There’s not a lot to do in Ouyen. Of course you’ll want to see the largest mallee stump in Australia – it’s right there in the middle of town. But after that, options are limited. And now the event that put Ouyen on the map has moved elsewhere.
The story goes that when Jeff Kennett visited the town in 1998, locals challenged him to give them an event to boost the local economy. They suggested the Formula 1 Grand Prix – he countered with the Vanilla Slice competition. Jeff personally supported the Triumph, acting as a guest judge until 2005.
For 13 years, local volunteers coordinated the event, which attracted hundreds of entries. But eventually the work involved took its toll. Perhaps regretfully, in 2011 Ouyen decided to award the rights to host the Great Vanilla Slice Triumph to another town in the Sunraysia district – Merbein.
Merbein added a whole new dimension to the Triumph with the National Dried Vine Fruit Bake-off, including Sunmuscat Slice, Sultana Muffin and Plum Pudding sections. This was, of course, in addition to the traditional Vanilla Slice section and an Innovative Vanilla Slice award, open to professionals only. In all other sections there were awards for apprentices, amateurs and juniors. But the hero remained the vanilla slice, where judges were looking for “a custard with a creamy smooth texture and a balance of vanilla taste with a crisp crunchy pastry topped with a smooth and shiny glaze fondant”.
The 2016 competition was won by Sharps Bakery of Birchip. And for the first time, a South Australian bakery was placed in the top three, with the Banana Boogie Bakery of Belair coming in second. Banana Boogie also won first place in the professional Sultana Muffin section and second place for its coffee and walnut vanilla slice in the Innovative category. More than 18,000 vanilla slices were consumed in the course of the August weekend.
Then controversy descended. At the conclusion of the event, Merbein’s volunteers announced that they, too, had had enough and ceremonially awarded the Great Vanilla Slice Triumph to the town of Birchip. There was a local connection – the 2016 winner, Birchip’s Kevin Sharp, was an ex-Merbein lad. But the burghers of Ouyen weren’t happy. It seems the Triumph wasn’t Merbein’s to give, as Ouyen still owned the rights and wanted the festival to remain in the Mildura municipality.
Despite being 229.1 km south of Mildura, Birchip is still officially in the Mallee. Instead of the mallee stump, though, it has another big thing: the big mallee bull, commemorating ‘Big Red’, a legendary wild bull whose name was used for many years to instill fear into local children. A whole lot of bull and prize-winning vanilla slices – that promised to bring the punters in.
In the event, the rights holders were successful in their bid to block the move to Birchip. The 2017 competition was held in Mildura’s Langtree Mall, where it remained for the following two years. The event was due to return to Merbein in 2020, but was cancelled owing to the coronavirus pandemic.