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 English Pig
Traveling back from Dublin to Calne, Michael met us at the Royal Waterloo Hotel in Liverpool (1). It was great seeing him again and the first hour we recounted the events in South Africa around Minette and my engagement. We had much to tell him about our trip to Dublin where Dr. Stamatis took us around and introduced us to the most informative old professor. Minette tool an immediate ling in Mike and we had the most amazing breakfast together.
The hotel where we stayed was historic in its own right. The area was originally called Crosby Seabank. There were a few farms dotted along the coast and some fisherman villages pre 1815. Early in the 1800s, so the ever-informative Michael tells us, it gained a reputation amongst wealthy visitors for its beaches and clear water. This prompted the building of the Roya Hotel.
Construction started on Sunday 18 June 1815, the very day of the battle of Waterloo where the Duke of Wellington’s forces defeated Napoleon Boneparte. It effectively ended Napoleon’s rule as Emperor of the French and marked the end of his Hundred Days return from exile.
The hotel was initially named the Crosby Seabank Hotel but as the news of Napoleon’s defeat gained traction in England, on the first anniversary of the battle it was renamed Royal Waterloo Hotel. The area grew in popularity and soon a railway line was laid and a station build and wealthy merchants and sea captains from Liverpool began to build homes there. Many of the street names given were associated with the battle and gradually the town became known as Waterloo.
The topic of discourse soon changed to the English pig. Mike felt that I still did not appreciate the importance of breeding in producing good bacon. He explained to me that the pig industry mostly situated in the south of England and as is the case today, followed on the heels of the dairy and the brewery industry. Dairy farmers found that milk contains 20% whey proteins and 80% casein. Whey is a byproduct of the cheese industry. When milk is coagulated during the process of cheese making, why is the leftover product and contains everything that is soluble from milk after the pH is dropped to 4.6 during the coagulation process. It is an excellent and inexpensive feed for pigs. The other very cheap source of food for pigs is brewery waste and a third source is an inferior grain that turns wheat that the farmer can not expect to get a good price for into high priced pork protein. Michael then started to tell us the most amazing tale which completely changed my opinion pigs. The story of the English pig!
Chinese vs English Pigs
It begins in China, many, many years ago. Wild boars (Sus Scrofa) from Europe and Asia roamed the land from antiquity. Around eight thousand years ago, pigs in China made a transition from wild animals to the farm. It was the creation of the domesticated pig (Sus scrofa domesticus or only Sus domesticus). They started living off scraps of food from human settlements. Humans penned them up and started feeding them which removed the evolutionary pressure they had as wild animals living in the forest. They were bred by humans instead of being left in the forests to breed naturally and to find for themselves. This led to an animal that is round, pale, short-legged, pot-bellied with traditional regional breeding preferences that persist to this day. (White, 2011)
Yu, et al (2013), reports that there are 88 indigenous breeds of pigs in China today. They investigated the origin and evolution of Chinese pigs using complete mitochondrial genomic sequences (mtDNA) from Asian and European domestic pigs and wild boars. “Thirty primer pairs were designed to determine the mtDNA sequences of, Xiang pig, Large White, Lantang, Jinhua, and Pietrain.” (Yu, 2013)
This is a great place to start because it not only speaks directly to our topic of pigs in China and their relationship with those in the West, but it also introduces us to very important concepts when you are talking about pig breeds.
The first new concept is that of phylogenetics. “Phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among individuals or groups of organisms (e.g. species, or populations). These relationships are discovered through phylogenetic inference methods that evaluate observed heritable traits, such as DNA sequences or morphology under a model of evolution of these traits. The result of these analyses is a phylogeny (also known as a phylogenetic tree)—a diagrammatic hypothesis about the history of the evolutionary relationships of a group of organisms.” (Biology online. Retrieved 15 February 2013.) Yu and his coworkers investigated the phylogenetic status of Chinese native pigs “by comparing the mtDNA sequences of complete coding regions and D-loop regions respectively amongst Asian breeds, European breeds, and wild boars. The analyzed results by two cluster methods contributed to the same conclusion that all pigs were classified into two major groups, European clade and Asian clade.” (Yu, 2013)
A clade is “a grouping that includes a common ancestor and all the descendants (living and extinct) of that ancestor. Using a phylogeny, it is easy to tell if a group of lineages forms a clade. Imagine clipping a single branch off the phylogeny — all of the organisms on that pruned branch make up a clade.” (https://evolution.berkeley.edu)
It revealed that Chinese pigs were only recently diverged from each other and are distinctly different from European pigs. Berkshire was clustered with Asian pigs and Chinese pigs were involved in the development of Berkshire breeding. The Malaysian wild boar had distant genetic relationships with European and Asian pigs. Jinhua and Lanyu pigs had more nucleotide diversity with Chinese pigs although they all belonged to the Asian major clade. Chinese domestic pigs were clustered with wild boars in the Yangtze River region and South China.
In the West, the scavengers were treated differently than in China. There is evidence that they were initially exploited, as was the case in the far East, around 9000 to 10 000 years ago. The denser settlements of the Neolithic times in the fertile crescent did not pen the animals up but ejected them from their society. The pigs may have been a nuisance or competed with humans for scarce resources such as water. Genetic research shows that the first pig exploitation in Anatolia (around modern-day Turkey) “hit a dead end.” (White, 2011) It failed to develop pig breeds that still exist today as was the case with pigs in China.
In contrast to pigs being shunned in the middle east and penned up and intensely farmed and manipulated through selective breeding as in China, the treatment of pigs in Europe was completely different which resulted in a particular set of characteristics. Various European populations, for example, developed techniques of feeding the pigs called mast feeding (Mast being the fruit of forest trees and shrubs, such as acorns and other nuts). Herds were pushed into abandoned forests to feed on beechnuts and acorns which are of marginal value to humans. (White, 2011)
The practice of pannage, as it is called, is the releasing of livestock-pigs in a forest, so that they can feed on fallen acorns, beech mast, chestnuts or other nuts. Historically, it was a right or privilege granted to local people on common land or in royal forests. Interestingly, it was the exact same technique practiced at the Cape at the time when the Colebrook sank and is one of the reasons why I doubt that the Kolbroek would have remained a homogenous pig breed if they were not taken in by a local farmer. The slave-hypothesis where the animals were kept in a confined space and fed by humans right from their arrival on African soil fits the scenario where slaves had to keep the animals under constant control in caves or at least, a small geographical area to avoid detection by the authorities who were looking to re-capture the slaves. The slaves did this, not only with pigs (which I assume) but also with other domesticated animals such as cattle (which we know for a fact).
The result of chasing animals into a forest to fend for themselves is that controlled breeding was very difficult, if not impossible. The pigs from the West remained long-legged, with ridges of bristles and residue tusks, keeping them fierce and agile like their wild ancestors as they continued to struggle against predators and the harshness of life in the wild. This correlates well with quotes I read from writers in South Africa (Green) who speaks about the fact that pigs that are chased into the wild to fend for themselves change back to the characteristics of their wild ancestors. He quotes a German, Richter, as reported by MacAdams that “pigs easily revert to wild state. . . and all over the world, there were droves living in forests and bush and raiding farms and plantations. They bred fast like guinea pigs, mastered the law of the wild and move silently about their destructive business. After years of this life, they lost their civilised look and developed large heads with long snouts and narrow, arched backs. They were far more alert than farm pigs and more ferocious. Richter declares that they were almost as intelligent as the great apes. They became hairier and regained the colour and shape of their wild ancestors with stripes on their sides.” (Green, 1968) Pliny said in Roman times that “a few generations can turn a thoroughly domesticated breed into a fierce feral animal.” (White, 2011)
As the contact of Europeans with China increased and the vigorous trade of previous centuries between these regions resumed, Chinese pig breeds and practices were both exported to Europe and England. The introduction of Chinese breeds into Europe and Brittain was precipitated by changes in population and deforestation which became precursors for globalization. By the early 1600s, sty rising was encouraged by a shortage in mast forests and some improved breeding followed, especially in southeastern England. The rapid expansion of London gave rise to an increased in pigs as urban scavengers. Brewery and dairy waste in this part of England became the first sources of concentrated fodder for pigs. Agriculture manuals started to appear that advocated using these to supplement mast or replacing it altogether as a quick and effective way of fattening pigs. In addition to these, potatoes from the Columbian Exchange became a lifeline for the family hog who lost access to pannage. (White, 2011)
New stay raised pigs from around cities like Leicestershire and Northamptonshire at the end of the 1600s and early 1700s, in conjunction with the rapid development of English agriculture, provided the first improved English breed, particularly around Leicestershire. These animals served the growing London market as well as the British navy for fresh and salted pork. These animals were rounder and fattened more quickly than the pigs from medieval times. (White, 2011)
Chinese breeding stock arrived in England in the midst of these developments. Studies of mitochondrial DNA suggest that the earliest exchange took place around 1700. Certainly not much earlier. “More detailed examination of European and Chinese haplotypes find two separate introductions, each from a different Chinese variety, the one ancestral to the large white and Berkshire and the other to the later Swedish Landrace, Duroc, and Welsh. All these share more genetic material than they do with traditional European pigs.”
“As early as the 1720s writers began to note the growing presence of a small black Variety in England which appears to match contemporary descriptions of those Chinese and Southeast Asia pigs that had already excited the interest of travelers to the far East. The earliest definite statement that Chinese pigs had arrived in the West appears to come from the Swedish naturalist Osbeck writing in the 1750s, who compared them favourably with European scavenger varieties.” (White, 2011)
“It was the last years of the 1700s that provided the real breakthrough with the production of improved crossbreeds combining the larger frame of European pigs with the rounder body and faster weight gain of the Asian newcomers. By 1797 William Henry Hall’s New Encyclopedia notes how “the breed of pigs have been greatly improved, both in the harness of their nature and the goodness of their flesh, by the introduction of those commonly called Chinese, or Touquin.” (White, 2011)
The fourth edition Bylbeis’s General History of Quadrupeds in 1800 would expand its chapter on hogs to note how, “By a mixture of Chinese black swine with others of the large British breed, a kind has been produced that possesses many qualities superior to the original flock. They are very prolific, are sooner made fat than the larger kind, upon less provisions, and cut up, when killed, to more useful and convenient portions.” (White, 2011)
What we achieved here was to place the development of the crossbreeds between Chinese and European breeds at a time before the Colebrook sailed for the Cape of Good Hope in 1778 and before the three visits of Cook to New Zealand, in 1769-70, 1773 and 1777.
Michael brought some sketches along to illustrate his point of the difference between the old English breeds from before the introduction of the Chinese breeds and the improved method of pig husbandry and the new English breeds.
The Old English Breed
Harris has a great sketch of an old English and old Irish pig.
All New Developments Takes Time to Settle In
Early breeders did not immediately find a market for the improved breeds which was done between old English sows with Chinese boars. From the offspring of these animals, the farmer will then select the ones with the character traits that are most desirable and the rest will become ham or bacon.
There were many common village pigs that were crossed with Chinese pigs. Wealthy landowners would buy the Chinese boar and “rent” him out to villagers on his property to fertilise their sows. In this way, pigs from a village or a county developed similar characteristics.
The New English Breeds
-> Large White
Or Large Yorkshire Pig, as it used to be called.
-> Yorkshire Large, Middle, Small White
Also called Small Black, or Essex as it is called in the USA.
The most famous pig from England for years have been the Berkshire. It is said that businessmen drove the development of the Berkshire as opposed to lovers of pigs and pig breeds. Agents of wealthy businessmen in the US bought the animals based on their ability to do well at shows and not for any inherent functionally beneficial characteristics. The buyers were looking for pigs that are short, turned up snout, a heavy jowl, thick neck, wide shoulders, and a fat back.
The breed has formally existed from around 1780 and before this time, the animals were known to exist and have been bred in this region in England. The colour and markings of the Berkshire show close association with the wild boar.
A breeders association targeted a longer, straight back animal as opposed to the more arched backs of the original Berkshires. There is a great description by a man called Laurance who, in 1790 gave the following account of the old Berkshire pigs. “It was long and crooked snouted, the muzzle turning upwards; the ears large, heavy and inclined to be pendulous; the body long and thick, but not deep; the legs short, the bone large, and the size very great.” (Richardson, 1857) This was not the best animal that the farmers wanted to breed by any means, but it was a marked improvement on the old English pigs that were described as “gaunt and rugged.” (Richardson, 1857) Developing the breed through cross-breeding with the Chinese and Siamese pigs resulted in an animal that Lawrence describes in 1790 as “already a great improvement from the old Berkshires“. He describes the 1790 animals as “lighter both in head and ear, shorter and more compactly formed, with less bone, and higher on the leg.” (Richardson, 1857) By 1875, Richards reports that “the breed has been since still further improved by judicious crossing; it still has long ears inclining forward, but erect, is deep in the body, with short legs, small bone, arrives early at maturity, and fattens easily and with remarkable rapidity.”
One of the men responsible for great developments of the breed in the mid-1800s was Richard Astley, Esq. of Oldstone Hall. Another important breeder of this time was an Irishmen, Mr. Sherrard. In crossing with the Berkshire, he used the Neapolitan pig or the improved Essex pig which is the same as the Neapolitan. This cross resulted in “a long body, a handsome head, a well-skinned animal which is a rapid grower”.
The Siamese and Chinese cross were important for the breed. The Chinese hog went by many different names. The Siam and the Chinese proper were two important variants of the Chinese hog in the 1700s and 1800s. The main difference between the two relates to colour. The Siamese is black and the Chinese, white. There were, however, great varieties, and one could get black Chinese and white Siamese hogs. Importantly, Chinese hogs are small. “The body is a near-perfect cylinder; the back slopes from the head, and is hollow, while the belly, on the other hand, is pendulous, and in a fat specimen almost touches the ground. The bone is small, the legs fine and short.” (Richardson, 1857) Both the Chinese and Siamese are good feeders and matures early. The Chinese are almost identical to the Portuguese and many people thought that the Portuguese breed of the 1800s is actually the Chinese proper.
Trow-Smith (1959) summarises the state of play well when he writes, that “by reason of the introduction of direct and indirect Chinese blood into British breeds very few of the swines of the late eighteenth century had any degree of stability in character. Those which were contemporarily notable have now ceased to exist or become of little importance, and the leading breeds of today were then barely distinguishable. . . The ubiquitous Berkshire, the first British breed of pig to achieve national fame, to win a national distribution, and to exercise a national influence. At the end of the eighteenth century, it was predominantly of a sandy red-spotted type, prick-eared, with no very marked dish of face, and renowned for its early maturity. In the following three decades the Berkshire seems to have been given its present appearance of a black pig with white extremities and dished face by the work of Lord Barrington, who probably had used Neapolitan blood in the improvement – or, at any rate, the alteration – of this breed. The sandy reddish colour still emerges occasionally in crosses from the modern Berkshire.” (Trow-Smith, 1959)
“After Barrington had to a large degree fixed the new mainly black type, the older red Berkshire continued to be found unimproved in the Midlands in considerable numbers and began to assume a Midland name and to be known as the Tamworth.” If one wants to know what the Berkshire looked like at the beginning of the early 19th century, look at the Tamworth of the 1950s. (Trow-Smith, 1959)
One of the oldest of the English pigs. Extensively bred in Leicestershire, Staffordshire, and Northhamptonshire and in some of the adjacent counties. It is native to the midland counties where there are lots of oak tree forests. They were driven into the forests for autumn and early winter. When the forests were closed off and converted to arable land, farmers opted for a quieter pig variety and one that fattens more readily. (Sinclair, 1879)
The change was accomplished by crossing long-snouted, prick-eared sandy and gry with black spots pigs with pigs having a strong infusion of Neapolitan blood. Many also used the white pig. Bakewell did, through inbreeding and selection, accomplished in both breeds a more delicate disposition and an animal that is more easily fattened. He termed the white Berkshire breed. (Sinclair, 1879)
The result of the mixture was a plum-pudding or the black, white and sandy pig. In certain districts of Staffordshire and adjoining counties, the breeders of these mahogany coloured pigs took considerable pain by selection to increase the feeding properties of their pigs without losing their distinctive colour. (Sinclair, 1879)
The pigs were not particularly quick feeders but they were prolific and when well fattened, furnished a splendid carcass of pork nicely intermixed with lean. (Sinclair, 1879)
They were later crossed with pigs that render them more suitable for bacon production.
The following pure breeds were acknowledged in England at this time.
- Small Black
- Yorkshire – divided into Large, Middle, Small White
Development of the New Engish Breeds
In Loudon’s Encyclopedia of Agriculture are a set of engravings that gives us a glimpse of what the transition would have been like. The first edition appeared in 1825.
Compare it with the following English Breeds.
Loudon refers to the Berkshire as a “small breed” which was probably the first character quality to achieve better fattening and maturing quality (i.e., reducing the size of the animal improves its ability to gain weight and mature).
The sow above shows the effect of crossing the Berkshire with a Chinese pig and better feeding. The effects of persistent improvements on these crossed animals can be seen from the two pictures below, figure 20 and 21 from Harris.
Compare these with the picture of the old English pigs given right at the top of the letter. Also compare it with this drawing of a Chinese Sow, given by Harris.
Boars of the improved Berkshire-Chinese cross, after the breed has been established were used to cross with the large old Berkshire sows. This was considered a less violent cross and was more beneficial than the direct use of pure Chinese pigs.
I wondered how one would approach it if you desire to create a certain look or particular qualities in a pig. Which one would have the biggest influence on what? The boar or the sow? the ever-informative Michael had the answer.
Selection of a Boar – a few pointers
The boar exercise the greatest influence on the “external points of the joint produce”, then does the sow. In the question I asked above, one will then select the boar by looking at its outer characteristics in the first place. What is the outward “look” that you desire in your animal? The sow is said to influences the internal portions to a far greater degree.
Other good pointers to look for in a boar is its sexual organs. These must be well developed is an indication of vigour. The quality that you do not want in a boar is a vicious and bad temperament. Also, select a boar that was part of a large litter. A large boar should not be preferred to a small one as large boars seldom last long. (Sinclair, 18970)
Selecting a Sow – a few pointers
A few comments about a sow to give us an inkling of the different functions of a boar and sow in creating a particular pig. The sow is responsible to furnish her offspring with the internal arrangements to enable the complete animal to readily convert its food so that the pig grows rapidly, fattens quickly and proves itself a profitable hog.
Some breeds produce what is sometimes called a big roomy sow. They are “flat-sided; their loins are “weak”. They are often admired by people who know nothing about breeding pigs. These poor animals have difficulty getting up once they lie down. An evenly-made compact sow with quarters long, wide and deep, and on short legs will rear far more pigs and at much less cost than will one of the large kind.
The important points to look for in an ideal sow, are the same as what is required in a boar. Particularly, its temperament must be gentle. A well-formed udder is of the greatest importance and she should have no fewer than 12 teats. 15 is better! They should be spaced evenly.
Minette loved the discussion. By the time Michael was done, we had four dining room tables around us with photos and bits of scrap paper scattered across the phots and on two more tables where I laid out my notes. I suggested that Minette and Mike make their way to the bar area so long and get drinks while I sit for a few minutes to gather my thoughts and complete my notes.
I thought that by now I learned a lot about bacon, but the discussion this morning taught me that I have only begun. The interconnectedness of it all stunned me. The pig is one of the easiest and most profitable ways to convert corn and maize into animal protein. The link between this fact and the need to feed an ever-increasing world population stunned me. Not only is the preservation of the meat of supreme importance, but the art of manipulating what nature has given us is the real start of the journey to the best bacon on earth!
I recalled a discussion with John Harris and how they breed bacon pigs with long loins and little fat for bacon as opposed to short, far pigs which they call lard-pigs for the production of hams and lard. The Kolbroek bigs that Oupa Eben farmed back in South Africa are clearly lard pigs and the Berkshire and the whites and blacks are being bred as bacon pigs. It all fascinated me tremendously.
It made me realise that life must be lived like that – with ample interconnections we can engineer in our lives to create a grand tapestry! We can indeed fall in love with life and when our work and our passion are the same – it is the condiments to a complete life that is lived well in every area. My Minette, bacon, the mountains, the different lands and customs and peoples of this bountiful earth all unite in my heart and soul it becomes the gift from an amazing universe we exist in. I smiled when I walked over to the bar area and thought to myself that bacon is truly connected to the art of living!
Lots of love from Liverpool!
Your Dad and Minette
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Oscar and I arrived at the Royal Waterloo Hotel on 18 March 2012. Colin Turner from Dantech made the booking.
Sinclair, J. (ed). 1897. Pigs Breeds and Management. Vinton and Co, London
Harris, J.. c 1870. Harris on the pig. Breeding, rearing, management, and improvement. New York, Orange Judd, and company
Tunick MH (2008). “Whey Protein Production and Utilization.” (abstract). In Onwulata CI, Huth PJ (eds.). Whey processing, functionality and health benefits. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell Publishing; IFT Press. pp. 1–13.
A Maori Proverb from Maori lore, 1904, by Izett, James (https://archive.org/deta…/maoriloretraditi00izetuoft/page/n3)
Old photos from Liverpool
-Liverpool, history, Liverpool-history-l22-waterloo-royal-hotel-c1900
Find this Pin and
-Waterloo Station 1907;
-Waterloo beach scene, circa 1906;
-Picnic on Waterloo seafront on Easter Sunday – undated
– photos from our stay on 18 March 2012
Old Hotel photo from pinterest
Other photos, taken by Eben
Pig photos from
Pigs Breeds and Management
Edited by James Sinclair
Vinton and Co, London
Harris on the pig. Breeding, rearing, management, and improvement
by Harris, Joseph
New York, Orange Judd, and company