Bush bread

Bush bread

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Bush bread, or seedcakes, refers to the bread
Bread is a staple food prepared by cooking a dough of flour and water and often additional ingredients. Doughs are usually baked, but in some cuisines breads are steamed , fried , or baked on an unoiled frying pan . It may be leavened or unleavened...

 made by Australian Aborigines
Australian Aborigines
Australian Aborigines , also called Aboriginal Australians, from the latin ab originem , are people who are indigenous to most of the Australian continentthat is, to mainland Australia and the island of Tasmania...

 for many thousands of years. The bread was high in protein
Proteins are biochemical compounds consisting of one or more polypeptides typically folded into a globular or fibrous form, facilitating a biological function. A polypeptide is a single linear polymer chain of amino acids bonded together by peptide bonds between the carboxyl and amino groups of...

 and carbohydrate
A carbohydrate is an organic compound with the empirical formula ; that is, consists only of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, with a hydrogen:oxygen atom ratio of 2:1 . However, there are exceptions to this. One common example would be deoxyribose, a component of DNA, which has the empirical...

, and helped form part of a balanced traditional diet
Diet (nutrition)
In nutrition, diet is the sum of food consumed by a person or other organism. Dietary habits are the habitual decisions an individual or culture makes when choosing what foods to eat. With the word diet, it is often implied the use of specific intake of nutrition for health or weight-management...

.Food Standards Australia New Zealand: Online Version

With the arrival of Europeans and pre-mill
The terms gristmill or grist mill can refer either to a building in which grain is ground into flour, or to the grinding mechanism itself.- Early history :...

ed white flour
Flour is a powder which is made by grinding cereal grains, other seeds or roots . It is the main ingredient of bread, which is a staple food for many cultures, making the availability of adequate supplies of flour a major economic and political issue at various times throughout history...

, this bread-making process all but disappeared (women were still recorded to be making seedcakes in Central Australia
Central Australia
Central Australia/Alice Springs Region is one of the five regions in the Northern Territory. The term Central Australia is used to describe an area centred on Alice Springs in Australia. It is sometimes referred to as Centralia; likewise the people of the area are sometimes called Centralians...

 in the 1970s). The tradition of cooking bread in hot coals continues today.

Bread-making was a woman's task. It was generally carried out by several women at once, due to its labour-intensive nature. It involved collecting seasonal grain
GRAIN is a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. Our support takes the form of independent research and analysis, networking at local, regional and...

s, legumes, root
In vascular plants, the root is the organ of a plant that typically lies below the surface of the soil. This is not always the case, however, since a root can also be aerial or aerating . Furthermore, a stem normally occurring below ground is not exceptional either...

s or nut
Nut (fruit)
A nut is a hard-shelled fruit of some plants having an indehiscent seed. While a wide variety of dried seeds and fruits are called nuts in English, only a certain number of them are considered by biologists to be true nuts...

s, and preparing these into flour and then dough
Dough is a paste made out of any cereals or leguminous crops by mixing flour with a small amount of water and/or other liquid. This process is a precursor to making a wide variety of foodstuffs, particularly breads and bread-based items , flatbreads, noodles, pastry, and similar items)...

, or directly into a dough.

Collecting the seed

Seeds varied depending on the time of year and the area in Australia that the people lived. In Central Australia, native millet
The millets are a group of small-seeded species of cereal crops or grains, widely grown around the world for food and fodder. They do not form a taxonomic group, but rather a functional or agronomic one. Their essential similarities are that they are small-seeded grasses grown in difficult...

 (Panicum decompositum; Panicum australianse) and spinifex
Triodia (plant genus)
Triodia is a large genus of hummock-forming grass endemic to Australia; they are commonly known as spinifex, although they are not a part of the coastal genus Spinifex. There are currently 64 recognised species...

 were commonly used. Wattleseed
Wattleseed is a term used to describe the edible seeds from around 120 species of Australian Acacia thatwere traditionally used as food by Australian Aborigines and they were eaten either green or dried to make a type of bush bread.Acacia seed flour has recently gained popularity in Australia...

 could also be used in the flour mix.

Women harvested the fully ripe, dry seeds of the plant by beating the grass (or pod-laden trees in the case of wattleseed) with sticks to dislodge the seeds. Some species were eaten at the green stage and, when ground, would produce a juice at the side of the millstone, which was drunk directly.

In the Kimberley region of Western Australia
Kimberley region of Western Australia
The Kimberley is one of the nine regions of Western Australia. It is located in the northern part of Western Australia, bordered on the west by the Indian Ocean, on the north by the Timor Sea, on the south by the Great Sandy and Tanami Deserts, and on the east by the Northern Territory.The region...

, women observed that, after the dry season
Dry season
The dry season is a term commonly used when describing the weather in the tropics. The weather in the tropics is dominated by the tropical rain belt, which oscillates from the northern to the southern tropics over the course of the year...

, many seeds would be gathered around the opening of ant
Ants are social insects of the family Formicidae and, along with the related wasps and bees, belong to the order Hymenoptera. Ants evolved from wasp-like ancestors in the mid-Cretaceous period between 110 and 130 million years ago and diversified after the rise of flowering plants. More than...

s' nests. The ants had effectively collected and husk
Husk in botany is the outer shell or coating of a seed. It often refers to the leafy outer covering of an ear of maize as it grows on the plant. Literally, a husk or hull includes the protective outer covering of a seed, fruit or vegetable...

ed the seed for them, and they were able to collect this seed, making their job a lot easier. After allowing the grain to dry, they could begin to prepare the flour.

Some other seeds

Pigweed (Portulaca oleracea), Prickly wattle (Acacia victoriae
Acacia victoriae
Acacia victoriae commonly known as Gundabluie or Bardi bush is a shrub or tree native to Australia. It grows 2–5 m, sometimes 9 m tall. It has spines 2–12 mm in length.Subspecies:A. victoriae subsp. arida Pedley-Uses:...

), Mulga (Acacia aneura), Dead finish seed (Acacia tetragonophylla), Bush bean (Rhyncharrhena linearis).

Making the flour

After the grain was collected, it needed to be winnowed, which was done using the coolamon
Coolamon (vessel)
A coolamon is an Indigenous Australian carrying vessel.It is a multi-purpose shallow vessel, or dish with curved sides, ranging in length from 30–70 cm, and similar in shape to a canoe....

, the multi-purpose carrying vessel. Sometimes it needed to be winnowed several times.

Once the grain was winnowed, it was ground using a millstone, to create flour. Millstones have been discovered which have proven to be as old as 50,000 years. The flour was then mixed with water to make a dough and placed in hot ashes for baking. The results could be small buns, today referred to as johnny cakes, or a large loaf, known today as damper
Damper (food)
Damper is a traditional Australian soda bread prepared by swagmen, drovers, stockmen and other travelers. It consists of a wheat flour based bread, traditionally baked in the coals of a campfire. Damper is an iconic Australian dish...

. Damper appears to be a mix of this traditional style of bread-making and European-style bread-making.

The dough could also be eaten raw. Cooking was a good way to prepare the bread if the group was about to travel for some time.

Bread-making from other plant products

Bread could also be made from roots and corm
A corm is a short, vertical, swollen underground plant stem that serves as a storage organ used by some plants to survive winter or other adverse conditions such as summer drought and heat ....

s of plants. In the Top End
Top End
The Top End of northern Australia is the second northernmost point on the continent. It covers a rather vaguely-defined area of perhaps 400,000 square kilometres behind the northern coast from the Northern Territory capital of Darwin across to Arnhem Land with the Indian Ocean on the west, the...

 of Australia, people such as the Yolngu
The Yolngu or Yolŋu are an Indigenous Australian people inhabiting north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. Yolngu means “person” in the Yolŋu languages.-Yolŋu law:...

 used the lotus root and wild taro
Taro is a common name for the corms and tubers of several plants in the family Araceae . Of these, Colocasia esculenta is the most widely cultivated, and is the subject of this article. More specifically, this article describes the 'dasheen' form of taro; another variety is called eddoe.Taro is...

. These were ground, then mixed to a paste to make bread.

Water lily
Nymphaeaceae is a family of flowering plants. Members of this family are commonly called water lilies and live in freshwater areas in temperate and tropical climates around the world. The family contains eight genera. There are about 70 species of water lilies around the world. The genus...

 seed bread was also popular in the Top End. The two species of water lily used were Nelumbo nucifera and Nymphaea macrosperma. During the early part of the dry season, water lilies were an important part of the diet, with seed pods eaten raw or ground into paste.

Women had expert knowledge of how to "de-toxify" certain plant foods. The seed
A seed is a small embryonic plant enclosed in a covering called the seed coat, usually with some stored food. It is the product of the ripened ovule of gymnosperm and angiosperm plants which occurs after fertilization and some growth within the mother plant...

s of the cycad
Cycads are seed plants typically characterized by a stout and woody trunk with a crown of large, hard and stiff, evergreen leaves. They usually have pinnate leaves. The individual plants are either all male or all female . Cycads vary in size from having a trunk that is only a few centimeters...

 palm, Cycas media, are highly carcinogenic when raw and require elaborate treatment includuing shelling, crushing, leaching in running water for up to five days, then cooking. After this they are made into small loaves, which can keep for a number of weeks.

In Queensland
Queensland is a state of Australia, occupying the north-eastern section of the mainland continent. It is bordered by the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales to the west, south-west and south respectively. To the east, Queensland is bordered by the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean...

, the people of the Mount Tamborine
Tamborine National Park
Tamborine is a national park in the Gold Coast hinterland of South East Queensland, Australia, 45 km south of Brisbane.It covers 11.60 km² on the plateau of Tamborine Mountain and around its foothills. The plateau is 8 km long, 5 km wide and rises to an altitude of 525 meters...

 area used the Bunya Pine cone (bunya nut), endemic to the area, to make bread in this way.

Burke and Wills

Ill-fated explorers Burke
Robert O'Hara Burke
Robert O'Hara Burke was an Irish soldier and police officer, who achieved fame as an Australian explorer. He was the leader of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, which was the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north, finding a route across the continent from the settled...

 and Wills
William John Wills
William John Wills was an English surveyor who also trained for a while as a surgeon. He achieved fame as the second-in-command of the ill-fated Burke and Wills expedition, which was the first expedition to cross Australia from south to north, finding a route across the continent from the settled...

 survived on bush bread for some time after they ran out of rations due to the death of their camels. The Cooper Creek
Cooper Creek
Cooper Creek is one of the most famous and yet least visited rivers in Australia. It is sometimes known as the Barcoo River from one of its tributaries and is one of three major Queensland river systems that flow into the Lake Eyre Basin...

 Aborigines, the Yandruwandha people, gave them fish, beans called 'padlu' and bread made from the ground sporocarps of the ngardu (nardoo) plant (Marsilea drummondii
Marsilea is a genus of approximately 65 species of aquatic ferns of the family Marsileaceae.These small plants are of unusual appearance and do not resemble common ferns...


There is some belief that the ngardu was a cause of their deaths. Wills's last journal entry includes the following:
..starvation on nardoo is by no means very unpleasant, but for the weakness one feels, and the utter inability to move oneself, for as far as appetite is concerned, it gives me the greatest satisfaction. Certainly, fat and sugar would be more to one's taste, in fact, those seem to me to be the great stand by for one in this extraordinary continent; not that I mean to depreciate the farinacious food, but the want of sugar and fat in all substances obtainable here is so great that they become almost valueless to us as articles of food, without the addition of something else..

It is possible that the explorers, in preparing the bread themselves, were not preparing it in the traditional way of the Aboriginal people, which may have involved soaking seeds prior to grinding in order to remove Thiaminase
Thiaminase is an enzyme that metabolizes or breaks down thiamine into two molecular parts.The old name was "Aneurinase".There are two types: -Sources:Source include:* Bracken , Nardoo and other plants.* Some fish including carp and goldfish....

 which depletes the body of vitamin B1. It is therefore likely that the deaths of Burke and Wills resulted in part from beri-beri.