South Australian journalist, rural storyteller and writer, Liz Harfull, says she has what is possibly one of the best jobs in the world. Indeed, I feel more than a little envious when I learn that she has spent the last four years travelling around, visiting several of Australia's country and royal shows.
Liz's adventure across Australia has culminated in The Australian Blue Ribbon Cookbook - stories, recipes and secret tips from prize-winning show cooks, which is the national version and follow up to The Blue Ribbon Cookbook, published in 2008 and a bestseller.
Fellow writers, cooks and food enthusiasts, Liz and I have been in contact for some time via our social media channels. Following the release of her latest book, I caught up with Liz and our conversation follows:
Hello Liz, it's truly a delight to chat with you! Congratulations on the success of your first book, The Blue Ribbon Cookbook (which is now a bestseller and award winner), and the launch of your second cookery book, The Australian Blue Ribbon Cookbook. I am envious of your travels to Australia's country shows in search of the best country show cooks. Tell me, how did you become so interested in show cooking?
I grew up on a dairy farm near Mount Gambier in the Limestone Coast region of South Australia. It was just a paddock away from the local showground at a place called Mil Lel. If the wind was in the right direction on show day I would wake up to the sound of the loud speakers calling horses into the arena for the first event. For most children in the area it was the biggest day of the year, next to Christmas, and everyone in the family looked forward to it. My Dad helped establish the show in 1939, just before the Second World War. It’s still going strong – one of only two district shows (there is no town, it’s just a farming district) remaining in South Australia and my family are still part of it.
So, I grew up going to and loving shows, and I kept going to them as a journalist working for regional and rural newspapers. But I can’t remember entering cookery at the show, and I’m pretty sure my mother never did either. We did a lot of baking but it was all for stalls set up at the show to raise funds for the local primary school, or the afternoon tea put on by the society. Heading into the pavilion to check out the cookery entries was a highlight of the day and as a journalist I often wrote about the results and the winning cooks. But in truth, I had no great knowledge of what happened behind the scenes until I started researching my first book in 2007.
I came up with the idea of writing about show cooking after seeing a little gift book in the United States with poster art and recipes from State fairs (their equivalent of our royal shows). It made me realise I had never seen a book on agricultural shows in Australia even though they are a big part of our lives, and certainly I hadn’t come across one about this particular tradition of cooking. I could see from reading things like the Age’s Epicurean section that there was an emerging interest in traditional baking and preserving, which is what show cooking is all about. And I felt that I was qualified to write about it, because I grew up with it, and the way of life that it stems from. But as a writer I didn’t just want to do a conventional cookbook with recipes and a few food pics. For me it was always going to be about the people and capturing knowledge handed down through the generations.
Show cooks are passionate about three items in particular: sponge cake, fruitcake and scones. What is your favourite of these and why?
I would have to say scones. In part because I actually won my own first blue ribbon with scones, but they are also something I love to make. And they bring back some great memories of my childhood and countless morning and afternoon teas served at the kitchen table. My Mum made scones at least once a week, even daily during harvest to help feed the crews employed to cut, stook and bring in the oaten hay the farm still produces for the family chaff mill. Lots of hard work was fueled by those scones which I often helped make. Such a simple thing. Basically flour and milk but they confound so many cooks and they taste so good.
Who are your food heroes, or who inspires you the most when it comes to food and cooking?
I have met a lot of food heroes writing my two cookbooks - talented amateur cooks who inspire me every time I step into the kitchen, but I have to say that for me it will always be my Mum first and foremost. She died in June at the age of 89, and was baking almost to the end. She was of a generation of women in Australia who persisted in describing themselves as “just plain cooks”. The phrase greatly underestimated the skill it takes to do the kind of cooking considered “plain” or ordinary in many farm households. Light fluffy scones, apricot jam that tastes of the sun, a special fruit cake she made just for me every Christmas without glace cherries because I don’t like them… I used to phone her often for advice on making old family favourites. Not sure who I am going to call now. I might have to adopt several of my show cooks as ‘honorary’ mums. I’m actually sniffling a little bit as I write this. Bittersweet memories so soon after her death.
[Sending sincere hugs to you, dear Liz, it's just awful losing your Mum xox].
When it comes to the cookbooks you cook from, do you prefer to keep the pages pristine or do you like it when they’re well used and the pages are just a little splattered?
A confession. I am a very messy cook. I have standing on my bench one of those hard plastic cookbook stands designed to protect the pages. My sister Valerie gave it to me when I was a teenager and I’m still using it more than 30 years later. But it doesn’t always save my books which have splatters of this and that on pages showing my favourite recipes. I love it when someone comes to a book signing with a copy of my first book in a similar condition because it means they are using it, and that’s what it’s all about really.
Do you have an all-time favourite recipe?
Very difficult question, but maybe the steamed sago plum pudding recipe that was actually handed down through my sister-in-law’s family. We still do the full-on English-style traditional Christmas lunch with roast meat, ham on the bone, baked potatoes and pumpkin, cauliflower and tomato savoury, peas and loads of gravy, followed by pudding and custard. We have been making the sago plum pudding for Christmas every year for as long as I remember. I have even made it for 30 or so friends who used to get together annually in the middle of winter for an ‘Irish Christmas’ weekend. Very simple. Made with sago soaked overnight in milk, fresh breadcrumbs, lots of dried fruit (mainly dates and raisins if I am doing it) and a dash of spice. Hard to get wrong and virtually impossible to overcook.
Is there one cake, biscuit or preserve amongst all those you have tasted that stands out in the crowd?
Nothing beats an old-fashioned ginger fluff. One of the cooks in my first book, Beryl Hill, won prizes with hers for 50 years. I was very lucky to grow up in the farming district where Beryl lived so I got to eat them at just about every community gathering at the local hall. You could tell where they were on the table because that’s where everyone stood so they could pounce as soon as supper started. [I have yet to bake a ginger fluff, but my chocolate fluff is a cracker!].
I also have to mention my Uncle Ross’s version of German cake. Made with fresh yeast, a few sultanas and a crust of hard-baked sugar. He made it several times a week and took it to my parents’ place for afternoon tea. I find myself talking about this cake a lot. My uncle has been dead for about 30 years, but I can still smell and taste that cake, and feel the crunch of the sugar in my mouth. I cannot tell you how to bake it though, because none of us learnt the knack while he was still alive to teach us. A salutary lesson that goes right to the heart of what I have tried to do with both cookbooks.
Would you like to share a recipe from the book?
Yes, I'd like to share Janet Macdonald's Yoyo biscuits. These old-fashioned buttery favourites, also known as melting moments, have been constantly winner first prizes for more than 20 years! The recipe is below.
And finally, what’s for dinner tonight at your place?
I love Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, and I love Australian lamb. Tonight’s dinner was pretty typical in that it combined both. Grilled lamb rubbed with ras el hanout, served with couscous and my take on ratatouille. Then, because I have a sweet tooth and no meal is complete without dessert, I had a crumble made with strawberries, and apples and rhubarb bought from a local farmgate stall.
Thank you again, Liz. It's been an honour.
You're welcome Lizzy.
AWARD WINNING YOYO BISCUITS
(recipe appears courtesy Liz Harfull and Allen & Unwin)
170g butter, softened
60g (1/2 cup) pure icing sugar, sifted
170g cream of tartar self-raising cake and biscuit flour*
60g custard powder
240g pure icing sugar
120 butter, softened
Preheat the oven to very slow (120 deg C). Grease two baking trays. Cream the butter and sugar in a medium-sized mixing bowl until light and fluffy.
Sift together the flour and custard powder, then stir into the creamed mixture in small batches until a soft dough forms. Roll small teaspoonfuls of the dough into balls and place about 4cm apart on the prepared trays. Press flat gently with a fork. Bake in the oven for 50-60 minutes or until a very pale golden colour. Monitor the oven closely, and after about 45 minutes turn the trays around.
Let the biscuits sit on the trays for a minute or two to cool slightly, and then use a spatula to lift them onto a wire rack to cool.
To make the butter icing, sift the icing sugar into a small bowl, add the butter and beat until smooth and well combined. When the biscuits are cool, join the bases together in pairs with the butter icing. Makes about 20 Yoyos.
*Note: if you cannot buy a soft, low-protein self raising cake and biscuit flour made from cream of tartar, make your own by sifting together 150g (1 cup) of good quality cake or biscuit plain flour, 1 teaspoon cream of tartar, and 1/2 a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda.
The Australian Blue Ribbon Cookbook - stories, recipes and secret tips from prize-winning show cooks by Liz Harfull is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $39.99. Thank you ever so much to Liz and the publicity team at Allen & Unwin for giving me the opportunity for this interview and review.
Tell me dear readers, do you enjoy visiting the cookery sections at country shows or fairs in your part of the world? Have you ever entered some of your home cooked or grown produce in a show?
Cooking and writing have been a lifelong passion.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.