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.
Harris Bacon – the Gold Standard!
14 April 1892
Dear Minette, Lauren, and Tristan and Oscar,
We are finally where we wanted to be, just over a year after I left the Cape of Good Hope on a quest to understand bacon curing so that we can set up our own factory in Cape Town. The vision is to not only produce bacon but the best bacon on earth. Last week was maybe the most monumental week for our venture. Here is how the week unfolded.
Harris Bacon – Best on Earth
Harris bacon is being hailed as the best bacon on earth, a designation that I aspire to for our bacon in Cape Town. It was refrigeration which enabled Harris brothers to produce their sweet cured bacon. Refrigeration allows the use of less salt. The mildly salted, sweet-cured bacon was a huge success and they sell it in most European countries, America, Australia, India, China, New Zealand and of course, to the Cape of Good Hope.
Some bacon is extra-cured and smoked for sending to hot climates. By the end of the century, the Calne factories supplied the principal Transatlantic, Pacific, and Far Eastern steamship lines. There is a lot of competition from the colonies, especially cheap American bacon but nobody was able to compete with Harris on quality. The British Journal of Commerce wrote in January 1889 that Calne was “the chief seat of the bacon-curing industry of England”. It was said that Harris produces more bacon than any other four or five curers in England together. Between 2,000 and 3,000 pigs are slaughtered each week and over 200 workmen and 30 clerks are employed. (british-history)
What they do not have at this time is mild cured bacon, the system of curing that was invented in Ireland and adopted by the Danes. Susan Boddington, the historian from Calne told me that “a major development took place when the dry cure was replaced with a wet cure, late in the 1800s.” (SB) The development that made it possible to produce high quality wet cured bacon was in the first place the invention of stitch pumping which involved pumping brine through a single needle brine injector directly into the meat, thus speeding up the process of diffusing the brine throughout the muscle. Stitch pumping was however first used in combination with dry-curing. It is reported that Harris has used stitch pumping with their dry-curing process as early as 1843. (SB)
I include several drawings in this letter of the different pumps used in the Harris factory. (4) Below is a diagram indicating the position where brine was injected with the stitch-pumping method.
The Danish system, as invented in Ireland calls for bine consisting of nitrate, salt, and sugar to be injected into the meat with a single needle attached to a hand pump (stitch pumping). The meat is then placed in a mother brine mix consisting of old, used brine and new brine. The old brine contained the nitrate which was reduced through bacterial action into nitrite. Jeppe speculated, based on the observations of Dr. Polenski, that it was the nitrite that is responsible for the quick curing of the meat. A major advantage of this method is the speed with which curing is done compared with the dry salt process previously practiced. Wet tank-curing is also more suited for the industrialisation of bacon curing and has the added cost advantage of re-using some of the brine. It allowed for the use of even less salt since the injected brine along with a cover brine is distributed throughout the muscle much faster than was the case with the dry curing process.
The Deal – Trade the Danish Secret for Machines and Factory Plans from Harris (5)
Yesterday, 13 April 1892 was my birthday. John Harris invited me to his home for supper. His wife baked me a beautiful cake with candles that don’t go out when you blow them. We had great fun, singing and laughing. I really enjoy the company of him and his wife! After supper, we went to his reading room where we had a nightcap when he asked me directly about the Danish system. We came to respect each other and he had a proposition for me. They will show me their complete system of mechanisation if I am willing to teach them the Danish system, as he called it. Instead of moving from department to department and spending time with the different supervisors, he will assign me to work directly with his plant manager and chief engineer.
I was thrilled! It will allow me unprecedented access to their plant. He is even willing to share engineering drawings of machines with me so that we can either have the machines built in Cape Town or if it can not be done there, to commission the machines to be built in England. He listed very carefully when I explained the time benefit of mild curing and from what he is prepared to give us in exchange for it, I can tell that he really wants the information.
It is amazing to think, Oscar, that our quest will materially improve the way that the best bacon in the world is being produced when we introduce the Harris operation to mild cured bacon. Could you ever imagine that we, a small band of dreamers from Africa would play such a pivotal role in the global bacon trade!
Wiltshire Bacon Cure – Tank Curing
When I arrived at work on Monday, a small army of scientists was awaiting me and we started working through the Danish system. It was clear from the word GO that the English were not interested in simply copying the system, but to integrate it into their existing system and to improve on it. By the end of the week, the Danish system which was practiced more or less the same way it was invented in Ireland, was now looking as follows.
The pig sides are cooled after the backbone is removed, either at ambient temperature or in a chiller. “After cooling, the sides are trimmed.” Trimming involved removing the fillet (the psoas major muscle along the central spine portion), the shoulder blade bone (the scapula), and the pelvic bone (the aitch bone). The sides are now placed in a curing cellar (room temp of between 3 deg C to 7 deg C). (1) (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 149)
Curing takes place in four stages. First, the brine is pumped into the sides, using stitch pumping or a single needle hand injector. The salt concentration in the brine must be between 25% and 30%, 2.5% to 4% potassium or sodium nitrate (saltpeter) and 0.5% to 1% sugar. Between 18 and 25 injections are required, most in the gammon region. The total weight of brine injected is about 5% of the weight of the side. 1kg then became 1.05kg injected. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
The sides are now either sprinkled with dry salt or placed in a tank of brine, stacked about 12 deep and tied down. If wet cure is used, the sides are covered with a mix of salt and potassium nitrate in a ratio 10:1. Liquid brine solution is run into the tank and the sides remained submerged for between 4 and 5 days. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
The major progression of the cure preparation which I taught them as I learned from Uncle Jeppe is the re-use of the brine and meat juices where nitrates have been reduced to nitrites when bacteria removes one oxygen atom from the saltpeter molecule. The makeup of the tank pickle, as they call it, is between 20% and 28% salt (sodium chloride) and 3% – 4% sodium nitrate when it was first prepared. In order to effect the reduction of the nitrates to nitrites, the brine is seeded with the specific microorganisms who is responsible for the reduction. They achieve this by adding a portion of the old brine back into the new brine. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
The meat juices (protein) that leached from meat that was previously immersed in brine are used with the new brine. This correlates to the Danish adaptation of the Irish invention of the “mother brine.” The amount of nitrite in the brine is managed by adjusting the salt (sodium chloride) concentration in the brine. (2) (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
The sides are placed in a maturing cellar for 7 to 14 days or even longer. This was another major progression of the sweet-cure process used in the harris factories since 1805. The temperature was kept at between 3 deg C and 4 deg C as was the case of the brine cellar. The goal of this step was to diffuse the brine of sodium chloride, nitrate, and nitrite throughout the meat. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
Some of the cured meat was un-smoked (green) but the majority would be smoked for between 2 and 3 days. The traditional Wiltshire process yielded well-cured bacon in anything between 10 and 21 days. (Lawrie, R. A.; 1985: 150)
It is done! The Irish invention of tank curing was acquired by the Danes and now finally made its way to England and the operations of C & T Harris. A question immediately came up with me as to why they did not get this from Ireland directly much sooner, especially in light of the fact that many wealthy families from Cale were involved in the pork trade from Ireland. Lord Lansdown was a landowner in Ireland as were many of his neighbors. It was a question that I have to find answers too, but for now, my focus is completely on the task at hand at Harris.
The meat is prepared for pickling and pickled in a new way. This week, for the first time ever, it was done in this way at the world-famous operation of C & T Harris. Harris adopted the Danish system.
Pale Dried Bacon
Harris at the moment produces what they call Pale Dried Bacon. John did not renege on his part of the deal and they immediately started to take me through their plant in a very methodical way. They also showed me how they produce pale dried bacon.
A new piece of equipment, designed in Germany, can be used to produce pale dried bacon. I include two drawings of the contraption.
After curing, the meat is placed in the new German smoke ovens where it is kept till they are pale and dry. A feature is that it lasts very long which is ideal for their very strong export trade. The usual way to produce pale dried bacon is to hang it in a drying room. It should be a separate room with a line of pipes on which are cast gills for radiating the heat. These pipes are laid around the room and are connected with a supply of steam. They radiate four times more heat that can be derived from plain steam pipes The heat required in the drying room is from 80 deg F to 95 deg Fat which temperature most goods will dry economically.
John Harris has been involved in several court cases this year where imitation pale dried bacon was being sold as Wiltshire bacon. I paste a clipping from Wrexham Advertiser (3 March 1894) that reports on John’s appearance in court.
It is Sunday now and the most momentous week of my life came to an end. I am both exhilarated and exhausted. Despite the quality of the Danish bacon, it is, in my opinion, the British bacon of C & T Harris that we have to imitate and similar to how they are improving on the Irish and Danish method, in the same way, we have to use their bacon as the starting point and improve on it.
Oscar, I can finally report that I have found what we are looking for and that it will not be of little benefit if you could join me in the United Kingdom for a time. My interest is in chemistry and meat science, and you are far better at machines and understanding engineering drawings. I am doing my best to learn as much as I can, but I am convinced that if you spend the same time with the engineers, that the benefit to us will be greatly enhanced by your ability to grasp it better.
Children, I am seeing our plan coming together in a way that I could not have imagined. Please take the letter to my dad also and Elmar and Juanita in Hermanus. I also sent a mail to Dawie Hyman and invited him to visit me in Calne. He is an engineer even though he is living in Los Angeles, I think he will not only find it immensely interesting but will also be able to offer insights and help with our Cape improvements.
I don’t want the letter to be only business, but Minette will find it of equal interest. The bank must be kept abreast of our plans and you will be able to put the business case together for our new company. I have received the news that James, Oscar’s brother, and Cristell are set to wed. I was in any event planning a trip back home for a short break and to attend to another important matter which will involve you, Minette. I had a lot of time to think because in Calne I stay in an Inn and do not have the constant company of a family as was the case in Denmark. I will keep you all abreast of my plans.
Lots of greetings and love from Calne,
Your friend and dad,
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Callow gave us a description of Wiltshire cure in 1934.
(2) Ingram, Hawthorne and Gatherum described this process in 1947 of how it was possible to manage the amount of nitrite in the brine by adjusting the salt (sodium chloride) concentration of the brine.
(3) A 1958 publication gives this description of a typical Wiltshire pork cut (Warde, F. and Wilson, T.; 2013: 55).
(4) The equipment drawings and photos are from William Douglas & Sons Limited, 1901, Douglas’s Encyclopaedia, University of Leeds. Library. All or at least most of these equipment pieces would in all likelihood have been found in the Harris factory.
(5) I estimate that the transfer of technology must have happened either right at the close of the 1800s or right at the beginning of the 1900s. I have written extensively about it in Bacon Curing – a historical review.
Wrexham Advertiser (3 March 1894)