Things to bake after a firestorm: Date and walnut rolls

Margaret Fulton's Date and walnut rolls

Last Thursday morning, I posted  a recipe for a snowpea, almond mint and blood orange salad and I wrote that it was the perfect thing to eat when recovering from the heat of a potentially catastrophic fire day, like the day we experienced on the previous Thursday. When I posted this in the morning it seemed like a perfectly, average fire risk day: it wasn’t that hot – well, not as hot as the previous Thursday but, by the afternoon, the winds were fierce, a plume of smoke and ash had descended over Sydney and fires were burning to north, west and south of the city. When I picked up my son from school, he said: ‘this is just like the apocalypse, all it needs is some torn up road and a burning car and it would be the apocalypse’. All I could think, if this what climate change means,  catastrophic fires in October: this is bullshit. I didn’t mention this to my son, not because as some commentators seem to think that it’s somehow rude, disrespectful or, God forbid, politicising the fires in the already toxic climate debate in this country, but because I was so freaking depressed that the world I was bequeathing to my son was a place where you have catastrophic fire storms in October.

Australians are used to fires – the whole bushfire thing – fighting fires, surviving fires, losing your house and everything you own in fires, is buried deep in our national psyche. When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was Colin Thiele’s February Dragon, a story about a late summer fire. When I was growing up, during February and early March at the end of a long hot Australian summer was when you had the big fires. I was a voracious reader when I was a kid but most of the books I consumed were English and American, so I lived in this strange country of the imagination that was shaped by writers half a world away. I loved February Dragon because it was about  us: Australians and bushfires. I romanticised the whole bushfire narrative and imagined how I would behave (heroically, of course) if I was caught in a fire and lost everything I owned.

Now, to an extent, we are going to have to live with the effects of climate change on our hot, dry country. After what was our warmest winter, ever followed by one of our warmest Octobers ever, the ‘February dragon’ has become the ‘October dragon’. It’s hard to romanticise these fires simply as a national ‘character building’ exercise because what Australia stands to lose as a result of our warming planet is just too frightening.

By Thursday afternoon, I was getting worried about some friends in the Blue Mountains and Southern Highlands, so I texted and emailed them just to say ‘I hope you’re okay’.  By Friday afternoon, I was more worried about my mountain friends because, according to news reports, there was a fire very near their house. Then on Friday evening, my sister rang and said she’d just seen our friends on the ABC News and they’d lost their house. I turned on the telly to ABC 24 and although I didn’t see my friends being interviewed, I did see their house again and again, footage of the burnt out shell and even of it burning. I could see through the flames into their incredibly familiar lounge and kitchen burning in what seemed like slow motion.

The ABC News was a psychotic loop of repeated images of flames, burnt out streets and homes. The news reporters kept repeating how stoic the mountain folk were in the face of losing all their possessions – most of them said the same thing – you know the risks when you move to the mountains, as long as your family’s safe, in the end it’s all just ‘stuff’. I’ve lived in the mountains: it’s true, you know the risks, you think about fire a lot, particularly if you live as I did, and my friends do(did) over looking bush land. You think about how you would feel if you lost your house and what you would save but deep down you don’t really believe it is going to happen to you. The thing about these fires is most people didn’t get a chance to save anything. Experienced firefighters who saw these fires at their height said these weren’t ordinary bushfires: they were firestorms, and everyone’s carefully worked out fire plans just went out the window.

These date and walnut rolls might seem like an odd thing to make in the aftermath of catastrophic fires but, you see, one of the friends who lost her house is an old, old friend. We go way back, to the same country town, kind of way back. Our mums were in CWA together, women who kept the good china in a glass cabinet and knew how to put on a slap-up feast for a morning or afternoon tea. These date and walnut rolls, slathered with lashings of butter, are a particularly old-fashioned tea time treat. The recipe is from Margaret Fulton, the absolute doyenne of Australian food writing,  who lived for much of her early years in the same small town as me and my friend. When I watching the news footage of my friends house burning, it was interspersed with shots of the evacuation centres set up with large urns for hot water and cups of tea and huge platters of sandwiches cut and quartered into triangles. This is the rural Australia my friend and I came from – a place where a nicely made sandwich and a decent cup of tea can almost set the world right.

To the memory of my friends Katrina and Susan’s gorgeous home in the Blue Mountains with its countless memories of generosity, incredible food, side-splitting laughter, parlor and board games and, of course, endless pots of tea. Here’s a nice cup of tea, a slice of buttered date loaf and to hope and life and a future creating ever more memories of friendship and love.

Margaret Fulton's Date and walnut rolls

If you want to contribute to fire relief there are quite a few options. The Salvos are accepting clothing and household items but in reality, these are hard to sort through and impersonal as it seems, cash is often best. People need to replace their underwear! There are more charities out there but I always tend donate to the Red Cross (there’s a logo you can trust) and WIRES, which does brilliant work in ordinary times, has set up a bushfire appeal to save wildlife injured in the fires.

Date and walnut rolls with nut roll tin

Note: You can, of course, bake these date and nut rolls in loaf tins but if you are lucky enough to have inherited your grandmother’s special nut roll baking tins (as I have), there is nothing like a round, nut and date loaf for that special ‘wow’ factor.

Date and walnut rolls

Adapted from Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopedia of Food and Cookery.

  • 1 cup of chopped dates
  • ¾ cup of firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon of bicarb soda
  • 60 grams (2 ounces) butter
  • 1 teaspoon of grated citrus zest – lemon or orange (I used blood orange zest which was really good)
  • 1 cup of boiling water
  • 2 cups of self-raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon of mixed spice
  • 1 egg beaten
  • ½ cup of chopped walnuts
  1. Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F, or 160°C fan forced. Butter two 21 x 11cm (8½ x 4½ inches) loaf tins or, if you are using the nut roll tins, butter the insides and lids and butter four squares of greaseproof paper for the lids. Place greaseproof paper over one end of each of the round tins, jam the lids on and stand tins on covered ends.
  2. Place dates, brown sugar, bicarb soda, chopped butter and zest in a large mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over this and stir through until butter has melted and allow to cool.
  3. Sift flour and mixed spice then add to cooled date mix alternatively with egg and chopped walnuts, until well mixed.
  4. Pour mix into loaf tins or spoon mix into the two round tins until about half full.  Cover the top ends with the remaining greaseproof paper on ends and jam the second lid on.
  5. Place round tins on side on a tray in the middle rack of the oven and back for 45 minutes.
  6. Take off lids and cool in tins for about 10 minutes, remove lids and turn cakes out onto a rack to cool completely.
  7. Slice and serve with lashings of good organic butter and your best mix matched bone china.
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