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.
Dry Cured Bacon
I had an amazing childhood. Once a year, every winter, we would go to my grandfather, Oupa Eben’s farm. The adult men would hunt game for biltong and we would slaughter a pig and make our own bacon. My grandfather’s full name was Ebenhaezer and his surname was Kok. Kok is the Dutch word for chef or kook. The occupation of a very distant relative is certainly the historical roots of the surname. My mom insisted that I be christened Ebenhaezer Kok van Tonder, after my grandfather, despite her dad’s opposition to using his full name and surname as my names. “Just call the boy, Eben,” he told her, but she did not and I was stuck with a long name of biblical and Dutch origins.
All the kids helped to make the biltong, droe wors, and bacon. It was an exciting time for the entire family to work together and each child got a chance to help with the different aspects of butchering and curing. From as early as I can remember I was fascinated by the curing process. In Cape Town, I never missed going with my dad to visit Uncle Jacobus. They would discuss politics and bacon and in those days it was not always two different subjects. Often producing bacon had its own politics. For years we made our bacon the same way that Uncle Jacobus and most of the other butchers in Cape Town cured theirs.
Feeding and Size
The basic process was simple. It started with selecting the right pig and preparing it with the right feed. The pigs used for bacon should not be too big so that the salt strike through the meat more equally and the smoke penetrate more perfectly. In Johannesburg, Uncle Jacobus told my dad once, the pigs should be fed maize four to five weeks before they are slaughtered to ensure that the meat is nice and compact, but in the Cape Colony, I know it is wheat or young barley. Besides firming the meat up, it makes the kidney fat not to be greasy and runny like lard, but hard like beef or mutton fat or suet around the kidneys.
The curing salt was mixed by ourselves. It was 27 kg of the finest Cape salt from the West Coast, mixed with 500g of Saltpeter for every 500kg pork to be cured. Salt quality is related to its purity. Contaminated salt doesn’t cure meat well.
The next step is salting. The mixture of salt and saltpeter is rubbed into the meat and spread liberally over the outside. Butchers are never concerned with oversalting, but rather not giving the meat enough time to cure. The three curing ingredients, any good butcher will tell you, are salt, saltpeter and time. In the Kok and Van Tonder household we followed the same philosophy.
The well-trained Cape or Johannesburg butcher sprinkle salt in the bottom of the caskets where the meat was kept during the process and lay it skin down on top of the salt, beginning with hams and shoulders and then placing the small pieces on top.
Four or five days later the meat was removed and thoroughly rubbed with salt again. Some butchers, at this point, add a teaspoon of red pepper to each piece. We never did. Blood and meat juices that drained out into the casket were cleared out before the meat is put back. The meat had to be dried out through the process of salting.
After the first week of salting, the meat was rested to allow the salt to completely penetrate through the meat. How long the meat rested depends on the size of the piece. The small pieces, placed at the top will be done two weeks later and can be removed. Small pieces can, therefore, be salted and rested in 19 days. The casket is repacked with only the large pieces. It is important to now rotate the larger pieces so that the ones that were at the bottom be placed at the top and those from the top, at the bottom. The reason for this is because pressure interferes with the spread of salt through the meat. Shoulders will be thoroughly salted in about three weeks and hams in four.
The colonies became used to smoked bacon because smoking was always done on bacon for exports from England. Smoked bacon lasts longer. In South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, America and in Canada, bacon is almost always smoked because this is what people became used to eating. At that time butchers started building smokehouses and it was important that the bacon should not touch the sides of the smokehouse or that it is not too crowded when hanged so that the meat pieces touch. There had to be a good circulation of smoke and air in the smokehouse.
The smoking time and resting time was the same. Four weeks for hams, three weeks for shoulders and two weeks for small pieces. Humidity is the main reasons why it has always been difficult to make good bacon in the Cape Colony. The Cape has winter rainfall and dampness is not good for smoking bacon. Dampness that settles on the meat gives the bacon a sour taste. This is the reason why we do not cure our bacon at home but instead trek to my grandparent’s farm into the interior where winters are dry.
Oakwood is good enough for smoking but good American or European bacon is smoked with maple chips or hickory logs. Two fires a day is enough if they are well made. I know that some butchers occasionally throw some red pepper on the fire. It is said by some that it keeps insects away after smoking and improves the flavour somewhat.
After smoking, the bacon is matured by leaving it in the smokehouse for at least the same length of time as it was rested. No shorter than two weeks. If the smokehouses are secure against insects and are dark and cool, the meat can be kept there for maturing, but Uncle Jacobus tells me there are only a few in the colony like that. When summer approaches, the bacon is, in any case, taken down and packed away for storage. We always covered it with salt, hickory ash or oat when it was packed away to secure it against insects and dripping. We kept it in a cool, dry place. Hams, my dad believed at that time, are best packed in powdered charcoal. This not only prevents insects from getting to it but also off flavours from developing. It also keeps the meat dry (1)
The meat was salty, for sure and as my parents did not listen to my Oupa Eben’s advice on naming me, so they did not stick to Uncle Jacobus’ recipe. My dad never told me where he got the new recipe from, but when I was in my early teens him and Oupa Eben changed the recipe. I am sure he got it from an immigrant or a traveler who stayed over at the Cape. He was not a butcher and would not have come up with it himself.
The new recipe was a major change. Ouma Susan and my mom were very skeptical. I heard them in the kitchen complaining that we are about to waste a very nice pig. I don’t think my dad even discussed it with Uncle Jacobus who was a very conservative man when it came to meat. He was sure to have talked my dad out of such a wild scheme, I am sure!
The pig was selected in the usual way and prepared by feeding it wheat by Oupa. We waited for a very cold morning when the pig was killed and the hams and sides were left to dry in the breeze outside and then placed in the cooler. The cooler was a new addition to the farm. It was a square construction, similar to the smokehouse, built from with two layers of brick, filled in with charcoal in the middle. Water was trickled down from its roof over the sides and onto the charcoal. After the meat dried, it was cooled down in this manner for 24 hours or so.
The major change was that my dad used molasses. After the cooling and drying, the hams and sides were rubbed with it. They handled the preparation of the salt completely differently. The salt was put in a cast iron pan and fried till it was red hot and a dry fine powder formed. The hot salt was then quickly spread over the smeared pork sides and hams. When it cooled down sufficiently, it was thoroughly mixed in by hand. The meat was returned to the cooler and after three days the process was repeated. My dad gave thick hams an extra treatment by making small cuts in the meat all the way to the joints and filling it with hot salt.
This was the new “Van Tonder” Salting and Drying steps. It was repacked in the cooler and left for a couple of weeks. They made sure that the cooler was dry. After two or three weeks, it was ready for smoking.
During smoking, great care was taken to ensure the heat stays as low as possible by not making more than two fires per day. As always, my dad used oak wood, but he told me that in the Transvaal they would probably use corn cobs if they tried to imitate our new recipe. Apparently, the Germans also use hickory.
The new recipe called for one to calculate the time that the meat is totally surrounded by smoke which had to be a total of 100 to 120 hours. This worked out to around 15 days if the smoke was kept up for 8 hours in the day and the meat was left in the smokehouse overnight with no fire. As kids, it was our job to regularly inspect the smokehouse to see if the smoke is still thick enough and the temperature still low. Any deviation was immediately reported and later years the entire process was left to us.
After smoking the meat was hung up in a dry and cool place to mature for two or three weeks as we have always done. The day when my dad walked into the large farmhouse with a piece of bacon in his one hand for testing, that day I learned a valuable lesson about success. You know it when you, in this instance, taste it and triumph was literally sweet. My mom, Ouma Susan, and all the kids came into the kitchen. My Oupa Eben followed close on my dads heels. I knew they tested it in the cooler already and this was my dad’s victory parade. My mom took a large pan and placed it on the coal stove. She dropped a small piece of butter into it and as soon as it started to bubble, she placed the thinly sliced rashers of bacon onto it.
A soft, sweet, delicious aroma filled the kitchen. It slowly and gently crept through the entire house. I saw the bacon rashers in the thick black pan change colour from a soft pale white to a dark golden brown as the sugar caramelised. She took a fork and picked each rasher up with care, placing them on a plate. We each had some.
The flavour exploded in my mouth, expecting the salty taste of our old recipe. This was also salty, but in between every experience of salt was a cascade of delightful soft sweetness delivered by the molasses. The pork, molasses, and salt proved to be perfect dance partners. That day I learned a second lesson which I will never forget. Good food elicits a powerful physical sensation. I tasted the bacon with my entire body. It was heavenly!
My dad was sitting by the table watching our every reaction. My mom stood motionless in the middle of the floor, as if in a trance. She was a “blunt” woman, not given to drama, but this time was different. As if the bacon caused temporary insanity, she slowly turned to my dad. “I have never. . . . ” My Oupa completed her sentence by paraphrasing what we all knew she wanted to say. “Ongelooflik!” (unbelievable)
So, a legend was born. When we got home my dad took some of the bacon to Uncle Jacobus. We sat under the enormous trees around his Woodstock house talking bacon till late that night. He loved it. To say that bacon was a deeply entrenched subject in our family is not an understatement.
Combrink & Co. soon started selling bacon cured with my dad’s recipe. Strangers would stop him in the street and congratulate him on it. The mayor once proposed a toast to him and wished that he would grace the Cape Colony with much more similar inspirations. We kept going to the farm every year to make our own. When the process was done we would roll the bacon in newspapers and tightly pack it in caskets, covering the packed meat with a thick layer of wood ash. We kept making small changes every year and the process of making it remained as enjoyable as eating it.
It is strange that even as a child, being on the farm with my parents, grandparents, brothers, cousins, uncles, and aunts, I knew that these days would not last. That knowledge did not make me sad. It created in me a desire, on the one hand, to tell the story and on the other hand to start on a lifelong quest of creating many similar experiences. One day, I knew, it would all end, for me also, but until that day it became a lifelong quest to never stop making delicious bacon and insatiable experiences. I was happy.
One day we were on a neighbor’s farm playing in the mulberry trees when my dad called us to the house. Oupa Eben passed away from a heart attack that morning on the doctor’s table during a checkup. Back on their farm, I was crying in the kitchen and my mom held me saying that there is now only one Eben left in our family.
I remember how my grandmom cried when she cleared his razor from the bathroom which he used that morning. Soon my dear grandmom herself would follow him to their eternal home as would my grandparents on my dad’s side. Eventually, my mom and dad also departed and in the end, I knew that life is as life always was and is meant to be.
As I sit here, years later, in a small apartment in Johannesburg I know that even though they are all gone we have their memories and our amazing stories. We forever will have the sweet smell of delicious bacon cured with salt and molasses, cold smoked to perfection over two weeks on my grandparent’s farm. Their stories and the soft, gentle aroma of bacon lingering in the old farmhouse remains as vivid to me as the day it was created.
I am glad my mom did not listen to my Oupa and shorten my names.
(c) eben van tonder
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Note 1. Modern dry curing procedure. See Dry Cured Cold Smoked Bacon
Making Bacon, New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusettes), 29 Jan 1840, p3.
Dry curing pork and beef (with molasses), The Indiana Herald, 17 December 1879, page 6, recipe by Mr. Gilette as told by an American Agriculturalist.
Meat Curing and Smokehouse – Built in Goria after plans by the United States Dep of Agriculture. Photo – 1919 from Woodford County Journal (Eureka, Illinois), 20 Jan 1919, p 3.