The Story of the Anzac Biscuit
Anzac Day is a day of remembrance observed in Australia and New Zealand. It falls on the anniversary of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landing at Gallipoli, Turkey. While they day was originally observed to honour the soldiers who died in that conflict, it is now a day in which we commemorate and honour all Australian and New Zealand servicemen and women, past and present, who have served and died in all wars, conflicts and peacekeeping missions.
As Anzac Day approaches, I began to wonder about the origins of the Anzac biscuit. My curiosity has shown me that it’s very easy to make mistakes about the humble Anzac biscuit. The biscuit that many of us know is traditionally made from a simple mixture of flour, oats, golden syrup, desiccated coconut, sugar, butter and bicarb soda. These must not be confused with the staple of soldiers’ and sailors’ rations for centuries – the hardtack biscuit.
The fairly unpalatable hardtack biscuit is a nutritional substitute for bread, but unlike bread, the hardtack biscuit does not go mouldy. And also, dissimilar to bread, the hardtack biscuit (as indicated by its name) is incredibly hard. On Gallipoli, where the supply of fresh food and water was often difficult to maintain, hardtack biscuits became infamous. They have become so closely identified with the Anzac experience that they are sometimes known as Anzac tiles or Anzac wafer biscuits – hence the confusion with the sweet, golden Anzac biscuit. Despite the name, there is actually nothing wafer-like about the hardtack biscuit. Soldiers often devised ingenious methods to make them easier to eat, such as grating them and adding water to create a form of porridge. I have also read that they would soak the biscuits in water, add jam and then bake them over a fire to resemble jam tarts – I can assure you they were not at all like they got at home, but I suppose it was better than nothing.
The Australian War Memorial in Canberra actually holds some hardtack biscuits in its collection. The texture and hardness of the biscuit enabled soldiers to write messages on them and send them the long distance home to loved ones.
The origin of the Anzac biscuit, on the other hand, is highly contested. Notably, Anzac biscuits omit eggs due to the scarcity of eggs during the war and so that the biscuit did not spoil when sent long distances. But do not be confused – these are not the same rations that were given to soldiers in Gallipoli.
From the 1920s, Australian cookbooks nearly always included recipes for Anzac biscuits. It is still unknown how this recipe became identified with Anzac or in fact WW1. It is possible that they became a suitable inclusion in packages of small luxuries and comforts sent from families overseas to soldiers, given their reasonable shelf-life. It has also been suggested that rather than being sent to the front line for soldiers to eat, Anzac biscuits were commonly eaten at galas, fetes and other public events such as parades, where they were sold to raise money to support the war effort. Not only are these biscuits named in honour of a group of soldiers that helped form the national spirit of two countries, they’ve also become an indelible part of early life for many Australian and New Zealand bakers.
With the Anzac biscuit, we know it’s not the recipe source that’s important, but the spirit and sacrifice of the soldiers who inspired the name.
Lest we forget.
For a fail-safe Anzac biscuit recipe – click here.
Written by Michaela Ward
All photos by Michael Salmon Snr