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Nail-biting tension at the Rich Fruit & Genoa Cake Judging – Royal Adelaide Show

02/09/2011 | By

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 judging the Genoa Cakes

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.


The winning Rich Fruit Cake for 2011, made by Ann Colyer of Pt. Germein

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.


Emma Kemp’s winning Genoa Cake for 2011

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.

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  1. celia

    It really is very persnickety stuff, isn’t it? I contemplated entering once, until I read the rules. 😉

    I’m super impressed with the prize winning entries though!

  2. Michele Lally

    what a wonderful article about such a fantastic Australian celebration of baking!
    After being introduced to show baking in the past few years by my mother in law, (who is 3rd Generation Cooking Convener at the Clare Show, and has won the Rich Fruit Cake Comp at the Adelaide Show before) I now really enjoy baking for our local Clare Show here in the Mid North of SA. I have never been much of a baker, (far more interested in those interesting duck, pork and lamb dishes!) and frankly, to bake three varieties of biscuits, three varieties of cooked slices and then 3 varieties of non cooked slices, for one class would leave me in need of a voucher for Weight Watchers! (I never know what to do with it all!) However, being on a farm, and having shearers to feed it does come in handy!
    The challenge however, is that country shows are finding it very hard to continue this fabulous rural ritual and as shows like Masterchef are constantly raising the bar of our cooking expertise, a good old fruit cake or chocolate cake is being challeneged by more creative dishes, and country shows will need to move with this trend soon so they keep people in the 20’s and 30’s and even 40’s interested. Not to mention, we all seem so busy – who has time to bake that many biscuit varieties? So I urge everyone out there to have a go at baking in an Ag Show Comp. Find your local show, or one which you fancy the program of, and bake a cake/slice/biscuit and deliver it to the stewards, and better still!! Put your hand up and be a steward – the amount of valuable information and skill I learnt in my first year being a steward, has now held me in great stead for my next few years baking hopefully as well as my mother in law… and keeping this tradition going for another 3 generations at the Clare Show. PS – there’s some serious rules to follow, and if anyone needs help on this, please email me…. ie no icing down the sides of cakes and NEVER test the cake with a skewer! or put the cake on a rack to cool!! Good luck!!!

  3. Kate

    I love your description of this event !! I have always looked admiringly at the cakes/scones etc at the Royal Melbourne Show . My rustic type of cooking would never stand up to the scrutiny of the judges, besides I have severe critics under my own roof and my offerings barely pass muster so this type of event is not for me ! I do admire those bakers who can reliably come up with something – let alone two somethings – worthy of entering !

  4. Amanda

    Celia – the regulations do make it all a little daunting, don’t they!
    Michele – It would be great to see more people entering the regular cooking and baking sections of the regional shows. They have a long tradition and we need to keep it going.
    Kate – Perhaps it’s time for your in-house critics to put up or shut up and actually demonstrate their superiority!

  5. Ann

    Great story Amanda. I have loved looking at all the baked offerings including the pickles, sauces and jams for quite a while. I still haven’t given up hope of entering one day. How do the entrants cool the cake without leaving marks from the cooling rack though (Michelle @ comment 2 ?)
    When are you going to enter Amanda?

  6. Barbara

    Love that Genoa cake. I think I need to make one.

  7. InTolerantChef

    I think the most important aspect of the show baking is traddition. Sure, the cake has to taste good, but it’s showing you have the skills to make a great tasting cake despite sticking to the ridgid standards, that shows a true winner! I really enjoyed this post, and think we should all have a go at our local show next time too.

  8. Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella

    I’ve always suspected that the fruit cake and sponge cake sections are really hotly contested. Someone should do a movie on cake competitions! I bet there is a movie in it! 😛

  9. Amanda

    Ann – I would never have the patience or the tenacity required for these competitions.
    Barbara – Genoa cake is a goodie & perfect with tea.
    Bec – I’m not sure about aiming for these sections of the show, but it would be great to see more people getting involved with the country shows.
    Lorraine – Hmm, yes I think I could see a movie in this. Maybe with Julia Roberts?

  10. Cakelaw

    I would love to make the Genoa cake – it looks so golden and moist. Yummy!

  11. Miss Kimbers @ Fruit Salad & Mixed Veg

    I need to learn how to make fruit cake! 😀
    I was at a small gardening show last weekend and there was a baking section there. I find it more interesting than the plants:) I went to an open garden a few weekends ago and there was an afternoon tea there, baked by a cake judger. The cakes were sooooo good! I even obtained the recipe for one 🙂

  12. karen

    Does the cake need to be cooked in a square tin or a round tin? In Vic the rules don’t state.

  13. Amanda

    Karen – all square & eerily similar.

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