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.
The Bacon Company
Upon my return from Johannesburg, I stopped over at Oscar’s farm again. It is a well-run business. Every month he received newsletters from the Cape and Holland about farming and he studied them in detail to learn about farming in the modern way.
Oscar’s father, Uncle James Klynveld, was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. His, like Oom Jan, Oom Giel and Oon Sybrand is a more sensible faith compared to many in the Transvaal Republic at this time. He sees all humans as equal before God, irrespective of language and skin colour. This was a view not widely held in the Transvaal. Even in England, there were those who questioned the equality of all races with a debate if black people had souls like white people. Oscar and I shared his view on the equality of the different races and agreeing on such matters are important when starting a business together.
We also shared the view that England, the two Boer republics, the native tribes, the freed slaves and their descendants and how these groups treated and mistreated each other over the years and acted shamefully in taking what is not theirs and killing and enslaving one another; that, together with the influx of immigrants into the Transvaal in search of gold and the ambition of men like Rhodes – that all these ingredients cannot spell anything but war. Nation against nation and territory against territory. We saw the clouds of war gathering in almost every newspaper we picked up or conversation we had with other people. War was inevitable and we wanted to plot the most sensible road ahead for our young families.
We saw our future, not connected to the land, as many of our fellow Boers do, but connected to free enterprise. Farming, in Oscar’s mind, is not a God-given right to the Boer nation, but a business that had to make a profit. The security was not in the land, but a positive bottom line. The idea of a bacon company appealed to us.
We wanted to create a business that would provide for our families as the means to raise our children, live out our ambitions and be a provider of exactly the same for every person who will work for us. We had aspirations to supply every possible market across the land. The two Boer republics, the colonies in the Cape, Natal, passing ships and the British Navy and army.
This is then how it came about that on one winter morning in August 1890, we had a formal meeting to establish a bacon curing company in Potchefstroom. (1) Potchefstroom was the former capital of the Transvaal, before the seat of government was moved to Pretoria. Like all Boer towns, it had big gardens surrounding large houses and trees lining the streets. It appeared like an oasis on the road from Kimberly which was a monotonous part of the route traveling from Cape Town, through Kimberly to Johannesburg.
We met in Oscar’s voorkamer (living room). It was a bitterly cold night. A hand full of burgers came. Oscar’s wife, Trudie, expecting their 3rd daughter was there. James and Willem, Oscar’s two brothers and Anton, Oscar’s father-in-law. Some of the Boers came out of curiosity but a few other successful farmers were there, looking for an opportunity to invest in the venture. Oupa Eben Kok and his wife Susan was there. My dad and my brother, Elmar, came through for the occasion, taking the train to Bloemfontein and hiring a coach to Potchefstroom.
Oscar’s dad opened the meeting with scripture reading and prayer. His text was Ecclesiastes 9:11. “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (2) He is a man of wisdom and used the words of another wise man, Solomon, to set the course for the adventure ahead. “In the end,” he said, “it will not be our speed, strength, wisdom, understanding, skill or even the riches from investors that will give us success, as important as all these are. Without being at the right place, at the right time, nothing will come to fruition. Commit to the dream and exploit every opportunity with a bounty of enthusiasm and the dream will be turned into a reality.” With these words and in a prayer, he commended our venture into the hands of the Almighty God.
After Uncle James’ words, it was my turn. I presented the outline of the plan and in the middle of my speech, Oscar jumped in when he saw I was using too many words and he summarized the plan nicely. Looking at the faces in the crowd, I could see that our words found favour among the listeners.
Despite much talk and plenty of enthusiasm, being thoroughly convinced that our plan will find widespread appeal, nobody was prepared to join our venture or invest in the business, except a young mining engineer from Kimberly, Dawie Hyman who made a small investment with me personally on account of our long-standing friendship and Anton, Trudie’s father and Oscar’s father-in-law. Initially, it would be up to Oscar and myself to prove that a quality curing operation is possible in our land.
My dad insisted that the standard we aim for in bacon production is nothing less than the legendary Wiltshire Bacon from C&T Harris in England. His reasoning was that even though he believed his own bacon recipe to be the best in the world, the Europeans and English figured out a way to do it faster at constantly good quality. It was one thing to produce one batch of good bacon per year from one pig, but doing it day in and day out, year in an year out was a completely different question. It was a widely held belief around the world that they produce the finest bacon on earth. Everybody agreed to this, but it presented a problem, far more daunting than our lack of capital. Nobody knew how to cure Wiltshire style bacon. How do they manage to consistently produce such large quantities of good bacon? It was decided that since my kids were a bit older than Oscar’s, I had to travel to Europe and England and learn the art of curing large quantities of good bacon! Oscar would stay behind, muster the support and prepare our factory.
We decided not to go to England straight away despite the fact that the Harris family’s factory is in England. On the one hand, there was the fear that war could break out any day and this would jeopardize our quest. On the other hand, since my ancestors came to the Cape of Good Hope from Denmark and since an old spice trader advised us to visit Copenhagen first, the decision was made to start there.
Oscar and I met up in Johannesburg a few weeks prior to plan the founding meeting on his farm. The city, only two and a half years or three years old by 1890 was already an impressive place. The streets were broad with buildings on either side, built in a style and an architecture that rivals those of the biggest cities in England. (3)
The main business street is Commissioner street. Off it is the new club, the Bank of Africa, the new Exchange buildings, two large hotels, and several two stories buildings, set up with the sole purpose of conducting business and spanning entire blocks with offices for hundreds of brokers and speculators. There is a hustle and bustle about the city as bricklayers are furiously at work, filling every available space with new buildings. (3)
There are several open spaces provided in the city to act as recreation areas and market squares. In the middle of the city is the principal, large market square. This is my final destination when I travel to Johannesburg. The square is filled each morning with ox wagons loaded with produce from the Transvaal, the Cape Colony, Natal, and the Free State, sold to the highest bidder. In the center of the square is a large brick building, 100 feet wide and 200 feet long, the market house proper. It is surrounded completely by coffee stalls. (3)
We met in the stately Mounts Bay Hotel in Pritchard Street in preparation for the meeting on Oscar’s farm (4). At the hotel’s bar, time and chance overtook ability, as Solomon would have it, and we met an old spice trader from Copenhagen. He drank a copious amount of beer, even at midday, while always smoking his pipe.
Two particular aspects of the meeting were very fortuitous. Firstly, he had an intimate knowledge of the spice industry and could tell us exactly where we can get the best curing salt for meat. Secondly, it turned out that he knew just the man who could teach us how to make good bacon on a very large scale. He was very insistent that if we were serious about learning this art, we should travel to Denmark first where he would introduce us to a young friend of his who did an apprenticeship in meat curing and cutting. (5)
At the time I could not understand why we would learn the art of Wiltshire bacon curing, from a man in Denmark. Was it even the same process? How did the Danes do it? That night in the Mount Bay Hotel on Prichard street I had too much good local witblits with Oscar and the trader from Denmark to be overly concerned with this question. This is how it came about that Oscar and I made the plan of inviting friends and family to a meeting at his farm where we would establish our bacon curing company. We were resolved to give practical manifestation to our vision without any delay.
Soon I was back in Cape Town, wrapping up my business and preparing for the trip to Denmark. I met Uncle Jakobus at his Papendorp home with David de Villiers Graaff. The plan excited David. (6) I was reluctant to ask either him or Uncle Jakobus to invest in our venture. They would be our biggest client in the Cape and I did not want to compromise future price negotiations by having one of our main clients as an investor. Oscar was concerned how such a move would be viewed by other potential clients who are opposition to Combrinck & Co. So, I omitted the possibility of investing in our venture from our final moments together, being content to greet my old friends and share good Cape wine together. In later years I looked back with great fondness on this meeting. It was the last time I would see Uncle Jacobus.
David, on the other hand, I continued to see over the years, and our friendship grew even stronger. The next time would be in Copenhagen. That same month, on 14 August 1890, David was elected as mayor of Cape Town at the young age of 31.
John Woodhead, a much older friend from our mountain climbing circle of friends, owned a leather tanning business (7) in town. He was the current mayor of Cape Town. He and David also knew each other well. He bought almost all the hides from Combrinck & Co.. The young David grew up in front of him and after John’s second term in office as major (1886 and 1888), he proposed the young David as Major. (The Sheffield Daily Telegraph and Dommisse, page 43 -51)
John knew Table Mountain and having spent lots of time there on account of large civil projects which he initiated. There is the impressive Woodhead Reservoir and the Woodhead Tunnel. John who grew up in England came from a family of big civils people. There, one of his family members built the Woodhead Pass crossing the Pennine chain of hills.
I said farewell to my hiking buddies, including Uncle John by trecking up Table Mountain with my them one last time before I depart. We went up with Platteklip Gorge, past the slave caves (8), across to Fountain Ravine where we scrambled up to Penny’s Cave (9), overlooking the Atlantic. Here we spent the night.
We laughed and told stories till long after midnight. We dreamed about the mountains that I would climb in Europe and celebrated our great friendship. I was, in particular, sad to say good buy to Minette.
A year earlier Julie and I decided to end our relationship, opting to rather stay the best of friends than living together as husband and wife. We married when we were children and as we grew up, realised that we are growing apart with vastly different views of life. This became a matter of bitter resentment from my larger family, but it was the right thing to do. It saddened my dad especially, but over the weeks and months and years, as he could see how we each individually were happier with our new circumstances, I think he made peace with it. Julie and I lived in very close proximity to each other on the slopes of Table Mountain and bringing kids up in two homes that close was a convenient arrangement for both of us in light of my many travels. It continued to baffle the Cape Town community, but we did not care for their opinions on the matter.
In the years following this, I became better friends than ever before with Minette who was now working for the Bank of the Netherlands in Cape Town. I started spending a lot of time with her seeking advice on financing our bacon company and we hiked up Table Mountain almost every weekend when I was home. I grew very fond of her and suddenly, sitting in Penny’s cave, watching the majestic sunset over the western ocean, I realised how much I would miss her.
I spend a few days with my Mom and Dad, helping around the house and riding to work with Dad in the mornings. He encouraged me to seek the best artisan and to be trained by him. He told me that he wished he was young again and could embark on such an adventure with me.
Almost every moment of my last days at home I spent with the kids. Tristan and Lauren are the light of my life and the only thing that made it possible to leave them was the knowledge that what I learn would enable our new company to prosper so that we could provide for our families.
One spring morning, late in 1890, I was on the deck of a Danish vessel, en route for Copenhagen. I waved goodbye to everybody who came to the harbour to see me off. My gran, Ouma Susan, my mom and dad, my Uncle Jan Kok and his family, David de Villiers Graaff, the kids, my hiking friends and Minette. My brothers, Andre and Elmar were there. Oscar and Trudie came down from Potchefstroom to see me off and Oscar’s father in law, Anton. Dawie Hyman came down from Kimberley.
As the ship set sail and the crew was scrambling about, as Table Mountain and the view of my friends and family faded, my mind wandered back to Oscar’s voorkamer and the founding meeting of our company. The Harris family smoked their bacon if it was destined for one of the colonies on account of the added preserving power given by the smoke. (10) Since the clients would expect the same smokey flavour, we knew that our bacon would be wood smoked also. One of the Boer ladies who attended, a prolific artist, saw the connection of bacon, naturally wood smoking and suggested the name Woody’s. (11) Oscar and I loved it and the name was adopted for our company.
With a sudden cold sea breeze in my face and open sea ahead, with the greatest sense of excitement and expectation, I softly whispered to myself, “and so starts the adventure of Woody’s Bacon!!”
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Eben created the Woodys bacon brand in August 2007. Oscar, who had a distributions business in Potchefstroom, Transwest Distributors, joined forces with Eben in December of that year and in January 2008 they created Woody’s Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd. together with Anton. They initially outsourced their manufacturing.
They started to prepare for their own factory in 2011. It was the culmination of a process that started on a flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town in January 2011 where Oscar and Eben decided to re-think the entire Woodys strategy and gear themselves for a much bigger company. Oscar and Eben has been joined by Willem on the Woodys Executive by this time. The first step of the plan was a transition from contract packers to an own factory.
(2) Quote from the KJV, would have been from the Dutch Statevertaling, the standard bible text used in 1890 among the Boers. In actuality, the text and its interpretation was suggested many years earlier to Eben by his friend Dawie Hyman who, apart from a qualified engineer, is also a graduate from the Masters Seminary and who was a pastor in Johannesburg before returning to the USA. It became one of Eben’s favourite bible texts.
(3) Description of Johannesburg and the journey from Kimberley from The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont), 14 Feb 1890, page 7, Scenes in South Africa
(4) The Mounts Bay Hotel was built in 1889 in Pritchard Street and survived until 1909.
After Woody’s Consumer Brands was created, the first meeting was held at the Palazzo Hotel, at Montecaseno, Johanneburg at the end of Jan 2011. It was attended by Eben and Oscar as well as Dawie Hyman who initially was part of the company and an investor who supported Eben while establishing the brand and a lifelong friend of Eben’s, Elmar, Eben’s brother who was initially involved in a scheme to procure pigs from small farmers in the Southern Cape and Sophia Krone, an old school friend if Eben, turned top notch corporate consultant and executive coached who lead the inaugural meeting and who was very involved early on in direction and goal setting of the company. She did not like the out-sourced manufacturing model, predicting that the company would struggle until it had its own manufacturing plant.
(5) In 2011, Oscar and Eben met with the Danish owner of a spice company in Johannesburg. This paved the way for a visit to Denmark where they would start learning the art of bacon and be introduced to the spice industry by a skilled young man from Denmark who is both an expert in spices and a who did a deboning apprenticeship.
(6) In the 1890’s, David visited Europe and the United States to investigate the use of refrigeration in meat packing plants. In Chicago he visited the Armour Meat Packing plant. In January 1890, back in South Africa, he exchanged letters with Pulsometer Engineering Company about the latest refrigeration technology. Soon afterwards, refrigeration chambers were installed at Combrinck & Co. (Dommisse, page 31 – 33)
(7) J. Woodheads & Sons, a leather tannery business, was established by John Woodhead in 1867. The company exists to this day, still located in Cape Town, making it one of the oldest companies in South Africa.
(8) These are two shallow caves up Platteklip Gorge that were inhabited by runaway slaves. The caves are situated right next to the old footpath up the gorge just before one enters between two large vertical cliffs. This was still the route up by the late 1800’s and would have been the route that Eben, Minette, Achmat and Taahir took if they did the hike in 1890.
(9) Joshua Penny was an American, impressed into the British Navy, who visited the Cape, where he took part in the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795. He deserted and spent fourteen months in hiding on Table Mountain.
Jim Searle led an expedition of mountaineers in 1892 and 1894 to what is believed to be the main cave where Joshua Penny stayed (where he stayed the longest). The, very difficult to find and access, cave is located on Fountain Ravine, Table Mountain and it overlooks the Atlantic, just as Penny described. The main clues of Penny’s use of this cave are items found in the cave that dates back to the time of Penny’s habitation and correlates to descriptions given by him about items of clothing and a knife he had with him. These items are beautifully displayed at the Cape Town offices of the Mountain Club of South Africa, curtest of Mike Scott. Looking at all the evidence carefully, it is probable that the cave, identified as Panny’s Cave by the Mountain Club of South Africa, is indeed the right cave.
(10) This is true as a historical fact. Bacon, in those days, sent to the colonies, was not only cured but smoked also. Coating the bacon with smoke gave it added anti microbial protection on the long journey. In England, cured, unsmoked bacon is sold as a product option to this day while in the previous colonies, the bacon is usually cured and smoked.
(11) The name was suggested by Carina Lochner from Somerset West who also designed to Woodys logo as well as the Woody’s packaging for the first few years. The name originates from the fact that Woody’s is produced using natural wood smoke.
Dommisse, E. Sir David de Villiers Graaff, First Baronet of De Grendel. 2011. Tafelberg.
Heinrich, Adam R. 2010. A zooarcheaelogical investigation into the meat industry established at the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East Indian Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, The State University of New Jersey.
Linder, Adolphe. 1997. The Swiss at the Cape of Good Hope. Creda Press (Pty) Ltd
The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Wednesday, 20 April 1898, Obituary
Simons, Phillida Brooke. 2000. Ice Cold In Africa. Fernwood Press
New York Tribune, Sunday, 18 March 1900, Page 23, The War in South Africa