Bacon and the art of living 9: Ice Cold in Africa (1)

25 December 1891

Dear Children and my beloved Ava,

It is Christmas today.  I hope you received the gifts I’ve sent you and the letters I’ve sent to each one of you.  I write with mixed feelings and great affection.

Cape Town, 1877
Cape Town, 1877

I miss Cape Town and I miss Table Mountain.  It’s summer back home and you have the most beautiful days of the year.  The sun and the festive atmosphere make one forget about the wind and the rain of the winter that sometimes persists up till new years day.  Mostly, the days in December are glorious!   We always do a long hike on boxing day and new years eve.  This year I’m missing it, but next year we will do it again.

I am also excited because I think back today about all that I have learned.  That curing bacon, like living life, is indeed an art that is worth cultivating.  Paying close attention to how it has been done and the traditions that brought us to this place is not intended as a burden.  It increases the pleasure of its consumption!

Christmas in Copenhagen in unlike any I could have imagined.  For starters, it snows!  The home is cozy and friendly!

Juleaften, as they call Christmas eve is the mots important time of the Christmas celebration.  The entire family is together.  Like we do it at home, great food and family are the focal point of the celebration. (Wikipedia.  Culture of Denmark)

Andreas’ dad told me that after the industrial revolution of the 1860’s, Wood-fired ovens and meat grinders became common items in Danish household and a whole new range of foods started to dominate the Christmas supper. (Madadpakjan-sunshine, Traditional Danish Food).

Andreas’ mom prepared the dish in their wood-fired oven, the same way as my mom and you, Ava do.  She selected a pork roast for last night.

Andreas brought home from Jeppe’s factory a joint of pork from the neck with the rind still on.   He cut through the rind to the meat in narrow, long strips.  His mom then rubbed salt and pepper onto the joint and inserted bay leaves into the cuts and roasted it in a hot oven.

The dish was served with boiled and caramelized potatoes (brunede kartofler). These she specially prepared by melting sugar in a frying pan over strong heat, adding a clump of butter, and allowing a portion of small round peeled potatoes to bathe in the mixture until they become richly browned or caramelized. She also served red cabbage (rødkål) with slices of apples. (Wikipedia.  Flaeskesteg)

You would have loved it!

Last night was my chance to tell a few stories.  It was snowing and the discussion around the table turned to the matter of using ice to preserve food and why we have difficulty curing bacon in South Africa.  I think I finally know why Oscar and my attempt to cure bacon did not work.

Edward Smith in his book, Foods, that you are familiar with at this point, listed cold in 1876 as one of the ways to preserve food.

For him refrigeration was mainly the supply of  ice.  Remember that the challenge in the 1800’s was to supply enough food for the old world and a solution was to import food from the new.  Apart from the long voyage from the new world to the old, the fact is that new worlds have warm climates.

Smith says that the “real difficulty is to provide a sufficient quantity of ice at the ports of South America and Australia.” (Smith, Edwards, 1873:  25)  of course, one solution was to load a ship with enough ice to make the journey to the new world, load the meat and transport it back to the old world, still under refrigeration of the ice.

This would be very costly though and Smith stays that “so long as our supplies of meat are from hot climates the expense will be a serious impediment to such a commercial enterprise.”  He suggested that countries with cold climates should either start producing meat for the old world or “by storing large quantities of ice in an economical manner at the ports of other meat-producing countries” (Smith, Edwards, 1873:  25, 26) such as Australia.

He refers to the work of Messrs. Nasmyth of Manchester who “produced machines on the patent of M Mignot, by which 50 lbs. of ice may be made per hour at the cost of condensing and then rerafying air, ”  (Smith, Edwards, 1873:  26)

Andreas knows a lot about the development of refrigeration.  He has been to London and many American cities.

Apparently, ice houses started to be build in the northern hemisphere on the property of wealthy owners from the 1700’s.  These were generally brick-lined pits, build below the ground where ice from surrounding lakes were stored.   (Dellino, C, 1979: 2)  This concept of this natural refrigeration was first described by Frederic Tudor (1783 – 1864). (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

In the 1800’s commercial cold storage facilities were being build at harbors in America and Europe, mainly for the storage of carcasses, fruit and dairy products.  The ice was cut from frozen ponds, lakes or rivers in the winter and stored in the heavily insulated ice house.  (, Harris) (2)  It is no wonder that Smith equated refrigeration to the production of ice!

As Smith observed, this was obviously not an option for the warmer climates of the new world from the Southern Hemisphere.  It never gets cold enough in Cape Town for any ice to form.

From what Andreas told me, it is clear that the seeds for solving the refrigeration problem were planted and in the 1600’s, the Englishman  Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) showed that water under pressure have a reduced boiling temperature. (3)  (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

The mathematics Professor, Sir John Leslie (1766 – 1832) at Edinburgh university in Scotland created ice in his laboratory by absorbing water from a water container with sulfuric acid , thereby producing a vacuum in the closed container.  The vacuum in turn  caused the saturation temperature of the water producing the vapor to be low enough to form ice.

Dr William Cullen at Glasgow University observed in 1755 showing that an isolated water container dropped in temperature during evaporation.  In 1871 Thomas Masters in England demonstrated an ice cream maker where a temperature of close to freezing point can be obtained if a brine mix of salt and ice is used. (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

The American Charles E. Monroe of Cambridge, Massachusetts, demonstrated a food cooler that effected cooling through the evaporation of water through the porous lining of the refrigerator.  (2) (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

M. Howell observed in 1755 that air leaving a pressurized air line cooled when it escaped.  A patent, based on this observation, was granted to Dr. John Gorrie (1803 – 1855) for the first machine to work successfully on the air refrigeration cycle.  (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

In 1824 Ferdinand P E Carre showed that ammonia could reach much lower temperatures than water when boiled at the same pressure.  (4) (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

Refrigeration was “in the air” in the 1800’s.  It was just a matter of time before this was being done successfully in our homes, at harbours, meat markets and on ships.

The Groote Kerk, 1841.  Center of religious life for David Graaff.  Also the church where Jacobus Combrinck was buried from in 1891.
The Groote Kerk, 1841. Center of religious life for David Graaff. Also the church where Jacobus Combrinck was buried from in 1891.

It is doubtful that David Graaff kept abreast of all the particular developments in refrigeration that Andreas is telling me about.   The practically minded man that I know, and without having talked to him about this, my guess is that he paid close attention to the development of freezing technology generally.  In particular, the race to apply it to ships in order to transport frozen meat successfully from Australia to England and the creation of refrigerated railway car’s.  This affected him directly, after all, and I am sure he noticed the commercial opportunity immediately.

He no doubt took careful notice of the development in England where the railways were using refrigerated cars for transporting perishable goods.  Cold storage works were springing up in docklands and markets from Auckland and Buenos Aries, London, Antwerp and Chicago. (Brooke Simons, P, 2000:  22)

One year after he was appointed manager of Combrinck & Co, he noticed the docking of the Dunedan.  This was the first successful shipment of meat between Australia and England.  David was consumed by the quest to make Cape Town a world class city generally and by making Combrinck & Co a world leader in the supply of meat.  (Brown, R.)  It is only to be expected that David must have identified the creation of large storage works in Cape Town and across Southern Africa and linking these by the equipping of railway cars with refrigeration as a priority and something that he could be instrumental in.  He had the background and the means to effect this.

I would expect that one of the things that was on his mind as the Dunedan docked was the question:  why is the beef not being transported from South Africa?  A much closer source than Australia and why are we not setting up a network to support similar distribution across Africa?

Where our current quest is discovering the art of preserving pork through the curing process and creating of the worlds best bacon, David was looking at solving the problem of preserving meat for later use by the application of refrigeration.

He set out in the 1880’s on a world journey to investigate refrigeration and to familiarise himself with every aspect of the meat trade in England and in the USA.  In Chicago he looked at the most modern systems of meat packing.  As soon as he returned to Cape Town, he set out to apply refrigeration to Combrinck & Co.  (Brooke Simons, P, 2000:  22, 23)

Great business leaders often capitalist in areas where they already have a presence.  Combrinck & Co was best positioned to take advantage of refrigerated railway car’s and cold storage works.   A Scotsman, Sir Donald Currie, the owner of the Castle Line of mail ships, servicing the line between South Africa and Great Britain, was best positioned to capitalise on the transport of meat between South Africa and England. (5)  Currie’s first ship with a refrigeration facility was Grantully Castle which set sail from Cape Town on 13 February 1889 with 15 tons of grapes.  The experiment with grapes was a disaster, but David was ready with a supply of a far more durable product to ship under refrigeration.  Meat!  (Brooke Simons, P, 2000:  23)

There is a very specific application of refrigeration to the production of bacon.

Remember that I told you how Oscar and myself tried to cure our own bacon on his farm in the Potchefstroom district and how, when we ate it, the meat was off?  I think that I finally have the answer why this happened.

It was August 1890 when we tried to make our own bacon based on what we were told by an old Danish spice trader in Johannesburg.  August is the last official winter month in Potchefstroom, but its already warm during the days with temperatures reaching as high as 25 deg C and sometimes even higher.

We thought that the curing salt would prevent the purification of the meat, but the fact is that pork takes approximately 7 days to cure properly.  Whether wet or dry cure is used, the brine must have sufficient time to permeate the joint in order for it to do its preserving work.  Pork goes off quicker than beef or lamb.  If it has not been cured, it will be off within 3 days under warmer conditions like we have in Potchefstroom.

The only way that this can be done in our warm climate is under constant refrigeration.  This is also the reason that it is good for us to focus on the curing of bacon and possibly other pork cuts and not on cold storage refrigeration as David is doing.  Our investment is in the process of curing and not in large scale storage or transportation.  Donald Currie and David Graaff have already staked these claims.  We have neither the money, not the time to compete against them.  Since they are not experts in the curing and processing of pork, this is an area where we can steak our claim with a great likelihood of success for our venture.

The fact that David is about to build a new, much bigger storage works in Cape Town will be to our advantage since we can use this as refrigerated storage for our carcasses as well as for our bacon, before it is sold to ships and clients throughout South Africa.

Not just have I received a letter from David, informing us that he is interested in discussing our venture when he visits Denmark early in 1892, but I have also received a telegram from Oscar that he will be visiting at about the same time.

I have mailed both and asked if we can combine their visits.  I believe Oscar and David will have much to discuss on the trip and will find great pleasure in each others company since they are of similar personalities.

We will need some form of refrigeration at our factory in Cape Town, but not to the size as David is building.  David and Oscar will have many practicalities to discuss.

Another lesson that I have learned is that we can look at cooking methods and technology that are generally available to households and build the products that we produce around these technology.

Take as an example the meat that Andreas’ mom prepared for Christmas.  I see a clear trend that people have less and less time to prepare dishes that were prepared by our grandparents in the home.  Ovens are also becoming generally available to households in Cape Town and this opens up the opportunity for preparing roasts.

If we can prepare neck joints with the skin on and cut in the same way as Andreas did, in narrow lines, cut through the rind and fat, to the meat and we can rub salt and spices onto the meat in the same way as the housewife would do, people who dont have as much time as our grandparents did will support us.

This level of curing and preparing of meat is something that David and his Combrinck & Co never had to do.  They are used to supplying basic joints to clients throughout the Cape Town and surrounding area.  It is here that Oscar and I intend specializing and being different.

Here is my Christmas promise to you.  In two years time, this time, I will be in Cape Town and Oscar, I and the Woody’s team will make you a Prague Ham.

Prague Ham
Prague Ham

I have learned that we will be in the business of creating the exceptional for people from all walks of life.  The fact that they will eat our food is a sacred trust.

The Christmas lunch is coming up.  I cant wait to see the magic that Andreas’ mom has prepared for us.   My sadness of missing you is balanced by the excitement to share with you everything that we are learning.

Christmas love and greetings from Denmark!

Your Dad.

Bacon and the art of living Home Page



(1)   Ice Cold in Africa is the title of a book by Phillida Brooke Simons, on “The history of the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Limited” which was taken over by Tiger Brands in October 1989.  ICS dates its official foundation to Wednesday, 19 February 1902 when it was legally registered in Pretoria.  The company’s origins were much older.  It was in 1868 when a Swiss-born butcher names Othmar Bernard Scheitlin handed the over his business which he owned since 1849 to his foreman Jacobus Combrinck.  The business became Combrinck & Co and dominated the meat trade in Cape Town Peninsula.  When Jacobus retired, he handed over the reigns to David Graaff who was his foreman, just as he has been to Mr Scheitlin.

During the 1880’s David Graaff traveled extensively throughout Europe and the USA to familiarise himself with among other, developments in refrigeration.

Upon his return refrigeration chambers were constructed on the premises of Combrink & Co., thus bringing refrigeration to Southern Africa.

Combrink and Co was transformed into the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Limited who later changed its name to ICS.

By the time that ICS lost its independance, ICS had over 100 subsidiaries as well as branches all over South Africa. (Brooke Simons, P, 2000: 7, 22, 27)


Phillida Brooke Simons
Phillida Brooke Simons

This chapter is named in honour of the work of Phillida Brooke Simons who has been responsible for many other books, including ones on South African architecture.  She was the editor responsible for retelling the story “Jock of the Bushveld” by  Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.

One obituary reads: “A distinguished Honorary Life member of the Historical Society of Cape Town, Phillida Audrey Fairbridge Brooke-Simons died on 29 July 2013 and we remember her with deep affection in this memorial to her life and work. Her contribution to historical literature was considerable, particularly in recording the history of the old buildings in the Cape and the lives of those who have contributed to progress in South Africa.”  (

(2)  My grandparents used a similar system on their farm Stillehoogte in Fredefort district.  The “cooler” had two layers of bricks.  Between the inner and the outer was a layer of insulation of anthracite.  The outer layer was “staggered”.  Water dripped over the outer part of the wall to affect refrigeration on the inside.

The cooler on the farm Stillehoogte.  Taken some time before 1977
The cooler on the farm Stillehoogte. Taken some time before 1977

They continued using the system, well after they got electricity on the farm.

To the right of the cooler, my grandfather, Eben Kok is looking through his binoculars.  He was sitting like that many afternoons to see who was driving over his motor-gates (motorhekke).  He had signs put op next to the gates “privaat motorhek/ private motor gate”.  The idea was that only his family could use these gates. The rest of the people had to use the traditional gates.  He passed away when I was either 7 or 8.

(3)  The French meat processing equipment producer Lutetia used the same basic principle discovered by Robert Boyle in their thawing massager/tumbler (patent 92-07091).

Under pressure, the temperature of steam, injected into a chamber drops and thawing of meat is effected without cooking and therefore denaturing the meat proteins.

Lutetia describes their invention as follows:  “Defrosting is obtained by injecting expanded steam into the massager previously put under vacuum. At low pressure, the steam condenses on the surface of the food at low temperature. So, at 50mbar, the steam condenses at 33°C which is insufficient to lead to coagulation on the surface of the meat. The steam can come from a LUTETIA steam generator or from the factory boiler via the LUTETIA client kit. In order to reduce the humidity level, the massager drum may be fitted with a double envelope fed with a tepid mixture of mono-propyl glycol and water. In order to accelerate the heat transfer and to homogenise the defrosting, the blocks of meat may be passed through the block breaker before defrosting.”  (

(4)  In 1930 the Crosley system of refrigeration, based on Carre’s cycle was widely sold in the US.  (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

(5)  In 1891 the Lions (the British Isles) became the first team to tour South Africa.  (Wikipedia. Currie Cup).  The team was entertained on the voyage to South Africa by Donald Currie himself.  It was the maiden voyage of his most recent steam boat.  In Currie’s luggage was a golden cup which he planned to present to the team who performed best against the touring Lions.  The tourists were to strong for the locals and the trophy went to Griqualand West who lost by the smallest margin, 0-3.  (Joffe, E, 2013: 99)

In 1892 the cup became known as the Currie Cup, presented to the winner of a fiercely contested local tournament.  The inaugural Currie Cup tournament was held in 1892 with Western Province earning the honour of holding it aloft as the official first winners. (Wikipedia.  Currie Cup)

Tristan and Lauren with the Curry Cup, September 2014

WP_20140921_13_27_20_Pro__highres WP_20140921_13_28_47_Pro__highres WP_20140921_13_29_01_Pro__highres WP_20140921_13_29_12_Pro__highres


Brooke Simons, P, 2000, Ice Cold in Africa, Fernwood Press.

Brown, R.  Design Dissertation Report.

Dellino, C.  1979.  Cold and Chilled Storage Technology.  Blackie Academic and Professional.

Joffe, E.  2013.  Before Mandela’s Rainbow.  Author House

Kha, AR.  2006.  Cryogenic Technology and Applications.  Elsevier, Inc.

Smith, Edwards. 1873. Foods. Henry S King and Co.

The Cape Town Guide 1897 Cover



Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figure 4:

Figure 5:  Photo supplied by Andre van Tonder.  I think my dad took the pic.

Figure 6 – 11: Eben van Tonder of the Curry Cup at the Springbok museum in Cape Town

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.