Great British Baking Competitions

16 Aug

I’ve just spent an hour of heavenly baking pleasure watching the first in the new series of the Great British Bake Off on i-player.  This is series three and although I’ll catch the 2nd episode next week this is definitely one of the baking delights I shall miss when I move to Canada in little over a week; i-player doesn’t work outside the UK and I don’t know if anyone I know is technically minded enough to get it recorded for me.

Over the last couple of years I’ve enjoyed watching the incredible popularity of the GBBO and by extension the fashion for all things baking.  As many TV critics have noted who would have thought that fiercesome competition around the doilys would have provided such compulsive television viewing?

Of course the GBBO belongs to a long and venerable line of baking competitions in Britain.  I can remember my delight when we were working with the wonderful fashion designers Boudicca for Enchanted Palace and found out that they held an annual bake off competition.  My enjoyment came not only from the unexpected combination of the gentle arts of the oven and the world of high fashion but also from the fact that these were some of the most achingly sophisticated cakes that you might ever care to find; follow the link to see the evidence from the 3rd bake off.

However, the baking competition which will most readily flit across the minds of most people is the time honoured tradition of Women’s Institute baking competitions where each and every Victoria sponge is subjected to brutal scrunity by a committee of deadly serious judges, intent of making fatal deductions for any sponge not perfectly risen or any jam trying to cheekily escape in a drip down the side of the cake.

In trying to find out when the first WI baking competition took place I contacted the WI and received an inconclusive but nevertheless fascinating answer from Anne Stamper who explained that my question was difficult to answer but that it was the local WIs where the baking competitions all began;

‘Here are some of the early ones as listed in the WI’s programme
 Llanfairpwll WI (the first WI formed in GB) July 1917 display of cakes made by members – did  not report if it was competitive.
Henfield WI April 24 1918 held a Competition – wartime cookery
Portslade Jan 3rd 1918   Competition:  the best dinner for a man to take to work – cheapness to be considered in judging.
Not really baking but you get the drift – economy in wartime.
Baking competitions did not take place in national exhibitions because of the difficulty of transport, the national competitions tended to be for jam or bottled fruit. Baking was the preserve of the WI tents at local Agricutural shows, as it still is to this day.’

The WI was founded in Canada in February 1897.  1897 was of course the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  When I was researching my exhibition about Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee at Kensington Palace, Jubilee – A view from the crowd, I was particularly keen to find out if there were special recipes or dishes created to celebrate the momentous event.  I was more than disheartened to find almost no evidence of a special dish.  Such disappointment left me elated to discover evidence of a specific Diamond Jubilee baking competition.

The Victorian women’s magazine, Home Notes, organised a Diamond Jubilee fruit cake baking competition, with some valuable prizes of money.  Home Notes was produced by Alfred Pearson, who was known for his publications which offered cash prizes for competitions. All the cakes entered were going to a good cause; Pearson’s fresh air fund allowed city children the chance for a holiday in the country.

I particularly love the use of the poster’s use of the phrase ‘monster prizes’- it sounds as if it could have been written to describe some of a 21st century lottery prize – and the fact that all the cakes were to be sent to Isobel.  I doubt that Isobel was a real person (I’m sure that the reason Isobel was chosen was because it was the name of Pearson’s first wife) but I like to think of an Isobel slowly disappearing under a pile of ever arriving fruit cakes!  There is no record of course, that I have come across, of which talented home baker might have been lucky enough to have scooped one of the ‘monster prizes’ but the poster remains one of my favourite items in the exhibition and a fascinating forebear of the GBBO – roll on the next episode!


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