Chapter 09.12: The Salt of the Sea

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

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.

The Salt of the Sea

December 1892

Dear Tristan and Lauren,

I started writing to you last week about salt.  The voyage is still long and there is more time to work through my notes on salt.  I was reminded by Minette this morning that David de Villiers Graaff also left Cape Town in the mid-1880s for a long trip to Great Britain and America to learn more about the meat trade. It was the talk of the town! His meat company, Combrinck & Co was even in those years the biggest butchery in town with an abattoir at the top of Hanover Street, in District Six and retail butcheries throughout the city. (Simons, PB, 2000: 22, 24)  I imagine that his motivation for his trip to England and the US was the same as it is for Oscar, myself and the Woodys team. Seek out new developments that will give us the edge over our future business competitors back home.

There is for us the added element that we must still learn the butchers trade.  Something that David knew from age 11. I don’t see this as a drawback because it affords us the opportunity to learn from many mentors where David had only Uncle Jakobus Combrinck to teach him. Even though Jakobus was a most formidable man, also a mentor to myself, especially during my childhood years, I have come to greatly value the insights of a plurality of mentors.  All shape our lives in slightly different ways.  One of the opportunities I have is to delve into the chemistry of curing what better place to pause than on the subject of salt.


We have it every day, yet, I never understood it! This ordinary substance morphed, right in front of my eyes into the supreme ingredient. It is the food of life! The substance that contains the fullness of the earth. The element of which we live and breathe and have our being!  There is so much to teach you about salt and its rich history.

I decided to give you the broad brush strokes and spare you the detail. The first important thing that I learned is some salts are mined from the earth, but most are recovered from the sea and from salt marshes and salt springs.

The salt works in the medieval French town of Guérande employed around 900 salt workers just a few years ago in the mid-1800s (Bitterman, M, 2010: 24) and it has been in operation for hundreds of years. Salt was produced along the coastlines of India, and Africa, in Mexico along the Yucatan Peninsula’s salt lagoons, and along the coast of Central America for centuries. (Bitterman, M, 2010: 18 – 23) China and North America, everywhere salt was produced from water and rock salt deposits, remnants of dried salt lakes, springs and the receding sea.

Why is the Sea Salty?

How does salt end up in the sea and other bodies of water? Why is the sea, salty? These questions plagued humanity for centuries and many authors examined the question.

The famous pre-Socratic philosopher and poet, Empedocles (490-430BC) said that seawater is “the Sweat of the Earth.”  Aristotle (384-322BC) observed that saltwater was heavier and denser than freshwater and that it contained more than just salt and commented on both its salt and bitter taste. The Roman natural philosopher and naval commander Pliny the Elder (25 – 76AC) wrote extensively about it; the philosopher, Lucius Seneca (3BCE – 65AD) noticed that water level and the salinity of the sea remained constant even though the water was constantly being added by rivers and rain.  Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) discussed the matter at length in his famous “The Notebooks” (Note 946).  Robert Boyle, published in 1674, “Observations and Experiments in the Saltness of the Sea.”  In the late 18th century, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) used evaporation with a solvent extraction to obtain data for his analysis of seawater. He wrote papers on seawater and the Dead Sea. Torbern Bergman (1774) examined all natural water and developed a list of the substances that he had identified in seawater. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778–1850), the famous French chemist and physicist devoted considerable energy to the study of seawater and its saltiness. The Danish chemist Johann Georg Forchhammer (1794-1865) focused on an accurate estimation of the principal salt components, such as chlorine, sulfuric acid, magnesia, lime, potash, and soda. Georg Forchhammer found that the ratio of major salts in samples of seawater from various locations was constant, known as Forchhammer’s Principle, or the Principle of Constant Proportions. There is the legendary work of W Dittmar (1884) on 77 samples collected by the chemist J Y Buchanan during the Challenger Expedition(1872-1876).  (progression from

The salt of the seas
The salt of the sea

Hundreds of years of scientific inquiry eventually culminated in the realisation that the saltiness of the sea was the result of the erosion of the earth’s crust and its transport to the sea by the rivers. Condensation of freshwater from the sea would probably increase the saltiness. Every mineral and element found in the earth is therefore found in seawater, salt marches, and salt springs. The most abundant two elements in the sea are the elements of sodium and chloride (47 millimoles of sodium and 546 millimoles of chloride per L of seawater). This fact reflects the abundance of these elements in the earth’s crust and throughout the universe. (Laszlo, P, 1998: 92)

The salt of the earth becomes the salt of the sea and marshes and springs where the elements from the soil are transported to and combine in a crystal, rich in the fullness of the earth itself. Elements like magnesium, sulfur, calcium, potassium, bromine, carbon and many others.  These elements add taste to salt, yet industrialisation demands that we strip them out to produce what is called a pure salt comprising of only sodium and chloride.

Pure Sodium Chloride for Industry

The hungry monster created by the industrialized revolution had to be fed and one of the foods it loved most is salt – pure salt! So followed a scramble to produce just that.  The Belgian chemist, Ernest Sovay invented a process to create soda ash (sodium carbonate) in 1861 from salt brine. He took limestone which contains calcium carbonate and applied heat to it which releases the carbon dioxide. Together with ammonia and sodium chloride, it is one of the main chemical feedstocks of the industrial revolution and is used to make glass. Much of the chlorine production in the world currently in the 1890s goes towards the production of bleaching agents, produced by an electrolysis method. (Stringer, R and Johnston, P, 2001: 1)

The Chloralkali process is emerging as an even larger industry using salt. When electricity is passed through salt brine (often with the aid of mercury), two major chemical products are produced: caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and chlorine. (1) (Bitterman, M, 2010: 25) There is currently recognition around the world that much money is to be made from electrochemistry and the transmission of table salt to chlorine and caustic soda in a single step. (Stringer, R and Johnston, P, 2001: 1)

Synthesised salt industries are emerging, for example, the Wyandotte Chemical Company and Dow Chemical Company in the USA. Dow Chemicals is pioneering its own processes to produce caustic soda and hydrochloric acid that will be used in producing sodium chloride (table salt). (Laszlo, P, 1998: 109)

I can understand the focus on sodium chloride, from an industrial perspective. If the other components found in seawater are not required to drive the industrial processes; if other elements can complicate it for the industrial machine, why not purify it to the point where almost all other elements have been removed? In experiments done at many of the universities, we already see glimpses of what chlorine can give us.  It is truly magnificent. I can see a future time when there will only be pure sodium chloride available as salt and the world will be poorer for it.

salt sea

Natural Salt

Industrialization takes salt to what nature never intended it to be namely pure sodium chloride. Naturally and normally, when this happens, the main thing that suffers is our own taste and the culinary arts that rely on the rich and fullness of the taste of natural salt, brought about by the presence of many elements.

There is a move in Europe, as probably across the world, away from the different artisan salt companies, who produce salts, as distinct as different wines from Italy and Spain.  It becomes difficult for them to compete with salt that is produced synthetically for industry.  Industry also demands salt companies who recover salt from the ocean, springs, and mine it from the earth to remove every other element except sodium and chloride.

Despite the obvious advantages of science and industrialisation, this seems to be a wholly unfortunate move. We are losing our soul! Sacrificing that which is unique and tasty and requires skills, passed down through hundreds of years, for something common and ordinary and universally the same, intended for industrial use.

Livingston once told my dad about huge salt reserves in the interior of the continent. The vast salt pans of Africa. One which is called Ntwetwe in Betsuhana Land (3), which he, Livingston, has described as 25km’s long and 160 across. Then there are the salt pans of Unyanyembe and many more. (Livingstone, D, 2002: 72,630)

Even just to the north of Cape Town are salt works that have existed from the time before Jan van Riebeek arrived in 1652. I intend suggesting to Oscar that we keep using this natural salt with its unique quality and that we get hold of the salts of Ntwetwe to see if the taste differs from that which we find in Europe.

I see no reason why we cannot produce bacon in Africa as unique as the bacon from England, Germany, America, and Holland and a differentiating feature can be that we use unrefined African salt.  Our mission is to first understand how the Europeans make bacon and then to change it slightly, thus creating a signature product that contains the spirit of the African land.

The Taste of Salt

I thought that we would start our consideration of salt by looking at its preserving function.  To my surprise, we started with salt and its taste.

Taste is as important as the preserving function of salt and nitrate and nitrite in saltpeter and sugar that are normally added with saltpeter to mask the saltiness of the meat. If we can alter the taste, enhance it, by the simple act of being very careful where we buy our salt, then this seems like a most excellent suggestion.  John Harris reminded me that if our trade is the production of food, we are in the first place obliged to produce something of superb taste.

Our own bodies are about 99 oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorous. The remaining 1% is potassium, sulfur, sodium, magnesium, iron and many other elements. The similarities between our bodies and what we find in seawater are striking. (Bitterman, M, 2010: 33)

I wonder if one of the functions of taste is not to differentiate between what is harmful to us and what our body needs. If salt that contains the fullness of seawater or marsh salt or salt springs taste better than pure sodium chloride (pure salt as some people call it), does it not stand to reason that there must be something intrinsically healthy in the natural, unrefined salt?  It may be a stretch, but the taste is one of the most important determining factors in what we use in our food.  It is known that taste elicits a sensation, on parr with sexual experiences which explains why food prominently feature in combination with the sexual.

Lake Asale
Lake Asale

Michail at C & T Harris pointed out that not all the elements in natural salt may react with meat in the same way and that it is important that scientists apply their minds to these matters.  These matters are complicated as salt is a “complex crystal.”   There is potassium in saltpeter and this does not seem to have a detrimental effect on meat curing. Chilean saltpeter, being sodium nitrate seems to be a most excellent curing agent. Then again, scientists from ages past had great difficulty in distinguishing between potassium and sodium based on taste. What is then the difference between sodium or potassium nitrite?

I must learn more about salt.  Our products must be both safe and taste excellent! Time is flying past in England and I have almost got everything that I went there for.

At first, we were looking at factory space behind the cold rooms of Combrinck & Co..  Oscar showed me the land he is looking at now just for the Woodys factory just outside of Paarl.  There is an old butchery that we may be able to take over (4). I am very excited.  It means that the plan of producing the best bacon in the world is coming together.

At the beginning of the project, I saw David and his Combrinck & Co. as our opposition, but I realise that he may end up being our customer.  I am very much interested in talking to him about his plans to set up a large refrigeration plant in Cape Town.  He may end up being our client and distributor.

However it works out, we have many options and have the luxury to sit back and see which one of the plans come to fruition.  I am enjoying the trip back to England so much more with Minette being with me than traveling there on my own.  I seriously wish that you guys could join us.

For now, focus on your schoolwork.  Study hard.  Spend much time on Table Mountain.  Look after each other.  Please send your mom and Johann our love and greetings as well as your grandparents.  Minette also send you loads of love!

Life is short!

Your Dad!

Further Reading


(c) eben van tonder

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(1) “Today, chloralkali processing is the largest single consumer of salt. Rayon, explosives, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, shampoos, soaps, skin lotions, drying bleach, surgical cautery, petroleum refining – about fourteen thousand other products and processes all require these chemicals or the chemicals made from them. Between the Sovay and choloralkali processes, salt is the second biggest chemical feedstock after petroleum”

K+S, a German based salt producer, had a production capacity of 30 million tons of salt in 2009. China National Salt had a 19 million ton capacity. Compass Minerals and Cargill each have a capacity of about 14 million tons. Dampier has a capacity of 9 million tons, Artyomos, 7.5 million tons, Exportadora de Sel, 7 million tons, Sudsalz, 5.3 million tons, the Salins Group, 4.1 million tons, Mitsui & Co, 3.8 million tons, Kzo Nobel, 3.6 million tons. Their production is split between salt for industry/ pharmaceuticals, chemicals, roads, and the food sector.

Production is understandably geared towards the production of a pure sodium chloride salt from an industrialised perspective. Everything else is unfortunately and unjustifiably viewed as contaminants.

NaCl (sodium chloride) is a celebration of the industrialism. (Bitterman, M, 2010: 25 – 27)

Most of the small salt companies with their unique methods of salt production have been driven out of business by the march of industrialisation.  Today there is a strong movement back to these artisan techniques of salt production.

Salt remains the most under-valued food ingredient and at the same time, the ingredient with the biggest potential.

(2)  Northern Rhodesia is present-day Zambia and Southern Rhodesia is present-day Zimbabwe. (Gray, W, 2007: 20)

(3) Betsuhana Land is present-day Botswana.

(4)  Negotiation started with Roelcor in 2013 to take over half of an existing meat factory to be used as the production facility for Woodys Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd.


Bittreman, M. 2010. Salted. Ten Speed Press.

Bud, R and Warner, DJ. 1998. Instruments of science. The science museum, London and the National Museum of American History.

Gray, W. 2007. Zambia and Victoria Falls. New Holland.

Laszlo, P. 1998. Salt, Grain of Life. Columbia University Press.

Livingstone, D. 2002. The life and African explorations of Dr. David Livingstone. Cooper Square Press

Stringer, R and Johnston, P. 2001. Chlorine and the environment, An Overview of the Chlorine Industry. Kluwer Academic Publishers.


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