Aussie week would not be complete without reference to ‘damper’ – the legendary staple of the bushman and explorer. I have touched on it before (here), but there is more that needs to be said on the topic. Damper – the pure, real, legendary thing – requires only flour and water, but it is the method in any recipe that is the key, not the ingredients. I give you in its entirety an article from the Western Mail (Perth, WA), of 21 February, 1929, which describes the method, complete with tricks and hints from the bushman’s repertoire.
A. O. Wood asks:- Will you kindly tell me how to make damper?
Real damper is made of flour and water mixed into a stiff dough and baked in hot ashes: Since the introduction of baking powder, scones, or "soda bread," made of flour, baking powder, and water, and baked in hot ashes, or even in a camp oven, are often called damper by the inexperienced, but these are not genuine damper.
On 27-2-14 I published the following ac- count by "Old Pioneer" (Albany) of how to make damper:
"To make a first-class 'damper' it is necessary to have a good heap of hot wood ashes (not coal) and good flour. If the fire is made on clean, dry sand, such as occurs in river beds, or near the beach, the heat from it, absorbed by the sand, will be sufficient to cook the damper after it is buried in the ashes. Some time before mixing up the 'damper' a good large fire of dead wood should be made, and allowed to burn down to ashes.
A quantity of good flour (say 31b. to 51b., according to the size of the 'damper' required) is then put either in a flat tin dish, like a milk dish, or, as is very frequently done in bush camps, upon a sack spread on the ground (or even the saddle cloth from one's horse, may be used, if one is travelling). This heap of flour is opened out by one's hand into the shape of a large, open crater, and into the crater water is gradually poured by one hand (from one's pannikin or quart-pot, for boiling tea, usually), while the flour is mixed by the other band into an even and rather stiff dough. This mass of dough is then well kneaded, taken up in both hands, and quickly made into as round and smooth a ball as possible, which is then placed on the remnants of flour left and firmly pressed down by the palms of one's hands, until it becomes a flat cake of about l in. or 2in. thick. This cake is lightly dusted over with dry flour.
The fire must then be immediately prepared by putting any partially burnt sticks or coals on one side and opening it the centre of the heap of ashes and sand below into a cavity rather larger than the cake of dough, care being taken not to go through the bottom of the heated ashes and sand, as, if so, the bot tom of the cake will not cook on the cold ground.
The cake is then lifted on the palms of one's hands, quickly dropped flat in the cavity made in the ashes, and firmly pressed down level by the hands. The surrounding hot ashes and sand are rapidly raked over the cake by means of a stick or other handy implement, until it is well buried. It is then cooked for half an hour or more, according to its size.
If the ashes are not hot enough, or If the 'damper’ is large, it may require to be turned over in the ashes, after a while, to ensure the bottom part being cooked. An old hand will remove the top ashes and tap the top of the 'damper,' while still in the fire, with a stick, and judge by the sound as to whether it is cooked or not; When taken out of the fire the 'damper' is usually smartly beaten with a bunch of green, leafy twigs, or a piece of bagging, to dust off any loose ashes or pieces of grit, etc. It should then be kept on its edge, and not laid flat. A good bushman will turn out a 'damper' most surprisingly free from dirt or ashes, and thoroughly cooked, without being burnt anywhere."
On 13-9-18 "Ex-Nor'-Wester" contributed some interesting reminiscences, in the course of which he described how to make "real damper."
"Forty-three years ago (that is, about 1875), I helped to take 3,000 sheep from Brookton to Roebourne. It took us seven months to do the journey, and we lived on damper all the time. Our cook gave up the cooking, and my uncle, the late John Seabrook, took on the job, and a splendid damper maker he was, too. We used to have hot damper and fried chops for breakfast every morning, and, when we arrived at Roebourne, everybody remarked how well we looked.
To make a good damper you must first make the water warm, but not too hot you should be able to bear your hand in it comfortably. Then put, say, 21b. of flour on the smooth side of a sheep skin, kept for the purpose. Make a hole in the middle of the flour and put all the water in at once; knead it up on the wet side, and then keep adding flour till it is stiff enough to hold in your hands. Then make a hole in the ashes. Care must be taken to have a good fire several hours before you require to cook your damper. A damper should not be more than half an inch thick. As soon as it is done, take it out and brush with a wisp of nice green bushes. I liked the jam bushes the best, when no cow tails were at hand, when I learned to make damper. When done, stand your damper up against something. Never lay a damper down flat until it is cold. If you do, it will become heavy and sodden.
Johnny cakes are made the same way, except they are made very thin and cooked on the hot coals and turned over till cooked. In making damper I never used anything except warm water and good flour; and I have made them so light that they would float on the top of the tea. I can remember when I preferred damper to the very best bread."
Quotation for the Day.
Acorns were good until bread was found.
I have recently been researching the travels of the early explorers and their experience of damper sometimes fell well short of the ideal; lack of clean water and flour being the obvious reasons. Flour was sometimes lost when drays failed to ford streams or turned over. One explorer's party attempted to dive in an effort to retrieve sodden sacks without which they may have perished. Another party's supplies were eaten overnight during some kind of rodent plague. In those straits perfectly turned out damper accompanied by fried lamb chops would have been heaven.
Damper sounds a lot like the American bread called hardtack.
During the American Civil War, soldiers were issued bacon and cornmeal as part of their rations. They would cook the bacon and then mix the cornmeal with the bacon grease into a dough that they would wrap around their bayonets and cook over the fire. It was called swoosh.
Before soda was used to leaven the dough the action of being tossed around whilst travelling leavened the flour so it was a much softer damper
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