What was eaten on the Goldfields; part 2

Recipes of the Bush

“Damper and Mutton”

“Tea and Damper” by A . M. Ebsworth. From Digital Collection of the State Library of Victoria.

“Tea and Damper” by A . M. Ebsworth. From Digital Collection of the State Library of Victoria.

Following a previous blog post, we have tried to find a few examples of recipes from the gold rush period of our History. Robyn Annear (Nothing But Gold, 1999), says that one who lived through it called the early years of the Gold Rush (1851-1853) the “damper and mutton stage of the colony”. The foods most readily available were sheep (mutton) from the squatters and flour, sugar, tea and dried fruit as these would not go off quickly. This brings us to our first recipe – damper.

Damper and its variations.

This explanation is from James Bonwick, quoted in Nothing but Gold (1999);

Taking a washing tin dish, and clearing off the dirt a little, six or eight pannicans of flour are thrown in; a half table spoonful of carbonate soda, the like quantity of tartaric acid (together these are Baking Powder, sort of), and a spoonful of salt are then mixed together in a pannican and then well mingled with dry flour. Water is then poured in, the whole thoroughly knuckled, rolled into a good shaped loaf, and tumbled at once into the warmed camp oven. Fire is applied beneath and a couple of hours or less will turn out a loaf fit to be set before a queen.

Now if you didn’t have a camp oven you could just throw it into the coals of your fire. The damper will make a hollow sound when it is cooked. Some diggers didn’t have carbonate of soda or tartaric acid, and just used water and flour. This method makes a very hard crusted loaf, with usually a gluey centre.

Johnny Cakes were a form of this damper, lacking baking soda. They are thought to have originated in the United States, and may have been called “journey cakes”, although the US versions of the recipe seem to use cornmeal instead of flour.

You simply make up the batter, so it is fairly stiff. Roll it up into small cakes and cook in a fry pan. If you add mutton dripping to your pan you get a “fat johnny cake”

“Mutton and Damper”

Butchers Shambles by S. T. Gill.  From the collection of the State Library of Victoria

“Butchers Shambles” by S. T. Gill. From the collection of the State Library of Victoria

Along with your damper you might have meat, usually mutton, sometimes beef. The beef may have been salted to help it keep longer. This was called salt beef. We call salt beef corned beef nowadays, because of the ‘corns’ of salt used to pickle it. For most of the diggers, meat was a rarity in their home countries. But the novelty of “meat 3 times a day” didn’t last long. Wives and camp cooks needed to be extremely creative to add variety to their families’ and campmate’s diets. William Howitt also complained about the quality of the meat. He was convinced that squatters were sending their worn out stock to the diggings. He grumped about his chops  “Wretches they are, worse than India rubber or gutta percha”.  Amazingly another complaint about the meat was that it was too fresh! Fresh meat is tough meat, and usually the meat you were cooking would have been quite alive days, hours or even minutes earlier.  This would have led to some very creative recipes using the same ingredients in different ways to spice up the meal time.

Caroline Chisholm

Caroline Chisholm by A C Hayter 1852. From the Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales.

Caroline Chisholm by A C Hayter 1852. From the Dixson Galleries, State Library of New South Wales.

Caroline Chisholm was extremely worried about women becoming depressed because of the lack of variety in colonial diets. She wrote several tracts to advise potential migrants, and in one of them she discussed the trials and tribulations of ‘bush cookery’. Early settlers were lured to Australia with the phrase “Meat three times a day” – and the meat was usually salt beef (‘corned beef’). Caroline described how to meet the challenge of preparing the same meat every night of the week – and keeping the husband happy.

“The great art of bush-cookery consists in giving a variety out of salt beef and flour, minus mustard, pepper, and potatoes. Now, the first thing that a wife has to do in the bush is examine the rations, and think and contrive how to use them. Every woman who values her husband’s health and comfort will give him a hot meal every day.

To commence with the flour: this should be divided into three parts – one for dumplings and pancakes, two for dampers* (bread made into large cakes, and baked on hearths.)
Divide the meat into seven portions. Take the best piece for Sunday: for as there is more leisure on that day, men congregate together, and get a habit of grumbling if the wife does not make the best use of her means. Let the Sunday share be soaked on the Saturday, and beat it well with a rolling pin, as this makes it more tender; take a seventh portion of the flour, and work it into a paste; then put the beef into it, boil it, and you will have a very nice pudding, known in the bush as ‘Station Jack.’
Monday. Cut the meat into small pieces; put them in the frying pan to stew; throw away the first water, then shake some flour over the meat and when sufficiently done, turn it out upon a dish; then take the remainder of this day’s flour (for you should be very particular and have no guess-work), mix it with water, not too much, and make it into a pancake. When fired, put the stew on top of it, and this will prevent any loss of gravy; keep it hot until your husband comes home, and he will have a palatable dish called ‘The Queen’s Nightcap’.
Tuesday. Chop the meat very small; mix it with this day’s flour, adding thereto a due portion of water, then form the whole into small dumplings, and put them in a frying pan. This dish generally goes by the name of ‘Trout-dumplings.’
Wednesday. Stew the meat well in a small pot; when near done, take the portion of flour allowed for the day, make it into a crust, cover the meat with it, and in half an hour you will be able to serve up ‘A Stewed Goose.’
Thursday. Boil your beef, and make your flour into dumplings.
Friday. Beefsteak pudding; if Catholic, fish for your dinner.
Saturday. Beef ‘a-la-mode.’ “

‘Tis all in the name, apparently.

We first discovered these recipe names in “The Tradition of Australian Cooking” by Anne Gollan (1978), but the more detailed description quoted is from;


We haven’t tried any of these recipes ourselves yet. Want to have a go? Let us know how it went.

Do you have any recipes handed down from Colonial times? Feel free to share.

4 responses to “What was eaten on the Goldfields; part 2

  1. Good job.
    Did you realise that your indefatigable historians have done a lot of work on the issue of Food in Ballarat…?
    See attached for an indication.
    Jan xxx

    Dr. Jan Croggon
    Senior Historian
    Sovereign Hill Museums Association
    Ballarat VIC 3350
    phone 53371173
    email: jcroggon@sovereignhill.com.au

    This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to whom they are addressed. If you have received this email in error, please notify the system manager. Please note that any views or opinions presented in this email are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Sovereign Hill Museums Association. Finally, the recipient should check this email and any attachments for the presence of viruses. The organization accepts no liability for any damage caused by any virus transmitted by this email.

  2. Spencer Clements

    So cool. This helped me with homework so much!!!!
    – Spencer

  3. the best, i completed my history assignment quicker! Thanks.

  4. This helped a lot! Thanks.

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