It’s time for the annual Penn State vs. Monash University Great Rare Books Bake Off where readers and cooks can support a side by making a recipe from the universities’ special collections. This year there are twelve recipes to choose from, from Wet Shoo Fly Pie to Lamington Cake. I figured I’d better go with an Australian recipe, as a matter of national pride and all. When I realised I’d never made damper for the blog, the choice of recipe was an easy one!
Damper is an Australian quickbread, traditionally unleavened and cooked in the ashes of the campfire. The earliest references come from the mid-1820s and damper is most commonly associated with people who are traveling or who are living and working in basic conditions in the bush.
“… we have no doubt that it [the harvest] will give the working family a rasher of good bacon, an excellent damper, and a copious draft of new milk…” 
The cook making damper, by Alice Peacock, date unknown. Courtesy of Library and Archives Northern Territory. Used under CC BY 4.0.
As settlements developed, people in towns could buy leavened bread from bakeries or could bake their own if they had an oven. Swagmen (itinerant labourers who carried a bedroll called a swag filled with their belongings), drovers (stockmen who moved cattle or sheep over long distances) and other people on the move didn’t have access to ovens or fresh yeast so they made damper instead. A lot of descriptions of making damper show how people made-do with hardly any equipment by mixing the dough on a sheet of bark, a sheepskin or the upturned lid of some luggage.
“At first we had rather a horror of eating damper, imagining it to be somewhat like an uncooked crumpet. Experience, however, showed it to be really very good. Its construction is simple, and is as follows. Plain flour and water is mixed on a sheet of bark, and then kneaded into a disc some two or three inches thick to about one or two feet in diameter, great care to avoid cracks being taken in the kneading. This is placed in a hole scraped to its size in the hot ashes, covered over, and there left till small cracks caused by the steam appear on the surface of its covering.”
Over time, the making of damper has changed a lot. As late as 1929, it was still possible to argue that real damper couldn’t have baking soda added to it but in reality chemical raising agents like bicarbonate of soda, cream or tartar and baking powder made damper lighter and were certainly being used by the 1850s.
“A stiff dough is made of flour, water, and salt, and kneaded into a large flat cake, two or three inches thick, and from twelve to eighteen broad. The wood-ashes are then partially raked from the hot hearth, and the cake being laid on it, is heaped over with the remaining hot ashes, and thus bakes. When cut into it, it exceeds in closeness and hard heaviness the worst bread or pudding I ever tasted, and the outside looks dirty, if it is not so: still, I have heard many persons, conversant with every comfort and luxury, praise the “damper,” so I can only consider my dislike a matter of taste. In “the bush,” where brewer’s yeast cannot be procured, and people are too idle or ignorant to manufacture a substitute for it (which is easily done), this indurated dough is the only kind of bread used and those who eat it constantly must have an ostrich’s digestion to combat its injurious effects.”
It is also rare now to see damper cooked directly in the ashes, where it inevitably becomes dirty and ashy. At home, people use the oven but when camping damper is often cooked in the coals in greased aluminium foil or in a camp oven. Also called a Dutch oven, camp ovens are cast iron pots with a lid that can be used to cook food on an open fire. The fire is allowed to cook down to coals, the dough is placed in the camp oven (preferably on a trivet or some foil) and the lid placed on top. Coals are raked around the oven and a scoop of coals put on the top so that the heat is even around the oven.
This watercolour sketch shows a camp from 1851 with a tent in the background. In the centre, one man kneels to knead the dough for damper, while a camp oven sits beside the fire ready for use. From ‘A collection of drawings in watercolour, ink and pencil: illustrative of the life, character & scenery of Melbourne 1850-1862. First series’, by William Strutt, courtesy of the State Library of NSW.
Damper also has an important history for First Nations people in Australia. New evidence from Madjedbebe, a rock shelter in northern Australia, shows that Indigenous people in Australia have been grinding seeds for about 60,000 years. Grinding stones, microbotanical residues like starches, ethnographic accounts and oral histories all point to the important role that seeds and plant-processing played in First Nations foodways. This is especially true in the arid desert areas of central Australia where seeds became a staple food, probably during the late Holocene.
After collection, winnowing and grinding seeds with water, the seed-paste can be eaten raw or the paste could be cooked in the ashes of the fire to make seed cakes also called bush bread or, sometimes, damper. The technique of cooking seed cakes directly in the fire may have been something that European settlers learned from Indigenous people.
The arrival of settlers, who cut First Nations people off from some of their traditional food resources, and the development of the ration and mission systems which depended heavily on wheat flour meant that by the 1970s most communities no longer regularly collected and ground seeds for food. Instead, damper made from wheat flour and raised with baking powder became common in Aboriginal communities.
You can see the two different damper baking techniques that I described above in two videos. The first shows Gurindji woman Violet Wadrill Nanaku making damper in the ashes of the fire where they puff up kind of like naan bread. The second shows Auntie Junie Pederson and Roy Wilson baking damper in a camp oven on a station in the Kimberley.
This recipe, taken from the Kimberley Cook Book: “some old recipes and some new ones” in the Monash University Special Collections, is from the same region in north-west Australia. I couldn’t find out much about the book, but the recipes were collected during the 1990s in remote communities. The book was edited by Marianne Yambo and is illustrated with linocuts by artist Jan Palethorpe.
The recipe itself is a pretty basic damper recipe, with no added butter or milk to enrich the dough, but in this case it is flavoured with some spices and plenty of dried fruit. I cooked it in a camp oven inside my oven, a technique often used for homemade sourdough to give more even heat distribution and to get a nice crust, but also a nod to the campfire origins of the recipe. It makes a very dense but flavourful bread that is best eaten slathered with butter while still warm, or toasted the next day if you have any left.
2 cups flour
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup chopped dried fruit (e.g. cranberries, raisins, currants, apples, apricots)*
1/4 tsp cinnamon (add some other spices if you want, cloves are nice or some nutmeg)
Approx 1 cup water
- Preheat oven and camp oven to 200°C.
- Put all dry ingredients in a large bowl and stir to combine. Gradually add enough water to bring together into a supple dough. Turn out onto counter and knead for a couple of minutes until smooth.
- Make the dough into a smooth ball and flatten slightly. Slash the top of the bread, if desired.
- Carefully take the hot camp oven out of the oven, sprinkle a little flour on the bottom and quickly put the bread in the camp oven. Put the lid on and bake for approx. 40 mins or until the crust is slightly golden and the damper sounds hollow when you knock on it.
*use whatever dried fruit you have on hand, but I would say that some apricots are essential
 “Hobart Town.,” Hobart Town Gazette and Van Diemen’s Land Advertiser, January 28, 1825.
 C. H. Eden 1872 in Edward E. Morris, Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages (London: Macmillan, 1898).
 Louisa Meredith, Notes and Sketches of New South Wales During a Residence in the Colony from 1839 to 1844, ed. Ure Smith (1844; repr., Sydney, NSW: National Trust of Australia, NSW, 1973), 67.
 “Making Damper,” Western Mail, February 21, 1929; Barbara Santich, Bold Palates: Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage (South Australia: Wakefield Press, 2012), 220.
 Chris Clarkson et al., “Human Occupation of Northern Australia by 65,000 Years Ago,” Nature 547, no. 7663 (July 2017): 306–10, https://doi.org/10.1038/nature22968; S. Anna Florin et al., “The First Australian Plant Foods at Madjedbebe, 65,000–53,000 Years Ago,” Nature Communications 11, no. 1 (February 17, 2020): 924, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-14723-0.
 Wendy Beck, “Aboriginal Preparation of Cycas Seeds in Australia,” Economic Botany 46, no. 2 (1992): 133–47; Richard Fullagar and Judith Field, “Pleistocene Seed-Grinding Implements from the Australian Arid Zone,” Antiquity, 1997; John Mildwaters, “Seed-Grinding Stones: A Review from a Mainly Australian Perspective,” The Artefact: The Journal of the Archaeological and Anthropological Society of Victoria 39 (2016): 30–41, https://doi.org/10.3316/ielapa.242662889512125; John Mildwaters and Chris Clarkson, “The Efficiency of Australian Grindstones for Processing Seed: A Quantitative Experiment Using Reproduction Implements and Controlling for Morphometric Variation and Grinding Techniques,” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 17 (February 1, 2018): 7–18, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2017.10.036; John Mildwaters and Chris Clarkson, “An Experimental Assessment of the Grinding Characteristics of Some Native Seeds Used by Aboriginal Australians,” Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports 30 (April 1, 2020): 102127, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2019.102127; Josephine Nangala et al., “Ethnobotany of Warrilyu (Eucalyptus Pachyphylla F.Muell. [Myrtaceae]): Aboriginal Seed Food of the Gibson Desert, Western Australia,” Economic Botany 73, no. 3 (September 1, 2019): 416–22, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12231-019-09471-2.
 Scott Cane, “Australian Aboriginal Subsistence in the Western Desert,” Human Ecology 15, no. 4 (1987): 391–434; Mike Smith, The Archaeology of Australia’s Deserts (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 197 especially; David W. Zeanah et al., “Diesel and Damper: Changes in Seed Use and Mobility Patterns Following Contact amongst the Martu of Western Australia,” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 39 (September 1, 2015): 51–62, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaa.2015.02.002.
 Zeanah et al., “Diesel and Damper.”