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When camping in the outback, there are some activities that are pretty much mandatory. Making your own delicious damper, cooking with a camp oven and brewing billy tea come under this banner. Traditional camp cooking goes hand in hand with camping itself in Australia, and it just wouldn’t be the same without them. Billy tea may taste awful if you don’t make it right, and damper may not be the most nutritionally valuable food but they were good enough for the swaggies and they’re good enough for modern day campers! These staples of Australian cuisine are simple to make, and Aussies that find themselves far from the nearest Maccas have been relying on them for a lot longer than you might think.
Most people think of damper as the food of the colonial bushmen that roamed around Australia in the 1800’s. Actually, the Aboriginal people were making a damper-like bread way before that. They used the ground seeds of native plants like wattles and grasses for this, and it was only later that swagmen picked up on this practice. Early swaggies also used flour made from these native seeds to start with, not wheat flour as is commonly thought. There just weren’t any flour mills out in the bush! For the same reason, they didn’t use any milk (no dairies) or other fancy products that you’ll find in many a modern damper recipe. It was just flour and water.
Most Aussies would agree that you can’t buy real damper or from a shop or a bakery. Even if the label says ‘traditional damper’, it’s not damper. If the label says ‘sage and sun dried tomato with sesame seeds’ it’s definitely not real damper (though it may taste delicious). There’s no such thing as gourmet damper, unless it’s your own special recipe that you made up that time you went camping and thought it would be a good idea to throw in some beer and seeds you found on a native tree (never mind the stomach cramps). Damper comes from a camp fire. It’s covered in ashes, not sesame seeds. As for billy tea it doesn’t get brewed in a nice little tea pot, it comes from a rusty old billy hanging over the camp fire. And you have to drink it from a tin.
When it comes to making damper, there are as many different ways of doing it as there are bush cooks. The most traditional, easiest way is with a lump of dough made from flour and water buried amongst the hot coals of a camp fire. You don’t put foil or anything around it with this method – the ashes are part of the tradition and you just shake them off before eating! Another method of cooking is to roll the dough into a long strip, wrap it around a stick and hold it over the flames. The stick needs to be green, or it might catch on fire. You can eat it on its own, or cover it with lashings of yummy melted butter. Of course, you don’t have to stop there. Honey is another common accompaniment to damper, or if you’re very brave you could try that other Aussie condiment – vegemite!
Another point is that you must always look like you have everything under control when making damper. When someone asks why the damper is black all the way through, tell them it’s your secret digestive recipe and it’s meant to look like that. Charcoal is good for the stomach! And those ants that got mixed up in the dough? They’re obviously the same ants that have been eaten by Aboriginals for thousands of years!
Like most other things cooked in Australia, someone had the idea to add beer to the damper recipe at some stage and this is a popular substitute for water when the kiddies aren’t around. You could also add milk and whatever else you think might taste good mixed in with the dough. Try raisins and sugar for a sweet damper, or you could use nuts or herbs.
When speaking of how to make damper, there is another icon of camp cooking that must be mentioned. The camp oven is the essential thing to have in the backpack. There’s something so inviting about cooking food in a cast iron pot buried in the hot coals of a camp fire, and the food is delicious! Not only can you cook damper in it, but just about any other food you want from casseroles to roast dinners. You just put whatever you’re cooking into the pot, put the special lid on, put the oven in a hole and cover it with hot ashes and coals. Most camp ovens should have a lid that won’t let the ashes in. When you’ve cooked the perfect damper in a camp oven, you can claim the title of master in ‘turning out the sod’!
Making billy tea is just as simple as damper, though you’ll find some people like to swing the billy around in the air a few times. This odd (sometimes dangerous) practice is supposedly to settle the tea leaves to the bottom of the billy so they don’t end up in your drinking tin. Though this is a traditional part of billy tea making, you could always wait a few minutes for the leaves to settle if you don’t want to end up with boiling tea all over your head. The important thing to remember is that billy tea must be brewed with gum leaves added at the end. Why? It’s tradition! And it adds a unique flavour to your tea that you just can’t get without them.
There are several things to remember when taking on the role of bush cook, but the most important one by far is this – all the rules are made to be broken. The swagmen of old may have made damper from acacia flour and water only, but that’s because they didn’t have a fridge travelling around with them! And no matter what you’ve put in it, how you’ve cooked it or what it tastes like, you must convince everyone that your damper is the most traditional. The same goes for your billy tea, even if it’s made from leaves you’ve had in your backpack since India.
If you get out there and find that your damper doesn’t turn out, your billy tea tastes like water and your camp oven cooking skills could do with some improvement, don’t despair! That’s all part of the experience, and the point is that you have now joined the ranks of those who know what it’s like to be a real bush cook. And there’s always next time as long as you didn’t burn down the tent in the process. And you can always find a good excuse. Maybe you should just add a little more flour, or maybe it was the temperature of the coals, or perhaps it was that other camper who looked like they were going to sabotage your recipe…happy camp cooking!