Back to Bike Fish

Damper

A traditional Australian bread, adapted for bicycle travellers

Grace Newhaven

2001 / September 4

historical background | advantages for modern cyclists | recipe | picture

| other food ideas from Fish | Damper links on the www |


Note : Fire bans may be currently in force in South Eastern Australia - your damper may need to wait till March

Deep at the centre of Australian folk tradition is the memory of a simple, hand made bread prepared by several generations of pioneers and travelling bush people.

For historical and economic reasons in the 19th century and later, Australia's often isolated rural population relied on a very small group of staples which were both durable and easily transportable - flour, tea, sugar - supplemented by whatever fresh meats were available. While this diet was far from nutritious by modern standards, it was enough to support life in the harsh conditions of the Outback.

With these commodities the only ones available, and no reliable access to settlements and established bakeries, outback workers and travellers, (many of them cyclists) resorted to their own version of bread, cooked as required on an open fire at the campsite. For this purpose, the traveller simply mixed flour with a rising agent (baking powder) and water, to produce a stiff dough that could be baked on the coals of a wood fire. In time, a variety of flour with the rising ingredient pre-mixed became available, known as "self-raising” flour.

The bread made in this way became known as "damper" (perhaps because the fire was "damped" down to a moderate heat for this particular purpose).

This technique remains firmly embedded in the folk memory of modern Australians, but is no longer widely practised. Modern explorers in their 4 X 4's can carry as much "shop bread" as they wish, and no longer require the skills of their ancestors.

However, this technique has something to offer cyclists, who - like other non-motorised travellers in the past - need a wholesome staple food that is simple to carry, easy to prepare, and good to eat.

While I do not suggest that this bread is a sufficient food in itself, damper is a very practical idea for cyclists for the following reasons:

  • no hardware required - except cup or bowl to mix dough in
  • no fuel necessary - uses wood on site
  • simplicity - apart from water and a little salt, only one ingredient ( self rising/raising flour). No yeast or "starter" is necessary.
  • very compact - the ingredient is easy to carry, just add water
  • cheap - much cheaper than bread or crackers
  • economical - make only as much as you want, when you want it
  • fresh - makes breakfast on the spot, & pack another for lunch
  • adaptable - add dried fruit or sugar for a sweet bread. Add fibre, cheese & herbs as you wish.
  • quality - much higher than factory bread
  • quick - fire takes 15 mins to make coals, then bread cooks in 5 - 10 mins
  • accessibility - self raising flour is readily available from general stores , even in remote areas

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------

The recipe :

  • a cup of self raising flour, preferably wholemeal ;
  • pinch of salt
  • optional : a teaspoon of linseed or oat bran - for extra fibre. A little semolina makes for a nice crust, too.
  • half cup of water ( note that the proportion is roughly 2:1 or less).The dough should be stiff.

Method :

  • collect a kg or so of fallen twigs and sticks, say finger width diameter
  • build a small fire in a narrow trench about 1.5 m long by 200mm wide by 150 mm deep ( 54 x 8 x 6 inches) as in the picture below….
  • mix dry ingredients, add water gradually. ( I use a 1.0 litre plastic bowl, which travels on the end of my folded tent , ie doesn't take up any space)
  • kneed into a stiff dough
  • rake glowing coals to one end of the trench, away from flames, allow them to die down a little ( Note that this technique is good for general cooking as well , as it makes a gentle simmer very easy)
  • form dough into a slab aprox 200 x 100 x 20mm, or as big as the palm of your hand , & place carefully on the hot coals.
  • turn with fork or fingers after about 3-5 minutes. Brush off any sticking coals !
  • turn again as necessary. Should be ready to eat in about 5 minutes. When it's done, it should have a browned crust, and sound hollow if you tap with your fingers.

Alternatively, make a larger quantity, place under the coals for approx 30 mins.

With more practice, you may be able to leave a larger quantity in the ashes overnight - the ashes will remain warm all night, and your loaf should be ready by morning.

Note : if self raising flour is not available, 2 tsp of baking powder to 1C plain flour should produce the same result.

I have assumed that :

  • there are no bush fire hazards or restrictions in force.
  • there is ample fallen wood - you will need a kg or so. Can the environment provide that?
  • your fire is made in a small trench, & buried when you leave
  • you are camping legally - smoke is a give away.
  • you have some water to mix the dough, and a little for clean-up.

 

The result seems to be very similar to Scots/ Canadian "bannocks." (see below). The loaves I made were similar to India's "naan" in appearance, texture and flavour.

for comparisons, see

Damper (Australian Bush Bread)

http://www.ozemail.com.au/~d2910pn1/recipes/Damper.html

http://www.globalgourmet.com/food/egg/egg0597/damper.html

Damper as "bush tucker" in Roebourne, WA

http://www.roebourne.wa.edu.au/culture/picturedamper.htm

http://countrylife.net/bread/recipes/664.html

Zuni Indian Bread http://soar.berkeley.edu/recipes/ethnic/native/zuni-indian-bread1.rec

Scottish Bannocks http://www.ichef.com/ichef-recipes/Breads/13749.html

Hard Tack biscuits from the US Civil War period http://www.39thiowa.com/civil_war_food.htm