The air is spiced with brandied anticipation as eighty-six hopeful fruitcakes await the keen palate of Valmai Auricht in the cookery judging hall of the Royal Adelaide Show.
One by one, the cakes – dark, glossy and aromatic – yield willingly to Valmai’s knife, the true calibre of their fruity marrow unbeknownst, even to their makers, until that first telling cut.
It’s a hallowed moment for Valmai.
“I love it! I love it, because I know what I’m looking for,” exclaims the spry 73 year old Barossa baking icon, who has judged at the Royal for several years now, in addition to her rounds at various country shows, most notably Tanunda, where she is a multi-award winning exhibitor and cookery convener.
“You’ve got to taste them all and check they’re not overcooked or undercooked, and then you’ve got to pick out a first, second and a third.
“People don’t realise that you cannot bake a fruitcake in a hot oven. You leave it in there for about four hours to bake nicely.”
It’s quite often the most unassuming cakes that do the best under scrutiny, Valmai continues, a humble patty pan just as likely to win first prize as a fancy multi-layer dessert – if it’s just right on the inside.
Cakes should no sooner be judged on their outward appearance than people, it would seem, a philosophy that the great-grandmother has always carried with her as a self-described “people person”, and one of the reasons she first became involved in country shows.
“Country people have got so many brilliant qualities, and I think they’re often underrated,” she says.
“They’ve got a lot of creativity in them, and the reason that I’ve got involved in show work is because I like to see our country people show what they can do. People want to see it. People want to see their creativity.”
Growing up on a property at Keyneton and later Nuriootpa, Barossa’s “Queen of show baking” – perhaps best known for her exemplary German Streusel – began her craft in an outdoor kitchen of sensory delight.
“My mum, Clara Nicolai, was a professional cake decorator, and as a little kid, three years old, I used to go out in the yard, make mud cakes and put flowers all over it,” smiles Valmai, elbows resting on a large timber dining table welcomingly unfurled through the heart of her Nuriootpa home.
“I was taught as a young girl to cook and to make. It’s something I’ve done all my life.”
Swathed in a gamut of practical skills and a direct yet caring nature, Valmai nursed at Tanunda Lutheran Home before she married husband, Trevor Auricht, at age 18, taking up work in his family’s vineyard when her father-in-law became ill.
“I worked on the property to help the family and do what I could there… I’ve always been hands-on,” she recalls.
Raising three daughters, Karen, Pauline and Sonya, who she’d birthed by age 23, Valmai’s life continued to revolve around home and family, where her organisation and homemaking talents flourished out of love and necessity.
“To me, sewing, baking, cooking, they’re homely,” says Valmai.
“Being a home mum, that’s what comes out of it. It’s what you do at home. So a show is just basically an extension of what you’re already doing at home.”
Another major ingredient in Valmai’s nourishing mixture of life is her faith, having joined a Pentecostal church after her girls were born, following a miraculous healing experience.
“We grew up in the Lutheran Church,” explains Valmai.
“But we came to the decision, if there was a God, we want to know God, and that put us on a journey for a while: what’s the reality of God?
“In that journey we’ve actually been very blessed. We found the reality of God, entered into ministry, did bible college and everything else.”
As ministers, Valmai and Trevor moved out of the Barossa, travelling as far as the United States and India to study and to preach. They settled in Warracknabeal, Victoria, but decided to cut short their ministry there, selling everything they owned and moving back to Tanunda in 2004.
“Trevor knew in his heart his mother, Linda, could no longer live on her own,” explains Valmai.
“The homestead was in a state of disrepair, so we fixed it up and the yard and everything, and we gave her the best years of her life.
“And you know what? You live with no regrets, absolutely no regrets, because
“I believe family is important. I believe people are important… It’s not what we’ve got, it’s not what we haven’t got. That doesn’t count for a hill of beans. Our relationship with people is the most important.”
Not long after moving back, Valmai put her skills at the sewing machine to use, launching Valmai’s Window Furnishings to “keep the wolf away from the door”.
The business operated successfully out of the couple’s home until their retirement, which now allows Valmai more time to focus on the things she loves: gardening, family, church and, of course, baking.
This year’s Tanunda Show will be a quiet one for Valmai, since she’s agreed to make the desserts – single handedly – for 150 guests at a wedding on the Monday following show day.
She’s only putting in a few honey biscuits, as well as a spectacular honey biscuit house, which showcases her latest hobby, icing modelling – a homage to her cake decorator mother.
“I’ll convene it, and I’m just putting the honey biscuit house in, that’s all I’m doing,” she says with a wave of her neatly painted red fingernails.
“The locals don’t need me doing stuff as well. I think there is so much talent in the valley, they can do it!”
Despite having more blue ribbons to her name than she could count, Valmai’s true pleasure in her craft lies in its capacity to be shared.
Knowledge passed down through generations of homemakers, such as is inscribed in a century old handwritten recipe book that shares Valmai’s bookshelf with dozens of other cookery editions, is precious and unifying.
There is no guarded wisdom in Valmai’s immaculate kitchen. Anyone can have guidance to turn out that perfect cake.
“I think if we’re going to be so dogmatic with secret recipes, we’ve lost it,” she says emphatically.
“Because we’re all living under the same sun, it’s good food, and the more you can put it out there, all the better.”