“Three minutes to go, come on guys nearly there,” was the call from the UK team coach, words I had been hearing continually for the past two days in varying languages and varying levels of intensity.
The crowd would cheer, whistle and wave their banners, urging on their home team as the TV cameras captured every move of the Netherlands’ last remaining minutes.
One could be forgiven for thinking they had walked into a soccer match or Olympic event, such was the excitement and fanfare, but many would laugh if they realised that it was baking – in a live competition format!
Not just any baking, but the European round of the Louis Le Saffre Cup. Get through here and you’re on the way to Paris to compete for World Cup glory, and this is serious stuff. And the Australian Baking Team was here to witness it all.
When I first arrived at the competition I was greeted by good friend Eli Abraham from Israel. “Hey big Aussie man,” he said as he bear hugged me, “great to see you”. I first met Eli at Sigep in Italy in 2008, a great guy and a brilliant, knowledgeable baker, and we have remained friends since, exchanging emails and catching up at every opportunity since. I had been following his progress and was looking forward to watching him compete.
I had watched intently for three days as 10 different teams from across Europe had battled against each other and against the clock, pushing themselves to the limit to produce a range of artisan products that would fill a small retail bakery. Foreign environment, foreign equipment and flour and the peering eyes of the international jury and the public, all combine to make this not only the toughest competition in world baking but the most sought-after prize.
After he had competed I spoke to Eli from Team Israel. He was exhausted but satisfied. “Man this is a tough, tough comp, every part of me is aching.” When asked what he would do differently his response was, “We would train more together, we didn’t do this enough and I would be more physically fit, that is the answer”. All good advice for the Australian teams campaign in China this May.
I was fortunate enough to be able to catch up with another good friend, Solveig Tofte, who was on the 2008 US team for the World Cup. She was part of the four person international jury here to judge the competition. I spoke to her each day and she gave me her insights into how things had gone.
“Read and understand the rules well, know your products, watch your timing and make sure you produce what is required,” was her advice. She was really impressed with the whole setup of the competition and commented on the level of professionalism and the support between teams.
The one thing that really stood out for me by day three was that all the competitors were like walking zombies. The intense nature of the preparation, training, lead in and competition itself had taken its toll and they were physically and mentally exhausted.
Fatigue was replaced with nervous excitement, come the afternoon of day three as they dressed and prepared for the final announcement of placings and of dreams and goals either crushed or realised.
The crowd held its breath as jury president and head of the Le Saffre Cup and Coupe Du Monde del la Boulangerie, Christian Vabret MOF paused before reading out the placings.
Winning teams Netherlands, Poland and Sweden are now en route for the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie to be held at Europain in 2012.
As each team was read out the crowd went crazy and the roar could be heard throughout the entire hall and beyond, I’m sure. Again, for a brief moment, I caught myself wondering what a non-baker would think about all this excitement and fan fare over some bread and pastry.
At the end of it all though it was wonderful to be there and experience this level of expertise and the respect and support it receives. Myself and fellow team members Robert Howard and Trevor Sims are glad we made the commitment to be there and included this as part of our preparation and training.
It is these competitions and the many others like them around the world that continue to help drive the development of skills, knowledge and passion and keep baking in the spotlight.