Australians’ love of tea is well known, but its place in this country’s history reaches far beyond white settlement, though in a rather different form. The indigenous peoples of Australia are thought to have brewed their own infusions from plants such as tea tree, paperbark and sweet sarsaparilla. In fact, this last plant, which is native to the eastern seaboard of Australia, was subsequently adopted by the first convicts, in absence of the traditional tea leaves of their homeland.
It has long been thought that tea was part of the convict rations and came over with the First Fleet, but, in fact, that didn’t occur officially until 1819. Before that, the only tea brought to Australia was as part of the personal effects of such dignitaries as Governor Arthur Phillip, to be served at Government House.
From that time on, tea grew to become the beverage of choice across all facets of Australian society – from the most genteel of drawing rooms to the humble ‘smoko’ of the shearing shed. Wherever Australians have travelled, their tea has gone with them – and nowhere has it been more appreciated than when they’ve gone to war. In World War I, tea was an essential item in every digger’s ration pack, along with sugar, jam, bully beef and the infamous ‘hardtack’ biscuits.
Apart from its familiarity as a drink that comforts and warms (particularly with a couple of spoons of sugar!), tea was also essential for our troops to render those almost-inedible hardtacks easier and more pleasant to eat. Hardtacks, baked with mostly wholemeal flour and water, were designed to travel well and last almost indefinitely, so were considered the ideal staple for war rations. Trouble was, they were so tooth-threateningly hard that, to make them more palatable, the soldiers often dunked them in their tea to soften them. They’d even grind them down to a powder to make them into a sort of porridge. So durable were these hardtacks, that Australian War Memorial has a collection of them from WWI – some turned into ‘Christmas cards’, made into picture frames, or used as notes, with messages scratched into their hard surface!
Around that time, the far more palatable Anzac biscuits appeared on the scene, and are said to have been developed specifically for their keeping qualities, making them ideal for long-haul transportation by sea. Made with rolled oats, flour, sugar and golden syrup (and, later, desiccated coconut), they were originally (and fittingly) called soldier’s biscuits or Red Cross biscuits, but were renamed Anzac biscuits to commemorate the Gallipoli landing in 1915. Interestingly, this style of biscuit (thought to have originated in Scotland) had been around for nearly a century before this, known variously as ‘surprise’ biscuits and ‘crispies’. In fact, even Anzac biscuits’ role as a welcome and relatively luxurious supplement to the troops’ meagre rations has been questioned, as some theories have it that the women’s groups who made them did so as a fund-raising measure to help the war effort, using the name ‘Anzac’ to help promote their endeavours. Still, there is also evidence that Anzac biscuits made it to the front line in food parcels and were welcomed wholeheartedly.
Whatever their origin (and whether you prefer them chewy or crunchy), Anzac biscuits still hold a special place in Australia’s history and heart. And, as anyone who’s been offered a plate of these delicious golden treats knows, there’s no better accompaniment to them than a freshly brewed cup of tea!
If you’d like to try your hand at making a batch of Anzac biscuits, we have a cracker of a recipe for you.