The saltpeter letter

Introduction

The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000’s to late 1800’s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.

The cast I use to mold the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.

The saltpeter letter

May 1891

Dear Children,

The days grow ever more light and joyful as summer approaches. My mind drifts back to Cape Town as I see the Danes going about their business of being Danish! I remember the last church service at the Groote Kerk in Cape Town before I left on my grand quest.

It is in the same church where my mom and dad were married and where I was christened as a baby. As staunch Calvinists, much of life revolved around church and the Groote Kerk was my second home.

Groote Kerk
1910 photograph – sent to Schalk LE ROUX from Marthinus van Bart
Photographer: Unknown

It was the first Christian place of worship in South Africa. The oldest church structure on this piece of land dates back to 1678, 26 years after the Dutch landed to set up their refreshment station. The current building was built by the German architect Herman Schuette in 1841. Much of the old church, including the steeple, was retained in Schuette’s new design. It is situated right next to parliament. The last Sunday before I left for Europe, my kleinneef preached.

He is a gentle man with a large pastorly heart.  His theology is progressive and his faith sincere.  My mom and dad are close to Oom Giel and his Brother, Oom Sybrand. They are my mom’s cousins.

That particular morning his text was Ephesians 5. I remember hearing the horse carts rattling by in the street outside church down Adderly street. As always, there was energy in the air as people arrived. Oom Jacobus and the Graaff kids who lived with him sat in their own allocated seating. He hung his hat on the rack provided for every congregant.

Oom Giel’s thesis was  “Live as people of the light.”  Here, at the Groote Kerk, the people who started the Cape Colony worshiped and receives their spiritual direction.  Oom Giel stressed that we receive the light, but he was humble about what that means. As a theologian, he was ahead of his time.  “A day will come when we realise that the church does not have all the answers.  One day the church will no longer be able to scare non-believers into faith by the threat of hell.  The light we received is that we are in Gods hands. Its a way of life.”

Deep-seated Calvinism shaped the colony. From the straight roads and square corners on neat houses to straight orchards. They believed God was in the first place viewing life as a geometer and this shaped everything they did. The Groote Kerk is the spiritual spring of the Colony.

It was not only an obsession with geometry that bewitched those who drank from the well and a misplaced superiority complex over all of Gods world, but a good was also distilled from these waters. A friend from further up in Africa pointed it out to me one day when he visited Cape Town and I took him around to see the beautiful city. A mindset prevails among its inhabitants that says, we are here and we can thrive! We can get many things from Europe, but by golly, we can do it ourselves! What we can do is any time as good as the best we can get from Europe! With discipline and diligence, inherent to the Christian gospel, they approached every task set before them! In straight lines!

They minded their own business and desired a quiet life. They wanted to live in the light of their gospel.  That is how Oom Jacobus approaches life. How he cut his meat and wrap it for customers; cure the bacon; grew his spices in his enormous garden at his home in Woodstock.

As Oom Giel lead us in reciting the Apostolic Creed, I wondered, how many times through the years was it recited in this Church!  The settlers, for all their faults – many of them were bound by this confession and tried to live true to its articles.

Om Giel broke the bread. It is communion with the body of Christ. And so is the wine, union with the blood of Christ.  Our rituals and confessions link us to countless generations. Past and present and from these deeply held beliefs we became. I am in Denmark to learn the art of meat curing, like Uncle Jacobus.  The last Sunday in Cape Town, I listened to Oom Giel with Uncle Jacobus and David de Villiers Graaff in attendance.  What a special day!

Now I am learning another gospel in Denmark. The art of curing bacon and the salt we use is saltpeter.  Uncle Jeppe reminded me of Oom Giel when he leaned forward in his chair pressing down on his desk. Passion for the subject. Authoritative.  “I am getting ahead of myself,” Uncle Jeppe said.  “The story of saltpeter goes back much further than Dr. Polenski”  He pulled the one drawer open and produced a big ledger in which he keeps notes written in his neat cursive handwriting. Jeppe taught me to keep such a book and at night to write down what I learned or observations from each day.  From these notes, I write my letters.

“Saltpeter is one of the magical salts of antiquity. For most of human history, we did not know what saltpeter was,” Jeppe preached on. “Saltpeter was used in ancient Asia and in Europe to cool beverages and to ice foods. There are reports dating back to the 1500’s about it. Without any doubt, it has been practiced and known for millennia before it was reported on in writing. (Reasbeck, M:  4)

From antiquity the ancient cured their meat with it and enjoyed its reddening effect, it’s preserving power and the amazing taste that it gives.  There are records of the Romans curing meat from 160 BCE. Earliest references to it go back to people in Mesopotamia from the Bronze Age who used it in the same way as the Romans. The characteristic flavor it imparts to meat was reported on in 1835 (Drs. Keeton, et al;  2009) but there can be little doubt that it was noticed since many thousands of years before the 1800’s.

The Chinese worked out how to use it in explosives. There is even a record of gunpowder being used in India as early as 1300 BCE, probably introduced by the Mongols. (Cressy, David, 2013:  12)

People started using it as a fertilizer when overuse of the land required us to replenish the nutrients in the soil.”

It was widely known traded in markets in China, India, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and England. It was its use by the military in gunpowder and it’s pharmaceutical use that made it generally available in Europe from the 1700s. This meant its usage as curing agent with salt increased and by 1750 its use was universal in curing mixes in Europe and England. Most recipe books from that time prescribed it as curing agent. (Drs Keeton, et al, 2009)

Despite its wide use by 1750, people still could not work out if saltpeter occurred naturally or was it something that had to be made by humans.   When they managed to get hold of it, they wondered how to take the impurities out of the salt which gave inconsistent curing results. People were baffled by its power.

Jeppe said that “Some speculated that it contained the Spiritus Mundi, the ‘nitrous universal spirit’ that could unlock the nature of the universe!”

He quoted Peter Whitehorney, the Elizabethan theorist who wrote in 1500’s.  He said about saltpeter, “I cannot tell how to be resolved, to say what thing properly it is except it seemeth it hath the sovereignty and quality of every element”.

Paracelsus, the founder of toxicology who lived in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s said that “saltpeter is a mythical as well as chemical substance with occult as well as material connections.” The people of his day saw  “a vital generative principle in saltpeter, ‘a notable mystery the which, albeit it be taken from the earth, yet it may lift up our eyes to heaven’”   (Cressy, David, 2013:  12)

Jeppe got up from behind his desk and lay the journal open in the palm of his one hand.  He was pacing up and down in front of his desk and continued reading.  From the 1400’s to the late 1800’s we have records of almost every scientist probing and testing it to determine its properties. No doubt, ancient scientists and stone age chemists did the same for many thousands of years before this time and in a way, it is the fascination with enigmatic salts like this that precipitated the science of chemistry.

“Saltpeter encompassed the “miraculum mundi”, the “material universalis” through which ‘our very lives and spirits were preserved.  Its threefold nature evoked ‘that incomprehensible mystery of … the divine trinity,’ quoting Thomas Timme who wrote in 1605, in his translation of the Paracelsian Joseph Duchesne.  “Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor and Privy Councillor under James I, described saltpeter as the energizing “spirit of the earth.””   (Cressy, David, 2013:  14)

“Robert Boyle who did experiments trying to understand saltpeter found it, ‘the most catholic of salts, a most puzzling concrete, vegetable, animal, and even mineral, both acid and alkaline, and partly fixed and partly volatile.  The knowledge of it may be very conductive to the discovery of several other bodies, and to the improvement of diverse parts of natural philosophy” (Cressy, David, 2013:  14)

Tristan, Lauren, I was completely dumbstruck!  A salt that I have been using almost every day since I landed in Denmark!  I was overcome by a feeling of deep respect for this chemical compound that we readily use. I stepped onto a stage where a Shakespearean drama has been acted out and I became part of a grand history.  I would never again hold it in my hand and think of it in the same way!

I recall Oom Giel’s sermon.”Live as people of the light. Be true to your most basic quality.” For millennia, saltpeter mesmerized us long before its essential nature could be explained. Oom Giel’s message was the same. Mesmerize others with your essential Christian character. There should be no need for debate or discussion.

It is late in the Østergaard family home. Andreas, his dad and I were discussing Uncle Jeppe’s lessons from today after supper. They promised to take me to meet a Chemistry professor at the University of Copenhagen on Saturday who will tell me a lot more. I am insanely excited. The house is now quite with everybody asleep except me, wrapping the day up with my customary letter to you guys.

I love you more than life itself and can’t wait to share what I learn from the university next weekend with you and will write again on Sunday.

Love,

Dad

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(c) eben van tonder

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References

Cressy, D.  2013.  Saltpeter.  Oxford University Press.

Cressy, D.  Saltpetre, State Security, and Vexation in Early Modern England.  The Ohio State University

Crookes, W.  1868/ 69.The Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science, Volume 3.  W A Townsend & Adams.

Deacon, M;  Rice, T;  Summerhayes, C.  2001. Understanding the Oceans: A Century of Ocean Exploration,   UCL Press.

Dunker, CF and Hankins OG.  October 1951.  A survey of farm curing methods.  Circular 894. US Department of agriculture

Frey, James W.   2009.  The Historian.  The Indian Saltpeter Trade, the Military Revolution and the Rise of Britain as a Global Superpower.   Blackwell Publishing.

Jones, Osman, 1933, Paper, Nitrite in cured meats, F.I.C., Analyst.

Drs. Keeton, J. T.;   Osburn, W. N.;  Hardin, M. D.;  2009.  Nathan S. Bryan3 .  A National Survey of Nitrite/ Nitrate concentration in cured meat products and non-meat foods available in retail.  Nutrition and Food Science Department, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M, University, College Station, TX 77843; Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Texas, Houston Health Science Center, Houston, TX 77030.

Kocher, AnnMarie and Loscalzo,  Joseph. 2011.  Nitrite and Nitrate in Human Health and Disease. Springer Science and Business Media LLC.

Lady Avelyn Wexcombe of Great Bedwyn, Barony of Skraeling Althing
(Melanie Reasbeck), Reviving the Use of Saltpetre for Refrigeration: a Period Technique.

Mauskopf, MSH.  1995.  Lavoisier and the improvement of gunpowder production/Lavoisier et l’amélioration de la production de poudre.  Revue d’histoire des sciences

Newman, L. F.. 1954.  Folklore. Folklore Enterprises Ltd.

Pegg, BR and Shahidi, F. 2000. Nitrite curing of meat. Food and Nutrition Press, Inc.

Shenango Valley News (Greenville, Pensylvania), 26 January 1883

Smith, Edward.  1876. Foods. D. Appleton and Company, New York.

Schaus, R; M.D. 1956.  GRIESS’ NITRITE TEST IN DIAGNOSIS OF URINARY INFECTION,    Journal of the American Medical Association.

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1938/mar/01/meat-prices

Photo credits:

The 1910 photo of the Groote Kerk, from https://www.artefacts.co.za/main/Buildings/bldg_images.php?bldgid=6457#25001

All other photos by Eben van Tonder

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