Simple bush cooking at its best

By: John Mack, Photography by: John Mack

John Mack eschews kitchen novelties to prepare this super simple damper and fish recipe.

Simple bush cooking at its best
You don’t need to unpack the camp oven or even dirty the mixing bowl because making a really good damper out bush can be very simple

You don’t need to unpack the camp oven or even dirty the mixing bowl because making a really good damper out bush can be a very simple and uncomplicated process. A wonderful old Aboriginal lady showed me this and a few other tricks when I was prospecting many years ago.

You will need your favourite ingredients, a metre square of heavy duty plastic sheet – this is reusable so find a good bit. Build a fire, preferably in a sandy area; you only need this big enough to really heat the sand underneath it and you are ready to go.

First scrape out a hollow in the sand and line it with your plastic sheet – that’s the mixing bowl sorted. Add your ingredients and mix thoroughly, then shape the damper as usual. Dust liberally with flour, top and bottom. It can be left to rise while the fire gets ready.

Scrape your fire a little to the side of its original position, take a stick and excavate the hot sand that was under the fire. Make it big enough to hide the damper with a good cover of the sand you excavated. Throw a good handful of flour in the bottom of the hole, add the damper and sprinkle another big handful of flour on top before covering it well with a good layer of the very hot sand you had excavated. Forget about using silver foil – it just makes more rubbish to carry home with you.

You can scrape a few coals back over damper site but it is not essential. Leave for 35-40 minutes and then un-earth your cooked damper. Test by ‘tapping’ the damper, it should sound relatively hollow. Next toss the damper in the air and catch it again with the flat of your hands – just a few times.This will knock off any residual sand, dust and flour. I have seen dampers come out as clean a fresh bakery bread. 

Meanwhile, your sheet of plastic, which has probably been lying in the sun, will have lots of dried dough adhering to it. Just ‘scrumple’ it up and rub it through your hands and it will be clean and ready for re-use.

This smart old lady also taught me the absolute easiest way to cook fish – with no cooking utensils at all. No gutting or scaling, do not even pierce the skin anywhere; just a whack on the head with a stone or log to provide a merciful end.  

Light a fire with good wood and let it burn down to the stage where you have a good cover of white ash over the coals – not too hot is just hot enough. Just lay the fish on these cooler coals and leave for five to seven minutes a side. This timing will depend on the size of the fish and the condition of your coals. Cook both sides and then remove from the fire. 

Use the tip of a knife blade or sharp twig to lift a corner of the skin behind the head. You can then carefully peel the entire side of skin off the spotlessly clean fillet underneath. Add your condiments of choice and eat. Turn and repeat on the other side. The gut dries up and shrivels into a little firm dry ball – you don’t have to eat it, unless you’re really hungry!

The remains, backbone, head and tail, etc are returned to the fire. So no mess, no washing up or stuff to pack away - and a great meal. Too easy!

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