With the arrival of Europeans and pre-milled white flour, this bread-making process all but disappeared (women were still recorded to be making seedcakes in Central Australia in the 1970s). The tradition of cooking bread in hot coals continues today.
Bread-making was a woman's task. It was generally carried out by several women at once, due to its labour-intensive nature. It involved collecting seasonal grains, legumes, roots or nuts, and preparing these into flour and then dough, or directly into a dough.
Women harvested the fully ripe, dry seeds of the plant by beating the grass (or pod-laden trees with sticks in the case of wattleseed) to dislodge the seeds. Some species were eaten at the green stage and, when ground, would produce a juice at the side of the millstone, which was drunk directly.
In the Kimberley region of Western Australia, women observed that, after the dry season, many seeds would be gathered around the opening of ants' nests. The ants had effectively collected and husked the seed for them, and they were able to collect this seed, making their job a lot easier. After allowing the grain to dry, they could begin to prepare the flour.
Once the grain was winnowed, it was ground using a millstone, to create flour. Millstones have been discovered which have proven to be as old as 50,000 years. The flour was then mixed with water to make a dough and placed in hot ashes for baking. The results could be small buns, today referred to as johnny cakes, or a large loaf, known today as damper. Damper appears to be a mix of this traditional style of bread-making and European-style bread-making.
The dough could also be eaten raw. Cooking was a good way to prepare the bread if the group was about to travel for some time.
Water lily seed bread was also popular in the Top End. The two species of water lily used were Nelumbo nucifera and Nymphaea macrosperma. During the early part of the dry season, water lilies were an important part of the diet, with seed pods eaten raw or ground into paste.
Women had expert knowledge of how to "de-toxify" certain plant foods. The seeds of the cycad palm, Cycas media, are highly carcinogenic when raw and require elaborate treatment includuing shelling, crushing, leaching in running water for up to five days, then cooking. After this they are made into small loaves, which can keep for a number of weeks.
Ill-fated explorers, Burke and Wills, survived on bush bread for some time after they ran out of rations due to the death of their camels. The Cooper Creek Aborigines, the Yandruwandha people, gave them fish, beans called 'padlu' and bread made from the ground seeds of the ngardu (nardoo) plant (Marsilea drummondii).
There is some belief that the ngardu was a cause of their deaths. Wills's last journal entry includes the following:
It is probable that the explorers, in preparing the bread themselves, were not preparing it in the traditional way of the Aboriginal people, which may have involved soaking seeds prior to grinding in order to remove thiaminase which depletes the body of vitamin B1. It is therefore likely that the deaths of Burke and Wills resulted in part from beri-beri.