Wild emu at the edge of the New South Wales Outback (TWC).
Gifts of bread
Aboriginal stories credit Captain James Cook with bringing bread to Australia. The stories tell about all of things that the mythical "Cook" brought: clothes, axes, animals, and bread and flour. The stories are told throughout the country. even though few tribes encountered Captain Cook in person. The Rembarrnga people of Arnhem Land, where Cook never ventured, tell of the "real" Captain Cook, their ancestor law-man from millions of years ago. When that Captain Cook is killed, the story teller says that people tried to make Captain Cook another way, and many "Captain Cooks" (i.e., white settlers) arrived.
Captain Cook statue in Sydney, Australia (March 4, 2018) (TWC)
Chloe Grant and Rosie Runaway of Queensland tell a second story of Cook's arrival bearing bread: "Captain Cook and his group seemed to stand up out of the sea with the white skin of ancestral spirits, returning to their descendants. Captain Cook arrived first offering a pipe and tobacco to smoke (which was dismissed as a 'burning thing... stuck in his mouth'), then boiling a billy of tea (which was dismissed as scalding 'dirty water'), next baking flour on the coals (which was rejected as smelling 'stale' and thrown away untasted), finally boiling beef (which smelled well, and tasted okay, once the salty skin was wiped off). Captain Cook and group then left, sailing away to the north, leaving Chloe Grant and Rosie Runaway's predecessors "beating the ground with their fists, fearfully sorry to see the spirits of their ancestors depart in this way."
The English soon returned to Australia in force. In 1788, England now bereft of American colonies to which it could ship criminals, landed a boatload of convicts at Botany Bay. Within a few months of their arrival, the prisoners turned farmers began to grow wheat. It took several years of learning to farm, finding decent soil, and planting new varieties of grain, but by 1799, the colony cultivated 6,000 acres of wheat.
A harvested field in New South Wales, February 2018 (TWC).
As was the case around the world, wheat culture in Australia evolved. New machinery in the early to middle 1800s, and the networks of railroads that were largely in place by the 1880s made wheat farming possible on a large scale. A new wheat variety, "Federation," greatly increased production, similar to the introduction of "Turkey Red" in the US about the same time.
Wheat sheaves, around 1884 - 1917, Sydney, Australia.
Very little of Australia has land suitable for wheat. The map below shows the major wheat areas. Farms in these areas produced enough wheat for Australia to become a major supplier of wheat to other parts of the world.
Early Australian farmers trying to clear ground and plant wheat lacked any sort of sophisticated equipment. The first ploughs arrived in 1797. For the decade before that, the convicts and settlers used hoes and spades. The farmable areas along the coasts of the continent were forested, and often hilly. After cutting the trees, farmers hitched teams of oxen to wooden plows. An innovative farmer by the name of Mullens drove spikes into a V-shaped log, which his horse dragged along the plowed soil. The cultivator loosened the dirt and dropped the seeds in behind it. Iron plows didn't arrive until the 1850s.
A few years later, the Australian government paid Richard Bruyer Smith 500 pounds sterling for his invention of the "stump-jump" plow. Smith's plow went along as usual until it came to a stump or rock, at which point a hinge mechanism allowed the share and mould board to lift over the obstacle and come down on the other side.
Cooking and eating wheat
During the second half of the 1800s, English in Australia might well have turned to Eliza Acton's The English Bread Book for their bread recipes.
The English and other settlers adapted to their new environs. They used native species in English recipes, or occasionally they ate indigenous foods prepared in the same ways that the Aboriginals were accustomed to use them. Far more often than not, they substituted local foods for familiar ingredients. They cooked parrots instead of pigeons into soups, and prepared kangaroo meat as if it was beef or mutton. Mrs. Lance Rawson's Antipodean Cookbook from 1895 gave recipes for flying fox (tastes like pork), bandicoots, and iguanas (tastes like chicken), but prepared them all using English techniques and seasonings.
Flying fox, Sydney Centennial Parklands, 2/10/2018 [TWC]
The indigenous peoples also adapted. They continued to prepare their traditional foods, but they also used English ingredients -- flour, sugar, the new meats such as mutton, beef, and pork -- to make their traditional dishes. More often, they substituted English foods for their own. The English foods tasted better to them, were far easier to get, and were recommended (or required) by the English who ruled over them. At times, the English paid indigenous people who were working for them in English foods, including flour.
Classic damper, cooked in campfire ashes (which would be brushed off before eating) [From 2012, in Yandeyarra, Wendy Wood)]
A 1946 recipe emphasized the kneading process for damper: "Take 1 lb of flour, water and a pinch of salt. Mix it into a stiff dough and knead for at least one hour, not continuously, but the longer it is kneaded the better the damper. Press with the hands into a flat cake and cook it in at least a foot of hot ashes" (Bill Beatty, in the Sydney Morning Herald). This differs substantially from hard tack or ship's biscuit, which is not kneaded, merely mixed until the dough holds together, then flattened very thin, and baked for a long time at a low temperature until it dries out completely.
The Aboriginals claim damper as their own as well. Before the English settled in, they made bread by grinding Spinifex seeds, mixing them with water, and baking the dough in ashes of a campfire. Some tribes used millet, kangaroo grass, and other seeds, including Bunya nuts prepared the same way. Today, as is shown in the next post, ground seeds and nuts are often mixed with wheat flour to take advantage of the fact to it has gluten and will rise when leavened. In a bit of reverse cultural appropriation, the English version of damper is sometimes credited to the Aboriginals, as in this snack characterized as "Damper and Dip: An Aboriginal Tradition."
A modern version of Aboriginal seed bread.
The next post describes wheat in Australia's present, from damper to ramen to Aussie pies. The first post in the series is Who Invented Bread? at this link.
* This is the Wikipedia version, but it is also available in books.