Fervor chef and co-founder Paul Iskov has eaten damper around Western Australia.
He’s broken bread with Indigenous “aunties” in Kalgoorlie who serve a dense, day-old version with coal-roasted kangaroo tail. He’s gotten up early with Broome elder and Nyikina man Neville Poelina to join him in his morning ritual of shaping damper and ensuring there’s fresh bread (and a cup of tea) for mid-morning smoko. And he’s marvelled at the camp-oven dampers cooked by Col Sippe at dinners in Albany and Mukinbudin, a small town in the state’s Wheatbelt. Sippe’s version – half-steamed, half-baked and enriched with buttermilk, butter and cheese – is crunchy without, soft and pillowy within and, to quote Iskov, “one of the most amazing dampers out there.”
In short, our man has first-hand knowledge of damper’s diversity and has incorporated elements of so many of these breads – and not to mention know-how gleaned from time in serious international kitchens such as Noma and DOM – into the version served to guests at his Indigenous pop-up dinners. Cultural significance aside, damper is also an easier (and faster) baking prospect than sourdough and bread made with most traditional baker’s yeasts. Once you’ve got a good set of coals, a damper can come together in as quickly as half an hour including resting time. Still, there are a handful of tips first-time bakers should be aware of.
If possible, damper should be baked as close to consumption as possible. The density of Fervor’s version means it isn’t likely to keep overnight. At Fervor, leftover damper is frozen and turned into croutons or breadcrumbs: resourceful home cooks can do the same.
Since the recipe calls for just three ingredients in addition to water, investing in good flour is worth it. Although Iskov’s go-to flour is Eden Valley – a biodynamic flour grown and milled in Dumbleyung in Western Australia’s south – he likes to incorporate native grains such as wattleseed, spinifex seed and native millet into the dough whenever possible. Once you’ve mastered the basic recipe and technique, feel free to make your damper your own.
Like most breads, the wetter the damper dough, the better the finished bread. (In baking circles, this ratio of liquid to flour is known as hydration and is something bakers spend plenty of time discussing). While Iskov recommends cooking over coals to imbue the damper with its all-important smokiness, workable results are possible by baking damper in a conventional oven for 15 minutes and then finishing it with some form of direct fire: options range from something as specialised as a Searzall blowtorch or holding pieces of damper over the biggest hob on your gas-burning stove.
Although damper pairs seamlessly with quandongs, marron and the rest of Fervor’s Aussie dishes and ingredients, it’s just as comfortable on the home table. Use it as you would any sourdough bread and serve it with everything from butter and jam, to rich, savoury stews.
While Iskov accepts that some Indigenous commentators dislike damper because of its associations with post-settlement “ration food”, he counters that this distinctly Australian foodstuff can also bring people together.
“It’s a special food because it’s so simple to make it can feed a lot of people,” says Iskov. “The act of sharing it around a fire, cooking it, tearing it apart and passing it on to the person next to you is a really nice gesture.”
250g organic self-raising flour
250g organic plain flour
1 tsp salt
400ml cold water
Gently mix flours, salt and water until just combined. The mix should be quite wet and fluffy.
Using extra flour as needed, shape dough into an oval and dust lightly with plain flour.
Place damper directly on coals and cook for 10 minutes. Flip damper and cook other side for 5 minutes.
To check if damper is cooked, tap its bottom. If the loaf sounds hollow, remove from coals and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
Fervor ($40, Margaret River Press) is out now and available at book stores and online.