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 2000’s to late 1800’s 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 mold the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
Cape Town, 1886
Unlocking the secrets of how bacon is made would soon become the single obsession of my life. The monumental discoveries that would elucidate the complex and altogether mesmerising set of chemical reactions responsible for producing the worlds greatest culinary delight would be revealed mostly from Europe and England. The history of unraveling the secrets of bacon became intimately connected with the greatest discoveries of humanity.
The first lessons on creating great bacon came to me, not in Europe, but a few years before my 16th birthday in Cape Town. It was one of the less pleasant experiences of my life but provided the basis of much of what would follow. The first seed of interest could just as easily have put me off meat production for good.
While growing up, the city abattoir was at the bottom of Addely street on the beach. It was aptly named the Shambles after the famous Smithfield market in London known by the same name. Years ago, my parents tell me, the slaughter of animals happened all across the city and a formal city abattoir was established in 1820.
What was intended to be an improvement on home slaughter, the Shambles became a city eyesore. Cattle would be slaughtered and the offal left on the beach for the tide to take it away into the sea. The stench from the beach was nauseating. In reality, little offal was swept into the sea. Most remained on the beach, rotting away and being feasted on by dogs.
On a hot and windless day in the bowl in front of Table Mountain where Cape Town was developing, a foul smell hung over the beach below the abattoir. It would hover over the sea and slowly envelop the city. I later learned that setting slaughterhouses up next to waterways for the exact reason to carry away the offal was a well known European and English practice, but in few locations did it have the dramatic effect it had in Cape Town, comparable only with Bombay.
As children, we avoided the abattoir but on one November day, after a week of uninterrupted rain, I walked to the outskirts of the city and followed the cattle route into town. The air smelled fresh with the scent of feinbos. All nasty odours were mercifully washed from the air. The usually dusty roads turned muddy with pools of water everywhere.
I did not intend walking the cattle road. I could not wait to get out of the house after a weeks confinement due to the rain, nor could my parents wait for me to get out. I ran through the city streets. I found myself faced with droves of cattle being herded into town. Curiosity took over. It was not so much that I decided to follow them as it was like an invisible hand pulled me, herded me along with the cattle.
The boys driving the cattle gleefully whistled for the animals to keep moving while they chatted amongst themselves and threw small rocks at animals stopping to graze. As they approach the Shambles, the animals became weary but kept moving, spurred on by thirst and hunger till they reached the cattle pens.
The animals were driven from the many farms that developed around Cape Town. From as far afield as Piketberg and Worcester.
I was intrigued by the scale. (1) Cape Town was the tavern of the sea and the number of animals slaughtered had little relation with the number of souls living in the expanding city. Cattle traders sold the animals to butchers who dispatched their apprentices to bring the animals to the slaughter. What I saw disturbed me.
As the butcher’s apprentices herded the cattle from the holding pens the animals smelled the blood on the beach. They did not know what was happening up ahead, but they knew it was not a place they wanted to go. In response to their reluctance of moving forward, the herders became incredibly brutal in goding them. They beat them mercilessly with wooden sticks. From stress and fatigue, some of the animals collapsed in the mud.
The dreary sight of animals laying in the mud; the sound of the butcher’s apprentices beating the animals; the mud mingled with blood ahead and the foul smell of the offal and on the beach below the slaughtering sites made for a miserable picture. The sun was coming through the clouds and the sudden November heat did not improve the picture as the nasty smell developed and filled the air. Nearby, Uncle John Woodhead’s business was boiling the last scraps of fat off skin and bones which did not help with the smell.
Men with carts collected the miserable animals that collapsed. Their end was the same as those who were driven on hoof to the slaughtering sites. Their hooves were tied together in pairs and all four pulled together till the animal fell. The butchers moved swiftly to slit the animal’s throat to bleed out. As soon as the animal is dead, the skin is removed on the ground and the intestines taken out and thrown onto the beach. Khoe, sitting on the outskirts of the killing area on their haunches moved quickly with every set of offal thrown to collect it. To them, it is a delicacy.
I visited my friends David de Villiers Graaff, but he was not there. I stood in his shop, looking at large men, skilfully turning the carcasses of hogs, cattle, and sheep into meat cuts familiar to me. Much of the meat was picked with salt for preservation. Most were sold from the shop to the public. Combrink & Co. had meat wagons which they stocked for home deliveries. Their wagons were a feature of life in Cape Town and later they set up small retail outlets across town which they supplied from the shop at the Shambles.
That night I could not sleep. Of course, I did not describe everything that I saw that day, choosing to rather forget. Not all the butchers were good butchers and some were in too much of a hurry to start removing the skin.
When I got home I told my dad what I saw. He had a simple view of life. He saw everything as ordered under the sun and in the center of it all is an almighty God who orders and assigns a position to every creature. The lion does not feel pity for the buck that it hunts. The buck feels no pity for the grass that it feeds on. It is Gods decreed order in life. “In the same way,” my dad explained, “God gave us animals to sustain us through their milk and their flesh. It is Gods way.” He did, however, not like the brutality.
The animals, my dad believed, should meet their end swiftly and cleanly and should not be mistreated on their way to take their place in the circle of life. My dad drew parallels between the brutality to the animals and to people.
He told me that we can not expect people who enslaved other humans and traded them like commodities to show any mercy to the domesticated animals nor to the wild beasts of the field. He maintained that people who do not treat the indigenous people of this great land with respect will likewise not treat animals with dignity. Europeans, according to my dad, lost their own humanity and replaced it with arrogance. They do not respect themselves, yet they lord it over others and impose their views and beliefs as if they alone possess knowledge. Like Uncle Jakobus, my dad abhorred the straight lines of the Dutch and often said their thinking can be seen in their architecture and city design.
I learned for the first time that night that my dad was an abolitionist. He told me how, as a young man of law, he vigorously campaigned for the freedom of slaves and the equality of all. We spoke about a vision for a world where we would live in harmony with the all and show the same respect for our domesticated animals as the Khoe has towards their cattle and fat tail sheep and the San shows towards the wild beasts of the field.
The Khoe was the first pastoralists in southern Africa. They called themselves Khoikhoi (or Khoe), which means ‘men of men’ or ‘the real people’. This name was chosen to show pride in their past and culture. The Khoikhoi brought a new way of life to South Africa and to the San, who were hunter-gatherers as opposed to herders. Both groups had ancient traditions based on a respect for animals.
My dad told me that an old Khoe captain once told him, referring to his own people as the real owners of the land, that the Europeans are “the greatest slaves in the world with our so exactly fixed and precise way of life.” (2) The Khoe and San, according to my dad, are the truly free people while we are prisoners to a merciless culture with no heart.
The Adderly Street Abattoir was ordered to move soon afterward in 1883. It was done as part of a general campaign to clean up the city. Instrumental in this campaign was my friend, David de Villiers Graaff, then only the 22-year old. It was this event of closing the Shambles, that prompted Combrinck & Co. to install their own slaughtering line.
In 1883 a lawsuit was brought against the city on the basis that the Shambles was a public disturbance and had to be removed. Sir Henry de Villiers who was chief justice led a full bench of the supreme court to hear the case. An in-person inspection was carried out one morning after the slaughter of animals. The judges and lawyers walked the beach; sewerage was flowing into the sea; the stench was unbearable. Late in 1883 Justice de Villiers delivered judgment and said that the least the city could do was to slaughter the animals elsewhere. This sealed the fate of the Shambles and it was moved. David de Villiers Graaff and Lord/ Sir John Henry were close family. (3)
One day I related my experience to Dawie (David). He grew up in the Shambles and I was keen to get his perspective. He told me something that peaked my interest. That the animals with the best meat quality are animals who had the right feed and were not exposed to stress before slaughter.
It begins by feeding them well on good grass, months before they are brought to the abattoir. Then, once at the abattoir, the animals must be properly rested before slaughter. Stress destroys good meat. David later showed me their new slaughtering lines and explained to me how stress either creates dark and dry meat or, especially in pork, meat that is pale, soft and characterized by exudate. Unbeknownst to me, this became my first chemistry lesson related to bacon and I was intrigued. The experience of the butchers fascinated me.
That good bacon comes from good meat and good meat comes from happy animals. I wondered why the meat from game was not as soft as the meat from domesticated animals since, in my estimation, the wild animals were the happiest. I would question my teachers in school about these matters, but they had no real answer. It would be years before I understood the chemistry behind this phenomenon. Still, a seed was planted. An interest in meat production that would become an all-consuming obsession and in the end, the facts I learned here in Cape Town would become the cornerstone of producing the best bacon on earth.
At the very moment, answers were being discovered in Europe and England that would unlock the mystery behind producing the best bacon on earth. Events soon transpired in my life that would set the stage for me to travel to Europe on the most exciting learning adventure ever. All these followed my 16th birthday.
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) The experience comes from visiting the largest abattoir across Africa, where time stood still.
(2) François Valentijn (1726), quoted by Mansell Upham.
(3) Three De Villiers brothers came to South Africa with their wives. They were Abraham and his wife Susanne, Pierre and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of the hat maker of Thierry in the province of Bri and Jacob and Susanne’s sister, Marguerite. The three sons father was Pierre de Villiers from La Rochelle in France.
The second son, Pierre and his wife Elizabeth had a son, also called Pierre. Young Pierre married Hester Roux and in 1725, they had a son. Since French as a language was dying out at the Cape, the named him Pieter. Pieter married twice. With his first wife, he had nine children and with his second wife, eight. The biographer of Lord de Villiers, Eric A. Walker called him a “notable parent” which is probably an understatement! 🙂
Jacob Nicolaas was born to them in Paarl in 1786. He married Suzanne Maria Bernhardi and named their oldest son Carl Christiaan who, in 1834 married Dorothea Elizabeth. They had nine children and the fourth son was John Henry de Villiers. He signed his name, not as John Henry, but as Johan Hendrik. He was born on 15 June 1842.
Sir Davids father was Petrus Novbertus Graaff and his mother was Anna Elizabeth, daughter of Pieter Hendrik de Villiers. This has definitely been traced somewhere, but it is fun working it out for oneself. It seems that Anna’s father was the brother of J. H. de Villiers, which then makes Lord de Villiers, the uncle of the wife of Petrus Graaff, the father of Sir David de Villiers Graaff. Whichever way you look at it, there is a rather close family relationship between Lord/ Sir John Henry de Villiers and Sir David de Villiers Graaff.
Khoi cattle and sheep:
Cattle in holding pen before slaughter. Eben van Tonder