In Melbourne, a city full of food and obsessed by coffee, I cook, I eat, I share the good news and the bad. essjay eats

Royal Melbourne Show Baking Competition

Some of you may know that for the last three years I’ve entered into the baking competition of the Royal Melbourne Show. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what prompted me to enter, but gaining a “commendation” for my sponge sandwich entry in my first year, with the third sponge I’d ever baked, was a lovely confidence builder, more so than the third I received for my eclairs.

I quite liked researching recipes and techniques to make my baking the best it could be, with lovely ingredients grown with love and care.

Last year I was bemused by the second prize winner for eclairs (I received third again) seemed to be burned (DonisBaked blogged about it over here) and so I wrote to the coordinator asking for the judges notes or feed back on my baking as I wanted to improve. What I received back was a few generic comments that was of practically no use at all with the exception of one comment which said “Most almond crescent entries where smothered in too much icing sugar which dulls the taste”.  Well, actually, I’ve never seen a recipe for almond crescents that doesn’t ask for them to be dredged in icing sugar – but .. whatever. The criteria obviously must be deeply secret.

So this year, I entered sponge cake, carrot cake, almond crescents and eclairs again, and scones for something new. The results were out this week and I received nothing … no prizes, no commendations, nothing. Poo.

And then … then I read Richard Cornish‘s article in The Age this Saturday on the show baking competition.

Although I’ve only been competing for a few years even I had noticed the predominance of two names in the results, those of Fleay and Primmer. Richard watched on as Angela Fleay and her son and daughter, who won first, second and third prize in the sponge sandwich competition this year, made their sponges for this year’s show.

Fleay cooks from memory and has a few tips. ”Use the best-possible ingredients you can afford, except use supermarket eggs, as they don’t have as much colour as the free-range ones – some judges don’t like yellow sponges.”

Really?  Don’t use free range eggs because the judges don’t like naturally coloured sponges?  What? This incensed me. Yes, lets use cruelly raised eggs cause they LOOK better? (And don’t get me started on how she’s not in it for the competition – If you don’t want to win Angela, how about retiring now that you’ve got layers of  dusty blue ribbons, faded rosettes and engraved silver spoons”.)

But perhaps even sadder are the comments from one of the judges, Ann Marston. “She points to flecks of custard powder. ”The better brands of custard powder don’t do this.’

Custard Powder?  Caged hen eggs?

You know what Royal Melbourne Show – if that’s what it takes to win your sponge sandwich competition I don’t think I WANT to win anymore.  I don’t think I even want to compete.

You’re supposed to be about  promoting the best produce Victoria has to offer, and that’s NOT caged hen eggs and custard powder flavouring.  It’s time to step up and move with the times.

Judge Marston was also quoted as saying:

The standard of sponges at this year’s show is poor, as it is in some of the other categories. Marston judged the fruit cakes before the sponges and when asked to comment she shakes her head. ”It is so good to have the young people, inspired by cooking shows, come into the competition,” she says. ”But learning to bake doesn’t come from watching telly. It comes from standing next to your mother, grandmother or whoever, and watching them cook and learning from them. With a few notable exceptions, after today, I really feel like I need to start teaching sponge-baking classes.’

I can’t help but feel that’s a wee bit patronising and again out of touch. What of those who don’t have generations of family bakers to stand next to you and show you how to bake? And instead of teaching classes that bake sponges to fit the caged egg & custard powder ideal, how about providing some realistic feedback to those who ask for it, and updating your palate and knowledge to the new world order.  The order of free range eggs, pure fresh butter (not frozen for months), milk from a single herd of cows, organic carrots, australian grown and dried sultanas oh I could go on.

Needless to say I am very disappointed in the attitudes expressed by these two influential people, and by the Royal Melbourne Show who advocates them.

We are not amused.

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17 thoughts on “Royal Melbourne Show Baking Competition

  • Congratulations on your 2nd prize in this years open sponge sandwich comp at royal melbourne show an achievement you should be proud of suzanne!!! Well done :)

    Comment from: Angela fleay

  • Congrats on your baking successes. Don’t worry about judgments , take some guidelines from experts.

    Comment from: Melbourne Coffee

  • Good on you for entering although I’m with you – I don’t get why they would recommend caged eggs.. That seems ridiculous. Also I clicked on that pic of the eclairs that got second prize… and they do seem to be burned. How could they win second place? Are the judges..blind??

    Comment from: Christine @ Cooking Crusade

  • It’s interesting about the selection of eggs making a difference. Anyway don’t worry about the critics.. as the saying goes, “a critic is someone who does not join in battle but afterward walks the field shooting the wounded” :P

    Comment from: Andy

  • Hi Donna I would be more than happy to meet with you. I don’t set the guidelines although I do follow them. There is a book you can purchase online called ” cookery for competitions what the judges are looking for” written by Joan graham and Doreen Moore. It was published by Ericildourne(1991) and retails for $18.50 this book will help you with guidelines to follow for show cookery. An important thing to note is that judging is done blind. The judge has no idea who the cakes,biscuits,bread etc…. Belong to. He/she judges what products are presented on the day and awards prizes accordingly. Public judging is also a great way to learn how to present and prepare show cookery. You never stop learning about baking. A few years ago a gluten free section was introduced and yes it may well be time to introduce an organic/fringe cake section as well!!! I did scratch my head last year when a burnt choux pastry was awarded a second place but in entering your goods you must be able to accept the judges decision on the day. I for one don’t use custard powder in my sponges but there are many published recipes that do. Remember when you are competing at the royal show this is a state competition

    Comment from: Angela fleay

  • Hi Angela, I for one would be interested in meeting with you to discuss the rules and guidelines by which our baked items are judged. I guess the problem is that these guidelines should be made more visible to entrants and the individual style and flair with which we all express ourselves through baking not be curbed to meet guidelines set by people like yourself that win year upon year. I agree that upon entering a competition you are subjecting yourself to scrutiny but when I do a visual inspection of other entries I see discrepancies, most obvious in last years burnt choux. I do think that while its fantastic that you sponsor the novice section and are willing to give your time, it seems slightly unfair that year upon year in most sections you are awarded a prize and the judges don’t appear to be modernizing which affects people’s willingness to enter. For some of us a sponge made with happy cruelty free very yellow eggs and no custard powder should be worthy of a prize. I just feel like entering means I trying to meet odd standards that don’t make sense with regard to produce, modern aesthetics or clear rules & guidelines.

    Comment from: Donna

  • I would like to clarify what I meant by “supermarket eggs”. The ones I use are free range or RSPCA approved cage free eggs purchased in the supermarket!!! I don’t use eggs from my friends pet chickens as they are a divine rich yellow/orange colour and too colorfull for show sponges. I use these eggs for my savory dishes. I in no way advocate the use of or use cruelly produced cage eggs!!! I am more than happy to help anyone or give advise on show baking to encourage future competitors. I even sponsor the novice cookery section of the royal show as an encouragement for up and coming show cooks.

    Comment from: Angela fleay

  • What a shame, your sponge looks really good. You know I have never thought about using cage eggs to make a sponge more natural instead of vibrant yellow from the eggs I would normally use. Don’t take it to heart, time does change things, even at a show.

    Comment from: lizzie - strayed from the table

  • sounds like the judges are pretty set in their ways. perhaps next year just buy a sponge cake from Coles or Woolworths and see if it wins — I reckon it will then. Don’t worry, I’m sure your friends and family simply love your cakes so cook for the ones that you love.

    Comment from: Simon Food Favourites

  • I would enter a fringe food festival bake off.

    Comment from: Malissa

  • I was bemused and ultimately saddened by the tale of the Hotham Street Ladies who’s wonderful Miss Haversham cake was not allowed to enter as it had been made by more than one person. I didn’t know Planet Cake sponsored the decorated cake section.

    Comment from: essjayeats

  • The cake decorating section is much the same. Judged and sponsored by planet cake and yet it’s okay for planet cake staff to enter AND consistently win? That’s why I will never enter. Until there is a changing of the guard there’s no chance for anyone else.

    Comment from: Sweet Libertine

  • Very well said!

    Comment from: Alison

  • The same mindset is evident at an iconic local craft market. A young craftsperson wanted to have a stall there selling bags made with material from discontinued billboards – they’re the quintessence of craft in modern times and looked great. The people on the committee who have been there 30 years threw the proposal out because” craft” is clay gumnuts and tooled leather belts, innit?!

    Comment from: Helen

  • I smell a fringe food festival alternative bake-off :) How about one next year to coincide with the show. Invite Richard Cornish to be a judge.

    Comment from: another outspoken female

  • Hi Susan, Congrats on your baking successes and for having a go. Your point on these shows moving with the times reveals the crux of the problem. By their very nature the organising committeesare are pretty conservative and mostly run by people of older generation.
    They preside over a realm of times past. This is part of the attraction to be involved of course but the other side of the coin is the reluctance to embrace the concerns that many people today have about where and how their food stuffs are grown and made. Perhaps this reticence to welcome these modern attitudes is more about holding on to the traditions and it must be asked, keeping the status quo. However in order for these type of shows to remain relevant and to be sustainable as this current generation of arbiters must have a succession plan in place.
    This means addressing the rusted on prejudices against using ‘fresh eggs’ for sponges. This one example is emblematic of the irony that many idealistic people must feel when they look to their elders for a food knowledge that may die out with their generation.

    Comment from: steve

  • That pisses me off too. I’ve though of entering myself at times but I don’t know that I will actually bother now.
    Perhaps we need somewhere else to enter, somewhere that appreciates good food and not some decades old hack from inferior ingredients but real food with real quality and real taste.
    The judges should go back to supermarket cakes by the sound of it.

    Comment from: Damon

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