Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living
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 late 1800 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 mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
The Danish Cooperatives and Saltpeter
Copenhagen, March 1891
My dear Minette,
It is Sunday afternoon. I slept most of the morning. I am excited and refreshed. I know you are here in spirit. Life has turned out much more insanely exciting than I could ever have hoped for. The entire thing is a grand adventure of discovery. I could never dream that trying to unlock the secrets of bacon would be as insanely exciting as it all turned out to be. Hopefully, you will receive the letter I wrote yesterday before you get this one. I will hold on to it and post it next Friday.
I have been wondering about meat curing for as long as I can remember. Even as a child I tried to imagine how people discovered that dry meat lasts longer. Initially, I believe that people ate meat raw or fermented. Animal carcasses that are left outside will start to ferment. Fermentation breaks the tough muscles down and the first priority of humans must have been to find ways to get tough game meat soft. Leaving the carcass then outside or in water to protect it from preditors would have been a natural way of softening the meat. Later, boiling the meat and roasting it over fire became other ways to soften meat or pulverizing it with a stick or a rock.
I imagine that as people soon discovered that dry meat lasts long and the wonderful benefits of salt. Food was initially only seen as something to consume in order to fuel our bodies. As humans developed, we started changing food into an art form. The king or leader and people with means could now demand the best meat. We learned that meat, like any other food, can be prepared in many different ways to improve the taste and food changed into art. These different techniques of “softening” meat were becoming art in themselves and Sharma, medicine men and women and housewives became the custodians of this new technology.
When we make bacon, we use a technique called curing. Cured meat is identified by three things. The salt and saltpeter change the colour of the meat. When an animal is killed, the meat blooms a beautiful red colour. If you do not rub it with saltpeter, it changes to a dull brown colour. If you, however, rub it with a mixture of salt and saltpeter, it changes the colour to a pinkish-reddish colour. Related to the science of making good bacon, colour is the first key.
The second thing that saltpeter does is to impart a unique cured flavour to the meat. The third characteristic of cured meat is taste. The last one is longevity. Cured meat lasts long outside a refrigerator and in Europe is the staple food in many countries as far as meat is concerned.
I know saltpeter is important because it imparts all three characteristics to bacon. Let me rather say it like this. Using Saltpeter is not the only guarantee for good bacon, but leaving it out of the salt-rub, you will never get the right colour, taste or longevity. You have the option of drying the meat without saltpeter in which case it will also last longer, but the meat will be dry and it will not have the characteristic taste of cured meat.
In South Africa, the old Dutch farmers fused their knowledge of drying meat in the chimnies in Holland and the North European practice of using vinegar in their hams with the indigenous practice of hanging meat out in the sun and wind to dry. I have found this to be an ancient practice among all the peoples of southern Africa that I met in my travels.
The Dutch farmers add coriander and black pepper with salt to the vinegar to create what they call biltong. The coriander and black pepper were initially added to mask any off-flavours in case the meat did not dry quick enough and some spoiling of meat has set in. This is a good example where drying works well to preserve meat with or without saltpeter. Saltpeter can only be left out of the recipe if vinegar is used and lots of salt.
I have always known that the secret of bacon is in saltpeter, but saltpeter is not everything that goes into the making of the best bacon on earth. So, my quest to understand bacon starts with saltpeter. What is it and why does it have the power to give longevity to meat, change the colour back to the colour of freshly slaughtered meat why does it give this unique taste? These are the questions I knew I had to answer first.
Besides understanding saltpeter, our goal in Cape Town is to set up a factory and not merely making bacon for home use. Scale changes everything. This is a lesson I learned from very early on. On my grandfathers’ farm, I have seen how easy it is to make the best bacon on earth if we make it for our family only. When my dad’s bacon became famous and Dawid de Villiers Graaff placed an order with us, we made five-time more we normally do. It was a disaster! Everything went wrong. We had more workers to help, but they were not trained. We could not keep the meat cool and in the end, we had to feed most of the meat to our dogs. Scale is difficult and the importance of the right structure of a bacon factory is something that we can not under-estimate. Right from the word go, I came face to face with lessons pertaining to structure and ingredients and the first ingredient to look at was saltpeter!
The Spirit of the Danes
The morning was crisp and interesting. Andreas’ dad is an impressive man. He is very intelligent with an amazing knowledge of many things. He gave me a lot of perspective on what Jeppe told me on Friday. For example, how did it come about that a man of Jeppes age was exposed to learning new butchering and curing techniques? Why was there in Denmark such a focus on continued education that people showed up for lessons by the Irish, in sufficient numbers to make a proper transfer of skills possible. How did the most current thing about the structure of a bacon plant fit so nicely into the Danish culture? How were the Danish people inspired to take up a new way of doing things?
It often takes a prophet to change long-held perceptions; a visionary to change entrenched positions! An inspirational man who draws his own strength from the Divine to lift peoples gaze from their own depressed positions and onto better things. To instill hope. These are however not all that is needed because these are often also the qualities of an imposter and someone who destroys. What is needed are all these qualities with a simple and effective plan to improve things. A person who can lead people to a better and more profitable future.
Andreas’ dad told me about just such a man. In many ways, he is the father of the agricultural miracle of Denmark. It may sound like a boring report on men and women who lived very long ago, but the truth is that it is an inspirational story about men and women with their backs against the wall. Who triumphed against the odds. The man at the center of the story is N. F. S. Grundtvig.
Denmark was an impoverished nation. They lost Schleswig-Holstein to Germany. The soil of their lands was depleted and yielding fewer crops with every harvest. In all of Europe, the Danish soil seemed to be the poorest. The conditions in 1864 were dire and farmers had little hope competing with Russia and America with their crops. They were not making money. Apart from little diversified agriculture, there was very little money in the country. Farmers identified dairy farming as a lucrative diversification of their economy, but they lacked the money to make their plans a reality. The depleted soil on the farms offered little collateral for lenders to advance money against.
I wish so much that I would get every South African to hear their message. We are a nation of faith and still, we complain as if we have no hope. What we need in South Africa is a prophet, a visionary and a very good plan! The plan will in all likelihood have to be built on very practical education! It is exactly for this reason that I am here! I need to be very clear on the plan! To my great amazement, the bedrock of the structure of the Danish bacon factory is in the first place not on the mechanics of doing it one way as opposed to another way. The basis of their entire system rests on an almost religious belief in the power of cooperation and education!
Grundtvig was a churchman who lived between 1783 and 1872 and was described by some as the Apostle to Denmark. He taught that Danish people must love their own country above all, more than any other real estate on earth. He believed that Danes must love God and trust each other; their own skill and ability to solve problems; that success will come through cooperation. The principal way to achieve this was through education and what he called the “cultivation of the people.” This was distilled through his concept of high school which is completely different from high school in the rest of the world.
N. F. S. Grundtvig’s high schools were initially attended by people from the age of 18 to 60 or even older and everyone in between. Every farmer’s adult son and daughter, every farmer himself or his wife, considered it a loss not to attend High School for at least one term. The poor and the rich paid the same small fees and lectures covered an array of interesting subjects. Religion and nationalism were part of the course, but it never dominated the other subjects. Men and women looked forward to high school in the same way as Americans looked forward to a trip to Europe. What he achieved is that even more than the information that was imparted, a general method of teamwork was created which would become the basis for cooperative farming and production. Later, men and women aged between 16 and 35 mostly attended these high schools. Young men attended in the winter and young ladies, in the summer. Experimental agricultural farms were set up around the schools. The teaching was not done from textbooks, but from practice.
His teachings against individualism slowly but surely sowed the seeds which germinated into mutual trust and a belief that by doing things together, more can be achieved. Directly as a result of this, in 1881/ 1882 the first cooperative dairy farm was established in Jutland. The Danes realised that to be successful, they must find ways for their fields to yield better crops and they must develop better ways to use their crops, once harvested. Better than selling it at depressed margins on the open market in competition with the Russians and the Americans would be to utilise it to produce commodities. On par with a relentless focus on scientific farming practices was unprecedented cooperation. The middle man had to eliminate. The farmer and the salesman joined forces and discovered that by cooperating they always had “something to go on,” a phrase which became an example of the new approach.
The cooperatives were set up where every member had equal rights. Each member of the dairy cooperative had one vote and his milk was collected every morning and the cooperative agents returned the skimmed milk. The cows, therefore, produced butter and feed for the pigs. Money is loaned from the bank. Each member made himself responsible for repaying the loan in accordance with the number of cows he had. Every seven days, the members received 25% of the value of the milk they delivered to the cooperative. Apart from selling the milk to the cooperative, the member was entitled to his shares of the profit on the sale of the produce. The cooperative kept 25% from which running expenses were paid and the loan was repaid.
There is another reason, Andreas’ dad tells me, why the Danish system works so well. Not only did they manage themselves, but they also elected farmers to positions of power in government. It was not only, like the Americans, for the people, by the people, but the Danes took it one step further. The need and most pressing priority was their agriculture and so the cooperatives elected representatives for the farmers, by the farmers to the government. These men and women abhor profiteering so that the priority is the benefit of the many. This hatred for large trusts and monopolies goes back to the old feudal system which was prevalent in Europe. Peasants did not own land, but in Denmark, this changed and the peasants were allowed to own their own farms. This gave them every stimulus and motivation to improve the small farms. It is said that 90% of all farmland in Denmark is owned by small scale farmers. The first revolution in Danish agriculture was ownership.
The new farm owners started protesting against rulership and land aristocracy. They sought more political power and proper representation. They worked out a constructive plan to break up the remaining large feudal farms and to distribute it among sons and daughters of the workers. Farm ownership, a systematic and thorough education system and the cooperative model for farming and production all work together. The one feeding the other and strengthening the overall agricultural experiment. In large part, the middle man was eliminated and the few matters run by the state are done for the benefit of the farmers and not for the government to make a profit. A good example is the railways. Still, the Danish farmer is not a socialist. They simply believe in cooperation who thinks in terms of self-help and are not reliant on the state for help.
As Andreas’ dad spoke, I again wished I could get him to South Africa to come and tell them how it was done in Denmark. I know that cooperation runs much deeper than simply pooling resources. The role of education and private ownership was the basis of the Danish miracle and I see no reason why the exact same model cant work in South Africa. The one reason I see is how deeply distrust runs between the different peoples who call South Africa their home.
Skimmed Milk to Pork to Bacon
In Denmark, it was probably the need to find a use for the skimmed milk that gave the farmers the idea of raising pigs in the same way that the need to feed cows indoor for nine months of the year forced them into intensive farming in fodder. Pig farming therefore directly grew out of dairy farming. It was going well with the establishment of cooperative pig farming and the live pigs were sold to Germany.
Before 1888, Danish farmers relied on selling all their live pigs in Germany. The Germans, in turn, produced the finest Hamburg bacon and Hams from it and it was mainly sold to England. A disaster struck the Danish pork industry when swine fever broke out in the country in the autumn of 1887. This halted all export of live pigs. Exports to Germany fell from 230 000 in 1886 to only 16 000 in 1888. One of the most insane industrial transformations followed. In a staggering display, the Danes identified the problem, worked out the solution and dedicated every available nation resource to solving it. The creation of large bacon curing cooperatives was born out of the need to switch from exporting live pigs to processed pork in the form of bacon and to sell it directly to the country where the Germans were selling the processed Danish pork namely England. The project was a stunning success. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.
After breeding and pig farming, the next step in great bacon production is slaughtering. On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region created the first shared abattoir. On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsens’s Share Abattoir), received their first live pigs for slaughter. In 1887 and over the next few years eight such cooperative abattoirs were set up and there is still no end in sight where it will end. Each is in excellent running condition. As in the case with the dairy farmers, each member of the cooperative has only one vote. The profit of the middleman and the volumes exported for butter and bacon are determined by the cooperative. The market price is fixed in Copenhagen on a daily basis by an impartial committee.
Every farmer in Denmark or manager of a bacon curing plant cant be a scientific person, and yet, it is important that farmers and factory managers alike know something of the science underpinning their trade. It is here where the high school lessons play an important role because it provides a solid foundation and the government is doing the rest. They have a system of inspectors who look after farms and factories where they do the exact calculations, for example, to show how much butter must be produced from the milk of each cow. The reason for the inspections was that the Danish Government were required to guarantee the quality of the bacon and the butter it delivered to England, but it had the double benefit of on the one hand guarantees the quality and satisfy the English requirements and on the other hand, improved the quality by assisting the farmers and producers.
The logic of cooperation was extended into England, the largest market for Danish bacon. Some years ago the English bacon market was being serviced for the Danes by middlemen. The farmers organised a selling agency in England to represent them known as the Danish Bacon Company of London. The concept was applied to many areas of the Danish economy. Banking and buying in Denmark are likewise done cooperatively. Every village has a cooperative store.
The farmer in Denmark also uses the state in another interesting way. Commissions are sent abroad to study foreign methods. It was most probably on one of these trips that the Danes came across the striking workers in Ireland whom they brought back to Denmark to teach them mild curing. Mild curing technology that came from Ireland years earlier became the cornerstone of Danish bacon. It was this industrialised model that allowed the Danes to become the undisputed leaders in the world bacon trade. The Danes did exactly what we intend doing namely learning not only how the cooperative factory is set up, but also the inner workings of such a factory. They learned this from the Irish and I intend learning it from them! That will satisfy one of the cornerstone reasons why I am in Denmark.
Neat, Prepared, Ready
Many years ago, on one of my visits to Johannesburg, I met another chemicals traders with the name of Willie Oosthuizen. Willie told me that wherever I am in the world, before I leave home, every morning I must ask myself, “am I ready, prepared and neat? These are according to him, the three essentials without which nobody will be in a position to use opportunities that come our way every day.
Thinking about the Danish Bacon trade, I realise that the government ensured that when the right time came, the industry was ready, prepared and in a general position of neatness. It is a strange thing that as we walked through this small Danish town and I saw the small but neat Danish houses, that I could see this Danish approach to life in everything. I do not see class differences between people. I see people from all walks of life getting together in small coffee shops at the end of the day, celebrating life and sharing stories.
I can see how my quest to unravel good bacon curing is teaching me as much about life than it is teaching me about meat. Andreas told me something this afternoon before I retired to my room which is very curious. He told me that I am too quick to claim that this is the end of my quest. That simply knowing the steps of bacon curing without understanding it is not to know the steps at all. Brief exposure to the Danish attitude towards work and cooperation and the internal mechanics of a bacon curing operation is only the beginning of my education.
We were sitting in a small coffee shop one afternoon when Andreas and I were talking about all these matters. Nothing about the pork trade is easy! It is one of the most wonderfully complex trades on earth! He asked me how long I think I will have to stay before I know enough to set up our Woodys bacon plant in Cape Town. I knew enough by now not to simply venture a guess. “As long as it takes”, I said. He smiled. “There is so much to learn!” “Stay for at least a year!”. He then produced a pouch with salt in. He placed it in the middle of our table. I dipped a finger in the salt and tasted it. I recognised it as saltpeter. “This, he said, is the next subject. I discussed it with Jeppe and he agrees that after the structure of the factory, understanding Saltpeter is your next priority!”
That was where our business talk ended. The rest of the afternoon we talked about life. What it was like growing up in Cape Town and the many different cultures that co-exist in this great city. I shared many of my experiences with him from my transport business. I told him the story of Joshua Penny and how, after his ordeal on table Mountain, a Danish captain gave him a job on his ship sailing for Europe. I invited Andreas to visit us when we set the Cape Town factory up. The evening was pleasant and I became very fond of my Danish instructor. A great friendship was struck that would last the rest of my life.
Please give the kids all my love and to our dear parents. Please give them both my letters to read before you sent it on to Oscar, James, and Will. I will write Dawie Hyman, David de Villiers Graaff, and Uncle Jakobus separately.
I miss you dearly!
Photos from Chris Speedy and my visit to Denmark in 2011 when Andreas Østergaard introduced us to the science of bacon production. Chris was a master, but as for me, I knew nothing! 🙂
(c) eben van tonder
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Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) 7 October 1906, p 60. From The Little Kingdom at the Mouth of the baltic Great Nations May Learn How to Build Up a Trade in Dairy and Meat Products.
Ellsworth County Leader (Elsworth, Kansas) 18 December 1919, p 2.
The Yazoo Herald (Yazoo City, Mississippi), 7 November 1914, p 2, from the article, Agriculture in Denmark.