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 the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.
The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
Ice Cold in Africa (1)
Dear Minette and Children,
The excitement of meeting John Harris is something that is hard to explain. The first week at C & T Harris has been one of the most exhilarating weeks of my life. John introduced me to one of the consultants they use from Calne, Mike Caswell (2). The woman in charge of the spice rooms is Anita Waite (nee Holman) (3).
Anita’s Recollections of Calne
As at Jeppe’s factory in Denmark, John Harris assigned me to spend a few weeks in every department of the firm where he was one of the directors, C & T Harris. The factory is as impressive as one can imagine and even though do not use the mild cure system, the level of mechanisation is something that I have never seen before! It rivals the Danish plants!
Just as impressive as the mechanization in the factory is the great heart of the people of England. It struck me that they are people just like us who have hopes and dreams and who desire nothing more than to live a quiet life, providing for themselves and their families by working hard and minding their own business. It occurred to me that blind ambition in Africa of individuals have much to do with forming a very negative view of the English. That and the “small” matter of the war we fought with the English. Anita helped me to see the English as ordinary people. Over lunchtime, she would tell me about growing up in Calne.
She attended Calne Junior School with Micke Caswell. The school is known as the School on the Green. The classes were in a few different locations. Class one was held in a church hall up by the Recreation Ground. On the way, we crossed Doctor’s Pond and admired the ducks. Most of them were brown and speckled, a few were white, but our favourites were the drakes with their iridescent green feathers. A large plaque at the side of the pond stated that Dr. Joseph Priestley had discovered oxygen at Calne.
Lingering too long at the pond made us late. We ran up the Anchor Road hill, to arrive puffing at Mrs. Lucas’ class-room. Hanging our bags on stands at the back of the hall, we waited for roll-call. The class was divided into three long rows of desks. If you had learnt your ” tables” well, you sat up the back and the less fortunate sat right under Mrs. Lucas’ watchful eye. We spent a lot of time chanting our “tables”. The reward for reciting all twelve “tables” to Mrs. Lucas was to have a paper snowflake pasted in our arithmetic book. We all coveted that snow-flake.
After the monotony of playing outside the small Church hall, we enjoyed playtimes on the Green. The quiet boys played marbles and the others simply ran wild. The girls had skipping ropes and we never tired of chanting ,
“Little black doctor, how’s your wife?
Very well thank you, that’s all right.
She won’t eat a bit of fish, or any licorice,
O-U-T spells out!”
The rhyme didn’t make sense, but we turned the rope and jumped until our feet felt fuzzy. We worked out our destinies with the skipping rope and rhymes. When we returned to the classroom, we knew who we were going to marry, what type of home we would live in and how our husbands would earn a living.
The only thing I can remember is that I had to sit next to ” a boy.” In the schoolroom, we were to sit according to age, with the oldest in the back seats. Being the youngest girl, I waited patiently to discover who I would be sitting next to. Oh no! It was Michael Caswell! As he was left-handed, his elbows were always going over my work and if I said anything, he scowled at me. He had straight sandy hair and lots of light coloured freckles. Some children had little dark dots of freckles over their noses. Michael Caswell had spectacles sitting on his nose. I felt sad for him when he smashed his glasses or wore them with cracks across them. All the other boys wore hand-knitted school jumpers, but he always wore a little grey serge jacket with cuffs. I really liked it. After a while, I enjoyed sitting there. He drew wonderful pictures of boats in a grey-lead pencil.
In the late Summer, we attended the Harvest Festival at Calne Parish Church. Everybody arrived at school laden with carrots, parsnips, cabbages potatoes, in fact, every vegetable you could think of. It was more like a competition as to who had grown the biggest of each variety. My Dad said that Harvest festival should be to thank God for His bounty, not a time to gloat about who had grown the biggest marrow. I guess he was right. However, I was quite intrigued about going inside a Church. We met, every Sunday with other Christadelphians in our plain brick Meeting-hall in Swindon and I had never been in a church with a spire or tower. It was very cold and musty inside, the seat was hard and the floor was littered with cushions. I guess they were for kneeling on. The stained glass windows were very impressive but it was all a bit too ornate for me.
Anita told me one day that as she thinks back at all those good friends, she feels glad that she spent her childhood in Wiltshire and attended the Calne Junior school, the school on the Green. (3)
Anita’s stories always make me think back to my own childhood in Cape Town. Like her, I am glad that I went to school there and for the many friends I made. I miss Cape Town terribly and I miss Table Mountain. It’s autumn back home and you have the most beautiful days of the year. Very soon large storms from the south will arrive and winter will set in over the Cape. Despite the amazing excitement of being at the Harris bacon operation, tonight I think back about all that I have learned. Curing bacon, like living life, is indeed an art worth cultivating.
Last night over supper with John Harris and his Mike Caswell, it was again my chance to tell a few stories. The discussion around the table turned to the matter of using ice to preserve food and why we have difficulty curing bacon in South Africa.
Notes from Denmark on Refrigeration
In Denmark at the Østergaard home, we read the 1876 book by Edward Smith, Foods, that you are familiar with by now. He lists refrigeration as a major way to preserve food. For him, refrigeration was mainly the supply of ice. Remember that the challenge in the 1800s was to supply enough food for the old world and a solution was to import food from the new. Apart from the long voyage from the new world to the old, the fact is that new worlds have warm climates.
Smith says that the “real difficulty is to provide a sufficient quantity of ice at the ports of South America and Australia.” (Smith, Edwards, 1873: 25) Of course, one solution was to load a ship with enough ice to make the journey to the new world, pack the meat in the iceboxes and transport it back to the old world, still under refrigeration of the ice.
This would be very costly. Smith stays “so long as our supplies of meat are from hot climates the expense will be a serious impediment to such a commercial enterprise.” He suggested that countries with cold climates must start producing meat for the old world and that that large quantities of ice should be stored in “an economical manner at the ports of meat-producing countries” (Smith, Edwards, 1873: 25, 26) Every effort should be undertaken to make such transport of meat possible.
He refers to the work of Messrs. Nasmyth of Manchester who “produced machines on the patent of M Mignot, by which 50 lbs. of ice may be made per hour at the cost of condensing and then rerafying air. ” (Smith, Edwards, 1873: 26) Apparently, ice houses started to be built in the northern hemisphere on the property of wealthy owners from the 1700s. These were generally brick-lined pits, build below the ground where ice from surrounding lakes was stored. (Dellino, C, 1979: 2)
Reviewing some of my notes from Denmark, Andreas told me, it is clear that the seeds for solving the refrigeration problem were planted and in the 1600s when the Englishman Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) showed that water under pressure has a reduced boiling temperature. (3) (Kha, AR, 2006: 26) The mathematics Professor, Sir John Leslie (1766 – 1832) at Edinburgh University in Scotland created ice in his laboratory by absorbing water from a water container with sulfuric acid, thereby producing a vacuum in the closed container. The vacuum, in turn, caused the saturation temperature of the water producing the vapor, to be low enough to form ice.
Dr. William Cullen at Glasgow University observed in 1755 that an isolated container where water is being evaporated from drops in temperature. In 1871 Thomas Masters in England demonstrated an ice cream maker where a temperature of close to freezing point can be obtained if a brine mix of salt and ice is used. (Kha, AR, 2006: 26) The American Charles E. Monroe of Cambridge, Massachusetts, demonstrated a food cooler that effected cooling through the evaporation of water through the porous lining of the refrigerator. (2) (Kha, AR, 2006: 26)
M. Howell observed in 1755 that air leaving a pressurized airline, cooled when it escaped. A patent, based on this observation, was granted to Dr. John Gorrie (1803 – 1855) for the first machine to work successfully on the air refrigeration cycle. (Kha, AR, 2006: 26) In 1824 Ferdinand P E Carre showed that ammonia could reach much lower temperatures than water when boiled at the same pressure. (4) (Kha, AR, 2006: 26)
Refrigeration was “in the air” in the 1800s. It was just a matter of time before this was being done successfully in our homes, at harbours, meat markets and on ships.
My Mind Wanders back to Africa
It is doubtful that David de Villiers Graaff kept abreast of all the particular developments in refrigeration that Andreas told me about. The practically minded man that I know, and without having talked to him about this, my guess is that he paid close attention to the development of freezing technology. In particular, the race to apply it to ships in order to transport frozen meat successfully from Australia to England and the creation of refrigerated railway carts must have been of huge interest to him. This affected him directly, after all, and I am sure he noticed the commercial opportunity immediately.
He no doubt took careful notice of the development in England where the railways were using refrigerated cars for transporting perishable goods. Cold storage works were springing up in docklands and markets from Auckland and Buenos Aries, London, Antwerp, and Chicago. (Brooke Simons, P, 2000: 22) One year after he was appointed manager of Combrinck & Co, he noticed the docking of the Dunedin. This was the first successful shipment of meat between Australia and England. David was consumed by the quest to make Cape Town a world-class city and by making Combrinck & Co a world leader in the supply of meat. (Brown, R.) It is only to be expected that David must have identified the creation of large storage works in Cape Town and across Southern Africa and linking these by the equipping of railway cars with refrigeration as a priority. He had the background and the means to effect this.
I would expect that one of the things that were on his mind as the Dunedin docked was the question: why is the beef not being transported from South Africa? A much closer source than Australia and why are we not setting up a network to support similar distribution across Africa? Refrigeration became his business!
Where our current quest is discovering the art of preserving pork through the curing process and creating the world’s best bacon, David was looking at solving the problem of preserving meat for later use by the application of refrigeration.
He set out in the 1880s on a world journey to investigate refrigeration and to familiarise himself with every aspect of the meat trade in England and in the USA. In Chicago, he looked at the most modern systems of meatpacking. As soon as he returned to Cape Town, he set out to apply refrigeration to Combrinck & Co. (Brooke Simons, P, 2000: 22, 23)
Great business leaders often capitalist in areas where they already have a presence. Combrinck & Co was best positioned to take advantage of refrigerated railway cars and cold storage works. A Scotsman, Sir Donald Currie, the owner of the Castle Line of mail ships, servicing the line between South Africa and Great Britain, was in an ideal position to exploit the need to transport of meat between South Africa and England. (5) Currie’s first ship with a refrigeration facility was Grantully Castle which set sail from Cape Town on 13 February 1889 with 15 tons of grapes. The experiment with grapes was a disaster, but David was ready with a supply of a far more durable product to ship under refrigeration. Meat! (Brooke Simons, P, 2000: 23)
Bacon and Refrigeration
There is a very specific application of refrigeration to the production of bacon. Remember that I told you how Oscar and I tried to cure our own bacon on his farm in the Potchefstroom district and how, when we ate it, the meat was off? The reason was that we had an unexpectedly warm snap which caused the meat to go off. The Harris invention of their ice houses was the answer to effect year-round curing!
We will need refrigeration at our Cape Town bacon plant! Our investment is in the process of curing and not in large scale storage or transportation. Donald Currie and David Graaff have already staked these claims. We have neither the money, not the time to compete against them. Since they are not experts in the curing and processing of pork, this is an area where we can steak our claim with a great likelihood of success for our venture.
The fact that David is about to build a new, much bigger storage works in Cape Town will be to our advantage since we can use this as refrigerated storage for our carcasses as well as for our bacon before it is sold to ships and clients throughout South Africa. Initially, I would not ever worry about setting up our own refrigerated chambers. I will ask Oscar to discuss these matters with David so long so that we can have a plan by the time I finally return home.
Another lesson that I have learned is that we can look at cooking methods and technology that are generally available to households and build the products that we produce around these technologies.
I’m homesick and still, I can’t stop thinking and planning what our next step should be. I will get some sleep. Let’s see if I can get refrigeration out my head!
Tons of love!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Ice Cold in Africa is the title of a book by Phillida Brooke Simons, on “The history of the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Limited” which was taken over by Tiger Brands in October 1989. ICS dates its official foundation to Wednesday, 19 February 1902 when it was legally registered in Pretoria. The company’s origins were much older. It was in 1868 when a Swiss-born butcher names Othmar Bernard Scheitlin handed the over his business which he owned since 1849 to his foreman Jacobus Combrinck. The business became Combrinck & Co and dominated the meat trade in Cape Town Peninsula. When Jacobus retired, he handed over the reins to David Graaff who was his foreman, just as he has been to Mr. Scheitlin.
During the 1880’s David Graaff traveled extensively throughout Europe and the USA to familiarise himself with among other, developments in refrigeration. Upon his return refrigeration chambers were constructed on the premises of Combrink & Co., thus bringing refrigeration to Southern Africa. Combrink and Co was transformed into the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Limited who later changed its name to ICS.
By the time that ICS lost its independance, ICS had over 100 subsidiaries as well as branches all over South Africa. (Brooke Simons, P, 2000: 7, 22, 27)
This chapter is named in honour of the work of Phillida Brooke Simons who has been responsible for many other books, including ones on South African architecture. She was the editor responsible for retelling the story “Jock of the Bushveld” by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.
One obituary reads: “A distinguished Honorary Life member of the Historical Society of Cape Town, Phillida Audrey Fairbridge Brooke-Simons died on 29 July 2013 and we remember her with deep affection in this memorial to her life and work. Her contribution to historical literature was considerable, particularly in recording the history of the old buildings in the Cape and the lives of those who have contributed to progress in South Africa.” (Sabinet.co.za)
(2) Mike Caswell lived in Calne and is my most important reference to what it was like growing up in Calne. His family farmed sheep in the area for over 1000 years. He has never worked in the pork industry, but his interest in Calne and Wiltshire is wast. He has a blog https://moonrakers.createaforum.com/casswell/ where you can find full biographical information and many fascinating related articles. I include Mike as the Production Manager of C & T Harris so that I can use his many stories and recollections.
(3) Anita Waite (nee Holman) is an old school friend of Mike Caswell and wrote a beautiful essay on life in Calne. It is superbly done. I include her in the narrative as the “lady in charge of the spice room” so that I can use her own words to describe life in Calne. I quote verbatim from her essay. Memories of Calne by Anita Holman.
(4) The French meat processing equipment producer Lutetia used the same basic principle discovered by Robert Boyle in their thawing massager/tumbler (patent 92-07091).
Under pressure, the temperature of steam injected into a chamber drops and thawing of meat is effected without cooking and therefore denaturing the meat proteins.
Lutetia describes their invention as follows: “Defrosting is obtained by injecting expanded steam into the massager previously put under vacuum. At low pressure, the steam condenses on the surface of the food at low temperatures. So, at 50mbar, the steam condenses at 33°C which is insufficient to lead to coagulation on the surface of the meat. The steam can come from a LUTETIA steam generator or from the factory boiler via the LUTETIA client kit. In order to reduce the humidity level, the massager drum may be fitted with a double envelope fed with a tepid mixture of mono-propyl glycol and water. In order to accelerate the heat transfer and to homogenise the defrosting, the blocks of meat may be passed through the block breaker before defrosting.” (http://de.lutetia.fr/equipement.php?id=7)
(5) In 1930 the Crosley system of refrigeration, based on Carre’s cycle was widely sold in the US. (Kha, AR, 2006: 26)
(6) In 1891 the Lions (the British Isles) became the first team to tour South Africa. The team was entertained on the voyage to South Africa by Donald Currie himself. It was the maiden voyage of his most recent steamboat. In Currie’s luggage was a golden cup which he planned to present to the team who performed best against the touring Lions. The tourists were too strong for the locals and the trophy went to Griqualand West who lost by the smallest margin, 0-3. (Joffe, E, 2013: 99)
In 1892 the cup became known as the Currie Cup, presented to the winner of a fiercely contested local tournament. The inaugural Currie Cup tournament was held in 1892 with Western Province earning the honour of holding it aloft as the official first winners. (Wikipedia. Currie Cup)
Brooke Simons, P, 2000, Ice Cold in Africa, Fernwood Press.
Brown, R. Design Dissertation Report. http://issuu.com/archirube/docs/designreportprint2/1#
Dellino, C. 1979. Cold and Chilled Storage Technology. Blackie Academic and Professional.
Joffe, E. 2013. Before Mandela’s Rainbow. Author House
Kha, AR. 2006. Cryogenic Technology and Applications. Elsevier, Inc.
Smith, Edwards. 1873. Foods. Henry S King and Co.
Figure 1: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8270787@N07/sets/
Figure 3: Ralp Hoagland: Popular Science Month, March 1912; 481 Fourth Avenue, New York. Popular Science Month, March 1912; 481 Fourth Avenue, New York, page 40, page 1.
Figure 4: http://www.namibiana.de/namibia-information/who-is-who/autoren/infos-zur-person/phillida-brooke-simons.html
Figure 5: Photo supplied by Andre van Tonder. I think my dad took the pic.
Figure 6 – 11: Eben van Tonder of the Curry Cup at the Springbok Museum in Cape Town