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.
Sweet Cured Harris Bacon February 1892
Last Monday evening we arrived at Bowood!
We were received by Mr Henry Herbert Smith, Esq. the agent of Lord Lansdowne and other wealthy landowners. While we were in Peterborough, Lord Lansdowne was in India. He was informed of our visit to the United Kingdom, my quest to make the best bacon on earth and the subsequent invitation to Bowood. I was told later that he immediately sent word to Mr Smith and Fife that no effort should be spared to assist us.
It was late when the coach arrived at Bowood. Mr Smith and the Bowood staff welcomed us at the door. We were shown to our very impressive rooms in this magnificent mansion and invited to dine with Mr’s Fife and Smith.
The service started and Mr Smith inquired as to the purpose of the visit. I started recounting to him and Mr Fife in order the events that brought us here. I told him how we made our own bacon on the farm. (Dry Cured Bacon) My transport adventures across South Africa and my meeting with Oscar Klynveld. (The Greatest Adventure and Woody’s Bacon) I told them of my arrival in Copenhagen and the hearty welcome by Andreas and Uncle Jeppe and about Kevin and Julie Pickton in Peterborough and how right from the outset of my trip I had a great desire to visit the legendary curing facility of the Harris family in Calne and the serendipitous events that brought us to Bowood! Mr Smith interrupted me. “Yes, it is true that the firm C & T Harris was established on Lord Lansdowne’s property and that he already made arrangements for you to meet with them after you had a few days to recover from your travels.” There was something important that he had to tell me. He is not only the agent for Lord Lansdowne and several local landowners, which means that he is amongst others, responsible for collecting rent from the tenants, but he is also the first chairman of a new firm that was created to provide the Wiltshire farmers with an alternative market for their pigs namely the Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. Ltd.. The Harris operation has for years existed as a monopoly in the bacon trade and continued operating for years with no competition. The Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. Ltd. was created to challenge that status quo.
After listening in silence, I said, “The privilege is mine, then, that I have the honour of not only learning from one bacon company but two.” “That is true,” he replied, “but I do not want you to divulge everything you learned in Denmark without knowing that you are talking to a competitor of C & T Harris.” He told me that he was amazed that the Danes shared so much with me of a trade that is still very much secretive as it was in the time of the old guilds where every small process and practice was a closely guarded secret, revealed only to members of the society. He told me that in his estimation if Andreas and Uncle Jeppe did not know Kevin, who sold English bacon knives in Denmark, and through Kevin’s wife introduced me to Bowood and its staff, he doubted that I ever would have found my way to Calne, let alone received an audience with two such prominent firms.
Mr Smith continued that the Danish method was not that much of a secret anymore since the firm Oak-Woods Ltd from Gillingham, Dorset was established by the son of the man who invented the mild cured process, William Oake. His son, William Horwood Oake created the firm with partners, and they produced mild cured bacon in Wiltshire. WH Oake created a progression on the mild cured system which he calls auto curing. The factory and offices where they operate from are close to the railway station in Dorset. The firm was established here in 1847. (Steiner) Both systems had as the cornerstone the continued reuse of the old brine. I was a bit surprised because it seemed as if they already knew exactly how Uncle Jeppe produced bacon in Copenhagen.
He noticed my confusion and put my mind at ease. “Eben,” he said, “knowing about a system and understanding its mechanics are two different things. Exactly how do they handle the live brine system? Years ago, when the system was started in the German area of Westphalia, they re-used the brine only twice. First, they would boil it and when it’s cooled down, they would use it again. Both the mild cured system and the auto cured system re-uses the same brine indefinitely. How is this being achieved? Does this not make the meat spoil sooner?”
There is another brine system from the east that use old brine. It is from Russia and is called the Empress of Russia’s Brine. It was prepared as follows.” Boil together over a gentle fire six pounds of common salt (that in most common use in Russia is rock salt), two pounds of powdered loaf sugar, three ounces of saltpetre, and three gallons of pure spring water. Skim it while boiling and when quite cold pour it over the meat, every part of which must be covered with the brine. This pickle may be used again and again if it be fresh boiled up with a small addition of ingredients. Before putting the meat in the brine, wash it in water, pour out the blood and wipe it clean.” (Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 1841)
This intriguing brine clearly shows that the re-use of the old brine was not only practised in Westphalia in Germany but in Russia also, dating from a time well before the 1840s. The difference with William Oakes system seems to be the complete system that he devised along with the fact that he did not boil the old brine. The time in Denmark prepared me well for England. Not only did I know the individuals they were talking about, but in Denmark, I gained an intimate knowledge of both the theory and the art of these brines.
For the first time ever, I became conscious of the intense international rivalry in the bacon trade and the importance of the English market. I did not feel like a “beggar” for knowledge any more all the way from unsophisticated South Africa, the son of a magistrate and a former transport rider. I was very thankful for Mr Smith’s approach and for the first time became wary of what I was going to tell him. I would guard my words and tell him very little about the actual Danish process and especially about mild-cured bacon and the art of re-using old brine in tanks.
By this time, a small number of staff from the Bowood estate who came to hear me speak about my many experiences started filling up the dining room as word spread of our presence. I was glad for this because the questions they had, had more to do with Africa than Denmark. One of my favourite South African pig stories from my youth is the one about the Kolbroek pigs and how they came to South Africa from England. It’s a story that my Oupa Eben told me many times and I wrote about in a previous mail, the Kolbroek (Chapter 3). I told the story of Kolbroek pigs and the sinking of the Colenbrook at least five times that evening. Every time I would get to the part of the story where the ship hit Anvil Rock at Cape Point, there would be a collective gasp from the audience. When I told them how the Colenbrook limped across False Bay towards Kogel Bay, the two other English ships following closely, some of the female listeners started crying. When I told them of the water started coming through the front hatches as they approached land, the tension was palpable. The small crowd grew as the word spread through the estate and children sat at my feet, hanging on every word.
This was the first time I realised that the story of bacon is powerful and belongs to all of humanity! Mr’s Smith and Fife gave up their seats to allow more people to get close to me and hear me speak. It was a magical evening and took me and Minette completely by surprise.
We spent a full week at Bowood before I eventually made it to C & T Harris. I used most of my time reading books on chemistry. I naturally gravitated to this subject. Minette did a fair bit of reading herself but between books, she strolled through the magnificent gardens and got to know many of the local woman and their children. I enjoyed the formal and predictable structure of chemistry and as in Cape Town, used every opportunity to advance my understanding of it. Besides chemistry, I had an intense interest in the business side of the work of running a large curing operation as managing the business will be just as important as making the bacon. It was great having Minette there to talk through the various business models I came across.
The Bowood Library
Minette and I spend many hours in the library and this requires special mention. The library is the room where Joseph Priestly, on 1 August 1774, acting as a tutor for the children, did his experiments and discovered oxygen. It is a cosy, intimate setting.
The room in Bowood where, on 1 August 1774, Priestly discovered oxygen.
Two of the most important works that I studied during my time at Bowood, apart from the study notes of Priestly and other works on chemistry were “The Economics of the Industrial Revolution,” by Joel Mokyr and “The Foundations of British Maritime Ascendancy – Resources, Logistics and the State, 1755–1815” by Roger Morris. Working in such a historical setting was exactly the kind of thing to inspire me.
Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. Ltd
Mr Smith shared what knowledge he had about C & T Harris with me. This iconic firm stood for many years as the benchmark of bacon quality around the world and was appointed official bacon curer to the King of England. Lord Landsdown did not invest in the Harris operation but opted instead to create his own firm in the Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. Ltd. in opposition to the Harris Family. By this time, they were so successful and well-funded through capital they build up over many years that when Lord Landsdown approached them to invest in their firm, the Harris family declined his offer. (2)
Minette gave me interesting insights into the predictable patterns of such new firms. She explained to me that all companies start off very opportunistic. In the early days, they exploit all opportunities that come their way. As companies mature, they start dominating their supply line. In the small town situated in places like Calne, this often gives rise to frustration on the side of smaller suppliers who often experience the actions of their large clients as bullying and intimidation. Harris dictated the pork prices and the small-scale farmers did not like it!
The more mature and bigger firm, in this case, Harris, wants stable and low prices from their suppliers and farmers with no shareholding in their client, as is the case with the Danish cooperative model, see little benefit in selling their animals at the low prices demanded by the large client especially if they would have realised far higher prices from selling to small scale butchers in the area. The Danish model ensures that the farmers reap the ultimate benefit through their membership in the cooperative, despite initial low selling prices to the company, but the Calne farmers had no such benefit. They saw the difference between the selling prices to local butcheries and the prices that Harris demanded and felt cheated. They could not sell all their pigs to local small-scale butchers and the biggest volume would be sold to Harris at low prices. From the perspective of Harris, as is normally the case as Minette explained to me, they would require low prices as the total cost of running a large bacon plant as opposed to a small-scale butchery is enormous and they need higher gross profits to enable them to continue to fund their day-to-day operation and expand the business. “The bigger a firm is, the higher the risk and higher the cost of being in business”, Minette explained to me, “and this should be reflected in the profit margins of a firm like Harris.”
That this tension existed in Calne is therefore understandable. Minette told me that David de Villiers Graaff experienced the exact same pressure in his business and for this reason, Combrink and Co. back in Cape Town set up their own cattle farms to supply themselves and, in this way, escape the pressure from many small suppliers. I personally loved these different patterns that emerged, and, in a way, it reminded me of the structure in chemistry.
C & T Harris: The Making of a Legend
Delving into the history of the Harris operation was my number one point of interest and unravelling the creation of this legendary company was of large interest to me. The making of a legend in the bacon world was, as is usual in these cases, the result of several seismic movements of tectonic plates which created the world of C & T Harris and their Wiltshire bacon cure. Several key ingredients were blended to create it. I was there to learn what these ingredients are so that we can duplicate them in South Africa. Instead of sharing what I learned in Denmark, I decided to listen to what Mr Smith could tell me. Let him speak!
C & T Harris: Abundant supply of local and Irish Pigs
Mr Smith shared his views with us one evening before supper. According to him, the first ingredient needed in blending this bacon legend was an abundant supply of pork at decent prices. In Calne, there was a large local supply of pigs. Wiltshire is an area associated with pigs since early. Mr Smith referred me to a book in their library at Bowood by Daniel Defoe, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in 1720 about a strong pork industry in Wiltshire on account of the abundance of whey from the local dairy industry. In this work, Defoe makes mention of enormous quantities of bacon sent from, among others, Wiltshire to London. He wrote, “The bacon is raised in such quantities here, by reason of the great dairies. . . the hogs being fed with the vast quantity of whey, and skimmed milk, which so many farmers have to spare, and which must otherwise be thrown away.” (Malcolmson, 1998)
Besides local supply, there was a strong supply of imported pigs from Ireland. Between 1770 and 1800 exports of Irish pork to England increased eight-fold. Over 60% of the Irish imports into England were done to London. (Cullen, 1968) The pigs arrived by ship in Bristol. From here they were walked on the hoof all the way to the Smithfield Market in London. Along the way, it was important to rest the animals and give them a chance to graze to ensure good meat quality when they arrive in London. Calne is a convenient location for such a resting place on the long walk. Mr Smith pointed to several wealthy families in Wiltshire who set up buying operations in Ireland to exploit these imports by facilitating them.
Availability is driven by seasonal domestic and export demand and external influences such as the supply of the army and the navy. With the English fighting several foreign wars and a large navy to supply, the demand for bacon was unusually strong. There are other factors such as pork disease that impacts its availability. Even the time of year plays a role since pork could only be cured in the winter on account of the meat going off in the summer before the cure could diffuse through the entire muscle. Access to pigs from local as well as foreign sources was vital. The demand and supply in the foreign market will inevitably differ from local trends and the producer is able to exploit low price cycles to ensure low input cost and the best possible quality.
The second important ingredient was saltpetre. Mr Smith invited a local historian and author of several historical novels living in Calne to join us for dinner that evening to give me some background on the origins of the Harris operation. Her name is Susan Boddington and she arrived just before 6:30 p.m..
C & T Harris: Saltpeter
The dinner was set for 6:30 p.m.. Minette and I spent most of my day in the library reading. Susan arrived around 5:20. Mr Smith, very punctual as usual, arrived at 6:30 exactly. After introductory pleasantries, we were escorted through to the large dining room. Mr Smith continued the analogy of ingredients required for a masterful brine blend and set the stage for Susan by giving her an overview of what we already discussed of a good local and international supply of pigs. Mr Smith re-announced his point for Susan to take it further. “The other important ingredient is saltpetre.” It was clear that he was unnerved by Susan’s presence.
Harris Bacon, courtesy of Calne Heritage Centre
Susan sat very quietly, listening to his every word. She impressed me as someone who listens quickly and is slow to speak. My dad and grandfather would have liked her with a deep-seated dislike for a “salesman-like” approach to storytelling. When Mr Smith was done with his introduction, she started very quietly. “Well, yes, Mr Smith, “the geology around Calne is excellent for saltpetre. The Calne Guild Stewards’ Book has an entry for 1654 listing payment for the removal of saltpetre tubs. It is mentioned in relation to glassmaking in the 17th Century. A token was found for use at the glasshouse in Calne, suggesting there was glass manufacture going on in the town, although no record has been found of it. Saltpetre is essential for making glass. The antiquarian John Aubrey, in his book ‘Topographical Collections’ 1659-70, says concerning Calne that the ‘Sand on the hills here about is very fit for glass making.’ He described it as being very white and having the largest grains he had ever seen. He also mentions ‘The deep lane from Bowden to Raybridge is very full of nitre, as a warm day will indicate.’ Bowden Hill and Raybridge are only a few miles from Calne.” (SB)
“This means, therefore, gentlemen, that in your analogy you can say that the essential ingredients for good bacon were all present by the late 1700s. An almost unlimited supply of pigs, both local and imported, low prices and a mature local industry for the supply of the principal curing ingredient of saltpetre. The scene was set for an entrepreneur to step forward, mix all these together and create a legend!”
C & T Harris: John Harris and Sons
I interrupted Susan. I read about the next bit of the story. “The first Harris to come to Calne,” I said, “was John Harris in the late 1700s. He moved here with his widowed mom, Sarah Harris, in 1770. They were living in a small market town of Devizes, about ten miles from Calne. When they moved to Calne, John set up in a small property in Butchers Row.”
Susan smiled. “Actually,” she said, “it was his mom, Sarah Harris who set up the butcher’s shop in Calne in 1770. Her son, John was only 10 years old when they moved from Devizes. He of course helped his mother in the shop and took over when she retired. The famous business owes its foundation to a woman!”(SB) Susan smiled and asked me, “You want to continue?”
“No, no, no, please continue” I protested. “What do I know?”
She found it very amusing and continued. “When he died in 1791 the business was carried on by his wife but on a very small scale. (SB) She ‘thought it was a good week if she had killed five or six pigs and sold clear out on a Saturday night’. Two of her sons helped her in the butchery, John, and Henry. When she passed away, she left in her will £60 to each of her three sons, John, Henry, and James. Henry and James were twins, but James had no interest in butchery and became a civil servant.” (SB)
“Her one son, John, married Mary Perkins in 1808, who, in 1805/1806, opened a butcher’s shop and bacon curing business of his own in Calne, High Street. His younger brother, Henry Harris, married Sophia Perkins in 1813. He managed the Perkins Family Grocery and Butchers in Butcher’s Row (later Church Street). He took the business over when his father-in-law passed away.”
“John and Mary had twelve children. Disaster struck the young family when John passed away at a young age in 1837. “His wife, Mary, continued to run the business until eventually handing it over to one of their sons, Thomas. Henry and Sophia were childless and looked after four of John’s children. He left the Church Street business to his nephew George. Charles later joined George as a partner in Church Street. John’s son Thomas took over the High Street business when his father died. George died in 1861, leaving Charles running the Church Street factory. Charles and Thomas amalgamated their businesses in 1888. It is interesting to note that one of Thomas Harris’ sons struck out on his own and founded the Bowyers Bacon factory in Trowbridge.” (SB)
C & T Harris: Sweet cure
“They remained close, and innovations were done together. The first progression that created the legend was a simple one. They created a ‘sweet-cured bacon’.”
I excitedly interrupted Susan. I have first-hand knowledge of what sweet cure was. “The process was invented by my father!” Of course, I was saying it as a joke, but the point was well made. I wrote to you about this right at the start of my journey, Dry Cured Bacon. My dad’s legendary sweet cure recipe from the Cape called for the use of molasses resulting in a magnificently sweet bacon taste. My dad never told me where he got the recipe and I always suspected he got it from an American farmer or a British bacon-man visiting Cape Town. He started curing bacon with the new recipe in 1886, which was many years after the Harris brothers introduced their sweet cure and it may very well have been that it was like the old Harris sweet cure which was in use in Wiltshire in the 1840s.
My first thought about “sweet cure” was that it was simply adding sugar or molasses to the brining process. I told Susan that I spent the day in the library looking for the oldest reference where sugar was added to the brine. I found just such a reference to the mix of salt and sugar from 1776, where a liquid curing brine is described for bacon as containing “4 lb. of salt, 2 lb. of brown sugar, and 4 gallons of water with a touch of saltpetre.” (Holland, LZ, 2003: 9, 10) This salt/water mix was used to cure barrel pork.
Susan was impressed. “Yes,” she said. “Barrel pork was a crude process of laying pork joints in a wooden barrel and immersing it in a water brine mix of salt, saltpetre, and sugar. It was food for a poor family, shared by slaves, farmers or wage earners. It was disdained by the elites as “sea-junk,” cured by sopping in brine that imparted a nauseous taste to the meat. (Horowitz, R.; 2006: 45) It is easy to see how adding sugar to barrel-pork was an attempt to improve its taste.” I was fascinated. “Could it be that sugar was not part of the standard dry-cure process employed in Calne and the Harris brothers took this idea of adding sugar to the dry-cure from barrel pork?”
Harris sausage line, courtesy of Calne Heritage Centre
Mr Smith interjected in a way that made me suspect that he is allowing us to run with the possible meanings of “sweet cure” as far as we can go but he knows exactly what it means. “So, you guys say that it probably should be taken, as sweet as opposed to bacon turning putrid due to curing that was not effective.” “Yes!” Susan said. “In this instance!” Susan referenced a quote from Critchell in 1912 where the term “sweet” is used in exactly this context. The statement is made in the context of various attempts to get meat to last during sea voyages and it reads, “Medlock and Bailey claimed that by dipping meat in their bisulphide of lime solution “anything of animal origin, from a beefsteak to a bullock, from a whitebait to a whale, can be preserved sweet for months.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)
Susan knew her facts and responded by informing us that “there is a description of the dry-cure process employed in Calne that could have been used by John Harris when he opened his butchery in 1770 and also by his sons in their curing operations. “The description comes to us,” Susan said, “from an 1805 account from right here in Wiltshire. She gave the quote verbatim. “When the hog is killed, the sides are laid in large wooden troughs, and sprinkled over with bay salt, after which they are left for twenty-four hours, in order to drain off the blood and superfluous juices. Next, they are taken out and wiped thoroughly dry, and some fresh bay salt, previously heated in an iron frying pan, is rubbed into the flesh till it has absorbed a sufficient quantity; this rubbing is continued for four successive days, during which the sides, or flitches, as they are usually called, are turned every other day. Where large hogs are killed, it becomes necessary to keep the flitches in brine for three weeks, and in that interval to turn them ten times, after which period they are taken out and dried in the common manner; in fact, unless they are thus treated, they cannot be preserved in the sweet state, nor will they be equal in point of flavour, to bacon that is properly cured.” (Malcolmson,1998)
A feature of this old Wiltshire curing description is the regular turning of the sides of bacon and its re-salting. Another feature of the heating of the salt. The obvious advantage this would have had was to ensure the salt is clear of organic impurities including bacteria.
“In this instance,” said Susan, “I wonder if “in the sweet state” does not simply mean that it was not putrid. There is no mention of sugar. There is another well-known brine recipe for ham dating back to 1781, from Buckinghamshire, that I want to refer you to. The ham and its curing process are reportedly named after the last Lord Bradenham of Buckinghamshire. According to this recipe, the hams are first dry-cured with salt, saltpetre and brown sugar after which it is placed in a liquid cure of molasses, coriander, juniper berries, and other ingredients after which it is aged for another 6 months. Some claim that the ham should not be smoked while others maintain that smoking it was part of the original recipe.” “My point is that bacon “in a sweet state” could refer to simply bacon that is not putrid. Where they referred to sugar, it was included in the recipe and adding sugar to ham, and bacon brines was not uncommon in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Would it really have been so revolutionary if sweet cure referred to simply sugar that was added to the brine?”
At this point, Minette made an extremely valuable contribution to the discussion. She copied a sketch down from a Canadian publication she happened upon in the Calne library. The authors concluded that sweet cure may simply be that less salt is used or that sugar is added, but even where it is added, it may be to reduce the saltiness without there being actual sweet notes detectable in the bacon. A modern bacon curing method exists with the name of “tendersweet” bacon. It is given as a variation on Wiltshire curing and it may harken back to the original sweet cured bacon. Sutherland & Sutherland gave the following diagram to explain the modern process;
Sutherland & Sutherland wrote in 1995 and the steps following tumbling are decidedly modern inventions. Overall modern procedures show up everywhere. Slicing and pre-packing, for example. Still, it sheds light on the meaning of the term.
A key difference between sweet cure and Wiltshire cure is that in sweet cure a fresh batch of brine is made for every batch of bacon to be cured where Wiltshire bacon brine is re-used. The only other obvious difference that I can see between the original sweet cure method and what it is today is the tumbling step and the hot smoking which most certainly was not practised in the 1840s. The importance of the heat in the smoking house is such that I have to discuss it.
Suddenly I realised that Minette has spent far too long with me when she made a conclusion that startled some of us. “Before 1840, what was the major way that meat was smoked,” she asked us. “Cold smoking,” I replied. “Yes, she said. Cold smoking for several days!” “Another question,” she continued. Did refrigeration exist at this time?” Susan answered this question. “George and Charles set up ice houses in their separate factories and the first ice-house was constructed at the High Street factory in 1856 and the ice preservation process was patented by Thomas Harris in 1864.”
I could not see the relevance but Minette continued. “Until that time, what was the practice after the pig was butchered? Did they work the meat immediately, while the carcass was still warm?”
“Yes,” I said. “Obviously!”
She smiled when she noticed the slight irritation in my voice. This is also not entirely true. John Selby, an agriculturist from Tennessee in America wrote an 1841 article in which he advocates that the carcass must be properly cooled down after the hair has been singed off and the entrails removed; before the carcass is cut open any further, no effort should be spared to get the carcass temperature down. Spray a concrete floor with cool water before the carcass is laid on it. If the flesh remains soft, dash cold water on it. The meat must be firm before the process of salting is started. He made bacon once or twice from meat solidly frozen which had to be cut entirely with an axe and it turned out to be some of the best bacon he ever made. (Cheraw Advertiser (Cheraw, South Carolina), 1841)
“After refrigeration was set up by the Harris brothers, it would have been easier to ensure the meat is chilled after the hair has been removed. Was the old process not to kill the animal and immediately burn the entire carcass with straw and using boiling water and scrapers, to remove the hair from the hide before the animal was cut into sides and salted?”
An old postcard was sent to me by Michael Caswell who grew up in the town of Calne in Wiltshire. He writes about the postcard, “this historic postcard shows what most local people did with their backyard pigs shortly after slaughter. The pigs were laid on a bed of straw and then the straw was set alight to burn off all the hair! Pretty simple really.” It is an excellent example of how Harris must have de-haired their pigs in the very early days.
“Yes!” I replied again. This time with admiration.
Minette continued. “At this point, the meat would be warm. Well, it would have been warm, to begin with, because moments earlier the animal was still alive. De-hairing it would raise the temperature even further from the process used. Just think about it! The clock would be ticking to cut the carcass up as quickly as possible and heavy salt the meat so that the nighttime air which is around 2o C in Calne, could take over the work of restricting the microbial activity. It could be the middle of the day by now with the sun out and even in the winter, the temperature would have reached at least 10o C. Sometimes higher. So, by having an ice house the carcass can be left to hang first and cool down since the micro-control is achieved through the effect of the winter temperature in the ice house and not solely on the salt. In this way, through the application of the ice house, even in the winter, the level of salt could be reduced.”
Another book that Minette discovered in the Calne library was the 1888 publication Wyman’s commercial encyclopedia of leading manufacturers of Great Britain. She brought it with her to the dinner table and quoted us a few interesting sections from his work, relevant to our discussion. Wyman writes, “The essential difference between the old system and the new consists in the adoption, in the new system, of artificial means for reducing the temperature of the curing – rooms when the natural heat of the atmosphere is too great.” He further writes, “Immediately after slaughter each carcass is passed, by a machine invented for the purpose, into a furnace to be singed; the moment this is accomplished the machine is turned round, the carcass deposited on a block ready to receive it, and a fresh one placed by the same machine in the furnace. When the singeing process is over, the carcasses are removed to another part of the premises, and there cleaned and dressed. After hanging for a day, the sides are taken to the curing-rooms, each carcass, however, being inspected by a member of the Firm, only the very finest sides being branded with their name.”
Minette produced a copy of the magazine and showed us what such a side looked like after it was stamped;
From Wyman’s commercial encyclopædia of leading manufacturers of Great Britain.
“So,” Minette concluded, “the fact that less salt was used was ultimately made possible because of refrigeration and not the addition of sugar!” Was this not the essence of the “sweet cure?”
“The process you just described, Minette,” said Susan, was invented by Henry Denny, another legendary Irish curer. He automated the singeing process he too achieved a mild cured bacon due to the simultaneous use of less salt along with refrigeration (The Jewish Master Curer and the Prince of Ireland), but this was done years after sweet cured bacon was pioneered by Harris in the 1840s.
Smoking and the Invention of a Dedicated Smokehouse by Robert Henderson
Mr Smith was listening in silence. I could see he was ready to reveal the hand he was playing close to his chest up to this point. “Let’s define one term before we continue,” he started. “After brining, the bacon is referred to as green bacon. Remember that the main purpose of curing has always been preservation. What was the purpose of smoking, Eben?”
I hesitated. “To coat the meat with protective properties inherent in the smoke?”
“No, Sir!” Mr Smith responded emphatically with a smile on his face! “We may be discovering this benefit today. There are components of the smoke that on their own and in combination have a material impact on prolonging the shelf life of the bacon but the main reason for smoking dry-cured bacon was to keep insects away. An unintended consequence of smoking it was to dry it out. Dry bacon lasts longer but care must be taken that it is not too dry. This was established through simple observation, trial, and error. Smoking was done to keep insects at bay, but an unintended consequence was drying.”
“In the sweet cure system, long-process cold smoking is not done. The meat is cured and smoked immediately thereafter which had a huge impact on the time required to make bacon. We must make a distinction here between hot and cold smoking. Initially, all attempts were made to remove heat from the smokehouse, but in later years, people experimented with warmer smokehouses. It complicates our quest a bit because the question is if Harris in the 1840s cold-smoked their bacon or used a warmer smokehouse.
Let’s assume for a moment that hot smoking was used. The total time of hot smoking can be as little as 2 hours as opposed to the week that can be used to cold smoke bacon (8 hours smoking and resting overnight for 7 days) but the biggest benefit of the system is that far less salt and saltpetre are used! Now, presumably hot smoking was not used, but, as you will shortly see, developments in that time meant that they in all likelihood started using a built-for-purpose smokehouse which had the benefit of restricting the weight loss during smoking and this, by itself would have resulted in a less salty bacon.”
“A downside of hot smoking will be dry meat – a lot more than cold smoking. Today this is offset by the injection of around 10% of moisture into the bacon during the curing stage. For sure, hot smoking does not achieve the amazing flavour changes which are associated with the action of enzymes in the dry curing system.”
“It has recently been shown that hot-smoking has another very important function namely the diffusing of the brine throughout the meat which means that not only is the drying stage omitted, but there is no need for a resting phase after brining. The heat softens the internal structure of the meat to such an extent that diffusing takes place much quicker than if it’s done at cool temperatures. The temperature that hot smoking is done at is often as high as 65o C.”
“The reason for cold-smoking dry-cured bacon is then in the first place to prevent flies infesting the bacon and consequences of this action was the drying of the meat and imparting a smoky taste. (Sutherland and Sutherland). Refrigeration takes care of a lot of the spoilage problem. Add to this the fact that we hot smoke, not to dry the bacon anymore, but to develop the flavour and diffuse the brine and get rid of some of the surface bacteria. The invention of sweet cured bacon involves infinitely more than just adding sugar to the bacon! Likely, it involved cold smoking, but much faster and better controled smoking! The result is that the ingoing salt levels can now be reduced dramatically. Back in the 1840s the boys at Harris still used cold smoking.
The Scottish farmer and pork trader, Robert Henderson is the earliest record I could find of the construction of a fit-for-purpose smokehouse in Britain when he designed such a smokehouse in 1791. A noticeable feature of his smokehouses was that they resulted in less weight loss which by itself would have resulted in less salty bacon. (Robert Henderson and the Invention of the Smokehouse)
The practice up until the late 1700s and early 1800s was that bacon flitches would be hung in the kitchen on the farms above the fireplace. Robert Henderson was a Scottish farmer at Broomhill, near Annan. He distributed the flitches to farmers to hang in their kitchens to dry and smoke. They not only hung it in the kitchen but throughout the farmhouse to dry. Henderson reports several difficulties with this approach. He had to take pieces of wood along to hang the flitches. For several days after they have been hung to dry, from the flitches would pour down salt and brine upon the farm woman’s “caps.” From time to time a ham would, for example, fall down and break something like the spinning wheel or knock down some of the children. The result was that he had to buy ribbons or tobacco to compensate for the inconveniences or the damage caused. (Henderson, 1811)
The biggest disadvantage was that the bacon or hams would only be taken down if Henderson received an order for it which sometimes took three months. By this time, the bacon would be overly dry and have lost a great deal of weight. Henderson reported that this method was still in use by 1811 in Dumfriesshire and he laments the fact that people are very slow to change to a better system. (Henderson, 1811)
Robert Henderson claims that twenty years earlier, in 1791, he designed a simple, dedicated smokehouse for smoking hams and bacon. He describes it as being twenty feet square (1.8m2) with the walls about seven feet high (2.1m high). Each wall allowed for 6 joints. Twenty four flitches can be hung together in a row without them touching. Each one of the flitches was resting on a beam. There are five rows, allowing for a total of 120 flitches in the smokehouse. The flitches were hung between 21/2 to 3 feet (900mm) from the floor which is covered with sawdust of five or six inches (100 to 150mm), kindled at two different sides. (Henderson, 1811)
The door is kept closed with a small hole in the roof for ventilation. Bacon and hams smoked in this smokehouse were ready for dispatch within eight to ten days. An advantage of this system is that there is only a little loss in weight. (Henderson, 1811)
So, the system was that the bacon was kept in the salt-house till an order is received. At this point, it was moved to the smokehouse for drying and smoking before it was dispatched to the client. Henderson no longer needed to employ people to cart his bacon around the country for drying, but the biggest benefit was that less weight was lost. (Henderson, 1811)
It is clear that during this time, the invention of the smokehouse by Robert Henderson, and, I am sure by others, had a dramatic impact on the quality of the bacon. One of the consequences of too much drying is very salty meat since water escapes, but salt is left in the meat.
This invention was “in the air” already since Henderson’s 1791 invention of the smokehouse and if Harris started to employ these better designed smokehouses, it would certainly have resulted in a sweeter cure. Mr Smith took a sip from his tea and added one more point. “There is, of course, one progression on sweet cured bacon that John Harris launched over the last few years namely pale dried bacon, but I will leave it to him to explain to you how that is produced. He is very protective over it, and I am careful not to discuss something which he feels very protective about!” I sat back in my chair and folded my hands behind my head. “My goodness! I exclaimed! Absolutely riveting!”
I was keen to summarise. “Sweet cured bacon is, therefore,” I said slowly to myself, “bacon that is cured with less salt and saltpetre, with or without the addition of sugar and smoked immediately after curing in a specially designed smokehouse.”
Mr Smith invited us to the library where tea and coffee will be served. I could tell that Susan was equally energised from the discussion. When we all seemed to have regained our composure and settled in our new chairs in the library all made small talk. There was an unexpected silence and suddenly everybody got busy with their tea or coffee and their own thoughts. When the silence continued long enough to be uncomfortable, Susan spoke softly. “Mr Smith, can I for a moment return to a statement that you made that sweet cured bacon could possibly have involved the use of sugar in the cure? Please allow me to say something about how widespread the use of sugar was during this time.”
Mr Smith looked very excited with her suggestion and prompted her to continue. “For sugar to have been used, it had to be a common ingredient not just in the houses of aristocrats, such as in the kitchen of Lord Bradenham but in large scale factories such as Harris. I mean, “Susan explained, “was it sufficiently common to also be affordable? The use of sugar in brines, even though there are examples of such brines from this time and even earlier, may still have been limited. Harris may still have been one of the first to use sugar on a large scale in their bacon brines and not only in their premium offerings and, of course,” she added, “later as part of the overall system which you so well explained during dinner which in its totality is called sweet cured bacon.”
We were all immediately fascinated, and we prompted her to tell us more. While Minette was carefully returning the books, she took from the library from which she shared some passages with us, Susan gave us a brief review of the development of the use of sugar in Europe and England. “One thing we know for certain is that they would have used cane sugar.” “The use of sugar in Europe was greatly expanded in the 13th century when the Crusaders brought a new “spice” from North Africa. There are records of sugarcane being produced in Spain as far back as 600 A. D.. Sugarcane was industrialized in Europe during the 1600s as can be seen from records that show it was imported regularly and being processed locally. The Portuguese colonized West Africa from the 1600s and started growing sugarcane on the back of good climate conditions and cheap labour. The profits from these ventures were substantial. So much so that they were able to finance their expansion into the new world, at least partially from it. Columbus, for example, brought sugarcane to the Americas in 1493 and the Portuguese used the newfound land to expand the lucrative sugar cane trade.”
“The term used in Britain in the early 1700s to refer to their colonies which produced sugar was “sugar colonies.” In Barbados, the British established a sugar cane industry in the 1800s and managed to retain a monopoly of its supply into Europe for well over a century. The Napoleonic wars of 1803 to 1815 temporarily put an end to the English sugarcane trade with Europe, as was the case with all merchandise. This created a shortage of sugarcane in Europe which led to the search for alternative sources of sugar. It contributed to the discovery of beet sugar. The first sugar factory for beet sugar was opened in France in 1812. In the 1820s, farmers started growing beet sugar on an even larger scale than ever before.” (Clemens et al., 2016)
Mr Smith confirmed that in their factory they use what they call Egyptian sugar. “The point, Mr Smith said, “is not that it is produced in Egypt, but that it is pure cane sugar. I know about beetroot sugar but according to the most experienced butchers, it is a dangerous product to use for curing. I am not sure why, but it is a matter that you, Eben and Minette would like to investigate further. Harris may have used it initially to reduce the saltiness of their bacon, but it is added today more for flavour than anything else.” Mr Smith said that they add it in his plant to sweet pickles, pumping pickles, pickles for curing tongues – they use it in about everything on account of the enhancement to the taste. “There are reports that it is slightly antiseptic, but that is not why we use it.” “We generally use it at a rate of 2 ½%.” (William Douglas & Sons Limited, 1901) Mr Smith was certain that Harris used sugar in the same way.
The diversion into a brief history of sugar was fascinating and I had a nagging thought that it would become more important later. The fact that I now know about two types of sugar means that there is more I will discover. Different sugars will likely have different reactions in meat. I was glad that I continued Uncle Jeppe’s extensive use of notebooks and took careful notes while Susan was talking with a note to myself to return to the subject of sugar.
Sweet Cured Bacon before Refrigeration
Something was not sitting right with me. I got up and started to pace the library while Minette, Mr Smith, his wife and Susan made small talk about the incredible history of the library. “Surely,” I said to Susan, “various kinds of sugars have been widely available in Britain for long enough to be used commonly in brines by the 1840s. The various reports of the invention of sweet cured bacon are so specific that it was in the 1840s, we are missing something! Refrigeration followed in the mid to late 1850s. Minette is spot on there. It would have made it so much easier to shorten the process and reduce the reliance on salt for micro control through drying. We are missing something!” “What step do you know was invented in the 1840s which we have not discussed yet?”
Stitch Pumping and the Reduction of Salt
Suddenly our small party of friends has gone quiet again. All eyes were riveted on Susan. Susan answered almost immediately. “Stitch pumping!” she replied in a contemplative tone. “It is reported that Harris has used stitch pumping with their dry-curing process as early as 1843.” (SB) “The major development took place when the dry cure was replaced with a wet cure, late in the 1800s.” (SB) “This change was however gradual. Stitch pumping was first invented and used in combination with dry-curing before the dry curing step was completely replaced by wet curing in the late 1800s. Stitch pumping was invented in the early 1840s.”
Mr Smith interrupted our discussion. “For the sake of my wife and Minette, please allow me to explain stitch pumping. It 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.”
I fell into my chair. “Well, my good friends, there you have it then! The last piece of the puzzle has revealed itself. Even before refrigeration was incorporated with all the benefits so well elucidated by Minette and Mr Smith, stitch pumping solved the time constraining step of allowing the dry salt and saltpetre rubbed onto the meat to diffuse into the bacon flitches. By injecting the brine into the meat with a needle, it shortened the time for the brine to be distributed through the flitches considerably. Refrigeration is not necessary to achieve this.”
“Stitch pumping and quick-smoke-smokehouses would have worked very well together! Even though I find no historical reason to assume this, over the following few years as the smokehouse temperature was increased, it was easy to see how warmer smoking of the meat would have facilitated better diffusing of the brine ingredients.
Even without hot or warm smoking, the brine diffused better through the meat. The salts that were injected no longer exist in their crystal form when a liquid brine is introduced to the meat. They exist in their much smaller and more mobile forms of sodium and chloride in the case of salt and potassium and nitrate, or calcium and nitrate or sodium and nitrate in the case of saltpetre. For the salt to diffuse throughout the meat, the crystal first dissolves into two chemical ionic forms and then diffusion takes place. The mechanism of diffusion for ionic compounds is different and more effective than that of large, charge-neutral molecules! Stitch pumping was done before refrigeration was invented. It was injected into the sides before the onset of Rigour Mortis or the stiffness of death which means that it was done while the meat was still warm or, put in another way before carcass cooling took place which was practised only after the application of refrigeration.”
“I was complete besides myself! The prevailing levels of technology in the 1840s, without refrigeration, allowed Harris to reduce the salt levels! This is when sweet cured bacon was born! In the 1840s! The entire process was far better controlled, and it was quick! The brining step was reduced to a fraction of what it was when dry curing with dry ingredients only was used. This fits the timeline absolutely 100%, Susan! Henderson’s smokehouse, invented in the 1790s was brilliant! The introduction of cold through the ice houses complimented the system in so many ways by removing the need for an early heavy salting step but it was not what made it possible in the first place! This honour goes to the invention of the smokehouse and stitch pumping!”
When I looked around to see where Minette is, she was paging through another publication from the library. “So,” she asked Mr Smith, “this is what you guys are talking about?” pointing to a diagram indicating the position where brine was injected with the stitch-pumping method. (4)
I again summarised what we’ve learned for myself. “Sweet cured bacon was cured with less salt and saltpetre, with or without the addition of sugar and smoked immediately after curing in a built-for-purpose smokehouse which resulted in less moisture loss (and therefore tasted less salty); liquid brine was injected with a single needle injector into the meat which further allowed for reduced salt levels and cover brine may or may not have been used.” This then, sweet cured bacon from the 1840s!
C&T Harris, 1902 supplied by Steven Thomas.
Minette had an old newspaper report from 1840 where curing in three counties is listed. One of these counties is Wiltshire.
Was this customary in Wiltshire in the 1840s?
In asking this question, we look one more time at the possible nature of sweet cured bacon invented by Harris in the 1840s. An article from the Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald (1840) reports on the following method of curing used in Hants, Wilts, and Somerset.
The pork is singed by packing straw around the carcass and burning the bristles and hair off. Scalding tends to soften the meat and this method ensures the meat is left firm. The carcass is left to cool after which it is cut into flitches and salted and treated with saltpetre. The flitches are left for two to three weeks and turned three to four times. They are then wiped dry and suspended over a chimney over a wood or turf fire to dry out. A note is made that coarse sugar is used in Hampshire bacon but not in Wilts and Somerset. Hampshire bacon is imported with its particular flavour by the wood and turf smoke. During smoking, the flitches must be taken down and inspected for bacon-fly.
The 1840 newspaper report does not claim to be exhaustive, but it nevertheless creates the picture of a simple non-industrialised process and most certainly there is no mention of a dedicated smokehouse or salt house. There is most certainly no reference to stitch pumping! This leaves the possibility wide open that the sweet cured bacon of Harris did indeed make use of a fit-for-purpose built smokehouse and stitch pumping. For that matter, they may even have added sugar since it was not widely used in Wiltshire at the time.
I realised that a major difference between the mild cure system and what I learned in Denmark is that in the sweetcure system a new batch of brine is made for every curing cycle. In the system that Uncle Jeppe uses, the brine is re-used. I intend to keep this to myself for the time being. Lord Lansdown would have been proud of the way we were received at Bowood. More than this, I think he would have enjoyed the entire experience of working through the nature of the invention of sweet cured bacon.
The story is epic and more is to come! For now, it’s long past midnight and I wonder if the villagers who see the light in my room still burning think that I too am maybe conspiring with the prince of darkness against humanity as they thought when they saw Dr Jan Ingenhousz working till very late in his room in Bawood. It all makes me smile! Please show my dad and mom this letter also and keep it safe.
Kids, so ended the most volcanic bacon evening, not just of my trip, but one of the most important ones of my life. It forged a friendship bond between all who were there that will last the rest of our lives!
I realised that one cannot predict when such volcanic moments will occur but when it happens, one must be ready with a notebook with lots of blank pages and a good pen! I am thrilled that I can share all this with you!
Lots of LOVE,
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Blackland Mill, Calne, c. 1903 from the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham,
“It is likely that there was a mill on this site in the 13th century or earlier. The mill was rebuilt in three stages in c.1800 to incorporate the mill, a mill house, and a detached granary. This mill had a 19 ft. wheel, three pairs of stones, and a loft, which could accommodate 1,000 sacks of wheat. Milling ceased between 1915 and 1920 but then continued until 1982. The mill was restored between 1982 and 1983 and then produced wholewheat flour until 1993. When this photograph was taken the miller was Abraham Lock.”
(2) The notion that Lord Lansdowne approached the Harris Family to invest in their company is entirely fictional. The existence of the Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. Ltd. and the fact that Mr Smith was in fact the agent for Lord Lansdowne and a number of local landowners, that he was as an agent for the landowners responsible for collecting rent from the tenants, and was also the first chairman of a new firm that was created to provide the Wiltshire farmers with an alternative market for their pigs namely the Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. Ltd. is of course of great interest. Without knowing what the actual share structure of this company looked like, based on the fact that he was so closely associated with the administration of the Landowners, I surmise that this company was possibly funded by some of these landowners amongst whom could have been Lord Landsdown himself. He would have had his ear to the ground and would have picked up that some pig farmers were indeed looking for an alternative to sell their pigs to as one of the natural progressions of any business is that they start to dominate the supply chain as they mature. My inference is therefore based on conjecture, but I will be surprised if my deductions are wrong.
Special thanks to Susan Boddington (SB), curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, for the liberal supply of information, insights, advice and photos.
Cheraw Advertiser (Cheraw, South Carolina), 21 Jul 1841
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Critchell, J. T., Raymond, J.. 1912. A History of the Frozen Meat Trade. Constable & Company, Ltd. London.
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St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 9 October 1892
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Susan Boddington (SB) is the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre. Information from private correspondence.
Sutherland, J. M., Sutherland, J. P.. 1995. Meat and Meat Products: Technology, Chemistry and Microbiology. Springer Science & Business Media.
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http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-one-family-helped-change-the-way-we-eat-ham-21978817, article by Rachel Nuwer
http://www.theshipslist.com/1847/ Emigration To North America In 1847