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.
Ice Cold Revolution
It is the third day in a row that I am writing to you about ice. I can not get it out of my mind. For refrigeration to work, we need electricity. In Cape Town, David de Villiers Graaff has a vision for Cape Town to turn it into a world-class city and I heard that he is planning to bring electricity to our city. The plan is to construct the first power station at the Molteno dam. The dam is named after the country’s first Prime Minister, John Molteno. (1)
Electricity from Platteklip Stream
There is a river from Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain, that used to flow above ground, all the way to the sea. Jan van Riebeek built the VOC Castle right next to the mountain river due to the strategic importance of the water. The reason for the creation of the VOC post at the Cape of Good Hope was to sell water and food to passing ships.
I remember that construction started on the dam in 1877 since the city fathers saw the water running into the sea from the mountain as a waste. It was completed in 1881 which is ten years ago. (1) Both Minette and I have always disagreed with our city fathers on how they altered the landscape. We would prefer for things to have staid natural and wild. Recently they forced the glorious river underground. It would have been a much better plan to keep the river intact and undisturbed. I fear we have lost an important feature of the land forever. Then again, how is that different from losing countless wild animals to mindless hunting.
I will bring up the matter of conserving our land for future generations with David when we meet again. I sent a letter to Oscar yesterday asking him to go out of his way to meet with David to discuss refrigeration for our bacon plant in Cape Town.
Waterfall became the mountain stream that ran from Platteklip Gorge to the sea. Now, into the Molteno Dam.
I am glad that they will be discussing refrigeration since this single invention has the most profound impact on curing bacon as it has on all meat production, processing and trade. In southern Africa, we don’t have the climate of other nations that makes ice from frozen rivers and lakes available for the kind of refrigeration they use in Calne and the distance to countries that could supply us is so great that it will make such an endeavour very expensive.
The fact remains that the ability to freeze or chill meat is of crucial importance to the curing of bacon. That we presently do not have electricity in Cape Town and therefore do not have refrigeration plants explains to me, on the one hand, the heavy salting that David has practised at Combrink & Co and gives a time frame for the start of our own curing plant. We can not do it before David has constructed the electricity plant at the Molteno dam. That is, of course, if we can use some of its electricity. I heard that he intends to use it exclusively to power streetlights for Cape Town which I assume is only the first step of a much wider drive for electrification.
Refrigeration, as Oscar and I discovered, will allow us to cure bacon in warm climates such as we have at home of the same quality as it is done here in England, Denmark, Germany, and Holland. The colder the meat and the brine, the better we will be able to control the growth of bacteria and the meat will not spoil before it has cured through.
The reason why I am writing to you about this is that I have always thought of Cape Town as probably lagging far behind the rest of the world in terms of development. Despite the major scientific discoveries that came from Bowood and Calne and the fact that Harris is the centre of the bacon universe, they also do not have electricity. It seems to me that Cape Town can be ahead in its material development when compared with many other parts of the world. I observe that men like David are key in bringing about leadership in the world. I am humbled by the hope that Oscar and I will be able to at least be in the same league as many of the leading bacon producers in the world through diligence and vision.
On the one hand, I am proud of our friend and the monumental impact he is making in our city back home. On the other hand, I am disappointed that what we are doing as Europeans in Africa is to be evangelists of the West instead of, as Alexander von Humboldt taught us to learn from the native peoples in the new world how to live in harmony with the natural world and to embrace the best in their culture. The matter of meat curing is a very good example. There are traditions among the Khoe and the San of meat curing and fermentation. I believe that discoveries of ancient civilizations along the southern coast of Africa shows that people lived in these regions almost 200 000 years ago. These people possessed a remarkable ability to invent very complex processes in terms of the production of arrowheads and tools. Even as a child I heard the legends of San nomads of the earliest forms of fermentation of honey into mead. It is possible that it was this technology that spread north by the trade routes into what is today known as Arab lands and into Mesopotamia where mead production was first described in written form at least 2000 years before the Christian era. The plain fact is that based on the sophistication of the southern African societies of 100 000 years ago, these technologies may very well have originated in our land.
The same is true of the drying of meat. I find the technology of hanging meat out in the sun to dry after it has been salted by rolling it in ash to protect it from insects such as flies to be universally applied. American traders told me that the exact same is done by the American Indians. Merchants from Nepal informed me that it is practised in communities across India and Nepal – up into the high Himalayan mountains. These communities did not all cover the meat in ash before they hang them out in the sun and wind to dry, but what all of them have in common is that they would pulverise the dry meat when its time to consume it and they would re-hydrate it in water, creating a meat soup to enjoy. In Africa, it is customary to add ground nuts and other plant-based extenders to such a soup. I have myself investigated this matter in great detail when I was travelling across southern Africa as a transport rider and found the technology to be pervasive across the sub-continent.
An Australian boat captain told me that tribes in Papua New Guinea would create ash from trees that were known to soak up lots of salt from the earth and the ash, therefore, contained high salt levels. I have seen the exact same thing across southern Africa, that in regions where there are not many salt pans or natural salt fountains, locals would use plants which they refer to as salt bushes for exactly the same reason. Even though some think that salt was a scarce commodity in Africa, in reality, this was not the case and by rolling the meat in the ash, they not only protected it from insects, but they also salted it. In this way, salt-cured meat technology in Africa is probably as old as human existence there itself.
Similar to the technology of fermented honey, it would not surprise me if the technology of the drying and salting of meat was invented in Africa from where it was spread across the globe. In this way, Africa dealt with the matter of meat spoilage millennia before Europe identified this as a problem. There are countless examples of technology where the European is wrong to think that Africa is primitive and its people less developed. Instead of collaborating with the African, the European thinks that culture only evolved in this part of the globe.
There is of course the very real possibilities that many of these technologies were discovered independently by several societies across the globe but similarities between what is practiced in the Cape and across Africa with practices in India, Nepal, Russia and North America are so specific that it would seem to be technology that originated at one location and spread across the globe over many thousands of years.
David is, in this regard, a captive of the European mindset, something that I hope I will have more opportunities to discuss with him. If we look at science as a more recent cultural development and if we accept the fact that all of humanity has the same right to contribute to the scientific progress of all of humanity, irrespective of the cultural setting where it takes place, in this regard, I am happy to be here. When I say that science is a more recent development, what I should rather say is that the current of scientific inquiry and the development of a formal system of evidence-based, observation derived thinking, I should rather say that it was a trickle right from the earliest existence of humanity, but in our time has become a raging river. It may even have been that the process of observation and resultant deductive reasoning was more prominent many tens of thousands of years ago and the dominance of religion for a time derailed the best development of human culture. My belief is that the native African has a far better understanding of the application of these principles in a way that is not destroying the earth, but this is a matter for another day.
Recent Scientific Discoveries
Scientists are having a major impact on elusidating the different and hitherto hidden forces behind meat processing and preservation. It is showing us the effect of bacteria, not just temperature. These discoveries will impact on how meat is packaged and sold in the future.
It has been known since time immemorial that meat in a frozen state lasts a long time just as it has been known that dry meat lasts a long time. We now understand that one of the reasons for this is that at low temperatures, there is little bacterial growth, just as we now understand that in order for bacteria to function, there must be a certain amount of water present in the meat. Scientists have identified three distinct phases in bacterial growth generally speaking. Slow acceleration, maximum acceleration, and reduced acceleration. (Winslow, CEA and Walker, HH. 1939) (2)
The fact that there is a lag time in bacterial action (slow acceleration) has by itself an important lesson for bacon processing apart from the consideration of temperature on bacterial activity. It means that meat must be progressed through the various stages of production at a well-controlled and pre-defined pace which will ensure that no stage takes any longer than it should in order to prevent bacteria from “settling in.” Any step must utilize the “lag time” fully and be progressed before maximum acceleration takes over again.
From The Times (London), Thursday, 20 May 1920
The Harris family’s bacon empire from Great Britain saw the benefits of refrigeration even before refrigeration plants existed. They applied the principles and benefits of cold to bacon production since the time when ice houses existed and in this way laid the foundation for the existence of large bacon plants.
From Cook County Herald, Friday, 29 Nov 1907.
The development of refrigeration and the subsequent revolution it brought about in the meat industry was in the air well before the end of the 1880s. In fact, so many experiments were being done in the 1870s and early ‘80s (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) that it will take a long and cumbersome book to try and chronicle any more than what I gave you in my previous letter.
How to Transport Meat from the New World to the Old
What is of interest is that the supply of meat in England and on the continent has been overtaking supply during the mid-1800s that made the development of refrigeration a national priority for the English and for European countries. Not even refrigeration in particular, but the need for preservation that would allow meat to be transported over long distances has become a major priority. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) Among the many suggested ways to achieve this, refrigeration was only one of many options. Another option was, of course, curing and changing the meat into bacon, but this did not allow meat in its unprocessed form to be moved in large volumes between countries.
If a way could not be found, through whatever means, to economically supply England and Europe with meat from the new world of the Southern Hemisphere, the people of England and Europe either had to learn to be content with less meat or pay much higher prices for it. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) Losing frequent meals that included meat was not just the loss of desirable food, but would seriously hamper the efforts to combat starvation, hunger and poor nutrition. Remember that I have detailed at great lengths the recognition of the link between nutrition and the protein of meat which contain nitrogen. Refrigeration was by no means the obvious solution.
In around 1860, the Privy Council, also known as His (or Her) Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, a body of advisers to the sovereign of the Kingdom of England, started to discuss the matter of food supply to England. (3) Many societies and institutions followed their lead. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) This was undoubtedly the most important matter in Europe and England.
In 1863 the Privy Council laid down a rule “that, to avoid starvation diseases, the weekly food of an average adult must contain 28,600 grains of carbon and 1,300 grains of nitrogen.” Dr Brown, in ” The Food of the People,” published in 1865, wrote that “the plague-spot, the skeleton in the closet of England, is that her people are underfed.”” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) A committee of the Society of Arts was established which first met on 21 December 1866 to give direction to the charge to find a way to increase the food supply to England. (3) (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4)
Hunger and starvation were a major threat to the population and nutritional values were tested to find food that will best prevent starvation. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) In 1876, Edward Smith writes about the value of bacon to the poor: “Dried bacon divides itself during the process of cooking into two parts, of which the labourer and his wife may have the solid and the children the liquid part, and thus both be in a degree pleased, if not satisfied.” (Smith, E, 1873: 65)
Smith continued that “so far, it may be said, that bacon is the poor man’s food, having a value to the masses which is appreciated in proportion to their poverty, and it is a duty to offer every facility for its production in the homes of the poor.” (Smith, E, 1873: 65) Many patents and methods were proposed to the committee of the Society of Arts. Each thoroughly investigated. Canned meat was just invented and on trial as well as pemmican (4), and a certain Mr Alexander’s powdered beef. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4, 5)
Interestingly enough, the committee found that “weight for weight, the dried beef was four times more nutritious than ordinary beef.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4, 5) Remember that I showed above how drying of meat was a priority in all ancient civilizations. Is this something that they already knew through simple observation and personal experience? I have no question about this as anybody who has ever been on a long hike will attest when they have even a small bit of biltong with them. In total, 200 patients were registered for the preservation of meat. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5) I list some of the important ones here.
“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. C. Nielson proposed to fix blood in the form of sausages, puddings, cakes, and so on. The Rev. M. J. Berkeley delivered a stirring address on fungi, but somehow the mushroom palliative failed to impress the committee as a substitute for the roast beef of Old England.” (5) “De la Peyrouse’s idea was to pack meat in barrels, and to pour in fat at a temperature of 300 F. all round the stored viands.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)
“Professor Gamgee loomed large, and his method, though revealing a touch of Max Adeler, certainly possessed genius. He suggested that cattle should be happily dispatched by being made to inhale carbonic oxide gas, at a cost of 2s. to 3s. per animal. The flesh of oxen so slain was declared to retain its fresh and bright appearance, and the committee reluctantly and warily tasted chops from a sheep killed in this way, reporting, doubtless to the chagrin of the Professor, that the meat was “slightly flat.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5) (6) “A tin of meat forty-one years old, from the stores of H.M.S. Blonde, was tested and found sound. Professor Redwood advocated raw meat preserved in paraffin.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)
“Scores of different processes for tinning meat were tested. Dr Hassalts ” Flour of Meat,” Australian “mutton hams,” meat dried by sulphurous acid, and many other inventions, were put before this committee, evidence which contained the germs of many of the modern methods of preserving and handling animal substances for food. The work of the committee came to a sudden stop in 1881. After 15 years of focused and hard work, it has failed to produce a way to export meat successfully.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5, 6)
“In 1881 the committee delivered a gloomy report, and found itself unable to award the £100 prize which Sir Walter Trevelyan had presented for the best means of preserving fresh meat. This £100 was disposed of by being divided into five sums of £20 and granted to food and cooking exhibits at the 1884 Health Exhibition.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 6) “Without doubt, the introduction of frozen meat in 1880 settled the whole difficulty which the Society of Arts’ committee had spent so many years in trying to solve” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 6)
It was the United States of America who first exported meat in artificially cooled storage units when in 1874, beef was exported to Great Britain. “Undoubtedly, the real genesis of the meat export trade under conditions of refrigeration is to be found in the shipments of chilled beef from the United States of America in the seventies. By the end of 1880, when only 400 carcasses of mutton had reached home from Australia, Great Britain had imported from North America 120,000 tons of fresh beef.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19)
Solving the refrigeration riddle
The photo on the right by Colin Beazley Hy wife works in the building previously occupied by Goldsborough, Mort & Co. on the Ultimo side of Darling Harbour.
Thomas Sutcliffe Mort from Australia is probably the most important name in the story of the frozen meat trade. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19) Mr Mort was born at Bolton, Lancashire, on December 23, 1816, and emigrating to Australia in 1838. He founded the great financial and wool-broking firm of Mort and Co.. His company amalgamated with that of R. Goldsbrough and Co., Ltd., under the name of Goldsbrough, Mort and Co., Ltd. In 1843 he turned his attention to meat matters and was introduced by Mr Augustus Morris to the French engineer Nicolle. Together they took up the subject of freezing meat for export and started experimenting with it. Mort supplying the capital and Nicolle the engineering skill.
Partial freezing or “chilling,” which was Telh’er’s plan, was tried and rejected, as they realized that thorough congealing was required for the preservation of meat. Mr Mort in 1861 established at Darling Harbour, Sydney, the first freezing works in the world. Thirteen years later Mr Mort’s company became the New South Wales Fresh Food and Ice Co.. The original freezing process at these works was applied in two large apartments, each about 75 feet square and 9 feet 9 inches high, and enclosed by brick walls 4 feet 6 inches thick. The freezing room below was used for the treatment of meat for export. In 1875 the collateral enterprise, the slaughtering works at Lithgow Valley, Blue Mountains, was completed. The two establishments were intended to supply the Sydney market. Ammonia compression refrigerating machinery was used at these works.
At an inaugural lunch on September 2, 1875, at which 300 persons attended, Mr Mort made his famous speech, the concluding part of which remains a jewel in the annals of the Australian meat trade. It portrays him as a man of imagination, noble aims, and high character. Mr Mort in this speech said that Mr. Morris first suggested the “diabolical idea” of freezing meat to send to England. “I can tell you that not once but a thousand times have I wished that Mr. Morris, Mr Nicolle, and myself had never been born.” Mr Mort mentioned that the Sydney Chamber of Commerce about 1867 had put up a sum of money for him to provide meat for distribution in England, and to overcome the English prejudice against “frozen” meat. This is an interesting comment since, in 1867, not a single morsel of (mechanically) frozen meat had reached England! The that Mr. Mort served for his 300 guests was, of course, all frozen. He claimed that some of it had been kept since June 1874. In his speech, he said that Australia was to become “the great feeder of Europe.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19) With great pride, I give you the concluding remarks of Mr. Mort.
“I feel, as I have always felt, that there is no work on the world’s carpet greater than this in which I have been engaged. Yes, gentlemen, I now say that the time has arrived at all events, is not far distant when the various portions of the earth will each give forth their products for the use of each and of all; that the over-abundance of one country will make up for the deficiency of another; the superabundance of the year of plenty serving for the scant harvest of its successor; for cold arrests all change. Science has drawn aside the veil, and the plan stands revealed. Faraday’s magic hand gave the keynote, and invention has done the rest. Climate, seasons, plenty, scarcity, distance, will all shake hands, and out of the commingling will come enough for all, for ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,’ and it certainly lies within the compass of man to ensure that all His people shall be partakers of that fulness. God provides enough and to spare for every creature He sends into the world, but the conditions are often not in accord. Where the food is, the people are not; and where the people are, the food is not. It is, however, as I have just stated, within the power of man to adjust these things, and I hope you will all join with me in believing that the first grand step towards the accomplishment of this great deed is in that of which you yourselves have this day been partakers and witnesses.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 20)
These monumental developments would mark, not only the start of the frozen meat trade but would continue to impact the way bacon is being made and priced. Frozen meat will at some point be used as raw material. Freezing will alter the characteristics of bacon and add to the complexity of how bacon is created.
Freezing solved the matter of the long term preservation of meat but proved another point. In our effort to preserve meat we have developed products of such supreme quality and taste that they will be part of human culture for as long as humanity will prevail. Bacon, with its reddish/ pinkish fresh meat colour and distinct taste; its subtle saltiness in the case of mild cured and sweet cured bacon and smokiness in the case of smoked bacon; its inherent ability to withstand bacterial spoilage, its meatiness, all work together as characteristics of one of the greatest products on earth.
There is one statement that I am not sure if I am in full agreement with Mr Mort. It relates to his comment that “cold arrests all change.” This is a matter that “feels right”, but animal and human remains that have been discovered in places of extreme cold have been preserved remarkably well and seems to support his point, but in no way can it be said that the flesh is complete without any change in its frozen state. What exactly the changes are and how they will impact bacon taste is something that must be investigated very carefully.
I keep his speech in front of the notebook I currently use and I refer to it often. It is Biblical in its tone. In the midst of all these matters that continue to flood my mind, I think of you, my dear children. Can I ask that you share this letter with your grandparents also? Oupa wrote me and pleaded with me to share more technical details with him about what I am learning and I fear that I have neglected him in this regard.
In other matters, how is the rugby going Mr T? I hear from Minette that you intend to go to Rondebosch boys high for high school. Lauren wrote to her and told her about your plans. It is an excellent suggestion even though I would have chosen Wynberg Boys High. The decision is, however, yours my son!
I miss you, Lauren! You’re infectious laugh! Please remember that someone who laughs as effortlessly as you also feel sorrow in equal strong and unexpected measures! I miss you so much that it physically hurts and it helps to keep my mind occupied with quotes from old Australians about refrigeration. 🙂
I continue to miss all of you dearly!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) The Graaff Electrical Lighting Works, constructed at the Molteno Dam was commissioned in 1895. It was Cape Town Municipality’s first power station. It was able to run on steam (the chimney stack has since been removed) as well as water. It was the first hydro electric station in South Africa.
Graaff electrical station. The photo was taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station. The photo was taken in 2014 by Eben.
Graaff electrical station. The photo was taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station. The photo was taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station. The photo was taken in 2014 by Eben
Graaff electrical station at the Molteno dam. The photo was taken in 2014 by Eben
(2) Ward wrote a ground-breaking paper in 1895, Bacillus Ramosus on the topic. (WINSLOW, CEA and WALKER, HH. 1939)
(3) Its members were often senior members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, together with leading churchmen, judges, diplomats and military leaders (Wikipedia. Privy Council of England)
(4) “Pemmican is a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food.” (Wikipedia. Pemmican)
(5) This method of creating “meat replacements” has gained wide popularity in the early 2000’s. So much so that the Woodys Team has put it on their list of long term trends to watch.
(6) “CO2 stunning will reduce bloodsplash,” thus improving quality of meat. The disadvantage is that it is considerably more expensive and difficult to maintain. (Temple Grandin, 2000) Pigs killed with CO2 show a reduced occurrence of PSE meat, less petechiae (red or purple spot on the skin, caused by a minor hemorrhage ) and ecchymoses (larger than 1 centimeter or a hematoma). It appears however that animals who carry the halothane gene are more sensitive to CO2 gas so that the meat quality advantages may be dependant to some extent on the genotype of the pigs. (Warriss, PD. 2010: 54, 55)
Critchell, JT and Raymond, J. 1912. A history of the frozen meat trade. An account of the development and present day methods of preparation, transport, and marketing of frozen and chilled meats. Constable & Company LTD
Hui, YH, et al. 2004. Handbook of Frozen Foods. Marcel Dekker Inc.
Smith, Edward. 1873. Foods. Henry S King and Co.
Temple Grandin. 2000. Methods to reduce PSE and bloodsplash. Veterinary Outreach Programs, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
*Warriss, PD. 2010. Meat Science: An Introductory Text
Winslow, CEA and Walker, HH. 1939. The earlier phases of the bacterial culture cycle
Figure 1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molteno_Dam
Figure 2: Waterfall on Platteklip Gorge by Eben van Tonder in 2014.
Figure 3: The Times (London), Thursday, 20 May 1920
Figure 4: Cook County Herald, Friday, 29 Nov 1907.
Figure 5 – 9: Graaff electrical station. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben
Figure 10: The Molteno dam. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben