Thursday, July 01, 2010

Masterchef meets the CWA

Masterchef Australia remains one of this family's must watch television shows. It is one of the few shows that we can all like, although they almost lost us in bringing back some previous contestants. It seemed unfair, at least in the way it was done.

We really enjoyed last night's challenge. To explain why, I need to give a little bit of history.

Back in August 2006, my old friend Noric Dilanchian sent me photos of two stamps from his collection and challenged me to write stories around them.  One of those stories, New England, Australia - CWA, tells a little of the history of CWA in NSW.

The CWA (Country Women's Association) is Australia's largest women's association. It has 44,000 members nationally, 12,000 in NSW. Founded to help country women living in often isolated circumstances, its members are famous for their cooking, especially baking. The CWA cookbook has been a staple in many households for a very long time. A later post, Australia's CWA, will give you a feel for this all this; it includes a link through to an ABC program about the CWA and the Land cooking competition that I found quite inspirational.

In last night's episode, the challenge set for Masterchef contestants was to cook certain recipes from the CWA cookbook - scones, lamingtons, jam, a fruit cake - and then serve to 100 CWA ladies. An experienced CWA judge critiqued their efforts.

Now we know the CWA pretty well, and have eaten a lot of country cooking. My wife also learned to bake from her nan. I guess because of all this, we had a feel as to what might happen.

These contestants have cooked in challenge after challenge, managing often complicated dishes that I could never cook. There have been individual failures, but overall the results have been good. This time, with few exceptions, they bombed big time. It's just not as easy as it seems.

As the contest proceeded, I noticed that eldest had got out the cookbook I gave her some time ago. I feel like scones, she explained. Mixing bowls and ingredients appeared on the coffee table. With guidance from her mum, the process continued.

After the show finished, we discussed it over scones, blackberry jam and whipped cream. Our feeling was CWA 8, Masterchef 2.

Postscript:The Blue Team

The photo shows the blue team inspecting on of their cakes.

This episode has aroused some controversy to, I am sure, Channel Ten's pleasure. See here and especially here; the comments on the second story are fascinating for what they say about modern Australia.

While I am the main household cook, I am not a cook, so I need to be careful what I say.

Looking at the program over time, it has a focus on what we might call modern Australian cooking. In this context, all the contestants are used to cooking with a wide variety of ingredients and with dishes drawn from a variety of cuisines. Where they get into trouble, it seems to me, is on basic stuff, what we might call old-fashioned Australian cooking.

In modern Australia, I am generalising, we bake far less, we preserve far less, we are less used to making the best of what we have. We are used to certain types of modern equipment with its strengths, but also its limitations.There is also far less of what we might even call home mass cooking. By this I mean simply cooking for large numbers within a simple range; tea and scones for large numbers.

So I am not sure that we should be surprised that the contestants struggled. They are actually far more familiar with French food than old fashioned Australian. Further, there is also an element of artificiality in the time limits imposed.

From what I can work out, Jonathon's fruit cake tasted okay. It was just undercooked a little. A little more time and it might have been fine. Yes, the contestants are working to time lines, but in reality if you are serving 100 and you take a little more time on one component, nobody notices.

And then there were all the comments about ovens. Ovens do vary. I am still struggling to get decent baked potatoes from our current oven, something that I have rarely failed at in the past.

One of the things that I don't understand on the show is that I have never heard a reference to ovens. I see people putting things in to ovens that are already in use. Each time they do so, they lose heat. Finding out about and managing your oven is a skill.

The CWA ladies cook with all sorts of ovens and get to know the variations from experience. It may be with modern commercial ovens you don't have to worry about this. I don't know. I have never cooked with one. But I suspect that you do.

Finally, I found an old post of mine, Australian Regional Food - Looking Back 3: Catering for Large Numbers.  There I referred to the CWA Cookery Book and Household Hints. I quote from the post:

One feature of country cooking was the way in which country women had to cook for very large numbers often using very limited ingredients. This might happen during shearing, working bees or at social gatherings. In the case of the CWA itself, the organisation generated funds by catering at stock sales and country shows.

These needs come through in the first part of the Cookery Book. So the first item is catering for 50 people followed by afternoon tea at a Fete. In the case of the Fete, the Book advises allowing 2 sandwiches, 2 pieces of cake and half a scone per person. Instructions are then provided on the quantities required.

After dealing with a wedding breakfast for 100 guests, the Book provides catering details for serving approximately 300 adults at a public stock sale with a lunch consisting of cold meat and salad with sweet to follow. Then there are descriptions of a potato salad for 100, pea soup for 120.

Reflecting limited money and ingredients, the food can best be described as plain. Thus for sweets to serve 300 adults at a public stock sale you need:

  • a large baked custard
  • 2 large triffles
  • 2 cases of apples
  • 6 tins of fruit
  • 2 and half kilos (5lbs) of pastry.

The book notes that sweets may be varied according to availability of material (ie cream, fruit etc).

Now that's a different world!


Anonymous said...


I nearly sent you a link to that SMH article, but read the comments - particularly noting the complaints about the equipment and the conditions - and thought it wouldn't add much to your obvious appreciation of this country art.

And good on your daughter for getting up to make scones! She showed great regard for her heritage, and respect for simple things.

I had the great good fortune for 14 years to live next door (actually beside the family dairy farm) to a lady who was so successful at the Royal Easter Show in things bottled, baked and caked that she was forced to become a judge on the local AH&S show circuit.

My kids, and my wife and I, looked forward to prep time each year, because we were the recipients of the "not quite perfect" attempts as Vonnie created her Easter entries.

A wonderful woman, a great time for my children, and still a wonderful memory.


Jim Belshaw said...

I really enjoyed this comment, KVD. So much so that I rushed out and told my wife! How lucky you were.

Anonymous said...

I liked your post, Jim.

My mum had a terrific cookbook which was, I think, an old school text.

It was the kind of book that I searched for in vain when I wanted to learn basic procedures rather than fancy recipes which assumed you knew the basics.

(One of three boys, I didn't pay much attention to cooking until I had to teach myself in my 20s).

The other thing that struck me was the observation of a Chinese friend who thought westerners very odd in wanting a different utensil or pot or machine for each and every cooking task. Her family got by with just a few implements.

Allied to this is the idea that with every gimmick (eg the revival of slow cookers) there must be a specific cookbook, as if a slow braise from a conventional, generalist cookbook somehow won't work with a slow cooker.

cheers, BL

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi BL and thanks. Interesting comments. I must say that one of the things that has struck me about the competition is the range of utensils used. I wondered whether I could even cook some of the things with the gear we have at home.

I agree with you, too, on all the plethora of cook books. I sometimes wonder if Australian cooking has in fact been going backwards with just too many dishes cooked badly!

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