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 2000s to the late 1800s 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.
Mild Cured Bacon
It is Sunday. I arrived in the small town with Andreas and his dad on Friday. They planned for us to go away for the weekend for some time. Since we got here I wanted to write, but have been unable. My mind was numb ever since Friday morning. I learned exactly what I set out for when I left Cape Town. I have been dreaming about what I would do if I discover the secret of the mass production of good quality bacon. That I would write to Oscar, Will, and James first. Possibly to Dawie Hyman or David de Villiers Graaff, to Uncle Jakobus and my dad.
I sit by the window in my very small hotel room looking out onto the main street of the beautiful town. I am suddenly very tired. For the first time in years, I am able to exhale. It is strange that now that the main reason behind my quest has been resolved that the overarching thought in my mind is not our imminent success in South Africa, or bacon curing or science but it is you. (1)
You are pure and volcanic. You contain in your being the tempests that lash the great Cape land. The spirit of every wild animal and bird who makes the Table Mountain range their dwelling is in you. You are the arch mother of every ancient inhabitant of this land. The peoples who lived here even before the Khoe of the San moved down. This position you hold not by birth but by decree of the Ancients! Suddenly I think of us and the beauty of being with you and sharing the bounty of whatever this great land has to offer. The quest I am on is meaningful only because I can share it with you and the fact that life was good to me and allowed me to discover the truth behind exceptional bacon at my first port is magnificent. You are the first person I share this with. This is not my quest but ours; nor is it my triumph! It is ours! Like you, it is grace!
The Industrialisation of Bacon
On Friday morning, Uncle Jeppe called me to his office. It was only the two of us. “Eben”, he said, “its time we have a talk. I have a story to tell you. I know why you are here and will tell you what you are looking for.” Since I started with him he rotated me between his different departments. I did deboning to learn the different cuts. I did meat trimming. The departments that I liked most was brine preparation, pickling, and smoking.
I walked up the stairs in the very industrial looking building. In his office, I settled in the chair in front of his large dest. He sat forward in his chair and folded his hands in front of him. He spoke with a heavy Danish accent. “You will find very few places on earth who cure their bacon the way we do in this factory. Ya, in Denmark you will, but in no other land. How you ended up coming here, yes, of course, that is a miracle. You could not have known what I am about to tell you. Few people know. You came here because your ancestors hail from Denmark and the spice trader in Johannesburg talked you into it. You told me you and Oscar met him purely by accident! Of course, this is most amazing!” “There is one other place where they cure bacon like this. In Ireland. The reason for this is very simple. The invention is Irish! They industrialized the process!”
“All right, here the information is a bit sketchy but I believe the man responsible for the invention was a proficient chemist, William Oake. For sure it is reported that he was from Ulster in Northern Ireland. I was told by friends that mention of mild cured bacon, as it was called, appeared from Antrim, Northern Ireland as far back as 1837. He probably hails from a place not far from there.”
Oake industrialised bacon curing and he did so magnificently! It is, according to Uncle Jeppe, exactly the system developed by Oake sometime before 1837 which we follow in his factory. The carcass is put on the factory floor which must be made from concrete. We lightly sprinkle it with saltpeter so that any leftover blood is drawn from the meat. We then put the meat in curing tanks. The bottom of the tank is sprinkled with salt. We call the sides of pork, flitches. One row of flitches is stacked on the bottom. We lightly sprinkle saltpeter over them with sugar and salt. The next layer of flitches is stacked on top of the first but done crosswise. This is again sprinkled exactly as was done with the first and so it is repeated till the tank is full.
Lastly, a lid is placed inside the tank with an upright on top and pickle is poured into the tank. The lid and upright serve the purpose of keeping the bacon sides submerged. The pickle is made as follows: To every 1Olbs. of salt we add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar; 1 lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella.” Sal prunella a mixture of refined nitre and soda. Nitre, is refined saltpeter used in the manufacturing of explosives. We make the mix strong enough to float an egg; we let it settle a bit and then skim any impurities off before we pour it into the tank. (3) This means that saltpeter plays a very important role as does the grade of saltpeter.
It is important to turn the meat over after forty-eight hours into another tank. The meat that was on top is placed at the bottom of the next tank. Salt, sugar, and saltpeter are again used exactly as it was done during the first salting. Now the real trick comes in. The same pickle is used! After seven days it is removed and stacked on the floor putting some salt between each layer. We are careful not to stack it higher than four sides deep, until it has been on the floor for some days when it should be turned over, and stacked higher each time until the fourth week from the day it went into the tanks; the bacon will then be cured.
We then place the bacon in tanks of cold water. Here it is soaked overnight. The next morning we wash them well with a brush and hang to dry. When it is properly dried, we trim it and hang for smoking. (3) Oake’s invention is probably the the stepwise process of repeated light salting which starts as soon as the pig is slaughtered, the use of specially designed tanks, his insistence on a good factory floor, his scientific description of the preservation process, incorporating the steps of the turning of the meat, which was not being done with barrel pork, and the final soaking in cold water. The last important step in his process is incorporating the re-use of the old brine.”
Uncle Jeppe believes that Oake’s genius was to pull various technologies together that has been developed in various parts of the world over many years and develop a coherent system. He eliminated weaknesses and exploited strengths. He told me that “when I started looking into the different aspects of curing that is united in Oake’s invention, I wondered what exactly did Oake invent? It is possible that the entire process of handling the animal from killing to actual bacon is his claim to fame and not any one particular part of the invention. As is so often with great inventors, they often take information which is out there and combines it in new and useful ways. This may be the exact legacy of Oake. He thought through the entire process, packaged it, named it and then advocated it. To the Irish belongs the credit for this!”
“Friends of mine,” Uncle Jeppe said to prove his point “suggested similar techniques on the re-use of brine to me as far back as 1830. They wrote that the brine mix must be boiled over a gentle fire for the impurities to rise to the top before these were skimmed off and the brine allowed to cool down. They reported that such brine is re-used “with advantage”. Before it is re-used, the old brine must be boiled first and water and the other ingredients must be added proportionately. This may actually be a report on the process invented by Oake which may take the invention by Oake back to 1830.”
Like a good lawyer, Uncle Jeppe presented his next set of evidence, acknowledging that his first argument may not be that strong since the actual invention by Oake may be what was described by his friends. He pulled a document from his bottom drawer. “Here we have a report on the production of barrel pork which comes to us from 1776. He read from it carefully and slowly, as if he saw it for the first time and did not want to miss a point. “After the meat has cooled,” probably after the hair was removed, “it is cut into 5 lb. pieces which are then rubbed well with fine salt. The pieces are then placed between boards a weight brought to bear upon the upper board so as to squeeze out the blood. Afterward, the pieces are shaken to remove the surplus salt, [and] packed rather tightly in a barrel, which when full is closed. A hole is then drilled into the upper end and brine allowed to fill the barrel at the top, the brine being made of 4 lb. of salt (1.8kg or 10%), 2 lb. of brown sugar (0.9kg or 5%), and 4 gallons of water (15L or 84%) with a touch of salt-petre. When no more brine can enter, the hole is closed. The method of preserving meat not only assures that it keeps longer but also gives it a rather good taste.” (2)
Uncle Jeppe placed the paper on his desk and folded his hands again. “How closely does this describe what we do in our factory and the mild cure process of William Oake!” “Almost a 100 years later, in our time, pressure pumps were introduced to inject the brine into the meat through needles. A plank would be run across the barrel opening. The meat is placed on the plank for injection with between one and three needles. The three needles are fed brine through a hand pump that would pump brine directly from the barrel. The barrel is half filled with brine. After the meat has been injected, it is pushed off the plank, to fall into the brine which acts as a cover brine. It would remain in the cover brine the prescribed time before it is removed and smoked.”
The Danes are an impressive nation with a thoroughness about them which is remarkable. I am amazed at Uncle Jeppe’s knowledge of the art. He has friends all over the world who correspond with him regularly so that he is constantly learning. It is very impressive and I am honoured to know him!
As I sit here, writing, as tired as I am, I see him sitting in front of me. I want to write as much as I can today lest I forget something. The next element Oake improved on was the actual place where the curing is done. Instead of wood, Oake designed special curing tanks and moving away from barrels with its obvious drawback of using wood to cure bacon in and the accompanying problem of insects that inhabit the wood. The next major improvement was in the design of the actual brine. The most interesting aspect of his cure is his use of sal prunella. He used a very pure form of saltpeter. Not the kind that is used as fertilizer, but the kind that is used to make black powder. The Irish were, at the time of Oake’s invention, actively experimenting with preservatives in their medical universities. Uncle Jeppe said that he “believes the invention was in part done, because of knowledge they developed on how to preserve human bodies for the purpose of gaining medical knowledge or training physicians. Oake was probably trained by men, proficient in the morbid arts.”
“Apart from the use of sal prunella, Oak used a position proposed by none other than Liebig that the preserving power of salt was not due to the chemistry of salt or some secret power contained in it but due to the fact that it drew out the moisture from meat. Oake explains that it was believed that salt drew out the albumen from the meat and it is when water comes into contact with the albumen that putrefaction sets in. The essence of the invention, according to him, is that the meat is cured while the albumen remains in the meat and does not taste as salty as dry cured bacon. (2)
Uncle Jeppes conclusion is that “Oake’s invention rests, then, on the stepwise process, the use of specially designed tanks and his scientific description of the preservation process which was made possible by his training as a chemist. This gave his system instant credibility because he was able to describe it in the scientific language of our time.”
The thing about the pickle
The re-use of the brine is absolutely mesmerisingly interesting! Some of the men working with me on the floor call it the mother brine. Andreas’ mom tells me that the exact same thing happens when she makes sourdough bread. They keep a small piece of dough which they constantly feed and re-use. They call it the mother dough. In some household, there are doughs of which the age is measured in generations. In the same way, the bacon or ham brine is reused for many years. The older the brine, the better! When it becomes a bit muddy, all you do is to boil it and leave it to cool down. Let any sediment sink to the bottom and scoop the clear brine off after you removed any impurities that may have floated to the surface. (5)
Smoking Bacon and Hams
After the bacon has been cured, it is smoked. I have spent two weeks in the smoking department. The most important point I learned is to have the smoke as cool as possible before coming into contact with the bacon. This is the reason why the bacon or hams should hang as high as possible from the fire below. The floor should be 6ft. 6in. or 7ft. from the ground with only a slight opening between the flooring boards to allow the smoke to make its way up to where the bacon is hung.
The flitches or hams should be hung as close together as possible, but should never touch. This will allow the smoke to penetrate from every side. The men who work in the department try and teach me as much as possible so that when I get back to Cape Town, I can build a perfect smokehouse. They tell me that a small slide can be put in the gable of the smokehouse to regulate the smoke as required. A place should be made in the center of the floor, say 6ft. by 3ft., where the sawdust is placed. This is lighted, and if the door is kept closed there will be no flame, but the sawdust will smoulder and cause a great quantity of smoke. From twenty-four to forty-eight hours will suffice to properly smoke the bacon if the weather is suitable, after which it may be packed and forwarded to market. Where teatree (Melaleuca) is obtainable it is excellent for smoking; it imparts a flavor to the bacon which is much appreciated by many people. (6)
The new system that Oake developed is much cheaper than dry curing and the bacon is soft and not nearly as salty as dry cured bacon. The bacon lasts a lot longer in any climate compared to dry cured bacon. The downside of the entire undertaking is the huge capital input that is needed to build such a factory. Uncle Jeppe told me that I should not be overly worried about this because the Danes has, in his opinion, devised the most perfect way of overcoming this hurdle.
This is exactly what I was hoping to learn from the Harris operations in Calne. I don’t even know if they use this exact system, nor do I care right now. The system is fast, cheap and the results are spectacular. My dad would approve of the quality and this is really all I need. It is a perfect model to follow back home. What I have been learning in Denmark is unique. I thought this is how all Europe is doing it. The uniqueness of the system blows my mind.
How did it get to Denmark?
Uncle Jeppe sat back in his chair and wiped his one hand over his face. “Now young man, he continued, how did it happen that this perfect system of bacon production ended up in Denmark before almost any other nation on earth even heard of it?” As if he really ponders the point he gets up and looks out of the window onto a lush green garden below from his second story office. He has a conversation with himself. “A very good question! Indeed, a very good question!”
“The year was 1880,” he began answering himself. “Denmark is a tiny nation. To remain competitive, we realised many years ago that we have to learn as much as we can from other nations and peoples and adapt. Every industry is constantly looking where new discoveries have been made and how we can adapt. This is very Danish.”
“Nine years ago, this factory did not exist nor did we know how to make industrial bacon. We were large dairy farmers and a sizable pork industry developed from the by-products of dairy farming. it was very simple and profitable. Raise pigs on the by-products from milk and sell it to England and Germany. Someone from the pork industry learned about the new mild cured bacon produced in Ireland. We tried many times to sent people to learn the techniques, but the Irish were careful not to employ the young Danish men we sent over for employment in their large bacon plants. The thing about Ireland is that the workers often go on strike and how they are treated by the companies they work for is often very harsh. Those on strike do not get paid and stand a large chance to be laid off.”
“In 1880 there was a strike among butchers in the Irish town of Waterford. Some shrewd members of the Danish pork processing guild happened to be in Ireland at that time, in Waterford and at the promise of lucrative employment in Denmark managed to persuade a number of the striking men to return with them to Denmark. In Denmark, we quickly arranged for them to train our butchers. It was at such a training seminar where I learned the art.”
Uncle Jeppe learned the art of curing bacon the Irish way from these Irish butchers and so did many other Danish butchers. I am exhausted. This is not the end of Uncle Jeppe’s Friday revelation to me. How and why the Danish people overnight became the largest curers of bacon on earth is the second installment of this great story. It is important, particularly to us in South Africa because it gives a model for our bacon curing company. It is the secret of how we will be able to raise the cash needed to put a factory up to accommodate this exact system. It is no less important than what I just described. In not a single point. Nor is it less interesting. The story will keep you riveted like a good novel, but my mind is shutting off. I need rest and will continue tomorrow. My mind is still racing but I am so exhausted that tiredness is taking over. I will now sleep well! After you read my letters, please show them to my mom and dad and please mail them on to Oscar. How I wish that you were here with me today! Off all the days since I am gone, I miss you more than ever tonight!
(c) eben van tonder
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Note 1: The actual event was when I visited an English town with Jeppe. I was sitting at the window looking out on the main town square, writing an email to the kids. I very homesick and felt that I have achieved my goal being in Egland.
Note 2: The exact quote about the system invented by Oake is, “He discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were to be found apart from chloride of sodium (salt), and that the obnoxious effects of dissolving the albumen in the curing process could, therefore, be avoided. This is supposed to be the key to the new system of curing. By the new process of treatment, it is said that the bacon and hams, although thoroughly cured with the very essence of salt, still retain all the albumen originally in the meat, and yet do not taste salty to the palate.” (Molineux, 1898)
Note 3: “As the carcasses are cut up the portions are laid on the floor of the factory (which should be made of concrete or flagged), flesh uppermost, and lightly powdered over with saltpetre, so as to drain off any blood. It can then be placed in the tanks for salting in the following manner: — Sprinkle the bottom of the tank with salt, then put in a layer of sides or flitches, sprinkle saltpetre over them lightly, and then salt and sugar. The next layer of sides or flitches is put in crosswise, and served in the same way, and so on until the tank is full. Then place a lid to fit inside the tank (inch battens 3in. apart will do) ; fix an upright on top of the lid to keep the bacon from rising when putting in the pickle. The pickle to be made as follows : — To every 1Olbs. of salt add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar, lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella. Make it strong enough to float an egg ; let it settle for some time, then skim, and it is ready to go on to the meat.” (Molineux, 1898)
Explanatory note by Eben: Note Sal-Prunella is, according to Errors of Speech or Spelling by E. Cobham Brewer, Vol II, published by William Tegg and Co, London, 1877, a mixture of refined nitre and soda. Nitre, as used at this time was refined saltpeter used in the manufacturing of explosives.
Note 4: “At the end of forty-eight hours turn the meat over into another tank, taking care to put the sides that were on top in the bottom of next tank, treating it as regards saltpetre, salt, and sugar exactly the same as at first, and using the same pickle. It can then remain until the seventh day from when first put in. It can then be taken out, and stacked on the floor of the factory, putting some salt between each layer, but do not stack higher than four sides deep, until it has been on the floor for some days, when it should be turned over, and stacked higher each time until the fourth week from the day it went into the tanks; the bacon will then be cured.
The bacon can then be placed in tanks containing cold water, and allowed to soak all night. Wash well with a brush, then hang up to dry, and when properly dry it can be trimmed and smoked.” (Molineux, 1898)
Note 5: “The same pickle can be used for many years — the older the better; it only requires, when it becomes somewhat muddy, to be boiled and clarified. I have seen pickle which had been used in one factory for sixteen years, and that factory produces some of the best bacon and hams in Australia.” (Molineux, 1898)
Note 6: “Smoking Bacon and Hams. The smokehouse should be built according to the intended output of bacon and hams, and the walls of the building should not be less than 12ft. high. One of the principal things in smoking bacon is to have the smoke as cool as possible before coming into contact with the bacon, and to assist this it is well to put a floor 6ft. 6in. or 7ft. from the ground, just allowing a slight opening between the flooring boards to allow the smoke to make its way up to where the bacon is hung. The flitches or hams should be hung as close together as not to touch, so as to allow the smoke to penetrate every portion. A small slide can be put in the gable of the smokehouse to regulate the smoke as required. A place should be made in the centre of the floor, say 6ft. by 3ft., where the sawdust is placed. This is lighted, and if the door is kept closed there will be no flame, but the sawdust will smoulder and cause a great quantity of smoke. From twenty-four to forty-eight hours will suffice to properly smoke the bacon if the weather is suitable, after which it may be packed and forwarded to market.
Where teatree (Melaleuca) is obtainable it is excellent for smoking ; it imparts a flavor to the bacon which is much appreciated by many people.” (Molineux, 1898)
Note 7: “Mild-cure Bacon. — In all of the large cities of Britain and the European continent, the public demand is for mild-cure bacon. The system of cure is very simple and perfect, but requires expenditure of at least £1,000 on the plant for carrying it out. By this process the albumen of the meat is retained and is not coagulated, so that the bacon is devoid of excessive salt, is by no means hard or dry, and there is no loss of weight in the curing. A factory costing £2,000 to construct could easily cure 400 pigs per day. The process takes about a month to complete, but after the first day there is no further labor involved.” (Molineux, 1898)
Note 8: Quote from Holland, LZ, 2003: 9, 10
Fereira, J.. Treatise of Food and Diet. Fowler & Wells. 1843. P 109, Sodium of Chloride
Molineux, (editor). 1898. The Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia, Molineux was the General Secretary of Agriculture, South Australia, Volume 1 covering August 1897 – July 1898 and printed in Adelaide by C. E. Bristow, Government Printer in 1898.
Robert Goodrich and members of the Salt Cured Pig
Photos of Minette and I taken by myself