Damper in Australia
The creek’s so low that it’s sulkily gathered itself into scummy pools and refuses to flow. Bad news for me; I was relying on this spot to refill my water. But the stagnant, muggy conditions are perfect for mosquitoes, and the air around my campsite is thick with their symphony and with the humidity.
No running water means this is my last morning on the track. Today’s predicted to hit 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit), too hot to go hunting for water sources that may or not be there. And I’m about to use some of my last reserves to make breakfast.
The ‘damper’ I’m making is a traditional unleavened bread, cooked with an open fire instead of an oven. It’s a staple of the swagman’s diet and legend. In the semi-mythologized colonial days, itinerant workers would trudge from farm to farm, with nothing much more than a swag (a combination bindle/sleeping bag). A simple meal of flour and water, mixed up and buried under coals, made a quick and filling travellers’ ration.
Albeit a boring one. Unlike in the Anglo-Celtic tradition, full of exciting scones and bannocks, there’s no hint of oats or dried fruit here. And while the indigenous Australians made a similar meal using ground nuts and seeds for flour, there’s nothing so nutritious or tasty to liven up damper. I suppose some lard might be acceptable as a shortener, although I doubt a crumbly bread would cook too well directly in coals.
So it’s basically just flour. Mine’s got a bit of sugar and salt in it, although that feels heretical. I pile up a heap of flour on a flat rock and poke my finger in the middle. Into the hole I drip water—carefully, I can’t afford to waste any—and slowly mix it around. Then I roll the dough out along the rock and repeat the process a couple of times.
In the meantime I’ve lit a fire and let it go out. Some passerby to this site has left a kind of bush oven, a hollow cairn of smooth rocks from the creek bed that keeps the heat focused inwards. With my dough rolled out into a sausage shape, I rake the embers back a bit, squish the damper in, flatten in between two hot rocks and cover the lot with coals.
It’s going to take maybe half an hour to bake, so I sit down nearby and roll a cigarette. Bread and iron (according to the Irish) are meant to act as charms against fae—forest spirits. If you carry a slice of civilization in your pocket, you’ll be safe in the wild.
After a while I tap the damper with a stick and the knocking sound tells me it’s ready. I scrape off the ash and tear it apart, dipping it in some Vegemite I’ve brought along. It’s the first hot meal I’ve had in a while, and it’s humble but heartening.