Friday, April 25, 2014

Anzac Biscuits: a brief history.

Today is an important day for Australians. It is Anzac Day, the anniversary of the landing of the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey in 1915. An obligatory dish on the day is a plate of Anzac biscuits, and today I am going to repeat a post from my very old and defunct companion site to this blog – with an additional recipe for ‘Khaki Cakes’ so as not to seem so lazy on this public holiday!

From Hardtack to Anzacs.
“It is easy to think of biscuits without an army, but of an army without biscuits – never”, began the writer of a tongue-in-cheek article on Army biscuits in ‘The Anzac Book’, published in 1916. The writer went on to describe in a very humourous manner the incredible hardness of the ration biscuits, and to opine on the taste: “Is it the delicious succulency of ground granite or the savoury toothsomeness of powdered marble? Do we perceive a delicate flavouring of ferro-concrete with just a dash of scraped iron railings?"

This soldier was of course talking about “hardtack”, the traditional very dry, very hard soldiers or ship’s biscuit which, at a quantity of a pound or so a day, had formed the basis of the military and naval ration ever since there had been armies and ships on the move. It was a very far cry indeed from the Anzac biscuits so lovingly made and sent by the women at home to their menfolk at Gallipoli.

Hardtack - the word means “hard fare” - was the “bread” provided with campaign rations, as distinct from garrison bread, which was “soft tack”. In its simplest form it was an unleavened flour and water paste rolled out very thinly, and baked until very hard and very durable. In better times the basic mixture had sugar and milk powder added, but its hardness remained legendary.

Military men have honoured it with many names over the centuries: Stone Bread, Teeth Dullers, Sheet Iron, Flour Tile, Concrete macaroons, Ammo reserves, and in a typical example of Anzac sarcastic military humour – the Anzac wafer. Soldiers crumbled them into stew, or coffee, or broke them up and soaked them to make a sort of porridge – anything to make them swallowable and palatable. There were many variations on the theme of “put biscuits and a rifle stock in a pot, boil until the rifle stock is tender, throw away the biscuits and eat the rifle stock”.

The writer of the article quoted above said: “Well glazed, they would make excellent tiles or fine flagstones. After the war they will have great scarcity value as curios, as souvenirs which one can pass on from generation to generation, souvenirs which will endure while the Empire stands”, and he was not far wrong. There is an apocryphal story that hardtack biscuits made during the American Civil War in the 1860’s were re-issued for use during the Spanish-American war 35 years later!

The conditions of war and sea-faring meant that storage was often less than ideal. The biscuits were often damp and mouldy, or rat-nibbled, or weevil-ridden. One naval commander noted “Every biscuit is like a piece of clockwork, moved by its own internal impulse, occasioned by the myriads of insects that dwelt within”. The weevils that could not be shaken or lured out of the biscuits at least added some protein along with an unpleasant bitter taste – and their network of burrows helped them crumble more easily!

So, how and when did Anzac biscuits as we now know them develop? The word “Anzac” first appeared sometime in 1915, initially as a telegraphic code abbreviation for 'Australia and New Zealand Army Corps' . It quickly became a highly symbolic code word for the Corps itself and everything it stood for, and it became associated astonishingly quickly with a particular style of biscuit.

Wives and mothers at home have always tried to send food to their men at the front line. Once upon a time, it was pies made with a very dense inedible crust (the “coffin”) that were made for overseas delivery, and many were sent from England to soldiers fighting the Boers in South Africa. There would have been no refrigeration en route, and the idea makes us shudder today. Food sent from Australia or New Zealand to Anzac troops in WWI faced a sea journey of up to two months, without refrigeration, so it had to pack well and have a long shelf-life.

The exact historic details are yet to be uncovered, but it seems that it may have been the women of Dunedin in New Zealand that were responsible for the Anzac biscuit phenomenon. Oat biscuits are a Scottish tradition, and Dunedin is a city with strong Scottish roots. The style of biscuit had been around for a long time, with names such as “Golden Crunch Biscuits” or “Golden Syrup Biscuits” – many recipes advising that the alternatives of honey, treacle, or golden syrup could be used. Someone, sometime early in the war, made a batch and re-named them “Anzac biscuits”. The biscuits did not require eggs, which were often in short supply during the war, and they kept well. Huge quantities were made and sent to the Anzacs, or sold on stalls to raise money for other “help the troops” projects.

The transition from plain oatcakes can be seen from the Scottish cookbook “The Practice of Cookery adapted to the Business of Every-Day Life” (1840), by Mrs.Dalgairns.


Short Cakes.Sift four pounds of oatmeal, and mix with it four pounds of treacle, half a pound of brown sugar, the same quantity of melted butter, and three quarters of an ounce of powdered ginger. Work it all well together, let it remain for twenty-four hours, and then make it into cakes.
The Australian War Memorial website gives a recipe for a “popular version” provided by a Gallipoli veteran, Mr Bob Lawson.

ANZAC Biscuit Popular Version.1 cup each of plain flour, sugar, rolled oats and coconut, 4 oz butter, 1 tablespoon treacle (golden syrup), 2 tablespoons boiling water, 1 teaspoon carbonate soda (add a little more water if mixture is too dry)
Recipes will always be adapted, and the Marrickville Margarine Company’s “Pilot Recipe Book” (1937) for pastrycooks has a recipe for “Anzac Cakes”, which are actually peanut-containing biscuits.

Anzac Cakes.5 lbs. Plain Flour, 5 lbs Sugar, 4 lbs Cake Margarine, 2 ½ lbs Oatmeal, 1 lb. Golden Syrup, 1 lb. Coconut, 2 lbs. Granulated or half peanuts, 4 oz. Bi-Carb. Soda, 1 ½ pints Hot Water.Before you are tempted to vary the sacred formula too much, remember that the use of the word “Anzac” is protected under Commonwealth Law, in order “to protect the significance of the relationship of the word with the bravery and self-sacrifice of the first Anzacs”. The Department of Veterans Affairs notes that:

“Approvals for the word 'Anzac' to be used on biscuit products have been given on the proviso that the product generally conforms to the traditional recipe and shape, is not advertised in any way that would play on Australia's military heritage, and is not used in association with the word 'cookies', which is considered to have non-Australian overtones.”

Surely no self-respecting Aussie or Kiwi pastrycook would even consider making Anzac cookies?

And here, as promised, a new military-inspired recipe for the day:

Little Khaki Cakes.
Beat ¼ butter and ¾ cup sugar to a cream, adding two eggs, beating in one at a time, add gradually 1 ½ cups of sifted self-raising flower and 1 dessertspoonful of cocoa dissolved in ½ cup of milk. Bake in small patty tins in a fairly hot oven for ten minutes, try with a straw to be sure they are cooked. The little cakes can be iced, with chocolate icing, or covered in a mixture of thick cocoa, and then rolled in dessicated cocoanut.
Sunday Times, 23 November, 1919.


P.S. you will find previous food-themed Anzac Day posts at the following links:

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