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The history of Anzac biscuits

John Singer Sargent's painting Gassed hangs in the Imperial War Museum in London; the canvas is over two metres high and 6.5 metres long. This impressive painting depicts soldiers blinded by gas being led in lines back to the hospital tents and the dressing stations; the men lie on the ground all about the tents waiting for treatment.

Each year on April 25, Australians and New Zealanders mark Anzac Day when we remember our war dead and the men and women who fought for their country in all wars. Anzac was the name given to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps soldiers who landed on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey early on the morning of 25 April 1915 during the First World War (1914-1918).

Most of us have relatives who fought in this war. As I got deeper into family history research I discovered several young men from my grandparents' generation travelled to the other side of the world to fight for their country. Many did not return. They died far from home, and not always as the result of enemy fire. I have the Bible my grandmother's brother Private Gordon Graham Pearson took with him. It returned. He did not. He died at Lemnos, Greece from dysentery contracted a few days after his 19th birthday.

A few years back I helped my elder son gather up research material for a project on English literature. I seem to have got far more out of it than he did. I became interested in the works of the war poets. Dulce et decorum est by Wilfred Owen stuck with me. It epitomised the sadness and futility of the "great" War. The title is a reference to a quote from Horace which Owen used -

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

The Latin translates "It is sweet and becoming to die for one's country." Owen didn't think so.

The last of our WW1 survivors has passed on and it is tremendous to see that the young people of today have spontaneously taken over their reins and now honour those who fought for New Zealand and Australia.

When those young men went to war in 1914, the wives, mothers and girlfriends left behind were concerned for the nutritional value of the food being supplied to their men. Here was a problem. Any food they sent to the fighting men had to be carried in the ships of the Merchant Navy. Most of these were lucky to maintain a speed of ten knots (18.5 kilometers per hour). Most had no refrigerated facilities, so any food sent had to be able to remain edible after periods in excess of two months. A body of women came up with the answer - a biscuit with all the nutritional value possible. The basis was a Scottish recipe using rolled oats. These oats were used extensively in Scotland, especially for a heavy porridge that helped counteract the extremely cold climate.

Other ingredients were sugar, plain flour, coconut, butter, golden syrup or treacle, bi-carbonate of soda and boiling water. All these items did not readily spoil. At first the biscuits were called Soldiers’ Biscuits, but after the landing on Gallipoli, they were renamed Anzac Biscuits.

A point of interest is the lack of eggs to bind the Anzac biscuit mixture together. Because of the war, many of the poultry farmers had joined the services, thus, eggs were scarce. The binding agent for the biscuits was golden syrup or treacle.

As the war drew on, many groups like country women's associations, church groups, schools and other women’s organisations devoted a great deal of time to the making of Anzac biscuits. To ensure that the biscuits remained crisp, they were packed in used tins, such as Billy Tea tins. The tins were airtight, thus no moisture in the air was able to soak into the biscuits and make them soft. Most people would agree there is nothing worse than a soft biscuit.

During World War 2, with refrigeration in so many Merchant Navy Ships, the biscuits were not made to any great extent. It was now possible to send a greater variety of food, like fruit cake.

ANZAC biscuits are still made today. They can also be purchased from supermarkets and specialty biscuit shops. Around ANZAC Day, these biscuits are also often used by veterans’ organisations to raise funds for the care and welfare of aged war veterans.

This recipe is from Australia's Country Women's Association Cookbook - the 1914 version

Anzac Biscuits 1

2 cups rolled oats
125g butter
2 tbsp hot water in which you put 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
3/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
1 cup plain flour

Mix dry ingredients. Melt butter and syrup and add soda and water.
Pour into dry ingredients. Roll into walnut sized balls. Cook in a slow oven, 150-160 C, for about 20 minutes.

And this next one is from Aunt Daisy's Cookbook. For many years Aunt Daisy ruled New Zealand's radio waves, dispensing recipes, household hints and wisdom at a breakneck rate. I can recall listening to her when I was growing up.

Anzac Biscuits 2

Melt 1/4lb butter with 1 tablespoon golden syrup. Add 1 teaspoon baking soda dissolved in 2 tablespoons boiling water. Then add following:

1 cup sugar
1 cup coconut
1 cup wheatmeal
1 cup chopped walnuts
3/4 cup flour

Take small teaspoonfuls and roll into small balls then place on cold oven sheet, leaving space between each. Cook 1/2 hour in slow oven. [Note: 150C]

This third recipe was one I found in my mother's own handwritten recipe book.

Anzac Biscuits 3

1 cup flour
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup coconut
3/4 cup sugar
120g butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons boiling water
1 tablespoon golden syrup

Mix dry ingredients. Melt together butter and golden syrup. Pour boiling water over soda and add to butter. Make a well in the dry ingredients and stir in the liquid. Form the mix into mounds on a soup spoon and slide onto baking paper on a baking sheet. Cook till golden - about 15 minutes at 170C.

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