British summer would be nothing without village fetes and county shows, but combine the two and you get the best kind of hybrid, the all singing all dancing village show. Thus it was that on a weekend visiting my parents in Northumberland I dropped into the Warkworth Show.
As children, the Conways had regularly traipsed round the Shrewsbury Flower Show, the ComiCon on all things floral, and I don’t think I’ve been to one since. As you can imagine, the Warkworth show was sherry soaked in nostalgia, as if Mary Berry had set a coming home in the shadow of Warkworth’s famous ruined Mediaeval castle.
Jam and Jerusalem bounded from one side of the long rectangular marquee to the other, with categories as diverse as giant leeks, needlepoint, buttonhole making and scones. My eye naturally was on the WI Victoria Sponge category, as my mother had entered one for the first time. Out of twelve entries, she came second! Squeals of delight from my siblings and I, as we had witnessed el Mother slaving over a hot Aga the day before, liberally giving our opinions on what the best Victoria Sponge should entail. For the Great British Bakers out there, such competition means following the official WI recipe, including dusting it with caster sugar – and I checked, as I was convinced that it should be icing sugar, but no. If you want an inside tip – butter, dears, not margarine. I didn’t know people even bought marg anymore – take a leaf out of Julia Childs anyway, and embrace butter in everything you cook.
As the author of a published tome on knitwear, I went over to inspect the hand knitting, and am happy to report that you can leave the circle skirts of Dalston Knitting cafés to hipsters – it’s all about delicious cable knit jerseys and waffle socks. First prize went to an enviable pair of blood red socks of which I’m sure many of Northumberland’s finest will be copying.
After a walk around the castle, which is truly a wonder of the North, and a quick local ice cream (classic, cone, 99, I was very happy), we trolled down to check up on my father, who was doing his bit on car park duty. Londoners could well learn from community spirit up there – if we were all like that, Cameron’s community projects might have seemed less ludicrous. It was back to the tent for prize giving, and a sea of silver cups, plates and paper weights (a recent concession to the economy, I surmised) – so many prizes, and so much polishing. Next year I want to have a crack at the memorial cup for Lemon Curd, and there are even male only cooking events, assuming that we boys can’t boil an egg – the field is reduced! The rain lashed down (it is England after all), but spirits weren’t remotely damp. I considered how to make a dash with a flower display in a giant cocktail glass, but thought the better of it as I wouldn’t have got past the women on the door.
Leaving the show, I had expected to have a sardonic London smile on my face, but you know, the smile on my face was just joyful, no agenda. English traditions may on the face of them be bonkers, but they really are our backbone. Goodwill, good clean fun, and jolly good cakes. It’s on, Warkworth. Now I know your categories, I’m out for those prizes…
The official WI Victoria Sponge recipe can be found here. – sorry, a Victoria Sandwich