Chapter 09.01 – Mild Cured Bacon

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.

*  A note on this letter. In reality, I have searched for this information for almost 7 years. I had various clues that such an invention was made, but for years could find no details of it. When I found it, it was such a monumental occasion that I celebrate it by attaching photos to the chapter which are associated with my best memories of my relationship with Minette, my wife.

Mild Cured Bacon

March 1891

Dear Minette,

It is Sunday. I arrived in a small town with Andreas and his dad on Friday. The plan to go away this weekend was made long before I arrived, and I insisted that they leave the plans unchanged. Since I got to Denmark I wanted to write but have been unable. My first week was so monumental that in a way, I already achieved everything we’d set out with this journey. It all came together in one volcanic lecture by Jeppe on Friday. 

I expected a slow introduction into the art of curing bacon on the scale the Danes do it. I was completely wrong! Almost right at the outset, on my first day at Uncle Jeppe’s curing plant, I saw in operation exactly what I set out for when I left Cape Town. The understanding dawned on me that Friday. I sit by the window in my very small hotel room looking out onto the main street of the beautiful town from where I am writing to you.  Suddenly I am very tired.  For the first time in a while, I am able to exhale. The thing that I came to Denmark first to learn about English curing of hams and bacon weighed on my mind. I was worried that it was an unnecessary detour before I would get on with discovering the inner workings of the new curing chambers in England. Suddenly I am convinced that I am in exactly the right spot on earth where my goal will come to fruition and still, 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 after I’ve spent a week in his factory. It was only the two of us. “Eben”, he said, “it’s 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 in his factory, 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 were 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 desk.  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 do. You came here because your ancestors hail from Denmark and the spice trader in Johannesburg talked you into it and fobbed you off on Andreas.  You told me, you and Oscar met the spice trader purely by accident! This is most amazing and it makes the fact that you started with your quest in Denmark even more remarkable!”

Uncle Jeppe continued. “There is only one other place on earth where they cure bacon in the way we do and that is in Ireland. The reason for this is very simple. The invention is Irish! They invented the process!”

I was most intrigued! “The very early details are sketchy, but here is how I understood the development to have happened. “I believe the man responsible for the invention was a prolific chemist, William Oake. For sure it is reported that he was from Ulster in Northern Ireland. I was told by friends that the earliest mention of mild cured bacon, as it became known, came from Antrim, Northern Ireland as far back as 1837. It is fair to conjecture that the invention did not happen far from there. The report that William Oake from Ulster invented the process and the earliest reference to “mild cured bacon” coming from Antrim correlates since Antrim is in Ulster.”

Jeppe continued to tell me that it is this exact system of William Oake sometime before 1837 that is now used in his factory and across Denmark. “Since you are now familiar with our processes,” he continued, “it will be more meaningful to enlighten you with the details of Oake’s invention today than it would have been to do so last Monday when you started!” He continued to explain.

Salting and draining on the floor

Jeppe proceeded by asking me what the first step is in his curing process. “The flitches,” which is what the sides of bacon is called, “are put on the factory floor which must be made from concrete. We lightly sprinkle it with saltpetre so that any leftover blood is drawn from the meat. After this, the curing tanks are stacked.”

Tanking or brining (stacking and pickling) for 7 days

“Before we put the meat in curing tanks, the bottom of the tank is sprinkled with salt. One row of flitches is stacked on the bottom. We lightly sprinkle saltpetre 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. A lid is now 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 10lbs. of salt we add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar; 1 lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella.” Sal prunella is a mixture of refined nitre and soda.  Nitre is refined saltpetre 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) Saltpetre plays a very important role as does the grade of saltpetre used. 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 saltpetre are again used exactly as it was done during the first salting. Now the real trick comes in. The same pickle is used!”

Maturing/ Resting and Drying for 21 days

“After seven days the flitches are 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.”

Washing, drying, trimming and smoking

“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. Whether smoking is done or not after tank curing the meat should be rinsed off and dried before ageing or maturation. The reason for this is that the meat pores should be closed leading to a hardening of the surface and a considerable reduction in the drying rate. The meat is trimmed and hung till it is properly dried. It is then smoked. (3) 

Uncle Jeppe continued to refer to the steps which are followed in his factory, reading them from a printed piece of paper. “You agree, Eben, these are the steps we follow in my factory?” to which I nodded in affirmation. “I am, however, reading the steps of Oake’s process as he explained it to an apprentice who years later wrote it down,” Uncle Jeppe said, showing me the piece of printed paper which was torn from a book. The Danish and the Irish method is the same thing!”

“Of course,” Uncle Jeppe continued, “it remains a question of exactly what was Oake’s invention! Did he invent the different steps or was he merely responsible for combining different elements that were invented by others?” “It is likely that Oake only combined the best available date at the time into a logical process but in order to have done it in this way, one can also see that he has a detailed understanding of the natural sciences.” This got my attention immediately and suddenly I was back in Africa on the great plains, riding transport and musing about the mental world of the modern cognitive and conscious human. I realised that the work of Oake was in the metaphysical realm as opposed to the natural. He had to look at work as a stepwise process, combining logical actions in a sequence in such a way that the optimal outcome is guaranteed in terms of the quality of product and quantity produced. He was, in a way, mimicking the actions of biology in terms of the conservation of energy, the most logical next step, the utilisation of available resources and the self-regulatory nature of what later will be described as feedback loops”. It was brilliant and the entire endeavour was first conceptualised in his mind!

Comparisons with Dry Curing

Comparing Oake’s new system with dry curing and barrel pork curing of the time highlights the improvement of his system and showcases his brilliance.

– Dry Cured vs the Oake System: Salting

Remember that during dry-cured salting, the meat is placed in a wooden casket. Salt was sprinkled in the bottom of the casket where the meat was kept during the process and it was laid with its skin down on top of the salt, beginning with hams (legs) and shoulders and then the small pieces on top.

– Dry Cured vs the Oake System: Drying and Resalting

The old system of dry curing required that the meat be left in the casket for 4 or 5 days before it is removed and thoroughly rubbed with salt again. Blood and meat juices that drained out into the casket were cleared out at this point only. In contrast, William Oake’s new system called for the extraction of excess meat juices before the meat is placed in the caskets and then for cover brine to be added.

Far fewer meat juices were thus extracted in Oake’s system compared with traditional Dry-cured systems. A principle used to remove the excess meat juices by Oak and in the Dry-Cured system was eluded on by none other than Liebig who said 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 the 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 Oake speaks to this exact point. According to him, it is that the meat is cured while the albumen remains in the meat. (2) The point ultimately speaks to quality, but the fact is clear that this “less salty bacon” gave rise to the name “mild cured bacon.”

– Dry Cured vs the Oake System: Resting (equalising)

“At this point, we are 7 days into the curing. William Oakes use of liquid brine which covers the meat in the tanks has by this time penetrated the meat and diffused throughout its structure. The old system has only achieved the removal of the excess juices and the application of salt which now started to ingress slowly into the meat. The application of pressure during the curing step in Oakes tanks had the effect of “massaging” the meat lightly which would have assisted with the ingress of the liquid brine. Re-stacking of the flitches also had the effect of making the brine available to all the meat. Small and big pieces would have equal time exposed to the brine over the 7 days of brining.

In the old Dry Curing system, after the first week of salting the meat, it was rested for roughly the same time as curing to allow the salt to completely penetrate through the meat. It is therefore also referred to as the equalising step. How long the meat rested depends on the size of the piece. As a very general guide, the rate of penetration of the salt into the meat is estimated at around 2.5cm/ week. The small pieces, placed at the top, will be done two weeks later and could be removed. Small pieces can, therefore, be salted and rested in 19 days. The casket is repacked with only the large pieces. It was important to rotate the larger pieces so that the ones that were at the bottom are placed at the top and those at the top, at the bottom. The reason for this is that pressure interferes with the spread of salt through the meat. Shoulders will be thoroughly salted in about three weeks and hams in four.

Oake’s system overcame the challenges by using liquid brine and the changing pressure of being at the top of the tank and in the next rotation, at the bottom.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake system: Rinsing

“Whether smoking is done or not, whether Oake’s system is used or traditional dry curing, after equalizing which in the Oake system happens simultaneously with the curing step in the tanks, the meat should be rinsed off and dried before ageing or maturation. The reason for this is that the meat pores should be closed leading to a hardening of the surface and a considerable reduction in the drying rate. The world’s best butchers recommend an ambient temperature for dry-cured bacon of between 7 – 13 deg C. After drying, the meat will be well prepared for smoking and, if Dry Curing is done, a ripening stage follows.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake System: Drying

“Oake uses a completely different method to dry his bacon. In general, the first way that bacon was normally dried was through salting. As we said before, the main purpose of salting was to remove water which is the matrix that bacteria use to do what they do. Without moisture, bacteria can not do their work of consuming food from the environment and excreting toxins and other metabolic byproducts with off flavours and disagreeable taste. The second, third and fourth way is through the use of heat, airspeed and relative humidity.

“In a Dry Cured system, before smoke is applied, the meat is first dried for 2 – 3 days, with high humidity around 66% to 75% with a very light breeze/airflow. High air velocities will influence the quality of dry-cured ham negatively. The surface layer of ham or bacon will dry out and collapse. The diffusion rates in the meat and outside must be the same to achieve an efficient and uniform drying process. The air velocity must be very low and the air circulation must be uniform to ensure uniform air temperature and relative humidity through the curing chamber. Otherwise, the meat could be spoiled by microorganisms. In the end, the meat needs to be tacky to the touch for the smoke to adhere.”

Oakes system very cleverly used pressure, no doubt in combination with relative humidity, temperature and airspeed, but he makes no mention of the last three. Humidity, temperature and airspeed are important because we know that the higher the temp, the lower the humidity and the higher the airspeed, the dryer the end product and the greater the weight loss will be. His system does not have the huge weight loss of dry-cured bacon and he very cleverly used pressure to achieve much faster what temperature, humidity and air speed normally do. The pressure is achieved by stacking the flitches outside the curing tank on the level floor after brining and resting or equalising and then incrementally increasing the weight on the bacon as the flitches are re-stacks with the ones at the bottom now on the top and by stacking them higher and higher every time it is restacked while always rotating the position of the meat pieces.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake system: Time

“The overall time of Oake’s system was 21 days from the time when the meat went into the tanks. After this, it is left in freshwater for one night and dried. The old system required the meat to be rested for between 3 and 4 weeks depending on the size of the meat. The total process would therefore be completed in between 4 to 5 weeks or between 28 and 35 days. It meant that the new system was between a week and two weeks quicker than the old.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake system: Quality

“William Oakes system materially improved the quality of bacon. At the time, bacon was a very salty affair. Oake removed the need for high salt levels by a number of techniques that we already discussed. He used liquid brine in combination with pressure adjustment through re-stacking to facilitate a quicker ingress of brine into the meat. He facilitated the drying of the meat after curing with the application of pressure. As a result of his overall system, the bacon would not have lost as much weight as in a dry-cured system. Salt in meat are concentrated through the process of drying and by keeping things relatively “moist”, he achieves less weight loss and therefore a less concentrated salt taste experience by the consumer.

The other way that he achieved a higher quality product was by major improvements in hygiene. The point should not be lost that his entire system hinged on his ability to manage hygiene differently (better) in that a wetter product is far more susceptible than a dry product to bacterial spoilage. So, he hard-wired hygiene by limiting the continual contamination of the meat through contact with wood as is the case with barrel pork or dry-cured bacon cured in wooden caskets. We know that wood is a major contributor of undesirable micro in any meat factory and his application of baths, constructed from concrete was a major advance in sanitary conditions in the factory and his overall product quality.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake system: Re-using of old brine

“The biggest benefit to consumers of the new system was the improved taste. The benefits to the curing company would be on two levels. On the one hand, is the speed of curing which became increasingly important as industrialization took hold and the concept of the factory. The other was the fact that expensive brine in Oake’s system was continually re-used. “Friends of mine,” Uncle Jeppe said “suggested similar techniques on the re-use of brine to me as far back as 1830. The question comes up if this was Oake’s invention.

The cornerstone of mild-curing is the continual use of old brine! It is what reveals the genius of Oake the clearest! He discovered it during the process of evaluating the preservation properties of different aspects of the curing process. What is it that causes bacon and ham to last a long time? He evaluated salt and discovered that on its own it does not have much antiseptic power. The other ingredient regularly used is saltpetre and similarly, it is not very antiseptic if compared to things like boric acid. Even combining it does not offer good preserving properties, but the re-use of old brine is a different matter. If the same brine is used over and over again and never replaced, it continues to give exceptional preserving power. Oake’s training as a chemist taught him that there had to be something from nature at work but even if he is unable to identify it. He chose to rather harness it than explain it. This meant that his observations were very similar to that of Polenski. Polenski understood it. Oake used it!

Some of the men working with me on the floor call it the mother brine. Andreas’ mom tells me that the same thing happens when she makes sourdough bread. They keep a small piece of dough that they constantly feed and re-use. They call it the mother dough. In some households, 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 boil it and leave it to cool down.  Let any sediment sink to the bottom and scoop the clear brine off after you remove any impurities that may have floated to the surface.  (5)

Jeppe suggested that we look carefully at reports from 1830 in The Complete Grazier where mention is made of the re-using old brine. The report says that wet cure is more expensive than dry cure unless the brine is re-used. First, the meat is well rubbed with fine salt. A liquor is then poured over the meat and “though the preparation of such brine may, at first sight, appear more expensive than that prepared in the common way, yet we think it deserves a preference, as it may be used a second time with advantage if it be boiled, and a proportionate addition be made of water, and the other ingredients above mentioned.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)

The “other ingredients above mentioned” refers to the following. “First, let two ounces of saltpetre, one pound and a half of refined sugar, and four pounds of common salt be boiled in two gallons of pure spring water, over a gentle fire, and the impurities, that may rise to the surface, be carefully skimmed off. When this brine is cold, it should be poured over the meat, so as to cover every part.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)

Three observations should be made here. The 1830 description indicates that this process is still in its infancy. Liquid brine, it says, may appear to be more expensive than if it is done “in the common way” which in the context should refer to dry curing or rubbing a mixture of dry ingredients onto the meat. Secondly, the edition of the Complete Grazier quoted is from the 5th edition which means that by this time, the description may already be 5 years old if it appeared in the 1st edition. The 3rd observation is that the brine can be used “a second time.”

This means that even though the practice of reusing old brine was already described in 1830, possibly as early as 1825, it is still a far cry from the complete system of William Oake and the multiple (continues) re-use of old brines which is one of the cornerstones of the mother brine or live brine system of tank curing. It definitely describes the start of the invention. The continual re-use of the brine and packaging it within a factory context was then the brainchild of William Oake.

It shows clearly that by the 1830s which coincides with Oake’s invention of mild curing, the practice of re-using the brine was being phased into curing techniques in England. William Youatt who compiled the Complete Grazier repeats this process in his 1852 work, Pigs: A Treatise on the Breeds, Management, Feeding and Medical Treatment of Swine; with directions for salting pork, and curing bacon and Hams. Here he writes, “in three weeks, jowls, &c, may be hung up. Taking out, of pickle, and preparation for hanging up to smoke, is thus performed: — Scrape off the undissolved salt (and if you had put on as much as directed, there will be a considerable quantity on all the pieces not immersed in the brine; this salt and the brine is all saved; the brine boiled down [for re use].” Notice that his 1852 description is far more “matter of fact” and he does not go into all the explanations and caveats he did in the 1830 description.

Youatt gives an important clue about the possible origin of the re-use of brine and it is not surprising that he points to Germany. The region of interest is Westphalia. In the above-mentioned publication, he writes, “The annexed system is the one usually pursued in Westphalia: — ” Six pounds of rock salt, two pounds of powdered loaf sugar, three ounces of saltpetre, and three gallons of spring or pure water, are boiled together. This should be skimmed when boiling, and when quite cold poured over the meat, every part of which must be covered with this brine. Small pork will be sufficiently cured in four or five days; hams, intended for drying, will be cured in four or five weeks, unless they are very large. This pickle may be used again and again, if it is fresh boiled up each time with a small addition to the ingredients. Before however, putting the meat into the brine, it must be washed in water, the blood pressed out, and the whole wiped clean.”

It was this link with Westphalian hams that introduced me to the name they gave for the brine that was boiled between the batches as the Empress of Russia’s Brine. (for a detailed treatment of the link between Westphalian hams and bacon and the Empress of Russia’s brine, see Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon) Upon investigation the Empress of Russia which is being referred to was none other than the legendary Catherine the Great of Russia. During her reign salt was heavily taxed. She had a lively interest in the latest developments in food technology and the excessive cost of salt was a major concern for her. It was under her rule that she or someone in her court suggested that instead of discarding old used brine, the brine should be boiled, impurities removed, and it should be used repeatedly. The reason for doing this was not to lose the salt that was still in the brine. Her brine, called the Empress of Russia’s Brine contained salt, sugar and saltpetre.

Bacterial reduction of saltpetre (nitrates) to nitrites in the old brine would have caused the curing of subsequent batches to be sped up considerably. I have no doubt that this led directly to the discovery of William Oake that it was not necessary to boil the brine between batches and all that was required was to replenish the salt, sugar and nitrates (saltpetre) as was prescribed by Catherine the Greats brine.

Westphalia hams were famous for their use of the Empress of Russia’s brine from a time before it was introduced in Ireland and the cold smoking process which was unlike anything being done at the time when “chimney smoking” was the order of the day.

Of great interest is the same report that appeared in the Belfast News-Letter (Antrim), 1841 Belfast News-Letter.

This is important because I did a survey of the occurrences of the word “mild cured bacon” in old newspapers. The very first reference goes back to 1837 to a report from Antrim, Northern Ireland.  It is fascinating that following this initial reference, Antrim completely disappears from the map and Limerick and Waterford take over.  This report simply said about bacon arriving from Ireland and that the Bacon market was dull the past week but for “a small parcel of mild cure.”  (Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) 21 July 1837) Before this date – nothing. No mention at all! There are many references from Limerick and Waterford from the 1840s and 1850s onwards.

So, here is what I think happened. I think that the Empress of Russia’s brine was known in Antrim, one of the counties in Northern Ireland. It is very important that the first mention in a newspaper of mild cured bacon occurs in Antrim. The report said, “a small parcel of mild cure.”  (Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) 21 July 1837).  Following this initial reference, Antrim completely disappears from the map and Limerick and Waterford take over. The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland), 23 September 1853, reporting that the previous Wednesday, letters from London “announced the disposal of the provisions contract for the Royal Navy, 12 000 tierces (casks) of pork and 4000 tierces (casks) of beef.”  The short notice says that “we have the satisfaction to add that half the pork contract was taken for Irish account, and a considerable portion will be made up in Limerick, by Shaw and Duffield, William G. Gubbins, William Oake, and Joseph Matterson.” The article is quoting the Limerick Chronicle. It would seem that after William Oake invented his mild cured system, he re-located to Limerick. Following the 1837 mention of Antrim, mild cured bacon is most often reported as being produced in Limerick and Waterford.

What I think happened was that William Oake got some exposure to the Empresses special brine. It is even possible that he knew that this brine was different from other brines in that it cured the meat faster. I base this on the statement often repeated when the use of old brine is mentioned that it is used “with advantage.” It was clear that something was different about it. Catherine’s brine was boiled between batches to essentially recover the salts in line with recognised techniques in use in Russia to recover salt for centuries. They would have noticed the difference in the speed of curing. I suspect that William Oake, a trained chemist. It was known that bacteria existed since the 1600s when the microscope was finding its way into scientific investigation (Lauren Learns the Nitrogen Cycle). That Oake would have had an inkling of the possibility that it would have been due to bacterial action can not be dismissed. However it happened, possibly through experimentation and observation, Oake figured out that the boiling step in Catherine’s brine was not necessary. The progression was Irish but most certainly, the inspiration was Russian!

Based on the Youatt reference quoted above that the concept of the re-use of old brine came from Westphalia, it is possible that the invention of the Empress of Russia’s brine came to Ireland from Russia, through Westphalia.

Remember that Catherine’s invention of her brine (or the invention by an unknown court official) was based on the fact that salt was an expensive and scarce resource and the initial motivation was to save. Look one more time at the 1830 reference from The Complete Grazier which we looked at above. The issue at hand was likewise the cost of the brine. A liquor, poured over the meat as a brine and “may, at first sight, appear more expensive than that prepared in the common way, yet we think it deserves a preference, as it may be used a second time with advantage if it be boiled, and a proportionate addition be made of water, and the other ingredients above mentioned.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304) The link with Catherine’s brine is unmistakable!

Comparisons with Barrel Curing

Jeppe wanted me to see Oake’s invention not just in contrast to dry curing but also the wet curing techniques which existed. 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 and a weight brought to bear upon the upper board so as to squeeze out the blood.” “You see,” Jeppe interjected an editorial comment, “the value of ridding the meat of excess juices before salting and curing was appreciated for some time well before Oake!”

He continues reading, “Afterwards, 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 saltpetre. 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) It is noteworthy that taste has remained a constant feature in the improvement on the brining technology and the consumer’s experience of milder salted bacon became the name given to the products of Oake’s system: Mild Cured Bacon!

Quality Ingredients

Oake insisted on quality ingredients. This is highlighted by his use of sal prunella.  He used a very pure form of saltpetre. 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.”

Smoking Bacon and Hams

The step that rounds the bacon off is smoking which, I learned, does not always have to be done. The English love unsmoked bacon or green bacon as they call it. 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 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 tea tree (Melaleuca) is obtainable it is excellent for smoking; it imparts a flavour to the bacon which is much appreciated by many people. (6) A proper smoking cycle will look as follows: Day one: 8 hours smoke and rest overnight; day two to eight will be the same which gives you 48 hours of smoking.

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.

This was my first major introduction to what later developed as the science of industrial processes. Not only was I hooked on the concept of bacon production, but the underlying science fascinated me. A vague concept started to form in my mind that our industrial design is effective or not in how it relates and mimics actual biological and mechanical processes of the natural world. In years to come, these principles would become fundamental to my view of life! Oake became more than my introduction to bacon production. He became a raw model for industrial process design!

Uncle Jeppe was very pleased with himself. He could see that I am completely astonished. He placed the papers he was reading from in a neat bundle back on his desk and folded his hands in satisfaction. “How closely does this describe what we do in our factory and the mild cure process of William Oake!” “Almost 100 years later, we continue to progress these concepts. A recent development is pressure pumps to inject the brine into the meat through needles instead of simply leaving the meat in the tanks to diffuse into the meat. This latest invention calls for a plank to 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. This technology must now be incorporated into the tank curing system.”

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 and how it was progressed by the Irish. 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!

How did it get to Denmark?

Uncle Jeppe sat back in his chair and wiped 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 at 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 byproducts 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 send 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. We needed an opening in their market to go and learn. Such an opening was presented through industrial action by their workers. 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 instalment 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, is 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. Tonight I will sleep well! 

After you read my letters, please show them to my mom and dad and please mail them 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!

Much love!


Further Reading

The Mother Brine

Chapter 11.04: Wiltshire Cured or Tank Cured Bacon

Tank Curing Came From Ireland

Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon


(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


Bacon Curing – a historical review

Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 26 Oct 1841, Tue

Fereira, J..  Treatise of Food and Diet.  Fowler & Wells.  1843.  P 109, Sodium of Chloride

The Mother Brine

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.

Tank Curing Came from Ireland


Image Credits:

Robert Goodrich and members of the Salt Cured Pig

Photos of Minette and I taken by myself

One thought on “Chapter 09.01 – Mild Cured Bacon

  1. Hi! Eben
    Is there more? The story isn’t finished, I hope!
    I went to The Bentley Grammar School in Calne. There were three ‘houses’ or teams of students. Lansdowne, (after Bowood, Shelbourne (Bowood) and Priestley (he who discovered oxygen at Bowood) and Kerry. They discarded the Priestley house, and introduced Kerry, I think, or was it Fitzmaurice? I had no idea Kerry was from Ireland interests.
    I’ve copied in all the folks in my address book who I thought would like to read this.
    BTW The photo Calne station. My uncle Walter Granger is in there somewhere! He was a porter most of his life.

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