Spring has officially sprung in Australia bringing with it some welcome sunshine, blossom on the trees, raging hay fever (for me, at least) and, here in South Australia, the Royal Adelaide Show. A huge celebration of all things horticultural and agricultural (and similar to the State Fairs of the US), the show is a major date on the calendar of farmers, gardeners, side-show traders, kids of all ages, junk food connoisseurs and domestic goddesses. As well as stomach-turning rides and unpleasant deep-fried foods on sticks, it is here that you will find the livestock judged to be the best of their breed in South Australia for the given year, the very best orchids, dahlia’s or camellia’s, prizewinning hand-crafted quilts, laces and embroideries, some of the best home-made jams, scones, cakes and breads but most importantly – the very best Rich Fruit Cake and Genoa Cake in South Australia.
The baking and cooking competition sections of The Royal Adelaide Show are open for anyone to enter and seem to be enjoying a distinct increase in popularity of late, but the Rich Fruit Cake and Genoa Cake sections are truly the elite of domestic baking competitions. The Rich Fruit Cake and Genoa Cake competition is a state-wide event organised by the Agricultural Societies Council of SA Inc with the state finals staged at the Royal Adelaide Show each year. There are ten country show divisions and the winner of each one is then eligible to compete for the championship. The Rich Fruit Cake competition here in South Australia was started 30 years ago by Margaret Hurst who saw a similar competition in Melbourne, with the Genoa Cake being added 26 years ago.
Margaret has a long and illustrious history with both rural shows and the Royal Show, being recognised as the most successful exhibitor in the 1974 Royal Adelaide Show. She has judged and convened the competition frequently, coming out of retirement to judge this year, the 30th competition. And judging this competition is clearly not taken lightly. There are rigid criteria to be met when entering either of these sections with the Rich Fruit Cake recipe being a prescribed one not to be altered, while the Genoa Cake recipe is each bakers own choice. If you fancy your chances at first prize with one of these classics you will need to ensure the even heat of your oven, cut all of your fruit to regulation size, make sure you cream the butter and sugar properly (they can tell if you don’t), see to it that there are absolutely no marks from the tin, the cooling rack or the baking paper on your cake and that it rises and browns evenly. When judging, Margaret feels the heft and density of each cake, looking for a good even colour and texture with absolutely no air bubbles, evenly distributed fruit, a good aroma and, of course, taste. Each cake is picked up, carefully inspected, cut in half, sniffed, closely examined and eventually tasted – and all in front of a large, tense and edgy audience of the bakers and their support crews. So, no pressure there.
I was very fortunate to manage to get in to watch this most skillful annual competition and couldn’t help but be struck by the diversity of the entrants and the distances they had travelled to compete. I spoke to several of the contenders, none of whom were baking novices. In her 30’s, Helen Swinney from Mt. Gambier has been entering this competition, along with her mother, since about 1995 and has already won with a Genoa Cake once before. This year she entered both categories and had baked two cakes of each variety to ensure she had one which she was happy with. The only male in this years competition, 40-something Vaughan Wilson from Wistow in the Adelaide Hills, has been competing for 10 years, making his first trip to the finals last year. He baked four Genoa’s and two Rich Fruits this year before he was satisfied with his efforts. Ann Colyer (mid 60’s) of Port Germein is no stranger to the competition either and one year was forced to resort to cooking her efforts in her hooded barbeque when her oven failed her. She, too, usually bakes two cakes for the competition.
The richly fragrant atmosphere of the judging room was hushed and attentive as each of the entrants saw their efforts held up for scrutiny, but Margaret was nothing but admiring of all the cakes as she gave each of them the attention they merited. And the response when the winners were announced was warm and generous given the disappointment that must have been felt in those who were not successful. It’s all a great deal of time, effort and expense for a modest cash prize of $300 for the winner, but this is a competition that is the territory of serious, dedicated bakers with a clear goal in mind and the competitive edge necessary to get them there. The devotees of the the Rich Fruit Cake and Genoa Cake competition really do know all about good food and how to get it!
If you are interested in trying your hand at one of these challenges, check here for all of the details.
If you think you just might like a great recipe for a rich fruit cake, then here it is.