Chapter 09.02 – The Danish Cooperative and Saltpeter

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.

The Danish Cooperatives and Saltpeter

Copenhagen, March 1891

One of my first photos from Copenhagen, Denmark.

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 outside or in water to protect it from predators would have resulted in the meat turning soft. They must have pulverized it with sticks or rocks.  Later, boiling the meat and roasting it over fire became other ways to soften it.

I imagine that people discovered that dry meat lasts long and soon they stumbled upon the wonderful benefits of salt.  Food was initially only seen as something to consume to fuel our bodies.  As humans developed, we started changing food into an art.  The king or leader and people with means could demand the best meat.  We learned that meat, like any other food, can be prepared in different ways to improve the taste and food changed into an expression of our culture.  These different techniques of “softening” meat became art in themselves and the 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 saltpetre 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 saltpetre, it changes to a dull brown colour.  If you, however, rub it with a mixture of salt and saltpetre, it changes the colour to pinkish-reddish.  Curing is the first key to making good bacon.

The second thing that saltpetre does is to impart a unique cured flavour to the meat.  The cured meat is taste is saltepters second benefit.  The last one is longevity.  Modern people know that cured meat lasts long outside a refrigerator but in the ancient world, it was essential in a time before refrigeration. In Europe, cured meat became the staple meat for many.

I know saltpetre is important because it imparts all three characteristics to bacon.  Let me rather say it like this.  Using saltpetre is not the only guarantee for good bacon but if you leave it out, you will never get the right colour, taste or longevity unless you cure it for a very long time.  Meat with salt only and no saltpetre is only salted meat unless you cure it for many months, even years. In this case, the meat by itself changes into the cured colour, but this is not the kind of meat we want to produce.


In South Africa, the old Dutch farmers fused their knowledge of drying meat in the chimneys 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 added 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 set in. This is a good example where drying works well to preserve meat with or without saltpetre.  Saltpetre 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 saltpetre, but saltpetre is not everything that goes into the making of the best bacon on earth.  So, my quest to understand bacon starts with saltpetre.  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 and why does it give this unique taste?  These are the questions I knew I had to answer.

The Problem of Scale

Besides understanding saltpetre, 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 David de Villiers Graaff placed an order with us, we made five-time more than 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 underestimate.  Right from the word go, I came face to face with lessons pertaining to structure and ingredients and the first ingredient to look at is saltpetre!

Knowing the answer or understanding the innovation will not help us one little bit if we don’t have the right structure which will overcome the issues of scale and the business imperative of funding. Personally and even as a corporation, funding and structure to overcome scale will not help us to remain competitive by itself if we do not know the art of remaining competitive! These are matters that I did not even know that I do not know but my time in Denmark introduced me to it and I realise that learning about it is every bit as important as the secrets of great bacon! I know that as a banker, you will find this most fascinating because you work with this every day of your life. I would love your thoughts on the subject to see if there is any application for us in Cape Town.

The Spirit of the Danes

This 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 instil 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 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 centre of the story is N. F. S. Grundtvig. His names were Nikolaj Frederik Severin but most people referred to him by his initials as NFS.

Denmark was an impoverished nation.  They lost Schleswig-Holstein, where my ancestors came from, 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 of 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.  Danes, he taught, 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 between the age of 18 and 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. 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.  The Danes were focused on the best and latest scientific farming practices and on an unprecedented level of cooperation. The middle man had to be eliminated.  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 who had to also be “by the farmers elected into 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 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 land 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 the 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 were 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 and think in terms of self-help and are not reliance on the state for help.

As Andreas’ dad spoke, I again wished I could get him to South Africa to 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 can’t work in South Africa.  An obstacle in South Africa will remain deep distrust between the different peoples who call South Africa their home and the matter of farm ownership. Another problem is the fact that we limit education to certain races. We are massing unthinkable difficulty for the future!

Skimmed Milk to Pork to Bacon

In Denmark, the need to feed cows indoor for nine months of the year forced them into intensive farming in fodder. In the same way, the need to find a use for the skimmed milk gave the farmers the idea of raising pigs. Pig farming 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 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 of practical efficiency, the Danes identified the problem, worked out the solution and dedicated every available nation resource to action 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, the number of pigs converted to bacon in that one year was 1 250 000 pigs.

After breeding and pig farming, the next step in the process 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 for the ongoing expansion.  Each is in excellent running condition.  As in the case of the dairy farmers, each member of the cooperative has 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 guaranteeing the quality and satisfy the English requirements and on the other hand, improving 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 by Danish 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. This sound like an unimportant bit of history, but in the great story of bacon, it would be pivotal!  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.

How to Remain Competitive

Many years ago, on one of my visits to Johannesburg, I met another chemicals trader 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 and sharing life.

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, continued education, cooperation and the internal mechanics of a bacon curing operation is only the beginning of my education. They are, however, every bit as important as bacon curing itself. The cooperative model, I realised upon reflection, can not be seen as a goal in itself. In the end, it provides an innovative solution to the problem of access to capital. I can see how, as circumstances in an environment change, other forms of access to capital may present themselves and may even be better than the cooperative model. The fact that we must remain cognitive of development and innovations in this field will be key to our continued competitiveness.

The fact is that William Oake’s system of curing with the concrete floor and the curing baths require a lot of capital to set up. The entire endeavour is expensive. The cooperative model was ideal for providing the capital required for exactly these kind of factories!

The other ingredient which I commit to making a focus of my life is continued education. I will have to remain knowledgeable of the most current thinking about meat curing as my chosen occupation. One of the ways I commit to achieving this is through book learning but the other is through relationships with the best curers in the world so that I can continue to be mentored by them.

The Ignorance of the Colonials

I see ignorance in our South African society which came from both the Dutch and the English influences. The view that all humans are fundamentally unequal will remain something that hampers our progress and it is patently clear to me looking at Danish society. The truth is that former slaves in the Colony continue to be the custodians of the artisan trades. Yet, we do not value them or honour them as some of the most important members of our society. We do not give them representation in government as the Danes did with their farmers. We do not make their continued education a priority. We certainly do not pay them what they are worth!

What is true in the Colony is even more true in the Transvaal and the Free State where black people are seen as second-class citizens. By not seeing them as our equal as human beings and as our partners in the development of the interior of the country, we are laying the groundwork for a very turbulent future! If only we would see their science as streams feeding the great universal pool of knowledge, we rob ourselves of utalising traditions that developed in Africa over millennia and which, if understood properly, will allow us to contribute to the advancement of the art of curing and many other sciences! As it is, the white man seems to seek nothing else but to get the native of Africa to forget his own science and in our view, education is equated with them replacing their knowledge with what is taught in Europe. I fear that this is a grave mistake! There is not a day that passes when I do not think back to how meat curing is done in Africa. It is similar to how it is done here but also very different! It makes me want to go back and look more carefully at how curing is done in Africa! Upon my return I will commit a lot of time to this!

The Most Wonderful Quest

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 saltpetre.  “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 and David de Villiers Graaff 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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Bacon Curing, a Historical Review

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 Mother Brine

Tank Curing came from Ireland

The Yazoo Herald (Yazoo City, Mississippi), 7 November 1914, p 2, from the article, Agriculture in Denmark.

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