Friday, 14 September 2012

Baking Champions

While Olympian and Paralympians were winning medals, home bakers around the country have been winning prizes too.  In the numerous village shows many a cup cake, Victoria sandwich and cherry cake has been judged for its lightness, aroma, taste and appearance.

I was invited to judge the “Cakes versus Pies” contest at the first ‘CarFest’ in Hampshire on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday. The magic of motors, the fastness of Ferraris, and all things car related were on show at this extravaganza. The idea of ‘CarFest’ and the two category baking competition apparently came to TV Presenter Chris Evans after giving up bread for Lent- although how I don’t know!

In true British holiday fashion, the heavens opened as I arrived at Laverstock Park where the event was held.  Completely drenched, the sun luckily came to my rescue and I was able to dry out in the intervening two hours before the judging began. The Best of British marquee, housing examples of the best of British foods, also provided the space for the cakes and pies competition. Sixty cakes and sixty pies had been baked by just 120 entrants from the many hundreds who applied.  There were nine judges and between us we did the deed in just under two hours.  The unusual presence of the competitors, and numerous other interested parties stretching at least 12 deep, was just great and very much part of ‘CarFest’.  However, with no categories of entry, how does one pitch the perfect gingerbread against the perfect chocolate concoction? And that was just the cakes.  Fortunately, the overall winner of both the pies and the cakes was chosen on the following day by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, together with the encouragement of the festival goers.

Then I moved to bread, this time with categories: white, brown, novelty and children under 12!  This was at the Open Day for the Countryside Restoration Trust in Cambridgeshire just last weekend.

I always admire anyone who puts themselves through the ringer of such competitions.  Yes, all entries should be full of flavour, look good, have the right texture, melt in the mouth and be cooked to perfection; but to produce the prize winning article on cue for your slot on the competition table requires talent, enough ingredients for several attempts and determination – even at midnight the night before. I have been there at that time, with the third attempt at a lemon drizzle cake in the oven, and just putting the finishing touches to the asymmetric triangle for the flower arranging exhibit comprising of garden flowers only. All this going on whilst you can’t for the life of you remember why you said you would enter anything!

There has been a huge resurgence in home baking lately. What with the Hairy Bikers, Rosemary Shrager, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood to name but a few. Only a few days ago, I read a comment from Paul Hollywood regarding the Great British Bake Off: “When it first started [we] just thought it’ll appease the people at the WI who want to do some baking.”

I am not quite sure what he might have meant by that, but the WI is delighted to welcome Mr Hollywood to demonstrate at its third Real Jam Festival at Denman, near Abingdon, Oxon on 2nd December.

And yes, jam is a hallmark of the WI; and of that I am very proud. There are 12 categories in the competition (click here to view the schedule) so do give it a go. We’d love to see you there for a weekend of festive fare and entertainment, stalls and eats, and a good time. You can even enjoy bed and breakfast, either in the delightful Georgian house or in one of the modern en-suite rooms in the grounds.

But the baking goes on, for of course it’s not just a summer activity. Anne Harrison, NFWI Vice Chair, is currently busy recording Food Glorious Food for ITV.  Anne is not only a WI cookery judge; she is also a superb cook who makes the ultimate scone, and a wonderful character.  Do watch out for her in the new year.

And while we’re talking of food, I will mention drink – and beer in particular – because also on the increase are the numbers of breweries springing up and some are producing truly top quality beers.  I mentioned the Countryside Restoration Trust open day above, and one of the stands there was taken by a local brewer with his Black Bar ale. But of course, the WI and beer are no strangers; “Harmston’s Heavenly” was developed by a microbrewery in Lincolnshire to celebrate the 90th anniversary in 2010 of Harmston WI of Lincolnshire North Federation. And coming soon to Denman will be a course on brewing your own beer – book your place now.

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