Last weekend heralded the arrival of the Annual Vertonbridge Produce Show. Two days of shuffling around in a stuffy marquee admiring scrubbed and bouffanted vegetables and displays of perfectly ripened seasonal soft fruits! There were of course numerous other delightful categories such as Flowers and Arrangements, Baking and Preserves, Children’s Classes and Handicrafts!
One of the excitements at the show this year was the ‘new’ Vertonbridge Bake Off Challenge – open to all ages! A recipe for carrot cake was published in the parish magazine and everybody had to adhere to it. The guidelines were very strict and unfortunately bakers were forbidden from going off piste – ergo they weren’t allowed to replace carrot for chocolate or any other more desirable fillings! But they were permitted to use their own design for the cake decoration (the organisers weren’t complete fascists??). This was to be judged by June Nesbitt – local W.I baking expert and also best friend to the dastardly village baddie Deirdre Snellon (chairwoman of the horticultural club and dictatorship regime).
The Signature Challenge.
Lottie (my 7 year old) seemed very keen to enter the carrot cake bake-off, and although I’m not a lover of this root vegetable infused cake I was aware that there would come a time in the future when Lottie didn’t think it was cool to bake cakes with me. Or hang around in a tent with a load of rudely shaped vegetables so I decided to put my carrot in a cake prejudices to one side and enjoy a cooking session with her. We felt vaguely confident due to the spate of baking we’d enjoyed lately inspired by the Great British Bake Off. Lottie and I were both addicts for this warm muffin of a programmme and watched it avidly on demand whilst munching on something cake-ified. We then tried to do whatever they’d baked on the show that week…….
Cake Week – we baked a (collapsed in the middle) chocolate cake. Not a mirror glazed multi layered fruit infused genovese sponge.
Biscuit Week – we made gingerbread persons which were burnt underneath, not a 3D gingerbread extravaganza…well it’s not Christmas is it…not until John Lewis says so!
Bread Week – we made bread rolls, no plaiting, corn dolls or fancy ingredients on display here. Move along.
Batter Week– we made bog standard pancakes which received a smothering of nutella, not lacy frilly ones ….nobody wants more hole than pancake!
BTW, telling Lottie that Mel and Sue would not be presenting the show anymore was akin to telling her that her guinea pig Golden Graham had passed away in the night. She was devastated.
“But who will say baaaaake?” she wailed, seemingly aghast. I had to somehow hide my own dismay and disillusionment. I secretly hoped that Paul and Mary would refuse to defect from the BBC too and that Channel 4 had effectively acquired themselves a £25m tent. Since this was posted it would appear that Channel 4 have managed to secure the tent and er….Paul Hollywood! Well it won’t be the same without Mary, Mel and Sue – how can it be? They set out to prove that baking wasn’t boring. The show has had a very good rise in popularity but suddenly it seems battered and has the now *soggy* bottom fallen out of it forever?…. discuss.
The Technical Challenge.
Unfortunately, a couple of weeks before the produce show, I was cornered in the village stores between the freezer and the toilet rolls by Deirdre and W.I baking expert June. I saw them before they spotted me so I ducked behind the ice cream freezer to tie my shoe laces (I was wearing Birkenstocks). I felt an ominous shadow pass over me, the air suddenly felt chilly – probs my close proximity to the freezer, let’s not be extra dramatic – as June and Deirdre loomed large. Admitting defeat, it would’ve been a real technical challenge to get past them unnoticed, I put my hands up like an accosted robber and I agreed to all their produce show demands. A clipboard was duly whipped out from June’s heavyweight William Morris adorned jute shopper and I was swiftly scribbled down on the rota for a stint in the tea and cakes tent. They also wanted me to judge the adult poetry class (all subjects, rhyming in any format, no longer than 4 verses). I think it’s because I’m the only writer in the village – but I’m no poet – so it would have to come down to my personal opinion. Luckily I wouldn’t be privy to who wrote the poems until I’d awarded the 3 rosettes – otherwise I might’ve been tempted to rate them in order of how much I like the poetical villager rather than the quality of their written word……because I’m totes proffesh like that!
So the marquee was erected on the village green and Lottie and I made our bake off entry carrot cake. We couldn’t enter any of our homegrown fruit or veg because our pathetic offerings were not up to show standard, probably because local cats used our garden as a giant litter tray. If there had been a category for ‘Best dried out turd by next door’s cat’ we’d have been looking at the winner’s podium, rosettes, a shiny trophy and a plethora of sponsorship deals.
“Can’t we just buy some vegetables from Sainsburys and then put mud on them?” suggested Toby – Lottie’s brother, who had recently turned 9 and took a fleeting interest in the Produce Show before dismissing it as lame.
“Err no, that is in fact cheating,” I tried to sound apoplectically outraged and failed miserably. However we did have two undersized and wretched looking marrows that we’d grown accidentally, i.e they’d been seeded from next door’s garden (and probably aided and abetted by the free fertiliser from their crappping cat) so the
children Lottie could turn the runty specimens into characters for the ‘Make a Marrow Creature’ class.
The day of the produce show was gloomy, the mist on the village green hung low and in turn this seemed to dull the moods of the involuntary ‘helper’s’ as we glumly set out tea cups and saucers and displayed cakes unenthusiastically. I remembered to take Lottie’s cake to be entered for the carrot cake bake off challenge, “just leave your named tin, we’ll do the rest,” barked a bossy show steward – one of June’s stooges. Anna (local best friend) had also been drafted in to help with the teas and cakes but was banned from entering the carrot cake bake off on account of her professional cake maker status. Another villager and a new mum at school – Linda Smith was sent as reinforcements. Linda brought with her two tins of cakes and diligently set to work laying tables with sugar and putting out chairs. The problem with being ‘on’ teas and cakes is that you just want to eat the wares all day. Anna had already purloined a piece of Linda’s carrot cake, “amazing bake!” she told Linda, and if Anna knows anything – she knows a good cake when she tastes one!
June Nesbitt, her dog Beatrix and Deirdre Snellon came by our stall to buy teas and to preorder their ‘cream tea’ in case their was a rush on later and we ran out. “You haven’t forgotten you’re judging the poetry at 3pm sharp have you Hillie? Anyway can’t stop to chat,” said June dramatically as I passed her a takeaway tea.”Beatrix and I are meeting Jo Sandelson, she’s officially opening the dog show – Jo is a famous blogger and cartoonist don’t you know! I’ll send her your way afterwards for a cream tea.”
Moments later we heard cheering and barking so I stuck my head out of the tent just as the Vertonbridge Dog Show ribbon was deftly cut by cartoonist Jo. There were dogs everywhere in various states of slobbery excitement, wrapping their leads around hapless owners and show stewards, it looked like canine carnage to me. The tannoy hummed and screeched into life. “We’ll be starting the dog show with a parade of all the dogs and then the first class will be ‘Dog that looks most like it’s owner – fancy dress permitted’.” I imagined June and Beatrix -the Scottie dog, would win hands down with their duplicate tartan attire (June in an Edinburgh Wollen Mill finest skirt and Beatrix in a small plaid doggy coat). But what would seal their victory was the matching grey chin whiskers – June probably had a few more than Beatrix to be fair.
The Show Stopper.
The judging of the Vertonbridge Bake off ‘Carrot Cake’ was completed after lunch – people were standing about in a happy stupor having gorged themselves on hog roast and large doses of tea and cake from us. June Nesbitt and Deirdre Snellon (her judge’s aid) stood proudly up on the small platform with a microphone so that everyone could see them.
“Err hmm, the judging of the carrot cake bake off – in all the three age categories, under 10s, under 18s and adults has been adjudicated and the results are in,” June barked officiously into the whiny mic.
“Cripes, its not the bloody ‘Strictly’ results,” commented Anna wryly in my ear. Ted (my husband) had arrived with Lottie and she was standing close to me, clutching my hand, eager to hear if her cake had been placed.
“However, I must draw your attention to a very grave matter first! We take cheating very seriously at this show, we expect every entry to be bona fide and of true provenance. So it is with great disappointment that we will be disqualifying Linda Smith for entering a shop bought carrot cake!” There were sharp intakes of breath form the crowd and audible tuts.
“That’s ridiculous, how can they possibly tell?” I asked Anna in hushed tones.
“They just can,” whispered Anna wisely.
“By way of extra confirmation, not one but two Waitrose carrot cake boxes were spotted in Linda’s recycling this morning.” Oh my god, June and Deirdre had even been checking village bins and recycling boxes for signs of malpractice….
By now Linda had thrown her hands to her cheeks and scurried out of the marquee in shame, bursting into tears as she hurried.
“I know a shop bought cake when I taste it even if the icing has been fiddled with,” continued June archly, narrowing her eyes menacingly “I didn’t earn the W.I cake baking expert accolade for nothing. I have years of experience and I can identify a fake bake in one bite!!” she finished her sentence with a forceful flourish. June was like the baking equivalent of Miss Trunchball from Road Dahl’s Matilda. The whole of the marquee fell silent for a moment (you could have heard a wren fart). The atmosphere was horribly tense but gradually murmurs began to softly permeate the canvased room.
“So!” June, composed herself a little, reining in her malevolence, “we’ve had a great variety of real carrot cakes to judge,” she heavily emphasised the word ‘real’ “and there’s been some soggy bottoms, floppy risers, and uncooked centres, not to mention some unconventional cake icing and what I call modern decorations, but Deirdre and I have picked our way through and tasted every one. We’ve left comments by all the cakes so that you can learn from your mistakes…. so let’s get down to business and award the top three spots to the real bake off bakers of Vertonbridge….”
Outside, at the dog show, the tannoy rang out again loudly with extra screechy static,”next in the arena – we have best bitch in show.”
“June would win that without her dog,” I hissed at Anna from the corner of my mouth. I think I’m so funny.
Lottie and I didn’t get a rosette in the carrot cake bake off, ‘we’ didn’t even get, Highly Commended or a Commended! We just received a snotty hand scrawled post-it note about how we had over baked our cake resulting in a crusty bottom and lack of moistness. June suggested that we try a bit less baking powder next time and to use a better quality nonstick parchment! After that I left a disappointed Lottie looking at vegetables that look most like their grower with Ted while Anna and I abandoned the tea and cakes in search of Linda. We caught up with her outside the Huntman’s Inn where she was wiping tears from her eyes with her sleeve. So we dragged her into the pub. Cos we’re thoughtful like that!
“I baked a carrot cake for the bake off competition and bought two from Waitrose for the tea and cakes stall, I didn’t have time to make more than one cake, so I just put all three into tins and I must have entered the wrong tin for the competition,” Linda explained over a double gin and tonic. “June won’t believe me now,” she sniffed wiping her nose with a pub serviette.
“We’ll see about that,” said Anna, “I’ll have a word with the old bitch”.
As we were leaving the pub I noticed Jo Sandelson in a quiet nook near the woodburner, she was necking a pint of Guinness like a camel at an oasis. I went over and introduced myself and said something about loving her blog.
“I never asked for this dog show opening gig,” she said resting her pint for just a moment, “I’m on bloody holiday- staying in June’s daughter’s holiday let and they collared me to come to the show.” Jo took some more hefty swigs from her Guinness.
“I’ve got to get back to the dog event and judge best stud dog in show now, ” she lamented downing the dregs.
“Come back with us, ” I suggested, “we’ll get you a large cream tea to ease the pain.”
Back at the Produce show, I fulfilled my poetry class duties, it took me about 3 minutes to work out which poem I liked best but I had to stand around for ages looking pensive and serious as I considered all of the poetry entries.
This was my favourite and the winner of the first prize rosette by a Devon country mile!
When something is great! An ode to Bake Off.
Without Mel and Sue who will shout baaaake
before millions watch the contestants making a caaaake!
There’s the comedy welfare of the bakers and viewers at staaaake!
Losing Mary, Mel and Sue is more than the fans can taaaake.
Come on Love Productions you’ve made a giant mistaaaake,
Bring back Bake Off with Mel, Sue & Mary to the BBC for goodness saaaake!
By Linda Smith
As you were!
PS, Anna got hold of June and Deirdre and set them straight on Linda’s cake mix up. She also vouched for Linda’s carrot cake – the one she had tasted from the tea and cake stall and then insisted that the old bags apologise to Linda…..on the mic! As I’ve said many times before – Anna is my hero and probably Linda’s too now!
PPS, a big thank you to Jo Sandelson, amazing blogger and cartoonist for opening the village dog show! Sorry you had to deal with June – boo hiss! It’s not just the dogs in Vertonbridge who are barking!!