Bacon and the art of living 11: Ice Cold Revolution

New Year’s eve, 1891

Dear Children,

Ava wrote to me that David Graaff is making a massive impact as major of Cape Town.

David has a vision of Cape Town as a world class location and is planning to bring electricity to our city.  The plan is to construct the first power station at the Molteno dam.  The dam is named after the country’s first Prime Minister John Molteno. (Wikipedia. Molteno Dam) (1)

The Graaff Electrical lighting works at the Molteno Dam.
The Graaff Electrical lighting works at the Molteno Dam.

There used to flow a river from Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain, all the way to the sea.  Jan van Riebeek build the VOC Castle right next to the mountain river due to the strategic importance of the water.  The reason for the creation of the VOC post at the Cape of Good Hope was to sell water and food to passing ships.

In 1877 construction started on the dam since the city fathers saw the water running into the sea from the mountain as a waste.   Construction was completed in 1881.  Ten years ago. (Wikipedia. Molteno Dam) (1)

Personally, both Ava and myself have always disagree with our city fathers.  It would have been a much better plan to have kept the river in tact and undisturbed.  I fear we have lost an important feature of the land forever.

I will bring up with David when we meet in the new year, the conservation of the natural land.  It has been confirmed by both Oscar and David that they will travel on the same steam ship to London and then to Denmark during February 1892.

Waterfall that became the mountain stream that ran from Platteklip Gorge to the sea.  Now, into the Malteno Dam.
Waterfall that became the mountain stream that ran from Platteklip Gorge to the sea. Now, into the Malteno Dam.

I am glad that they will be discussing refrigeration since this single invention has the most profound impact on curing bacon as it has on all meat production, processing and trade.

The fact that meat can be frozen or chilled is of huge importance to the curing of bacon. I see this being applied successfully here in Denmark to the extent that I have wondered how it would be possible without it in Cape Town.  The fact that we presently do not have electricity in Cape Town and therefore do not have refrigeration plants explains to me on the one hand the heavy salting that David has practiced at Combrink & Co of local bacon and on the other hand gives a time frame for the start of our own curing plant.  We can not do it before David has constructed the electricity plant at the Molteno dam.

Refrigeration, as Oscar and I discovered,  will allow us to cure bacon in warm climates such as we have at home of the same quality as it is done here in Denmark, in Germany, Holland and England.  The colder the meat and the brine, the better we will be able to control the growth of bacteria and the meat will not spoil before it has cured through.

Recently science started to identify the effect on bacteria of not just temperature, but also of light rays from the violet range of the spectrum, food, oxygen, dilution and antiseptic substances.  I have a profound sense that these discoveries will impact on how meat is packaged and sold in the future.

It has been known since time immemorial that meat in a frozen state last a long time.  At low temperatures there is little bacterial growth.  Scientists have identified three distinct phases in bacterial growth generally speaking. Slow acceleration, maximum acceleration and reduced acceleration.  (Winslow, CEA and Walker, HH. 1939) (2)

The fact that there is a lag time in bacterial action (slow acceleration) have by itself  important lesson for bacon processing apart from the consideration of temperature on bacterial activity. It means that meat must be progressed through the various stages of production at a well-controlled and pre-defined rate that will ensure that no stage takes any longer than it should in order to prevent bacteria from “settling in.”  Any step must utilize the “lag time” fully and be progressed before maximum acceleration takes place.

From The_Times (London), Thursday, 20 May 1920
From The Times (London), Thursday, 20 May 1920

The Harris family’s bacon empire from Great Britain saw the benefits of refrigeration even before refrigeration plants existed.  They applied the principles and benefits of cold to bacon production since the time when ice houses existed.

Andreas has spend some time with them in Calne and knows the family well.  He has great stories of the Harris brothers and how their business and processes developed.

In the mid 1700’s pigs were being imported from Ireland by ship to Bristol. From Bristol they were walked to London. The small village of Calne was a convenient stop over point on the walk.

“JOHN HARRIS married MARY PERKINS in 1808 and opened a butcher’s shop and bacon curing business in Calne High Street. They had 12 children, most of whom were to become involved in the bacon curing and pork products business.”  (mfo. histories. harris)

“John Harris passed away at a young age in 1837. His wife Mary continued to run the business until eventually handing it over to her sons, Charles and Thomas. Charles and Thomas were to become the driving force of the business in the years that followed. Thomas Harris married Sophia Mitchell in 1855 but sadly she died in 1864. Four years later, in 1868, Thomas married Elizabeth Tarrant .” (mfo. histories. harris)

“Harris’ had become famous for their ability to stay ahead of developing technology. They introduced the “sweet cure process” which resulted in sweet bacon, a refreshing change from the heavily salted bacon of that time. However, by 1847 the potato famine in Ireland had resulted in a huge reduction in the availability of pigs and this called for drastic action.” (mfo. histories. harris)

“George Harris, the 10th child of John Harris and Mary Perkins, brother of Charles (6th child) and Thomas (8th child) undertook a bold trip to the USA to investigate the possibility of breeding pigs there for export to the UK. This was to prove impracticable but before leaving America, George was interested to see the use of ice to preserve meat. Realising the implications of being able to process meat all year round, he took the idea back to England. On his second visit to the USA, George took his brother Charles and a number of other bacon curing experts.” (mfo. histories. harris)

“Upon his return to England, George built an “ice house” at the rear of his shop in Calne High Street and shortly after, his brother Thomas did the same. The ice house was to become a successful addition to the business, not only for the processing of Harris’ own products, but because their competitors had to pay to use the facility! Ice wasn’t manufactured in those days of course – well not by machine anyway. It was cut from frozen ponds in the winter and stored in the heavily insulated ice house. A huge step forward took place in 1887 however, when Harris’ became one of the first to install a fully mechanical refrigeration plant.” (mfo. histories. harris)

From Cook County Herald, Friday, 29 Nov 1907.
From Cook County Herald, Friday, 29 Nov 1907.

The development of refrigeration and the subsequent revolution it brought about in the meat industry was in the air well before the end of the 1880’s.  In fact, so many experiments were being done in the 1870’s and early ‘80’s (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) that it will take a long and cumbersome book to try and chronicle any more than what I have given you in my previous letter.

What is of interest is that the supply of meat in England and on the continent has been overtaking supply during the mid 1800’s that made the development of refrigeration a national priority for the English and for European countries. Not even refrigeration in particular, but the need for preservation that would allow meat to be transported over long distances. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) Among many suggested ways to achieve this, refrigeration was only one of many options.  Another option was of course curing and changing the meat into bacon, but this did not allow meat in its unprocessed form to be moved in large volumes between countries.

If a way could not be found, through whatever means, to economically supply England and Europe with meat from the new world of the Southern Hemisphere, the people of England and Europe either had to learn to be content with less meat or pay much higher prices for it. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) Loosing frequent meals that included meat was not just the loss of desirable food, but would seriously hamper the efforts to combat starvation and hunger.
Refrigeration was by no means the obvious solution.

In around 1860, the Privy Council, also known as His (or Her) Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, a body of advisers to the sovereign of the Kingdom of England, started to discuss the matter of food supply to England.(3) (Wikipedia. Privy Council of England) “A number of societies and institutions followed their lead.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4)

In 1863 the Privy Council laid down a rule “that, to avoid starvation diseases, the weekly food of an average adult must contain 28,600 grains of carbon and 1,300 grains of nitrogen.” Dr. Brown, in ” The Food of the People,” published in 1865, wrote : ” The plague spot, the skeleton in the closet of England, is that her people are underfed.”” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4)

A committee of the Society of Arts was established which first met on 21 December 1866 to give direction to the charge to find a way to increase the food supply to England. (3)(Critchell, JT, 1912: 4)

Hunger and starvation were a major threat to the population and nutritional values were tested to find food that will best prevent starvation. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) In 1876, Edward Smith writes about the value of bacon to the poor: “Dried bacon divides itself during the process of cooking into two parts, of which the labourer and his wife may have the solid and the children the liquid part, and thus both be in a degree pleased, if not satisfied.” (Smith, E, 1873: 65)

Edward continued: “So far, it may be said, that bacon is the poor man’s food, having a value to the masses which is appreciated in proportion to their poverty, and it is a duty to offer every facility for its production in the homes of the poor.” (Smith, E, 1873: 65)

Many patents and methods were proposed to the committee of the Society of Arts. Each thoroughly investigated. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4, 5)

Canned meat were just invented and on trial. Pemmican (4), and a Mr. Alexander’s powdered beef. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4, 5)

Interestingly enough, the committee found that “weight for weight, the dried beef was four times more nutritious than ordinary beef”. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4, 5)

200 patents were registered for the preservation of meat. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)  I list some of the important ones here.

“Medlock and Bailey claimed that by dipping meat in their bisulphide of lime solution “anything of animal origin, from a beefsteak to a bullock, from a whitebait to a whale, can be preserved sweet for months.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)

“C. Nielson proposed to fix blood in the form of sausages, puddings, cakes, and so on.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)

“The Rev. M. J. Berkeley delivered a stirring address on fungi, but somehow the mushroom palliative failed to impress the committee as a substitute for the roast beef of Old England.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5) (5)

“De la Peyrouse’s idea was to pack meat in barrels, and to pour in fat at a temperature of 300 F. all round the stored viands.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)

“Professor Gamgee loomed large, and his method, though revealing a touch of
Max Adeler, certainly possessed genius. He suggested that cattle should be happily dispatched by being made to inhale carbonic oxide gas, at a cost of 2s. to 3s. per animal. The flesh of oxen so slain was declared to retain its fresh and bright appearance, and the committee reluctantly and warily tasted chops from a sheep killed in this way, reporting, doubtless to the chagrin of the Professor, that the meat was ” slightly flat.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5) (6)

“A tin of meat forty-one years old, from the stores of H.M.S. Blonde, was tested and found sound. Professor Redwood advocated raw meat preserved in paraffin.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)

“Scores of different processes for tinning meat were tested. Dr. Hassalts ” Flour of Meat,” Australian “mutton hams,” meat dried by sulphurous acid, and many other inventions, were put before this committee, evidence which contained the germs of many of the modern methods of preserving and handling animal substances for food.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)

The work of the committee came to a sudden stop in 1881. After 15 years of focused and hard work, it has failed to produce a way to export meat successfully. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 6)

“In 1881 the committee delivered a gloomy report, and found itself unable to award the 100 prize which Sir Walter Trevelyan had presented for the best means of preserving fresh meat. This 100 was disposed of by being divided into five sums of 20 and granted to food and cooking exhibits at the 1884 Health Exhibition.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 6)

“Without doubt, the introduction of frozen meat in 1880 settled the whole difficulty which the Society of Arts’ committee had spent so many years in trying to solve” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 6)

It was the United States of America who first exported meat in artificially cooled storage units when in 1874, beef was first exported to Great Britain. “Undoubtedly, the real genesis of the meat export trade under conditions of refrigeration is to be found in the shipments of chilled beef from the United States of America in the seventies. By the end of 1880, when only 400 carcasses of mutton had reached home from Australia, Great
Britain had imported from North America 120,000 tons of fresh
beef.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19)

“In the history of frozen meat, the name of Thomas Sutcliffe Mort stands out boldly among all the pioneers and experimenters in Australia and elsewhere whose efforts laid the foundations of the frozen meat trade.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19)

“Mr. Mort was born at Bolton, Lancashire, on December 23, 1816, emigrating to Australia  in 1838, and later founding the great financial and wool-broking firm of Mort and Co.

This firm afterwards amalgamated with that of R. Goldsbrough and Co.,
Ltd., under the name of Goldsbrough, Mort and Co., Ltd. As early as 1843 Mr. Mort turned his attention to meat matters, and was later introduced by Mr. Augustus Morris to the French engineer Nicolle.

The pair took up the subject of freezing meat for export, and experiments were conducted.  Mort supplying the capital and Nicolle the engineering skill. Partial freezing, “chilling,” Telh’er’s plan, was tried and rejected, as it was soon realized that thorough congealing was far preferable for the proper preservation of meat. Mr. Mort in 1861 established at Darling Harbour, Sydney, the first freezing works in the world. Thirteen years later Mr. Mort’s company became the New South Wales Fresh Food and Ice Co. The original freezing process at these works was applied in two large apartments, each about 75 feet square and 9 feet 9 inches high, and enclosed by brick walls 4 feet 6 inches thick. The freezing room below was used for the treatment of meat for export. In 1875 the collateral enterprise, the slaughtering works at Lithgow Valley, Blue Mountains, was completed : the two establishments were intended to supply the Sydney market. Ammonia compression refrigerating machinery was used at these works.

At an inaugural lunch on September 2, 1875, at which 300 persons attended Mr. Mort made his famous speech, the peroration of which stands out as a white stone in the annals of the Australian meat trade, clearly showing him to have been a man of imagination, noble aims, and high character.

Mr. Mort in this speech said that Mr. Morris first suggested the “diabolical idea” of freezing meat to send to England. “I can tell you that not once but a thousand times have I wished that Mr. Morris, Mr. Nicolle, and myself had never been born.” Mr. Mort mentioned that the Sydney Chamber of Commerce about 1867 had put up a sum of money for him to provide meat for distribution in England, and to overcome the English prejudice against “frozen” meat. (This reads curiously, for in 1867 not an ounce of (mechanically) frozen meat had reached England!) The meat upon which Mr. Mort feasted his 300 was, of course, all frozen, and he stated that some of it had been kept since June, 1874. He told his guests that Australia was destined to become the great feeder of Europe.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19)

Here is an extract of the visionary speech by Mr Mort.

“I feel, as I have always felt, that there is no work on the world’s carpet greater than this in which I have been engaged. Yes, gentlemen, I now say that the time has arrived at all events, is not far distant when the various portions of the earth will each give forth their products for the use of each and of all; that the over-abundance of one country will make up for the deficiency of another; the superabundance of the year of plenty serving for the scant harvest of its successor; for cold arrests all change. Science has drawn aside the veil, and the plan stands revealed. Faraday’s magic hand gave the keynote, and invention has done the rest. Climate, seasons, plenty, scarcity, distance, will all shake hands, and out of the commingling will come enough for all, for ‘ the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,’ and it certainly lies within the compass of man to ensure that all His people shall be partakers of that fulness. God provides enough and to spare for every creature He sends into the world ; but the conditions are often not in accord. Where the food is, the people are not ; and where the people are, the food is not. It is, however, as I have just stated, within the power of man to adjust these things, and I hope you will all join with me in believing that the first grand step towards the accomplishment of this great deed is in that of which you yourselves have this day been partakers and witnesses.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 20)

These monumental developments would shape the way bacon is being made and priced.  Frozen meat will at some  point be used as raw material.  After smoking the meat will be frozen to prepare it for slicing.

Freezing will alter the characteristics of bacon and add to the complexity of how bacon is created.

Freezing solved the matter of the long term preservation of meat, but proved another point.  In our effort to preserve meat we have developed a products of such supreme quality and taste that it will be part of human culture for as long as humanity will prevail.  Bacon, with its reddish/ pinkish fresh meat colour and distinct taste; its subtle saltiness in the case of quality bacon and smokiness in the case of smoked bacon; its inherent ability to withstand bacterial spoilage.  Its meatiness.  All work together as characteristics of one of the greatest products on earth.

I am preparing a letter to Oscar and David Graaff where I intend setting out the exact impact that can be expected from freezing upon meat.  Understanding this  will be of the greatest importance to both our bacon operation in Cape Town and Davids cold storage.

How is the rugby going Mr Tristan?  I hear from Ava that you intend going to Rondebosch boys high for high school.  It is an excellent suggestion even though I would have chosen Wynberg Boys High. The decision is however yours my son!

I continue to miss all of you dearly!

Your Dad.

Bacon and the art of living Home Page


(1)  The Graaff Electrical Lighting Works, constructed at the Molteno Dam was commissioned in 1895.  It was Cape Town Municipality’s first power station. It was able to run on steam (the chimney stack has since been removed) as well as water. It was the first hydro electric station in South Africa.

Graaff electrical station.  Photo taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben
The Molteno Dam. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben

(2) Ward wrote a ground-breaking paper in 1895, Bacillus Ramosus on the topic. (WINSLOW, CEA and WALKER, HH. 1939)

(3) Its members were often senior members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, together with leading churchmen, judges, diplomats and military leaders (Wikipedia. Privy Council of England)

(4) “Pemmican is a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food.” (Wikipedia. Pemmican)

(5) This method of creating “meat replacements” has gained wide popularity in the early 2000’s. So much so that the Woodys Team has put it on their list of long term trends to watch.

(6) “CO2 stunning will reduce bloodsplash,” thus improving quality of meat. The disadvantage is that it is considerably more expensive and difficult to maintain. (Temple Grandin, 2000) Pigs killed with CO2 show a reduced occurrence of PSE meat, less petechiae (red or purple spot on the skin, caused by a minor hemorrhage ) and ecchymoses (larger than 1 centimeter or a hematoma). It appears however that animals who carry the halothane gene are more sensitive to CO2 gas so that the meat quality advantages may be dependant to some extent on the genotype of the pigs. (Warriss, PD. 2010: 54, 55)


Critchell, JT and Raymond, J. 1912. A history of the frozen meat trade. An account of the development and present day methods of preparation, transport, and marketing of frozen and chilled meats. Constable & Company LTD

Hui, YH, et al.  2004.  Handbook of Frozen Foods. Marcel Dekker Inc.

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

Temple Grandin. 2000. Methods to reduce PSE and bloodsplash. Veterinary Outreach Programs, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA

*Warriss, PD. 2010. Meat Science: An Introductory Text

Winslow, CEA and Walker, HH. 1939. The earlier phases of the bacterial culture cycle


Figure 1:

Figure 2:  Waterfall on Platteklip Gorge by Eben van Tonder in 2014.

Figure 3:  The Times (London), Thursday, 20 May 1920

Figure 4:  Cook County Herald, Friday, 29 Nov 1907.

Figure 5 – 9:  Graaff electrical station. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben

Figure 10:   The Molteno dam. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben

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