Monday, January 28, 2013

1914 Australian Kitchen: Damper

In addition to researching individual soldiers, I'm going to start posting a little about the other research I'm doing into the First World War era for my novel Between the Lines. You can check out my Pinterest boards here, for an extra perspective.

One of the extra things I'll be doing is looking at food that came out of the Australian kitchens of 1914, both at home and away on the front. My novel is set in rural Western Australia, so the food of the farms was a little more rustic than one would have eaten in the cities. Overall, there's a lot to explore, with recipes available in old cookbooks passed down through the family, in the pages of the digitised historical newspapers of the time, and in many other places.

My kitchen isn't all that authentic to 1914, thank goodness. I'm lucky enough to enjoy a fast-cooking gas stove in place of one fired by wood, and a refrigerator to keep my food cool. And I do have this awesome dresser passed down from my mother, but my Ikea jars, plastic packaging and random vitamins eliminate me from any kind of authenticity.

Here's an example of a well preserved large communal kitchen from that time, at the old military barracks in Albany, Western Australia, with the stove on the left:

So, now and again I'll share some classic Aussie recipes that would have been eaten in 1914.

First up, probably the simplest food of the time, and something that is still eaten today in exactly the same way:


Damper is a very simple bread, made (at its most basic) with flour and water, and cooked on the coals of the campfire. Long before the first white settlers came to Australia in the 1700s, the Aboriginal people of this country made damper using seeds that were ground into flour between flat stones. Once there were stockmen making a living out in the deserts and plains, damper became something that was easy to make and filling, the perfect accompaniment to a simple kangaroo stew or a tin of ham. And as time progressed and ingredients became more readily available for those living out on the land, variations to damper began to include things like butter, leavening agents and sugar.

From Between the Lines:

The bread was in a round, domed and golden, still dusted with flour and imprinted by her fingertips. He cut it awkwardly, first in half, then into wedges. 
"Thank you." She took the offered piece along with the knife, and spread melting butter and glistening syrup over tender, crumbling dough. 

She leaned back on one hand and closed her eyes as she chewed. Perfection, to be out here in the bush surrounded by the lemon-scent of the leaves and the singing insects, wrapped in the warm arms of the day, enjoying a full belly and good company.

There's nothing quite like damper straight out of the coals, but you can make it at home in your oven, and it's as easy as can be.

Basic Damper Recipe (adapted from Best Recipes)

3 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 cup beer (or lemonade, water, milk)
80g (1/3 cup) butter

Preheat oven to 210 degrees C (410F).

Combine flour and salt in a bowl. I used 2 cups of plain flour and 1 cup of wholemeal, for personal preference. And while Pyrex bowls were first released for sale in 1915, you'll have to imagine mine is something more time-appropriate, like Mavis Cutler's dependable stoneware.

Make a well in the centre, and pour in melted butter, followed by beer (or other liquid). Beer or lemonade, for what it's worth, give the final product a bit of lift/ rise because of the bubbles. If using milk or water, you can add a little baking soda to the dry ingredients for the same effect.

Mix until just combined, and then knead until it all comes together. I left mine pretty rustic- you can make it neater than this by kneading longer, but try not to overmix, or your damper may end up a bit tough.

Place damper on a lightly floured tray or baking stone. I love my pizza stone. If you happen to be camping, you can put it in the cast iron camp stove and hang it over the fire, or you can dig a little hole in the coals of your fire and put in in there. Wrapped in foil or straight up- you can eat the inside and leave the charcoaled outer crust.

 Pat your damper into a flat round. You can score it into eighths if you like, or leave it unmarked.

If using an oven, bake at 210 degrees C (410F) for ten minutes, then reduce heat to 180 degrees C (350F) and bake for a further 15-20 minutes, until damper is golden and sounds hollow when tapped. My convenient gas oven is temperamental, so my damper took closer to 40 minutes to cook.

Butter is the perfect accompaniment to damper, and if you've made it with beer, it does well with cheese, ham, or on the side of a beef stew. If you've made it with lemonade, it's great with golden syrup, or for those who tragically live in places where golden syrup is not readily available, honey or jam. If you've made it with milk or water, you can cut the middle ground and use it for either!

A very simple Australian food to make and enjoy.