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.
Letters from New Zealand
The Calne experience came to an end, just as dramatically as it started. Upon our return from Dublin, Oscar was already waiting for us in Calne. We had an amazing time with John Harris, Mike Caswell, Anita Waite, and Susan Bodington. Minette and I decided to take Stu up on his invitation to visit New Zealand before we visit Dawie in America.
Lord Landsdown on Saltpeter (3)
One afternoon, Mr. Petty from Bowood called on us. Lord Landsdown returned the previous day and invited Minette, Oscar and I to dinner. It was a grand affair and reminded me of the send-off that we received from Jeppe when we left Denmark. It was an honour meeting Lord Landsdown. He struck me as a very intelligent man and a great sportsman! I could tell that his heart was in Canada! Of course, we discussed the saltpeter trade until deep in the night and as Viceroy of India, he knew quite a bit about the inner workings of the saltpeter trade.
I thought that where Denmark was my introduction to saltpeter and mild cured bacon, England was my schooling in salt, refrigeration, sugar, and mechanisation of every process on the bacon production floor. With our host that evening, the matter of saltpeter was back on the agenda!
Lord Landsdown informed us that “by far the largest natural known natural deposits of saltpeter to the Western world of the 1600s were found in India and the East Indian Companies of England and Holland plaid pivotal roles in facilitating its acquisition and transport. The massive nitrate fields of the Atacama desert and those of the Tarim Bason were still largely unknown. In 1300, 1400 and 1500 saltpeter had, however, become the interest of all governments in India and there was a huge development in local saltpeter production.”
“In Europe, references to natron emerged from the middle of the 1500s and were used by scholars who traveled to the East where they encountered both the substance and the terminology. Natron was originally the word which referred to saltpeter. Later, the word natron was changed and nitron was used.”
“At first, the saltpeter fields of Bihar were the focus of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) and the British East Indian Company (EIC). The VOC dominated the saltpeter trade at this point. In the 1750s, the English East Indian Company (EIC) was militarised. Events soon took place that allowed for the monopolization of the saltpeter trade. In 1757 the British took over Subah of Bengal; a VOC expeditionary force was defeated in 1759 at Bedara; and finally, the British defeated the Mughals at Buxar in 1764 which secured the EIC’s control over Bihar. The British seized Bengal and took possession of 70% of the world’s saltpeter production during the latter part of the 1700s. (Frey, J. W.; 2009: 508 – 509)”
Lord Landsdowne had an interest in bacon curing due to a business that he recently invested in. He told us with great authority that “the application of nitrate in meat curing in Europe rose as it became more generally available. Later, massive deposits of sodium nitrite were discovered in the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru and became known as Chilean Saltpeter. This was only a re-introduction of technology that existed since 2000 BCE and possibly much earlier.”
I was very excited about this statement. I recounted what I learned in Denmark. That “the pivotal area where saltpeter technology spread from across Asia, India and into Europe, is the Turpan-Hami Basin in the Taklimakan Desert in China. Here, nitrate deposits are so substantial, that an estimated 2.5 billion tons exist, comparable in scale to the Atacama Desert super-scale nitrate deposit in Chile. (Qin, Y., et al; 2012) (THE TARIM MUMMIES OF CHINA) Its strategic location on the silk road, the evidence of advanced medical uses of nitrates from very early on and the ethnic link with Europe of people who lived here, all support this hypothesis.”
The main course was served and Lord Landsdown continued. “Large saltpeter industries sprang to the South in India and to the South East in western China. In India, a large saltpeter industry developed in the north on the border with Nepal – in the state of Bihar, in particular, around the capital, Patna; in West Bengal and in Uttar Pradesh (Salkind, N. J. (edit), 2006: 519). Here, it was probably the monsoon rains which drench arid ground and as the soil dries during the dry season, capillary action pulls nitrate salts from deep underground to the surface where they are collected and refined. It is speculated that the source of the nitrates may be human and animal urine. Technology to refine saltpeter probably only arrived on Indian soil in the 1300s. Both the technology to process it and a robust trade in sal ammoniac in China, particularly in western China, predates the development of the Indian industry. It is therefore unlikely that India was the birthplace of curing. Saltpeter technology probably came from China, however, India, through the Dutch East Indian Company and later, the English East Indian Company became the major source of saltpeter in the west.”
“To the South East, in China, the largest production base of saltpeter was discovered dating back to a thousand years ago. Here, a network of caves was discovered (1) in the Laojun Mountains in Sichuan Province. Meat curing, interestingly enough, is also centered around the west and southern part of China. Probably a similar development to the Indian progression.”
“In China, in particular, a very strong tradition of meat curing developed after it was possibly first introduced to the Chinese well before 2000 BCE. Its use in meat curing only became popular in Europe gain between 1600 and 1750 and it became universally used in these regions towards the end of 1700. Its usage most certainly coincided with its availability and price.” Lord Landsdown told us that he has not compared price and availability in Europe with the findings on its use in meat curing which is based upon an examination of German and Austrian kook books by Lauder (2), but he is confident that when he gets to it one day, the facts will prove the same.
“The Dutch and English arrived in India after 1600 with the first shipment of saltpeter from this region to Europe in 1618. Availability in Europe was, generally speaking, restricted to governments who, in this time, increasingly used it in warfare. (Frey, J. W.; 2009) This correlates well with the proposed time when it became generally available to the European population as the 1700s from Lauder.” I again interjected that I believe that a strong case is emerging that the link between Western Europe and the desert regions of Western China was the place where nitrate curing developed into an art. The exact place, I believe, in Western China is the Tarim depression.
Lord Landsdown concluded that “dry curing of meat changed from salt only to a mixture of salt and saltpeter, liberally rubbed over the meat. As it migrates into the meat, water and blood are extracted and drained off. The meat is usually laid skin down and all exposed meat is plastered with a mixture of salt and saltpeter. Pork bellies would cure in approximately 14 days. (3) (Hui, Y. H., 2012: 540)
Farewell to England
With that, the evening was over. Oscar was thoroughly impressed with the work we have done. He had ample time to spend with the engineering manager of C & T Harris and took with him back to Cape Town a suitcase full of engineering drawings and factory plans. Whenever we had a spare moment, we would work on the plans for our own small factory in Cape Town and he made sure to discuss the layout and factory flow with the people who matter before he left.
He enjoyed Lord Landsdown and Bowood tremendously! Within a week we all set sail from England to Cape Town from where Minette and I would take another steamer to New Zealand. In Cape Town, we spend a week with the Tristan and Lauren and my parents. We managed another week with Minette’s parents and of course saw her twin sister, Luani, her husband Fanie, and Liam and Luan, their adorable kids almost every day. I spend an afternoon with Oscar and David de Villiers Graaff where we took him through our factory plans, careful not to reveal too much to him.
Our Passage to New Zealand
On 1 June 1893, Minette and I greeted our families and set sail for the shores of New Zealand. What insane adventures would await us there and what amazing lessons to learn about bacon. What Minette did not know was that it would become more an “art of living” trip!
What follows are our letters to the kids from New Zealand!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) The discovery was made in 2003.
(2) Lauder published in 1991.
(3) The discussion is entirely fictional. Lors Landsdown was a very intelligent man and very fond of sport, but this discussion never took place. Everything is from the research of Eben on the subject.
All quotes from Bacon Curing – a Historical Review
All photos from Maori lore, 1904, by Izett, James.