Country: More of the WI revealed

If you want weird and wonderful, this is the country.
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The Independent Culture
IT HAS long been my contention that an English man or woman who craves entry into a world of the mysterious and bizarre is faced with a simple choice. You can fly to a distant rainforest, paddle up a piranha- stuffed river, hack through snake-infested jungle and then spend a few months with the sort of folk who manufacture a potent alcoholic drink by chewing up leaves and spitting them into a hollow tree; or you can stay at home, buy the local paper and read the WI reports. ("Members and visitors enjoyed a lively beetle drive followed by supper. The prize for the best everyday object shaped like a stoat was won by Mrs Dawkins.")

I put this point to a Women's Institute meeting recently. It was greeted, as I suspected it might be, with wry chuckles. As the recent nude- calendar incident shows, WI members have a keen sense of irony. Besides which, you never get much argument when you suggest to English people that they are a little eccentric. It is the equivalent of telling a Frenchman he is wonderful.

Not that you need confine your search for strangeness to the WI. The British countryside is full of arcane and bewildering things. Try entering one of the baking competitions at the local agricultural show. They are always housed in the Industrial Tent, a coincidence that says far more about the English attitude to food than a thousand TV cookery programmes.

The Industrial Tent is a place of wonder, containing all the culinary arts at which the English excel: cakes, jam, pies, chutney, and animals made out of vegetables. It's also the place where extraordinary rituals, the origins and meanings of which nobody can explain, are played out. Why, for example, do show committees, Industrial Section (Home Baking) insist that scones are entered in fours, while eclairs and meringues need only come in triplicate and a brace of teacakes is considered quite sufficient? Is there some socio-economic reason why biscuits in North Yorkshire must be entered by the half dozen, while just four suffice in County Durham?

Yet, while nobody is clear why iced buns must be "in paper wrappers", or the coconut haystacks must be "egg-cup sized", you ignore the instructions at your peril. At a show in Cumbria I came across the kind of summary justice meted out by the judges to those who transgress The Code. Somebody had interpreted the term "wholemeal loaf" a little too liberally and entered bread that was, frankly, round. A cocktail stick with a pink card attached had been thrust into the offending item. "This is not a loaf!" it read.

Nowadays, the WI runs a course in baking etiquette to avoid such sticky situations. "I remember the first show I entered," one member confessed. "I was ruled ineligible because I'd crimped my sausage rolls instead of concealing the seams."

"Were they shortcrust?" the woman sitting next to her asked, "because you never crimp shortcrust. It's like a savoury quiche," she explained, "If you were to enter a savoury quiche in a fluted dish you would be disqualified, because, of course, only a sweet flan should be fluted."

Well, obviously.