Anzac biscuits, a sweet biscuit made from rolled oats and golden syrup, are unique. More than a hundred years after the landing at Gallipoli, and the creation of a legend, they still fill the family’s biscuit tins and not just on April 25. They still hold a special significance as a distinct national food in both Australia and New Zealand.
Allison Reynolds has set out to answer a number of questions such as why are they so special, when did they first appear and from where, why the many name changes, what were/are the ingredients, should they be crispy or chewy and who put the coconut and/or the golden syrup in the biscuits and why or when. Coconut was available in South Australia from the 1840s and during 1909 South Australia imported 100,000 pounds of it.
A different kind of question to which she sought an answer was if they were appreciated by the soldiers and why. The purpose of the book really is to give an authoritative and reliable history of this iconic national food. After reading and digesting numerous cooking books, both published and homemade, newspapers, magazines and diaries, she has been able to answer almost all of them, even some of the very hard ones. For those questions for which she was unable to provide a conclusive or definite answer, she has offered her well-reasoned and expert opinion.
Naturally, British migrants who settled in Australia and New Zealand brought their books and their cooking and baking skills with them, but she is adamant that the recipe did not come from Scotland. Needless to say that some of the ingredients used were similar but the method of making the finished product was very different, including the oven temperature and the length of cooking/baking and the size of the biscuit. What all recipes had in common was the absence of eggs and preservatives.
During her research Reynolds located family hand-written recipe books to find historical evidence of Anzac biscuits’ recipes and discovered some little facts not generally known. Before we had the Anzac biscuit there was the Oatcake, British flapjack, Parkin, Ginger biscuit, Scottish parlies and many others. Same ingredients as the Anzac biscuit, just another name. The research has also provided information about the type of food available at a certain time as well as the way in which it was prepared, cooked and served.
Reynolds discovered some recipes dating back to 1909 and 1912. As early as 1916 there were Gallipoli Tea Cakes in Victoria and Anzac Ginger biscuits in Perth. In 1917 the War Chest Cookery Book contained a recipe for Anzac biscuits but with different ingredients to those in use today. A year later, in August 1918 the Adelaide Mail published a recipe for rolled oats biscuits. Once again all had the same ingredients.
If all this is not already confusing, there were also the hardtack or army biscuits issued to the military forces from around 1870.Unlike bread these biscuits did not go mouldy as they were made from flour, salt and water and baked until they were rock hard. They were eaten at Gallipoli, often with great difficulty. As a result the diggers soon called them Anzac wafers, Anzac tiles, jaw breakers or dog biscuits. When the Anzac Book: written and illustrated in Gallipoli by the men of Anzac in 1916, was published a whole chapter was devoted to the Army biscuit.
When the Barossa Cookery Book was published in 1917 it included a recipe from Barossa Valley watchmaker, Private Victor Offe while in France on how to make Trench Porridge, the main ingredient being Anzac Wafers. They also came in handy for other uses. Messages were often written on them or used as photo frames to post to their loved ones back home. The Australian War Museum has one on display dated 1915.
One of these Anzac Wafers was sold in England in 2014 for £290.
Request for recipes in newspapers appeared as early as 1916 and as recent as July 2014 when a reader from Semaphore wanted a good recipe for Anzac biscuits whereas a few months later a Novar Gardens reader enquired about a traditional recipe for an Anzac biscuit with orange as an ingredient.
After all the gathering of the ‘hard and dry’ facts Reynolds as included two chapters about keeping the Anzac spirit alive. One on what women at home did cook for their sons in the trenches on the other side of the world and another about Sutton Veny to South Australia.
The end result is a very readable and informative history of the Anzac biscuit, eaten, and much enjoyed, by young and old for over a hundred years.