Our daily bread

Our daily bread

Photo © James Horan for Sydney Living Museums

One of my greatest challenges in presenting our culinary past to museums audiences is working out what form foods took – what they looked like, their colour, shape and texture – when we only have written accounts to go by, and many of those offering only scanty detail.

Using your loaf

Sometimes we can be assisted by artworks, such as this one by S.T Gill from the 1850s showing a bread loaf on the table, which provide us with more visual representation, other times we are left to make educated guesses, piecing together details gleaned from various sources. Following The Curator’s recent focus on bread ovens and baking processes, I thought I’d take a step back and have a closer look at bread itself in the early days of the colony. How might they compare to today’s loaves? What rising agents were used – if any? Were loaves free-formed or moulded in a tin?

The kitchen in Monsieur Noufflard's house Sydney 1857 by Samuel Thomas Gill

The kitchen in Monsieur Noufflard’s house, Sydney, 1857, by Samuel Thomas Gill. Private collection, published in Monsieur Noufflard’s house: watercolours by S.T. Gill. 1857, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 1983

The staff of life

The First Fleet colonists were each allocated a quantity of flour as part of their weekly ration – initially 12 pounds (about 5.5 kilograms) but when supplies ran short, the ration was reduced by a third (and even half, during the ‘famine’ of 1790). Even at 1/3 the standard issue, the daily amount would be around 500g flour per day, enough to make a standard 600g loaf of bread, although some might be kept for general cooking purposes. The flour that came from England with the First Fleet was considered to be good quality. We can assume it was not pure white, first or finest grade flour, and had a percentage of meal in it – equivalent perhaps to wholemeal bread today.  Market lists in later years denote three grades – first (white), second or household grade (wholemeal) and rations grade, a heavier and darker, though more nutritious and sustaining, grade sometimes with a percentage of bran added back into it after milling. Colonists could make their own either ‘hearth’ or damper-style bread, either in hot ashes or in a Dutch oven, or take their flour to the public bake-house. Captain Watkin Tench explained how the system worked:

For the public conveniency a baker is established here in a good bake-house, who exchanges with every person bread for flour, on stipulated terms. Tench, Parramatta, November 1790. 

Cottage loaf

‘Cottage Loaf’ in Mrs Isabella Beeton, Beeton’s book of household management, S.O. Beeton, London, 1861, p 839.

Hearth breads

Damper is now quintessentially and iconically Australian, and synonymous with early settler life. There has been great debate about its origins, and whether making bread in the ashes of a camp fire was a technique adopted from the Aboriginal peoples, who made their own forms of ‘cakes’ in a similar manner. Bread making is such an ancient art however, that this form of bread baking is not unique to colonial or pre-colonial Australia, and other cultures have similar versions of hearth breads, including the American ‘Johnny’ cake, with its roots in the older ‘journey’ or journey-man’s cakes.

The earliest detailed description of damper making that I have come across is in The Hobart Town Courier (thank you Trove), from 1829, which seems very late in the game for such innovation to be newsworthy. Perhaps it was published for the benefit of new settlers:

To make a damper in the bush you must take the lid of your apparel box or the bottom of the largest iron pot you have, and mix upon it as much flour, water, & salt, as it will hold, with a little old leven, or the remains of the last batch, and knead with all the elbow grease you can command into a good manageable lump of dough, When it has stood an hour or two (if your time and hunger will allow you to wait as long) you rake a hole in the ashes of your fire, previously made brisk for that purpose, and clapping your batch down upon the hot hearth, cover it gently over with the hot ashes. In the course of an hour your damper will be baked and fit for the meal of an emperor, that is if that emperor has had the good fortune to have visited the further side of the Shan-non in Van Diemen’s land.

Rise and shine

What I find most interesting about this bread-making ‘recipe’ is the use of ‘old leven’ or leaven, taken from the last batch of dough made. This is the same way sourdough bread is made, using a ‘mother starter’ to activate the leavening process in the bread, eliminating the need for yeast. Consistent with its suitability for ‘swaggies’ or ‘bushies’ or those constantly on the move, damper is generally known to be unleavened, made without yeast and by most accounts, without added rising agents. But depending on the water used and the bread-dough’s ‘liveliness’, the bread dough could leaven naturally if left overnight to prove, and produce a lighter loaf. This does indicate a sense of forward planning not usually attributed to transient lifestyles, but is likely to have been a commonly understood technique in bush lore, along with keeping some of today’s dough to start tomorrow’s.

A matter of taste

When Elizabeth Macarthur stopped in at The Cape of Good Hope on her way to New South Wales in 1790, she noted, ‘their bread is not good being fermented with Leaven.’ Whether her distaste came from the natural flavour of the sour-dough or from another form of leaven is unclear, although the English seem to have used yeast to leaven their bread as a general rule in the 18th century – more often than not, brewers yeast, a bi-product of beer brewing. Indeed, millers and brewers and bakers often worked in sync with each other.

Recipe for domestic yeast 1832

Recipe for domestic yeast, 1832 in Manuscript recipe book : 1832-1837 [personal papers], author unknown. Caroline Simpson Library and Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums CSL&RC MSS 2011/1

Yeast could also be made domestically, as this ‘receipt’ published in the Bath and Cheltenham Gazette in October 1832 and carefully recorded in a household manuscript shows:

Boil one lb [pound] of good flour, a quarter of a pound of brown sugar and a little salt in two gallons of water for one hour – when milk warm bottle it and cork it close. It will be fit for use in 24 hours – one pint of the yeast will make 18 lbs of Bread.

18 pounds, approximately 8 kilograms, of bread sounds like rather a lot, but depending on how many people a household may be supporting, this volume may be typical of a week’s bread making needs. You may recall from a past post on this blog, Insider stories, colonial winemaker George Wyndham’s wife Margaret Wyndham noting in her household manual that ’17 pounds of first flour makes 23 pounds of bread’ (note the reference to ‘first’ quality flour).

Let them eat cake

Many householders settled for ‘soda’ bread, using bi-carbonate of soda as the rising agent, and added buttermilk for extra flavour and a little more ‘active’ culture. Baking soda was available at least from the 1820s, so some domestic bread or damper makers might have used it for hearth breads instead of leaven. Not unlike a scone mixture, soda breads have a more cake-like texture than naturally leavened or yeast breads. Tottie Thorburn, who lived in rural Illawarra in the late 1880s and 90s, and later, at Meroogal in Nowra, noted in her diaryin 1890, that she made yeast bread ‘for the first time in four or five years’, indicating that hers was a soda-bread family [3]. Baking tins appear in Sydney newspaper advertisements from 1835, so prior to that we can assume that bread loaves were free-form or more ‘rustic’ round or oval styles; T.S Gill’s image of Monsieur Noufflard’s kitchen (see above) suggests that free-formed loaves were still common in the 1850s [4].

Tin bread

‘Tin Bread’ in Mrs Isabella Beeton, Beeton’s book of household management, S.O. Beeton, London, 1861, p 843.


[1] ‘Recollections Of a short excursion to Lake Echo in March 1823’, Hobart Town Courier (1827-1839), Saturday 1 August 1829, Trove, p1

[2] ‘Elizabeth Macarthur to her mother Mrs Leach’ (20th April 1790) in The journal and letters of Elizabeth Macarthur, 1789-1798  edited by Joy Hughes. Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales, 1984. p 16.

[3] Tottie Thorburn’s diary. Sydney Living Museums.

[4] ‘Monsieur Noufflard’s house: watercolours by S.T. Gill, 1857’, Historic Houses Trust, 1983