Bacon and the art of living 17: The mother brine

Please direct to The Mother Brine while this chapter, part of Bacon and the Art of Living is being re-written.

March 1892

Dear Ava,

My time in Denmark is drawing to a close.  At night, after supper when the entire family  sit in the family room and talk about the day and Andreas’ dad reads to us . . .  I have become used to the routine of the Oestergaard family.  I can hardly believe my time here is done.  I will miss them.  They have welcomed me into their home and they have shown me a new world.  Not only Denmark, but the world of the art of curing bacon.  They and the people of Denmark have also shown me quite a bit about the art living!

My next stop is Great Britten.  I wish it was Cape Town.

I miss the kids and I miss you.  Oscar and David’s visit made it more bearable.

Still, I miss my family and I miss the Cape of Good Hope (1).  Climbing the great and majestic cliffs of Table Mountain.  The gale force winds that sweep in from the South East in February and thunders through the many valleys and gorges.  I miss the sweet smell of the feinbos and the blooming proteas.


I will miss Jeppe.  He has become like my own father.  In many respects he reminds me of my dad.  Cheerful and optimistic.  A great mentor.

I already reflect on my Danish adventure.  Despite the claim from other parts of the word, this truly is the birthplace of the modern methods of bacon curing.

It all began in Denmark

Jeppe told me that by the beginning of the 1800’s, the Danes were renowned dairy farmers and producers of the finest butter (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6)

They found the separated milk from the butter making process to be an excellent food for pigs.  The Danish farmers developed an immense pork industry around it.  (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6)

The bacon industry was created in response to a ban from England on importing live Danish pigs to the island.   The Danish farmers responded by organising themselves into cooperatives who build bacon factories which supplied bacon to the English market.  (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6)  This established bacon curing as a major industry in Denmark.  (2)

“On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region joined forces to form Denmark’s first co-operative meat company. The first general meeting was held, land was purchased, building work commenced and the equipment installed.”  ( 125 years of food history)

“On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsen’s Share Abattoir), stood ready to receive the first pigs for slaughter.” ( 125 years of food history)

Peter Bojsen

Peter Bojsen

The dynamic Peter Bojsen (1838-1922) took central stage in the creation of the abattoir in Horsens.  He served as its first chairman. (3)  He created the first shared ownership slaughtering house.  In years to follow, this revolutionary concept of ownership by the farmers on a shared basis became a trend in Denmark.  Before the creation of the abattoir, he was the chairman of the of Horsens Agriculture Association and had to deal with inadequate transport and slaughtering facilities around the marketn where the farmers sold their meat at.  (  Horsens Andelssvineslagteri)  Peter is a visionary and a creative economist.  The genius of this man is transforming a society.

Like Phil Armour, Peter believes in investing in young minds.  He founded Gedved College in an old abandoned school building.  His creativity and energy led him to created the Horsens Folkeblad in 1866 and in the same year was elected as MP for Vejle circuit.  At Gedved College he still is  superintendent. (5)  (  Gedved Seminarium)

Denmark started bacon exports to England in 1887 and the corporate structures created by Peter would soon establish Denmark as the premium bacon producer in the world.  By 1890 Denmark exported 59 084 270 Lbs of bacon and ham (26 800 metric ton) (3) (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6)

The Danish curing process

The Horsens share slaughterhouse around 1900. Courtesy of the Danish Agricultural Museum, Gl. Estrup.
The Horsens share slaughterhouse around 1900. Courtesy of the Danish Agricultural Museum, Gl. Estrup.

I include the picture of the Horsens share slaughterhouse because it shows how we packed the bacon in Jeppes curing plant.

The bacon was packed into bales.  Each bale was a half carcass weighing around 100kg.

Before we packed it, the bacon was cured first.  It is the curing rooms where I have spend most of my time in Jeppe’s bacon plant.

The curing process is started by injecting the pork side with salt through a needle.  They are then placed in a basin for further curing. Here a special mother brine is used that is many, many years old.  The brine consisted of salt, water, nitrate, nitrite and potassium nitrate.  After use, the brine is strained so it can be reused.  The brine have a reddish colour because it had drawn so much blood out of the meat. (  125-years-of-food-history.aspx)

The salt brine is now poured over the sides of the bacon, covering them completely.  It is important that there is enough brine for the side of bacon to be completely immersed so they are properly cured.  The sides of the bacon is placed in the basins meat side up, and staggered so that each top end of the carcass sits above the thigh bone joint on the side of the bacon underneath.  The brine is then poured over.  Once the side of bacon soaks in the brine for the prescribed time, the brine is drained off.  (  125-years-of-food-history.aspx)

The Danish approach

Fredrik Marius Sophus Ludvig Sieck
Fredrik Marius Sophus Ludvig Sieck

There is probably no better manager of the Danish bacon curing plant than Fredrik Marius Sophus Ludvig Sieck.  He calls himself Frederik L. Sieck.  He is the manager of the Frederikssund Andelsslagteri. (7)   The Danish word “Andelsslagteri” is a familiar word by now, similar to Afrikaans.  “Andel” is “share” and “slagteri” is similar to the Afrikaans word for abattoir or slaughtering house.  The economic model behind the concept is shared ownership.

Frederic have the following characteristics which I think serve as a great example to imitate.  It inspires me!

He values education.  He reads a lot and he travels widely.  (No doubt he has visited Armour’s famous packing house in Chicago).  He educates himself in science and is described by his friends and colleges as an astute businessman.  (The Deming Headlight, 1914: 6)

He believes that good bacon starts with the right genetics and how the animal is fed and raised.  He understands the relationship between farming and creating the worlds best bacon. (The Deming Headlight, 1914: 6) It is this comment made about him by a journalist that peaked my interest in him before I even met him since creating the best bacon on earth is the goal with which Oscar and myself have been sent out of Potchefstroom by our friends and family when we embarked on our quest.

He understands the role of by-products to bacon such as sausage making so that in the Danish plants, as Phil Armour coined, they too use every part of the pig except the squeel.  (The Deming Headlight, 1914: 6)

He understands the problem of transportation and how gentle the animal must be handled before it is slaughtered to prevent a loss in meat quality.  (The Deming Headlight, 1914: 6)

As a business man he understand the world markets and the demand in each market and how they differ from market to market.  (The Deming Headlight, 1914: 6)

He introduced into his plants the latest efficiency services, to such a level of excellence that many say it surpasses the efficiency that has been achieved in Phil Armour’s plant.

Ava, I am convinced that if we emulate Frederic in every regard, we will be successful. The fact that we are a team means that not everybody have to excel in every area.  One of us love the science component of the industry.  The other, the business area.  Each, still having a huge interest in the other areas and contributing in all areas.  I am convinced we have a balanced and strong approach.

The direct addition of nitrite to curing brines pre-WW1

As you can see, I have made every effort to speak to every important traveler from the pork industry who visited Copenhagen since my arrival in April last year.  I have sought out an audience with the finest leaders in Denmark from the industry.  I did not restrict my education to the walls of Jeppe’s curing plant, but I have sought out industry mentors.

I have questioned David Graaff at great lengths about the developments in bacon curing technology in Chicago.  Andreas know the Harris family in Calne very well.  He has arranged for me to stay with them in England.

It seems to me that the use of the mother brine or mature brine as it is called in other parts of the world, is the epitome of the direct application of nitrite to curing brines.  I also suspect, despite the fact that I have no direct evidence of this, that it was the Danes who probably realised that nitrate was converted to nitrite through bacterial reduction in the brine.  Probably well before Jeppe’s German friend formally announced his discovery of nitrite’s in brine that was originally produced with nitrate only.

The reason for my suspicions is in the first place the fact that the Danes, more than any other nation on earth, have the ability and the knowledge to have done the exact same analysis that Dr. Polenski have made in 1891 and would have discovered the presence of nitrite in the old bacon brines. (6)

They re-use the mother brine over and over again.  The mother brine is made with a mixture of salt and saltpeter in water.  The saltpeter is potassium nitrate.  Bacteria reduces the nitrate to nitrite and it is the nitrite that do the curing.  This reduces the curing time considerably because by covering the pork sides in a brine solution that already contains nitrite, the nitrites can go to work immediately on curing the meat and the normal days and weeks it take for the bacteria to reduce the nitrate to nitrite is cut out.  The only matter remaining now is the time it will take the brine to diffuse through the meat.  This is helped along by injecting the salt solution into the meat with a needle.

When the mother brine has been used, the brine is put through a strainer and more salt and saltpeter is added and the same brine is re-used.  I have heard that some people boil the brine before it is used again.  This is however not how we have used it in Jeppes plant.

Andreas told me that the Harris family learned the same technique from the Danes and they too employed this technique of adding nitrite to the curing process by using a mature brine.

Most of the people I have spoken to refer to this method of using a mature or mother brine as a Danish invention.  I am now becoming convinced that the Danes not only invented this process, but in all likelihood was the first people to understand the chemical mechanics that made the process effective.

David Graaff told me that he did not pay close attention to the matter of the use of nitrites in curing brine when he visited the curing rooms of Phil Armour in Chicago, but speaking to him about the speed with which Armour cured its bacon, the basic principals would undoubtedly have been the same.  It is the same speed in curing that was necessary here in Denmark in order to supply bacon to the English market.  The difference here is that it became a well coordinated priority of not just a family or one entrepreneur, but of an entire nation.  I can not imagine that all available resources, including the best that chemical technology had to offer, were not employed in securing the success of the bacon venture as an entire nation shifted its pork production to bacon production.

Peter Bojsen and Frederic Sieck are excellent examples of the Danish spirit.  Science, education, cooperation, business sense and entrepreneurship drive this nation.  There is a “common sense” approach to life in Denmark that is remarkable.  All this convince me that Denmark is the origin of the first direct and planned use of nitrite in curing brines through the use of their mother brine invention.

As much as I am missing everybody back home and our beloved Cape Town, Denmark has been the best education possible.  I am excited about what I will learn from the Harris family in Calne where I know they use the Danish curing method, but I am eager to learn more.  I can hardly wait!

Please give our parents all my love and Tristan and Lauren.  I have bought them gifts from Denmark.

I will write you again when I am on the ship on my way to London!

All my love,



(c) eben van tonder

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(1)  The Cape of Storms was renamed the Cape of Good hope or Cabo da Boa Esperança by John II of Portugal because of the great optimism engendered by the opening of a sea route to India and the East.  (Wikipedia. Cape of Good Hope)

(2)  Bacon exported from Denmark to Britain doubled from 1876 to 1897.  In 1876, 3 560 176 cwt was exported compared with the 1897 that was at least double.  The main countries that supply England with cured bacon in 1901 was the USA, Canada, Sweden and of course, Denmark.  (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: Page 6:  Bacon curing)

(3)  Peter Bojsen remained chairman until 1913.  (  Peter Bojsen)

(4) In the ’70 and ’80 the Danish abattoirs and large processing companies consolidated and formed Danish Crown.  (  Danish-crown)

(5)   He remained in the position until 1896.

(6)  A 1914 article in The Deming Headlight called the Danish cooperative bacon factory “the last word as to efficient scientific treatment of the dead porker.” (The Deming Headlight (Deming, New Mexico), Friday 8 May 1914, Page 6, A Cooperative Bacon factory)

The scientific knowledge available at the end of the 1800’s related to nitrites and nitrates and the method of bacterial reduction; the mastery of Danish universities in fields like biology at the end of the 1800’s/ beginning 1900’s; the scientific approach of the Danes to pork farming and bacon curing all makes it unlikely in that they did not fully understand the mechanics that made the mother brine/ mature brine concept effective in the their curing plants.  It is likely that they have known about the reduction of nitrate to nitrite well before the 1891 observations by Polenski in this regard.

The Danes are more than likely the true inventors of the modern day bacon curing process which was first exported to the Harris factories in Calne, Wiltshire and was implemented in the pork packing plants of Armour and others in Chicago.

The Harris family probably contributed the application of refrigeration and Armour the consolidation of a new division of labour which resulted in hugely improves output.

Pogether, it is clear that these factories from Denmark, the US and England competed against each other and learned from each other.

(7)  He has been the manager between 1894 and 1931

Daily Telegraph, Launceston, Saturday 2 February 1901.  Article:  Bacon curing.

The Deming Headlight (Deming, New Mexico), Friday 8 May 1914, Page 6, A Cooperative Bacon factory


Image 1:  Table Mountain by Eben van Tonder.

Image 2:  Peter Bojsen.

Image 3:  Horsens abattoir.

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