The advent of baking

Although it’s widely acknowledged and researched that Indigenous Australians are the most ancient continuous civilisation on Earth, less research has delved into Indigenous Australians being the world’s oldest bakers. The image of Indigenous Australians as being simple hunter–gatherers has permeated for generations. But this is not accurate. Baking Business delves into the true nature of Indigenous Australians as the world’s first bakers and the reality of what Indigenous Australians go through in the baking space in the present day.

Bruce Pascoe is a Yuin, Bunarong, and Tasmanian man with strong ties to the land and a deep and abiding interest in preserving Indigenous culture. His farm at Mallacoota is dedicated to the cultivation and harvesting of native grains and other plants, as well as the production of flours made using these native grains.

In his much acclaimed 2014 book Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?, Bruce addresses the idea that Indigenous Australians were not the simple hunter–gatherers that they are always portrayed as, but rather had sophisticated cultivation and storing methods

This is evident from grinding stones and dishes, as well as various residues and stores found at important archaeological and paleontological sites around the country.

“We knew that Aboriginal people were baking, because of the number of grinding dishes around,” Bruce says.

“We found [a grinding stone] at Cuddie Springs that was around about 38,000 years old. They tested the residues of starch on that stone and found it was 38,000 years old.”

This alone would have pointed towards Indigenous Australians as being the world’s first bakers, but more recently than the discovery at Cuddie Springs, another discovery pushed the date of the advent of baking even further back.

“Two years ago, a much older stone was analysed at Madjedbebe, and it was found to have been used to grind grain into flour 65,000 years ago, so that’s a very early time in world history,” Bruce says.

People in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent, Bruce says, were only doing the same thing somewhere between 16,000 and 22,000 years ago, so the classification of Indigenous Australians as ‘hunter–gatherers’ does not paint an accurate picture of the extent of their agricultural practices and sophistication.

Wailwan grindstone fragment, c 30,000 years old
Sandstone, Made by Ancestor
Australian Museum Collection
Image: Abram Powell © Australian Museum

Through the analysis of preserved breads and residues, Bruce and others in the space have been able to determine what grains and flours were used by early Indigenous Australians in baking.

“It’s really amazing to look at the variety. I’ve been analysing breads in various museums—now, these are breads that were taken at the time of contact and collected in the museums—and they’ve been preserved. Through analysis, we’re able to say what grains were used for them,” Bruce says.

“And some of them are unusual, like waterlily seed. Many of them are kangaroo grass and spear grass. Some of them are microlaena stipoides.

“But there were also [loaves] made from Nadu Seed. So, there was a huge variety of plants, not just grasses, used to extract flour. One of the flours was taken from the Cumbungi plant, or the bulrush, and it makes a very beautiful bread as well.”

The once thriving crops that grew in Australia prior to colonisation were decimated by the introduction of the Western model of farming, in particular cattle farming, and the once verdant fields of native grasses that used to grow no longer exist.

However, through his work with Black Duck Foods and his farm, which is 100 per cent Aboriginal run and owned, Bruce is trying to resurrect and preserve some of the plants and practices that were used by Australia’s First Nations people prior to colonisation.

“We still occasionally use grinding stones and hand harvest in the Coolamons, just to keep the tradition alive. The Old People were using really high-quality stone grinding dishes to make the flour, but the harvest of the grain was done using a kind of stone sickle with a possum-skin handle,” he says.

“[Using this method], the grain was cut off about a quarter of the way up the stem and stacked into stooks in other locations. The seed was beaten into a Coolamon and then carried back to where the grinding stone was.”

The method of harvest and processing of grains, as well as the equipment used, varied across the nation depending on the district and the grasses being harvested.

And there is copious evidence of this taking place pre-colonisation. This can all be found, Bruce writes in Dark Emu, in the diaries of the early Western explorers of Australia, who write detailed accounts of grain stores, packed piles of hay, and large wells.

Recently, there has been a push in the industry to return to the use of native grains and other native ingredients. And although Bruce is bolstered by the recent enthusiasm that has emerged for the use of native grains and other native ingredients across the culinary space, he is also worried about the way that it’s going.

“I see it as another form of colonialism. I see us being dispossessed of our grains once again. Of all the money made from Aboriginal foods, only 1 per cent goes to Aboriginal people,” Bruce says.

“So, I’m as excited as anyone that people are taking an interest in these grains and flours, but [we need to ask] are people contemplating how Aboriginal people benefit from that excitement and all those sales?”

This closing out of Indigenous growers and farmers from the profit share is something that is particularly concerning to Bruce.

“We’ve had to do all the early research. We’ve been doing this for around 10 years, and the excitement has built and built. [In] the last four or five years, [interest in native ingredients] has been much more common, but the percentage of Aboriginal benefit from the grains remained the same: 1 per cent,” he says.

“So, I’m really concerned about it. We don’t want to stop Aboriginal people eating or using these grains, either. We just want to be part of the business.”

The need to see more Indigenous people in the native grains business prompted Bruce to purchase the farm that he currently owns out at Mallacoota in Gippsland, Victoria.

“It’s the only reason why I bought the farm here at Wallagaraugh—so that we, our local Aboriginal community, could be growing those grains and involved in the marketplace,” he says.

The farm also provided the genesis for Black Duck Foods, an Indigenous-run social enterprise that Bruce started to ensure that Indigenous communities would have a voice in how native produce was being used.

“[Black Duck Foods] got started out of desperation. After the book Dark Emu came out, we could see that Aboriginal people were going to be left behind once again, and that everyone in the food industry was going to utilise our food but not consider how Aboriginal people could benefit from their intellectual property in that food,” he says.

“So, the whole idea of the farm was to remind people of our intellectual property. And that’s the thing that a lot of people never consider: how our people can benefit from our intellectual property in these foods.”

This is something Black Duck Foods has been pushing for since its inception, and now, it is currently making inroads into selling flour made from native grains on the market. All of the profits from the sales of the flours go back to the Indigenous farmers who gather the grains.

“Here at the farm, we’re concentrating on kangaroo grass, spear grass, and microlaena,” Bruce says.

“We’ve sold microlaena flour before, which we call mandadyan nalluk or dancing grass. We’re currently selling spear grass and kangaroo grass, and we’re in the process of producing combined grass flours.

“We also incorporate wattleseed into our flours on occasion, depending on the flavour we want, and we source the wattleseed from our own property.”

And the results, Bruce says, are outstanding.

“Our grinds have about 27 per cent protein compared to about 11 per cent for wheat, so that’s a massive difference. We’re also relatively gluten-free—not completely gluten free, but there are very low levels of gluten in our flours,” he says.

“And our flavours, I believe, are superior to wheat. If you cook with our flours in your oven, the aroma is incredible, and that follows through into the bread itself.”

Bruce Pascoe, author and advocate

Looking ahead to the future of baking and the participation of Indigenous Australians in the industry that they were the first purveyors of, Bruce hopes to see greater acknowledgement of and assistance provided to the First Nations peoples of this country.

“It’s not a matter of what happened then, but what happens now,” Bruce says.

“I just think that Australia has to work together to utilise perennial grain, and perennial plants in general, in order to protect the Earth from our worst efforts in industrial agriculture.”

As a country, Bruce says, we need to work together, but real change won’t come until there is institutional involvement in making sure that Indigenous contributions are recognised and compensated.

“I think the best way forward is for the government to assist us. Not so much with money, although that would be very handy, but in making sure that Aboriginal producers are included and favoured, and that our intellectual property is respected and protected,” Bruce says.

“And that’s what we’re doing on the farm. We’re growing the food, we’re converting it into flour, and we’re selling that flour to the market, but we’re doing so with really, really poor resources.”

But, Bruce says, all of this good work is being done on minimal resources, and things won’t really be able to improve until Indigenous Australians receive proper credit and compensation for their work and their intellectual property in the growing and harvesting of native grains.

“All our money goes in wages for Aboriginal people. We’ve done all this research on our own, with very little help from either the government or the community, or even the wider Australian community,” he says.

“And we feel like we’re being bypassed by the industry and by the government.”

But there are steps that Australian bakers and pastrycooks can take to alleviate the situation without the input of the government.

“Source your food from Aboriginal people where you can, and if you’re a baker, try to employ Aboriginal people. We can be bakers and pastrycooks just like anyone else. And that is a way that Australia can make a real difference about our understanding of our history and understanding of our continents and the foods it produces, but also the understanding of the Aboriginal community,” Bruce says.

“And it’s going to be a win–win. Because non-Aboriginal people will benefit; in using these grains, our rivers and our land will be healthier, but also, we’ll be eating better.

“We’ll be getting more protein with less volume, which the Western world really needs to do. And we’ll be eating more flavourful bread.”

The best path forward for everyone, Bruce says, is to build together from the history that we know about the advent of baking in this country.

He says, “We have to stick together as a country and make sure that we understand our history and that the Indigenous population needs to benefit from these grains.”

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