Blue Ribbon Cooks

Story contributed by Margaret and Bob Rankin, Written by Tarla Kramer

Recipes accompanying this story:
Beer Cake
Rich Fruit Cake
Plum Pudding

Bob and Margaret Rankin are Wilmington’s Blue Ribbon cooks, appearing in Liz Harfull’s The Blue Ribbon Cookbook. Both of them have been exhibiting for over 20 years and they are heavily involved in keeping country shows going.

It all started when Bob noticed how empty the show cabinets at the Royal Adelaide Show were in the early 1980s, “and I ended up just saying casually to Margaret, ‘oh anybody could win a prize at this show because there’s very little competition’. My grandma and mum made tomato sauce and all that sort of stuff and I just thought anybody could make it.”

“He soon found out he couldn’t,” adds Margaret, “it took him a long time to do it.”

In 1985 the Rankins moved to Wilmington and in 1986 they entered the local show. “We didn’t take any interest in show cooking until we came to Wilmington,” says Margaret, “I more or less took an interest then and supported the show, taught the girls to cook to enter the children’s section at the show and at Adelaide, and Bob did the preserves with them.”

Bob and Margaret enter cookery, preserves, vegetables and a few flowers. “I do the preserves and Margaret does the cookery,” says Bob. “She’s rather good on fruit cakes and biscuits, but she doesn’t try her hand at a sponge cake.”

“I’m not a sponge cake person,” says Margaret, “that is something that is relatively easy to do, but you’ve still got to get it right.”

“Invariably we do most of the shows in the northern areas and we do Royal Adelaide as well,” says Bob, “we go to Royal Adelaide and then around here there is Wilmington, Melrose, Jamestown, Burra and Clare.” It’s all in the name of supporting the shows, rather than the prizes, and the Rankins also bring entries from other people around the place with them.

The Beer Cake recipe comes from the Burra show book. “This one’s fairly straightforward if you get the crumble topping right,” says Margaret.

“The first time we decided that we were going down to Burra, Bob was President of the Northern Areas Show. We were going down there to support them, so we got a book, the show schedule book, which had the recipe in it.” She looked at the cakes on display to see how they were done. “Anyway we went back the next year and I thought I’d have a go at this and I did it and I burnt it…and I won a third. But then I thought ‘I’m going to try again the next year’ and I managed to get a first. It was a good challenge.”

They don’t enter the Quorn show as it clashes with Royal Adelaide, but the Rankins have recently begun judging there. They have also judged at Eudunda and Kimba, “so we’re around the place a fair bit,” says Bob.

Bob and Margaret Rankin, judging jams at the Quorn Show

Bob and Margaret Rankin, judging jams at the Quorn Show

Bob has also been President of the Wilmington Show society – he’s Vice-President at the moment – and he is the Promotions Officer for South Australian Country Shows. He has been with the promotions unit since 1997 and they have a stand at the Royal Adelaide Show and at field days, and organise holiday packages for families to go to a country show that includes accommodation and entry into the show. Their main job is to encourage city people to visit a country show and they have had some success. “There’s been a lot of things that have contributed over the years, and in the last three years there’s been a real resurgence in country show attendance. This year the attendances were good at Melrose, Wilmington, Jamestown, Clare and Burra was the best show I think I’ve ever seen there.” According to Bob, people want to be entertained and country shows have had to become more businesslike in their approach. One of the other contributing factors has been the publication of The Blue Ribbon Cookbook .

As for Margaret, she has recently taken over the coordinating the Rich Fruit Cake Championship and Genoa Cake Competition from Margaret Hurst, who had started this state-wide competition in 1982 and ran it for 25 years. “I have been doing that for three years now – the other lady who started it up and ran it, she is in her 70s and decided she’d had enough.”

It is held at local shows, usually one show per region, although the northern area has it at two shows as it is such a big region. “So any cooks that want to enter have to go to that show, and it’s called a semi –final but it’s really only a heat.”

“The Rich Fruit Cake Championship has a set recipe, but in the Genoa Cake Competition you supply your own.”

“Because it’s a State competition, there’s points taken off for crinkled paper marks, so you use brown paper, iron it out if it needs it, and fit it in the tin properly. And you’ve really got to know your oven for any cooking but more so for the fruit cake,” says Margaret.

“The winning cook gets a chance to enter at the Adelaide Show, which starts on the Friday, and on the Thursday afternoon all the cooks are welcomed down there, but some send their cakes. We have an afternoon tea and both the Rich Fruit and Genoa cakes are judged in front of an audience, and we get the State winners from there.” Should a regional winner not be able to go, the second prize winner gets a chance to fill their spot.

While the Flinders Ranges boasts no winners of the Rich Fruit Cake Championship, Betty Sanders from Melrose has won the Genoa Cake Competition a couple of times.

While Margaret does not do any of the judging in this competition, she has some helpful advice. “What you look for in a good fruit cake or a Genoa cake is even colour; fairly flat; fruit distributed evenly; good texture – half goes on appearance and then texture and taste. They’re all tasted. You look at it first, then you cut it in half and have a look. A lot of them smell it and you always taste, as with any show cooking. A show judge should always taste everything. Some of them don’t. They should. Because you can have a beautiful looking cake with a horrible flavour.”

Margaret then confesses that she and Bob were probably the first judges to taste the chutneys and jams at the Quorn Agricultural Show, in 2008. “The only thing you don’t open is the preserved fruit, but everything else supposed to be and nobody had ever opened them before.”

“We’ve got a couple of really good cookbooks; one’s the Green and Gold, which has always sort of been the standard,” says Bob, “and the other one’s the Barossa Valley Cookbook – it’s been around for years.”

Recipes accompanying this story:
Beer Cake
Rich Fruit Cake
Plum Pudding

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