The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2018 Results

Crumbs of Wisdom from Beverly Ovens-Batter

Copyright © Jacqueline Winn 2018

How, I hear you ask, has it come to this? After decades of keeping the mysterious art of sponge-cake judging under wraps, why have I finally put pen to paper? Hitherto, I have resisted many requests to jot down a few pointers from my wealth of experience in the field of the traditional sponge cake. From fellow judges to simple sponge aficionados, the secrets of my expertise have long been in constant demand. In the past, modesty has forbidden any such blatant self-aggrandisment. However, in the glaring light of recent events, I fear my hand has been forced.

In recent years, my extensive rounds of sponge judging have been fraught with anxiety. It has become increasingly apparent that there has been a deplorable decline in the delectable art of sponge-making, a terrible lapse in the sacred tradition that has been revered for as long as chickens have been laying eggs and cows have been providing cream. Grandmother to mother to daughter, the sponge cake has long been a symbol of family cooking. Until now. On my tours of both country and city shows, I have detected a definite diminution in the quantity and quality of sponge cakes, not to mention an appalling decay in decorum amongst the entrants. To whit, I find myself obliged, compelled even, to take remedial action.

Perhaps the awful descent of the sponge has escaped your notice. You might have been born a little late to appreciate there was once a treat served on Sundays that bore no resemblance to the rubbery yellow imposter sold by supermarkets nowadays. Even shopping-mall bakeries seem to imagine a thin crust of icing, pale yellow, dotted with passionfruit seeds, might pass for the traditional item. Horror! No cook worth her salt leaves the passionfruit seeds in the icing. Do these bakeries not possess a sieve?

I have even found the old corner-shop bakery to be wanting. A friend tried to pass off one of these sponges as “just like the old-fashioned variety”. I took a brave mouthful, instantly gagged and was obliged to wash it down with an entire cup of tea. One word suffices to explain all: mock cream. Yes, I know that’s two words, technically.  But only one of those words is the real offender: mock. And that unsavoury word sums up the state of sponge-making today.

By now, you will have caught my drift. The sponge cake is a pillar of our very society. Its demise is the loss of our very identity. To allow the sponge to disappear into the mists of time is to betray the trust of our very ancestors. A very, very, very serious situation.

For those of you still not convinced, I intend to relate the appalling details of my last judging experience at the Sydney Royal Easter Show. Before I lay bare my momentus horribilis, however, I will preface my salutary tale with some recollections of the good old days, so that you might grasp just how far the sponge has slidden.

Once, the sponge cake category was the crowning glory of baking competitions. One or two fruitcake judges might dare to dispute my claim. However, the fruitcake category has always been subdivided into subcategories, namely light, dark and boiled. Therefore, it cannot be considered to be comparable to the sponge cake category. Given this distinction, I am confident the sponge cake was and still remains the supreme test of the aspiring competition cook.

That point settled, I will describe the scene from the Sydney Exhibition Hall in the 1950’s, a time I regard as the pinnacle of the sponge cake’s reign. Two long tables with crisp white tablecloths were covered with sweet sponge treats, each resting lightly on a white paper doily. The sponge layers were held together by a thin smear of jam and beware any foolish cook who forgot the reliable adage that less is more. Any cake that allowed its jam to ooze beyond the limits of the sponge itself was not even given the courtesy of being placed on the competition table.

As a sponge cake judge, I served my apprenticeship under the great Gladys Garland, whose passing in the sixties was a terrible blow to the sponge cake fraternity. Gladys taught me the judging steps and instructed me to, above all, ignore the finer feelings of the entrants. In her words, “A mere glimpse to the seething crowd will put you off your game, my girl.”

Gladys was right of course. Competitors are always sprinkled throughout the crowd and it is a simple matter for a judge to sense when you are drawing near to a particular entrant’s cake. Of course, the entries are numbered to preserve anonymity but any experienced judge knows which cake belongs to which overwrought crowd-member. Pinched lips, wringing hands and, occasionally, floods of tears streaming down the face. As well, the judge must understand that some entrants might attempt to cast a poor light over the cakes of other competitors, with a slight shake of the head, a screwing up of the nose, muffled guffaws into hands clasped over the mouth. Surreptitious hand signals are common. There’s no end to some of the lengths competitors will go in order to influence the judge. I’ve even had money waved slyly in my direction.

The marvelous Mrs Garland advised me to approach the judging tables slowly, stop at a distance and bend the knees slightly. As when curtseying to Her Majesty, one foot placed slightly behind helps with balance. This allows the eye to undertake a leisurely scan of the tables, giving the judge opportunity to spot any sponge that sits too high above its fellows, or worse, any that sink below.

Gladys Garland was, without doubt, a veritable philosopher of the sponge cake. One of her central tenets has echoed down the decades. “The whole approach of the judge is to find reason to reject. The earlier you reject, the fewer sponges you are obliged to taste in order to arrive at your final decision.” A simply marvelous piece of advice.

I was commended by Gladys once when I managed to reject over half the sponges during my early round of visual scrutiny. Even today, I am inclined to ensure at least half the entries are irretrievably crossed off my list before I reach the table. I am unapologetically firm on this matter. Even when a particularly worthy contestant gasps with shock as I pass over her sponge for tasting, I maintain my position.

At this point, I might say something in an attempt to stave off the deluge of ugly correspondence that always arrives in my mailbox in the weeks after a competition. Be warned, the world of sponge making is not a democracy. Here is my advice to dissenters who feel inclined to put their grievances on paper: save the postage.

I am forever grateful to Gladys for initiating me into the rituals of tasting. A clean knife for each cake is absolutely essential and I never allow the cutlery limitations of smaller country shows to compromise this aspect of judging. Even it means everyone must wait an extra half hour while the used knives are being thoroughly washed and polished.

Some judges rush for the knives. However, the essential prelude to tasting is smelling. In the wise words of Gladys Garland, “There’s many a sponge cake that betrays its flaws in a single intake of the breath.”

A second breath is often helpful if there are large numbers of cakes in the competition and I am in need of elimination numbers. Often I am reduced to only a quarter of the entries. Most convenient.

When I am ready to taste, I take up the knife in my white-gloved hand, using only the thumb and two fingers. Competition organisers might like to be aware that I am vehemently opposed to the modern use of disposable rubber gloves. Vulgar is the word that comes to mind.

I still use Mrs Garland’s expert technique to cut the tiniest cube of sponge from each cake. Using the tip of the knife, a miniscule smear of jam is added before the morsel is placed on the tongue. An inexperienced judge might need to hold the taste in the mouth for a few seconds but my tastebuds have known over five decades of intensive training and I find a mere second on the tongue is sufficient. Then a discreet spitting into a clean serviette and a sip of water prepares me to move on to the next sponge. I have been known to manage nearly fifty tastings in just under five minutes. A record, I’m proud to say, that outdoes even the great Gladys herself. 

Mrs Garland also trained me in the etiquette of prize presentation. “Hide yourself,” she said, “before and after the presentation. Never allow any entrant, winner or loser, to burden you with their inappropriate emotional attachment to the trophy.”

With this in mind, once the judging is complete, I slip a piece of paper to the organisers and remain backstage until the winner’s name is called. I then stride onto the stage, sweep the trophy up into my hands and boom a hearty congratulations into the microphone. While the winner is enjoying her applause and thanking her local flourmill and free-range egg producer, I scoot off straight to the carpark and leave. 

With some embellishments of my own, I have faithfully pursued the spirit of Gladys Garland throughout my long career in sponge-cake judging. In its heyday, the sponge cake arena was a dignified procession of white-gloved judges passing their expertise over a plethora of finely-baked icons of our culture. However, my last experience of judging at the Sydney Royal Easter Show might very well be exactly that –  my last.

I will go so far as to publicly declare the identity of my nemesis on the day in question. Maureen Farmer is familiar to many of you. Her sponges have taken out their fair share of trophies, stretching back as far as the glory days of Gladys Garland. I would have thought that gratitude for such past success would have been enough to satisfy Maureen, without her desperate effort to secure last year’s Sydney Royal trophy by foul means. Suffice it to say that, given the debacle of last Easter, I can only declare she is old enough to know better. In fact, she is a year older than I am, in spite of what she might have claimed in the past.

Let me set the scene for those of you who were not there. To begin with, a disappointing shortfall in the number of sponge cake entries led to a single short table being presented for my judging. Minus tablecloth, I might add. The invasion of our space by the fruitcake brigade was noted with some rancour.

Donning my white gloves, I approached the table. I had just slipped one foot behind and bent the knees, ready to scan the culinary landscape, when some negligent parent allowed their little fairy-floss-wielding brat to scoot right past, tipping my balance and sending me toppling to the ground. In the seconds it took to regain my feet, I distinctly heard a snicker. I suspect it was Maureen Farmer, although she denies all responsibility. I also suspect the sticky little missile might have been one of Maureen’s own unruly grandchildren.

I must admit, my judging eye was quite thrown out by the incident and I found myself disqualifying, on sight alone, a much larger number of cakes than usual. Eighty-five-percent to be exact, on the basis of too high, too low, too pale, too dark, too lopsided and too many down the end of the table that were too far away for my scrutiny. As the most experienced sponge-cake judge in the entire country, I reserve the right to use my discretion in such matters. No correspondence will be entered into. As I said, save the postage. And that means you, Maureen Farmer. Don’t think I haven’t noticed the barrage of missives emanating from your address, down through the years.

As I rounded the back of the table, my nose told me that there would be many more disqualified before I picked up a knife. A single sniff was sufficient. Many of the sponges were too stale, too sweet or too bland and I was able to detect a blatant use of bicarbonate of soda or custard powder in a number of entries. Don’t think you can fool an experienced judge with such tricks. My nose can pick any number of variances from the standard recipe before I’ve even tasted it.

By the time I cut the first cube from the remaining three entries, there was a distinct murmuring throughout the crowd. Apologies to the dear late Gladys Garland, but I must confess I looked up to confirm my suspicions. Indeed, at the very epicentre of the ruckus was Maureen Farmer. I was certain one of the remaining cakes belonged to her.

When I had finished tasting, I turned my back on spectators and organisers alike and scribbled down my judgement. The second I handed the folded scrap of paper to the competition secretary, I made my way to the carpark. I had nearly reached the foyer by the time I heard the loudspeakers announce there would be no trophy awarded for the sponge-cake category this year, due to the deplorable standard of entries.

Then I heard the screams of outrage. Maureen Farmer, I was certain of it. I resumed forward progress to my car but I did not account for the swiftness of Maureen’s feet under rage. She barreled into me at an horrendous speed, wrestled me to the ground and set about my person with her unnecessarily large and heavy handbag. It was only the intervention of a nearby police officer who prevented my certain demise. Though he was unable to prevent my white gloves being torn to shreds by Maureen’s frenzy.

I have notified the Sydney Royal Easter Show organisers I will not be available for judging this year. Gladys Garland was quite right when she said to beware coming between an irrational sponge-cake entrant and the trophy.

However, my lifelong service to the preservation of our national culinary icon is not over. This missive is my first volley. My second will be to establish the Gladys Garland Memorial Sponge Cake Society, which I promise will be militant. Even if no one joins my ranks, I will be present at every little country show, every town fair and indeed at the Sydney Royal Easter Show itself. I will rabble-rouse from the sidelines, I will badger from the crowd. Maureen Farmer and her ilk will be shamed from the arena and the glory days of the sponge cake will be restored once again.

After all, it’s the least that I, Beverly Ovens-Batter, sponge-cake judge extraordinaire, can do for my country.