By Eben van Tonder
20 May 2015
* In marking a major event in the life of Woody’s Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd. Dedicated to the Woody’s team.
Available in PDF download: C & T Harris and their Wiltshire bacon cure – the blending of a legend
In 2021 I did a major update to the information presented here.
- Chapter 09.01 – Mild Cured Bacon
- Chapter 10.01: Lord Lansdowne
- Chapter 10.02 – Sweet Cured Harris Bacon
- Chapter 10.03: American Ice Houses for England: Year-Round Curing
- Chapter 10.04: Ice Cold in Africa
- Chapter 10.05: Ice Cold Revolution
- Chapter 10.06: Harris Bacon – From Pale Dried to Tank Curing!
- Chapter 10.07: John Harris Reciprocates!
- Chapter 10.08: Irish Animosity
- Chapter 10.09: The Wiltshire Cut
When time one day permits, I will re-write the article below, but for now, I refer you to the work listed above. For a detailed clarification of the progression of mild cured bacon of William Oake, sweet cure, pale dried and finally tank curing of C&T Harris, I refer you to Chapter 09.01 – Mild Cured Bacon, Chapter 10.02 – Sweet Cured Harris Bacon and Chapter 10.06: Harris Bacon – From Pale Dried to Tank Curing!
Eben van Tonder. 2021.
Few companies had the impact on an industry as C&T Harris had on the bacon industry. We focus on a number of points in this article. The importance and role of good quality pork supply from local and foreign sources. The Harris brothers as good butchers. I offer a possible explanation for the exact nature of the first sweet cure they developed and a possible inspiration for the development. The exact nature of George’s strategy and what he wanted to achieve on his trip to America. The force of the central commitment of the company to produce the best bacon on earth. How the introduction of refrigeration fed directly into achieving this goal. How they carefully chose the best curing technique to achieved this goal in a large scale factory environment. The fact that the Wiltshire curing process was in the first place a Danish invention that happened many years before the Harris brothers. The entrepreneurial spirit that drove the company to success by overcoming every obstacle, no matter what it took. Lastly, we high-lite a few lessons for the modern-day curing plant. This is their story.
THE MAKING OF A LEGEND
The making of a legend in the bacon world was, as is usual in these cases, the result of several seismic movements of tectonic plates that created the world of C & T Harris and their Wiltshire bacon cure. Several key ingredients were blended together to create a remarkable bacon curing company. One that produced what was hailed around the globe as the best bacon on earth.
The first ingredient needed in blending this bacon legend was an abundant supply of pork. There was a large local supply of pigs. Wiltshire has been an area associated with pigs since very early. There is a reference from a book by Daniel Defoe, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1720 about a strong pork industry in Wiltshire on account of the abundance of whey from the local dairy industry. He makes mention of large quantities of bacon sent from among other, Wiltshire to London. He wrote, “The bacon is raised in such quantities here, by reason of the great dairies . . . the hogs being fed with the vast quantity of whey , and skim’d milk, which so many farmers have to spare, and which must , otherwise be thrown away.” (Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S.; 1998: 38, 39)
There was a strong supply of imported pigs from Ireland. Between 1770 and 1800 exports of Irish pork to England increased eight-fold. Over 60% of the Irish imports into England was done to London. (Cullen, L. M.; 1968: 71) The pigs arrived by ship in Bristol and were walked on the hoof all the way to London. Along the way it was important to rest the animals and give them a chance to graze to ensure good meat quality when they arrive in London. The small town of Calne, in North Wiltshire, was a convenient stop-over on the long walk. (wiki.mfo.me.uk).
Not only were the pigs in abundance, but they came at good prices and from a diversity of suppliers. Pork is a commodity, the price of which fluctuates on a daily or weekly basis. The price is an indication of its availability and some level of price stability for quality pigs are important requirements for a successful curing operation. It was important back then as it is important today.
Availability is driven by seasonal domestic and export demand and external influences such as the supply of the army and the navy. With the English fighting several foreign wars and a large navy to supply, the demand for bacon was unusually strong. There are other factors such as pork disease that impacts on its availability. Even the time of year plays a role since in those days, before the advent of refrigeration, pork could only be cured in the winter on account of it going off in the summer before the cure could diffuse through the entire muscle.
It would therefore be a very important benefit to have access of pigs from local as well as foreign sources. The demand and supply in the foreign market will inevitably differ from local trends and the producer is able to exploit low price cycles to ensure low input cost and the best possible quality. For an in depth analysis of the prevailing economic environment, particularly related to Ireland and England during this time readers are directed to “The Economics of the Industrial Revolution,” by Joel Mokyr and “The Foundations of British Maritime Ascendancy – Resources, Logistics and the State, 1755–1815” by Roger Morriss.
The third ingredient in the making of this legend is an ample supply of saltpeter, the principal curing agent of pork in those days. “The geology around Calne was excellent for saltpetre. The Calne Guild Stewards’ Book has an entry for 1654 listing a payment for the removal of saltpetre tubs. It is mentioned in relation to glass making in 17th Century. A token was found for use at the glass house in Calne, suggesting there was glass manufacture going on in the town, although no record has been found of it. Saltpetre is essential for making glass. The antiquarian John Aubrey in his book ‘Topographical Collections’ 1659-70, says concerning Calne that the ‘Sand on the hills here about is very fit for glass making.’ He described it as being very white and having the largest grains he had ever seen. He also mentions on page 94, ‘The deep lane from Bowden to Raybridge is very full of nitre, as a warm day will indicate.’ Bowden Hill and Raybridge are only a few miles from Calne.” (SB)
Three essential ingredients for good bacon were all present by the late 1700’s. An almost unlimited supply of pigs, both local and imported, low prices and a mature local industry for the supply of the principal curing ingredient of saltpeter. The scene is set for an entrepreneur to step forward, mix all the prevailing ingredients together and create a legend! This is how it happened.
JOHN HARRIS AND SONS
The first Harris to come to Calne was John Harris in the late 1700’s. He moved there with his widowed mom, Sarah Harris, in 1770. They were living in a small market town of Devizes, about ten miles from Calne. When they moved to Calne, they set up in a small property in Butchers Row. (SB) When he died in 1791 the business was carried on by his wif but on a very small scale. (SB) She ‘thought it a good week if she had killed five or six pigs and sold clear out on a Saturday night’. Two of her sons helped her in the butchery, John and Henry. (british-history) When she passed away, she left in her will £60 to each of her three sons, John, Henry and James. Henry and James were twins, but James had no interest in butchery and became a civil servant. (SB) As John and Henry’s own bacon interests grew over the years, this must have been a story that she told them many times and it must have been a favourite family tale.
Her one son, John, married Mary Perkins in 1808, who, in 1805/1806 (british-history), opened a butcher’s shop and bacon curing business of his own in Calne, High Street. His younger brother, Henry Harris, married Sophia Perkins in 1813. He managed the Perkins Family Grocery and Butchers in Butcher’s Row (later Church Street). He took the business over when his father in law passed away. (british-history)
John and Mary had 12 children. Disaster struck the young family when John passed away at a young age in 1837. “His wife, Mary, continued to run the business until eventually handing it over to one of their sons, Thomas. Henry and Sophia were childless and looked after four of Johns children. He left the Church Street business to his nephew George. Charles later joined George as a partner in Church Street. John’s son Thomas took over the High Street business when his father died. George died in 1861, leaving Charles running the Church Street factory. Charles and Thomas amalgamated their businesses in 1888. It is interesting to note that one of Thomas Harris’ sons struck out on his own and founded Bowyers Bacon factory in Trowbridge.” (SB)
They remained close and innovations were done together. The first progression that created the legend was a simple one. Add sugar to the bacon cure. (wiki.mfo.me.uk)
An interesting question is what exactly this sweet cure was that they introduced. Could it have been that adding sugar to the brine was a completely new concept to Wiltshire and the butchers in Calne? A 1776 liquid cure mix for bacon is given as “4 lb. of salt, 2 lb. of brown sugar, and 4 gallons of water with a touch of saltpetre.” (Holland, LZ, 2003: 9, 10) This salt/water mix was used to cure barrel pork.
Barrel pork was a crude process of laying pork joints in a wooden barrel and immersing it in a water brine-mix of salt, saltpeter and sugar. It was food for a poor family, shared by slaves, farmers or wage earners. It was disdained by the elites as “sea-junk”, cured by sopping in brine that imparted a nauseous taste to the meat. (Horowitz, R.; 2006: 45) It is easy to see how adding sugar to barrel-pork was an attempt to improve its taste. Could it be that sugar was not part of the standard dry-cure process employed in Calne and the Harris brothers took this idea of adding sugar to the dry-cure from barrel pork?
We have a description of the dry-cure process employed in Calne that would have been used by John Harris when he opened his butchery in 1770 and also by his sons in their curing operations. The description comes to us from a 1805 account from Wiltshire. “When the hog is killed, the sides are laid in large wooden troughs, and sprinkled over with bay salt, after which they are left for twenty-four hours, in order to drain off the blood and superfluous juices. Next they are taken out and wiped thoroughly dry, and some fresh bay salt, previously heated in an iron frying pan, is rubbed into the flesh till it has absorbed a sufficient quantity; this rubbing is continued for four successive days, during which the sides, or flitches, as they are usually called, are turned every other day. Where large hogs are killed, it becomes necessary to keep the flitches in brine for three weeks, and in that interval to turn them ten times, after which period they are taken out and dried in the common manner; in fact, unless they are thus treated, they can not be preserved in the sweet state, nor will they be equal in point of flavour, to bacon that is properly cured. (Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S.; 1998: 114)
This account omits sugar, but it also omits saltpeter, a widespread ingredient in bacon cures of this time, which then begs the question if the mention of salt in the 1805 account is supposed to be an exhaustive list. Several factors can be brought into the discussion to try and bring clarity.
Bay-salt regularly contains very small traces of nitrite which have a reddening effect in the meat. A second point is that it was a well known practice by certain butchers to omit saltpeter and only use salt. Some curers of this time described using salt alone as a superior curing technique (even though unbeknownst to them, the salt itself probably contained nitrate and nitrite which the saltpeter was added for). A last important factor to consider is that even dry-cured bacon was extremely salty at this time due to the fact that no refrigeration existed. Over-salting was the only sure way to ensure the meat is preserved.
So, taking everything into account, in my view, the most likely scenario is that the Harris brothers borrowed the concept of adding sugar from barrel-pork. They added the sugar to the cure, not to give a sweet note to the bacon, but to reduce the salty taste of the bacon. An added advantage of adding sugar is that it enhances the meat flavour. Viewed overall, it improved the taste which was and remained a key feature of Harris bacon.
GEORGE IN AMERICA
Events were about to unfold in Ireland that would not only turn their world upside down, but would set the background for two of their most important inventions. It was the potato famine that occurred between 1845 and 1852. When it was all over, more than a million people died and another million immigrated to flee the devastating conditions in Ireland.
The mass migration of people from Ireland to places like the USA happened on an unprecedented scale. “A report from England stated that the emigration of 1847 would probably go to 200,000 or 300,000 from Ireland alone. Government agents in other countries were also reporting large increases in the number of people heading to the port cities of the continent. Ships were being hired at an ever increasing pace and Captains were carrying full compliments of passengers, some exceeding the legal limits.” (theshipslist)
Ships sailed from Ireland and from the North Americas, ships were sailing to Ireland with provisions. “There are reports of vessels leaving various parts of the United States and Canada with supplies for Europe. For example, on March 4, 1847, the Constitution and Sarah Sands had unfurled their sails, while at Boston, the Tartar sailed in April. These vessels were on their way to Ireland. A New York paper reported that in March some $1,250,000 of supplies a week were leaving from that port for Ireland and about $5,000,000 from all parts of the U.S.” (theshipslist)
The disaster in Ireland had a severe impact on the Harris brothers, as it did on food production around the world. The pigs stopped arriving in Bristol, threatening the existence of the butchers of Calne. George and his mom, Mary hatched a plan to try and rescue the situation. The plan was to send George to America by ship. “The idea, they decided, was for George to strike up a pig business deal with American farmers and figure out a way to transport their slaughtered animals across the Atlantic in boxes packed with salt to ward off spoilage during the long journey. On its way to England, the meat would cure into ham and George’s entrepreneurial venture would save the family.” (Smithsonianmag) The plan was not novel. By 1847 barrel pork has been exported from America to England for years. On Saturday, 4 November 1843, a circular appeared in Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri) by George K. Budd where advice is given to American pork producers on what they can do to ensure that the barrel pork reach England in an excellent condition in order to fetch the best possible price.
The plan then seems to have been for the 23 year old George to procure the pigs directly from farmers as opposed to buying it from American packing plants. If George could procure the pigs directly from the farmers, pack the pork in America and export it, the Harris brothers would cut out the middlemen and would again regain not only their supply of foreign pork, but also effect the imports at the best possible price. The supply of cured meat for bacon from America to England was however the poor quality barrel pork. Besides procuring the pork directly from the farmers and packing it himself in the USA for export to England, George planned to do it by using their well-known dry cure process. George was the innovator and the driving force behind the Harris brothers. His brothers said about him, “ Of all us brothers George was a long way ahead; he was the smartest businessman of any of us. He was the means of lifting us out of the old rut and laid the foundation of the new system and its prosperous future.” (SB)
One can only imagine what the voyage to America was like. Hundreds of thousands of Irish were fleeing the deadly conditions in Ireland, cramming the ships. “Adding to the misery, the northern U.S. and Canada had a hard winter in 1846-7 and the snow and ice were causing delays for many of the vessels. There are reports of gales and of vessels being stuck in the ice for weeks. The Albion, from Greenock, for example, sailed on March 25, 1847 and on April 10 hit the ice about 40 miles off Cape Ray. The vessel did not arrive in Quebec until June 4, 1847!” (theshipslist)
George arrived in America witnessing the misery of the arriving Irish. “For a year he traveled about America visiting many bacon-curers, and sending home bacon, lard, cheese, and other provisions. After a brief visit home in the summer of 1848, he again returned to America and opened a bacon curing establishment in Schenectady (New York State). The venture was not successful, however, and the American branch was closed.” (british-history) In the process he was exposed to a development in America that would transform the way that bacon is cured and would give rise to the birth of the legend.
Ice houses started to be built in the northern hemisphere, including England, 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) to store ice-cream, fruit and vegetables from the kitchen garden but they were not used much in industry at this time in Britain. (SB) 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 built 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. (Mfo.me.uk) “In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved), but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing, or the process of preventing decomposition-causing bacteria from setting in by packing the meat in salt, was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable.” (smithsonianmag)
The revolutionary idea was the storage of meat on a commercial scale in ice houses for the purpose of slow curing. George did not make the link with the curing of bacon straight away. “Back in Calne, attempts were made to find a way of curing bacon in hot weather instead of curing it in the winter and keeping it hard salted for summer use. These, however, had not met with any success. It was George who suggested that they should follow the American method of cooling, thus applying cooling to bacon curing.” (british-history)
CURING IN ICE HOUSES
George persuaded his brother Charles who owned the Grocer and Butchers shop on Butchers Row with Thomas and some of his staff to go back to America with him and look at the process. “As a result both he and Charles set up ice houses in their separate factories.” (SB) “The first ice-house was constructed at the High Street factory in 1856.” (british-history)
After a great deal of experimentation, it was found that charcoal was the best insulating material for use in the walls round the ice-chamber. (british-history) “The Harris ice houses had thatched roofs. There was a steel plated ceiling containing the ice with drainage outlets which could measure the rate of melting and hence the stock of ice remaining. The unemployed and residents of the workhouse were sent out to collect ice from streams and ponds but in warmer winters it was imported from Norway and transported by canal. Thomas Harris patented the ice preservation process in 1864.” (SB)
“Most of the important bacon-curers throughout the country took advantage of the chance to improve their output by constructing such ice-houses under licence.” The volume of trade from the two Harris operations continued to increase throughout this time and in 1863 the Harris family joined with other local interests to finance a branch railway line between Calne and Chippenham. Meanwhile, the income from the ice-house patent together with their own expansion enabled the two Calne businesses to increase their rate of mechanization. “At the High Street premises a new ice-house, furnace, and pigsties were built in 1869; and ten years later it was said that at the Church Street factory the pigs were moved almost entirely by machinery after they had been killed.” (british-history) “The first mechanical refrigeration was introduced in 1885. One 6 ton and 0ne 4 ton Pontifex and wood absorption machines” (SB) “There was always close co-operation between the two firms and in July 1888 they were amalgamated as Charles & Thomas Harris & Co. Ltd.” (british-history)
PIGS TO SUITE INDUSTRIALISATION
While the Harris brothers were working towards greater mechanization, shortly before the installation of brine refrigeration in place of the ice-house method, “they embarked on a planned campaign to persuade farmers to breed the type of lean pig best suited to bacon. In 1887 pigs were received from 25 counties in England and Wales, of which Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset, Dorset, and Devon were the most important, and a large number of pigs were again being received from Ireland.” (british-history)
FOCUS ON BACON BRINES AND CURING TECHNOLOGY
– best bacon on earth
Refrigeration allowed the Harris brothers an important progression of the initial work they did by producing a sweet cure. It allowed the use of even less salt. The mildly salted, sweet-cured bacon was a huge success. Harris bacon was being exported to many parts of the world including most European countries, America, Australia, India, China, the Cape of Good Hope, and New Zealand. Some bacon was extra-cured and smoked for sending to hot climates. By the end of the century, the Calne factories also supplied the principal Transatlantic, Pacific, and Far Eastern steamship lines. There was considerable competition by cheaper meat from America and the colonies, but by concentration on high-quality products, the Harris Company survived this. It was said in The British Journal of Commerce that in January 1889 Calne was ‘the chief seat of the bacon-curing industry of England’. At the end of the century, it was claimed, possibly with some exaggeration, that Harris’s produced more bacon than any other four or five curers in England together. Between 2,000 and 3,000 pigs were slaughtered each week and over 200 workmen and 30 clerks were employed. (british-history)
– the Irish Invention of mild curing and its adaptation by the Danish
A major development took place when the dry cure was replaced with a wet cure, late in the 1800s. (SB) The development that made it possible to produce high quality wet cured bacon was in the first place the invention of stitch pumping which involved pumping brine through a single needle brine injector directly into the meat, thus speeding up the process of diffusing the brine throughout the muscle. Stitch pumping was however first used in combination with dry-curing (The History of Curing). It is reported that Harris has used stitch pumping with their dry-curing process as early as 1843. (SB)
In Denmark, during the 1800s, a wet curing method was invented using a combination of stitch pumping and curing the meat in curing tanks with a cover brine. (Wilson, W, 2005: 219) Brine consisting of nitrate, salt and sugar were injected into the meat with a single needle attached to a hand pump (stitch pumping). The meat was then placed in a mother brine mix consisting of old, used brine and new brine. The old brine contained the nitrate which was reduced through bacterial action into nitrite. It was the nitrite that was responsible for the quick curing of the meat. (The Mother Brine)
Denmark was, as it is to this day, one of the largest exporters of pork and bacon to England. The wholesale involvement of the Danes in the English market made it inevitable that probably at least 50 years after the Danish invention, a bacon curer from Denmark must have found his way to Calne in Wiltshire and the Harris bacon factories. The tank-cured method, as it became known, was adopted by Harris and a true legend was born.
A major advantages of this method is the speed with which curing is done compared with the dry salt process previously practiced. Wet tank-curing is also more suited for the industrialisation of bacon curing and have the added cost advantage of re-using some of the brine. It allowed for the use of even less salt since the injected brine along with a cover brine were distributed throughout the muscle much faster than was the case with the dry curing process.
Injection with a single needle injector was time consuming and soon it was replaced by multi-needle brine injectors. Below is a diagram indicating the position where brine was injected with the stitch-pumping method.
– Wiltshire cure
Callow gave us a description of Wiltshire cure in 1934. The pig sides were cooled after the back bone was removed, either by ambient temperature or in a chiller. “After cooling, the sides were trimmed.” Trimming involved removing the fillet (the psoas major muscle along the central spine portion), the shoulder blade bone (the scapula), and the pelvic bone (the aitch bone). The sides were now placed in a curing cellar (room temp of between 3 deg C to 7 deg C). (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 149)
Curing took place in four stages. First the brine was pumped into the sides, using stitch pumping or a single needle hand injector. The salt concentration in the brine was between 25 and 30%, 2.5 to 4% potassium or sodium nitrate (saltpeter) and 0.5 to 1% sugar. Between 18 and 25 injections are required, most in the gammon region. The total weight of brine injected is about 5% of the weight of the side. 1kg then became 1.05kg injected. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
The sides were now either sprinkled with dry salt or placed in a tank of brine, stacked about 12 deep and tied down. If wet cure was used, the sides were covered with a mix of salt and potassium nitrate in a ratio 10:1. Liquid brine solution was run into the tank and the sides remained submerged for between 4 and 5 days. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
A major progression of the cure preparation took place in effecting the reduction of nitrates to nitrites. The make up of the tank pickle was between 20% and 28% salt (sodium chloride) and 3% – 4% sodium nitrate when it was first prepared. In order to effect the reduction of the nitrates to nitrites, the brine was now seeded with the specific microorganisms who is responsible for the reduction. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
This was done by taking meat juices (protein) that leached from meat that was previously immersed in brine. This correlates to the Danish adaptation of the Irish invention of the “mother brine.” Ingram, Hawthorne and Gatherum described in 1947 how it was possible to manage the amount of nitrite in the brine by adjusting the salt (sodium chloride) concentration of the brine. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
The sides were placed in a maturing cellar for 7 to 14 days or even longer. This was another major progression of the process described in 1805. The temperature was kept at between 3% and 4%as was the case of the brine cellar. The goal of this step was to diffuse the brine of sodium chloride, nitrate and nitrite throughout the meat. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
Some of the cured meat was un-smoked (green) but the majority would be smoked for between 2 and 3 days. The traditional Wiltshire process yielded well cured bacon in anything between 10 and 21 days. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
The right size pork cut was required. A 1958 publication gives the following description of a typical Wiltshire pork cut (Warde, F. and Wilson, T.; 2013: 55).
Early in the 1900’s, Harris also diversified producing a range of small goods- pies, sausages, mince, lard, tinned meats etc. (SB)
– Sodium Nitrite cure’s from Germany
The key feature of the Harris bacon empire became their Wiltshire bacon cure. In Germany, a new curing process was developed with references to experiments with it dating back to the mid 1800’s. The curing agent was sodium nitrite that would replace saltpeter (sodium or potassium nitrate) as the curing agent of choice. Cures with sodium nitrite began emerging from Germany at the beginning of the 1900’s. It was the First World War that provided the transition moments necessary to effect the almost universal change from saltpeter to sodium nitrite. Adding sodium nitrite to the brine called for a simple system and yielded the quickest curing. The Danish Mother Brine system and the Wiltshire method used saltpeter (potassium nitrate) that was already reduced by bacterial action to nitrite in combination with nitrate. In contrast, using sodium nitrite to begin with (a chemical used in the coal tar dye industry and as a medicine) eliminated the step of bacteria reducing the nitrate to nitrite. The curing cycle when sodium nitrite is used is completed in 12 hours where the Danish Mother Brine and Wiltshire Brine took up to three weeks to cure the meat. (Concerning the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines and Concerning chemical synthesis and Food Additives)
It is a matter of profound interest that the Harris bacon factories continued using tank curing for many years following World War One. Several studies emerged showing the superiority of the sodium nitrite brine over the Wiltshire method from a microbial perspective and still it prevailed. Tank curing is practiced to this day by at leadt one large and sophisticated bacon curers in the UK.
THE LAST OF THE HARRIS FAMILY’S CURING DAYS
“During the economic slump of 1920s Harris‘ was bought (1925) by Ernest Marsh of Marsh and Baxter, a large meat processing business located at Brierly Hill in the Midlands and famous for their York Hams brand. George Harry Harris, known as Jack, was the only member of the family who was involved with the Harris business during the twenties. He came in to sign a cheque now and then but was no longer involved after 1930.” (SB)
“In 1926 Ernest Marsh brought over an American as chief engineer, Dixon E Washington from Kansas City to modernise the factory. Washington was an experienced in architectural, civil. structural and mechanical engineering and introduced many modern new elements to the Calne factory.” (SB)
Reflecting on the Harris brothers and the creation of their legendary Wiltshire bacon cure is a lesson in business as much as it is a lesson in building a bacon curing company.
The first lesson is that they relentlessly searched out competitive advantages. They found it in the use of refrigeration and very cleverly patented it.
Right from the start they identified taste as the central distinguishing feature of their bacon. They added sugar to the dry cure, possibly borrowing from the well known concept of adding sugar to the wet curing brines. At the beginning of the 1900’s, they learned from the Danes who developed a system of bacon curing that exploited discoveries at the end of the 1800’s by several scientists that nitrite was the real curing agent and not nitrate. The system not only employed the direct use of nitrite in curing mixes through the use of the Danish concept of a mother brine, but they combined it with nitrate which they injected into the meat, thus creating rapid diffusion of the brine throughout the muscle and allowing for a future source of nitrite as bacteria in the meat reduced the nitrate to nitrite, over time. This curing system was ideal for a factory and a large scale curing environment. The key feature of the Danish brining method was an even better tasted than any of their previous curing systems, making taste the primary feature of their rise to dominance.
A second lesson is that they relentlessly stuck to a formula that worked. New brine systems were being experimented with, especially at the beginning of the 1900’s. After the First World War, sodium nitrite replaced potassium or sodium nitrate in bacon curing systems almost everywhere on earth. Despite this, they stuck to tank curing, insisting that it simply tastes better. This focus in the face of what I can only imagine was overwhelming pressure to change, is a lesson that I will personally never, ever forget. A man once told me that the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing. That this is the main thing! In bacon curing, the main thing is not yield, but taste! This is what created the legend of C & T Harris and their Wiltshire cure.
There are other facets to the story. The story is epic and more is to come!
(c) eben van tonder
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Special thanks to Susan Boddington (SB), curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, for the liberal supply of information, insights, advice and photos.
Cullen, L. M.. 1968. Anglo-Irish Trade, 1660-1800. The University Press, Manchester.
Holland, LZ. 2003. Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark: A Food and Social History of the early 1800’s. Old Yellowstone Publishing, Inc.
Horowitz, R. 2006. Putting Meat on the American Table. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kha, AR. 2006. Cryogenic Technology and Applications. Elsevier, Inc.
Lawrie, R. A.. 1985. Meat Science. Pergamon Press.
Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S.. 1998. The English Pig: A History. Hambledon Press.
Smith, Edwards. 1873. Foods. Henry S King and Co.
Susan Boddington (SB) is the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre. Information from private correspondence.
Warde, F. and Wilson, T.. 2013. Ginger Pig Farmhouse Cook Book. Mitchell Beazley.
Wilson, W. 2005. Wilson’s Practical Meat Inspection. 7th edition. Blackwell Publishing.
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-one-family-helped-change-the-way-we-eat-ham-21978817, article by Rachel Nuwer
http://www.theshipslist.com/1847/ Emigration To North America In 1847
Wiltshire cut. Harrington, G. 1958. Pig Carcass Evaluation. Page 55. Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux Farnham Royal, Bucks, England. Robert Cunningham and Sons, Ltd. Alva
The Wiltshire injection: Wilson, W. 2005: 220
All other images supplied by SB