake, own choice, date-and-nut loaf, biscuits and unbaked slices, and has received a special commendation for her creativity in the own choice category: a layered coconut ice cake with pink icing.
Lorraine, unsurprisingly, won first prize in the sponge category. ‘I really admire people who make sponges,’ Pam had shared as she sized up Lorraine’s entry during the judging. ‘You have to be very gentle. This one’s beautiful: it almost looks like a Ginger Fluff.’
‘I’ve been making sponges for 20 years or more. This one is a recipe from the CWA cookbook,’ Lorraine giggles, a tad giddy.
She tells me that she shouldn’t take the sponge home as her husband is diabetic and she doesn’t want him eating too much sugar. ‘Would you like it?’ she asks.
My eyes light up. ‘Yes, ma’am!’
Lorraine hands me her prize-winning, picture-perfect seven-inch sponge, smiling. ‘Here you go. You won’t find one like that down at your local supermarket, you know!’
No, I sure won’t.