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.
All the Danish excitement and then I arrived in Calne, but first, we visited Bath at the insistence of my host. Bath is a surreal place where Roman baths from the 3rd century are still in use today! A newspaper I picked up on the train described it as follows, that “nowhere in England have so many great men and woman come and for a time lived and left behind them such clear and charming chronicles of their tarrying as in the interesting old Somersetshire city of Bath.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1892) Bath has a known antiquity of almost 2000 years and a claimed antiquity of at least another 1000 years beyond that.” The hot baths possess a luxury not rivaled anywhere in Europe. “As one is enjoying the thermal waters, it is striking that these, Roman Emperors and Generals of 1400 to 1800 years ago shared. These waters banished the ills of St David, King Arthur and a vast line of old British princes and potentates for half a thousand years beyond.” (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1892)
After a pleasant day at Bath, we returned East along the ancient Roman road linking Bristol and London by train to arrive in Calne in the late afternoon. As the train slowly made its way into a newly built station, two large and impressive buildings of the Harris Bacon operation flank the station. It signals clearly to anyone arriving on the Great Western Express that this is bacon country!
Calne has a sleepy character, except, I am told, on market days. Houses are built with a coarser kind of Bath stone or Sarson stone. It very quickly ages. After only one year it looks older than a limestone house looks after five. It has a creamish, grey tint which resembles the look of the stones that form the footpaths, build from broken Sarson stone.
It is very interesting what one learns on a train. A gentleman sitting next to me saw that I was reading a copy of an American newspaper. He was intrigued and asked if I am from that country. When I told him that I am from South Africa, he was very much amazed and started to give me a rundown of the local politics.
The town is situated on the estate of the Marquis of Landsdown. The Marquis was the Governor-General of Canada from 1883 to 1888 and currently serve as Viceroy of India, a post he occupied since 1888. His estate manor, Bowood, is situated a mile away from his Calne which is located on his estate for which he receives rental income. The small farms and the houses are mostly held in tenantry and some have been on the estate for ages. The cottages of the labourers are said to be the best in Wiltshire (and the cheapest). Most of these are three-bedrooms with a small garden. In England, the Marquis is known as a reasonable and gentleman of high intelligence and a keen sportsman.
The Marquis of Landsdown, like the Marquis of Bath, are also large landowners in Ireland. The one in Kerry and Kildare and the other in Monaghan. In Ireland, they are referred to as “absent landowners”. A third English nobleman, Lord Digby, from the next county of Dorset owns 31 000 acres in King’s County near Tullamore. It is interesting that all three have the same agent, Mr. Trench. These men, although they are quite forgiving about rental payments in England, instructed their Irish agent to collect as much rental as he can from the tenants on their Irish estates. We have then three neighbors, all three owning large lands in Ireland with the same agent.
Something else is of interest. The stranger on the train told me that Mr. Trent’s father occupied the same position as the Irish agent to the fathers of the three noblemen. Mr. Trent, Senior even wrote a book about his experiences, The Realities of Irish Life.
The manor houses of the Marquis of Bath, the Marquis of Landsdown and Lord Digby are Longleat, Bowood next to Calne, and Minterne House respectively. I did not tell the stranger on the train that my guest in Calne was none other than Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquis of Lansdowne! My ultimate destination for that evening was Bowood!
I was almost just as excited to see Bowood as I was to see the Harris Bacon operation in Calne. It was in this famous house where, on 1 August 1774, Joseph Priestly, acting as a tutor for the children, did his experiments and discovered oxygen. When Kevin Pickton introduced me in Peterborough to an agent for Lord Lansdown I never dreamt that I would receive an invitation to stay over at Bowood!
Kevin is Welsh. What more can I say! We had many nights in the pub in Peterborough where we had intense conversations and on our third and fourth beer, I was no longer certain that we were conversing about the same subject on account of his strong Welsh accent. Who cared! It was, in any event, a great evening! We were having the time of our lives!
Kevin is of this unique, intelligent, perceptive and tough kind of man who is clear about his goal and he pursues them with singlemindedness that I have seldom come across in my many travels. Kevin, his dad, and his son all three plaid rugby for the same team, at the same time! This sums up the kind of family they are. I very soon learned that Kevin conducts his business, which was in making knives, precisely to slice bacon, as he plaid his rugby and trained his body – with single-minded dedication and courage! In my life, I have met some of the toughest men on earth in the bush in Africa, on the goldfields in Johannesburg and the diamond fields in Kimberly but I will venture to say that amongst them, there is no man as tough as Kevin! I only recently met him by the introduction of Andreas and I already see that I will learn from him and that the proverb is true with Kevin and me that as iron sharpens iron, so two friends sharpen each other.
The Pub in Peterborough where Kevin and I spend many enjoyable hours, talking bacon! Later, Oscar accompanied me to England and again, the Bull was our home away from home!
Kevin’s wife, Julie met the agent of Lord Landsdown, a certain Mr. Petty, on account of the work she did for their local government. She suggested that he visits the Bull and it was quite serendipitous that on that precise evening, Kevin and I were at the pub for a few beers before we intended heading home for supper.
Kevin, propelled by his Welsh nature, told Mr. Petty about my quest to discover how to produce the best bacon on earth and knowing that he is from Calne, he correctly surmised that I would probably need a place to stay while I visit the Harris bacon plants. It was widely known around the world that Harris produces the best bacon anywhere.
Mr. Petty was very much intrigued by my story and invited me to stay at Bowood. I exclaimed, “Calne, situated on the lands of which Bowood is the manor house is my ultimate destination,” upon which he extended a hand. As he shook my hand he formally invited me to stay over at Bowood and said that Lord Landsdown would not want it any other way. He told me about the room where Priestly did his experiments and how Lord Landsdown welcomed anybody to his house who has any interest in the sciences. The Marquis was to remain in India for a few more months, but he said that his master would not forgive him if, upon his return, he would learn that we met and that his agent did not invite me to stay at his official residence so close to Calne. With that, it was set – I would reside at Bowood!
I have been preoccupied with bacon for so long that an altogether different matter started to occupy my mind. During my visit to Peterborough, Julie, Kevin’s wife, spoke to me about Minette’s visit to Denmark. I am not the most perceptive person on earth and it never occurred to me that there may be more to Minette’s visit to Denmark than a friend supporting another friend. My first wife, Julie and I had a brilliant relationship, but we had completely different interests. I think I am a nomad and a wanderer; an explorer and an adventurer and my Julie (as opposed to Kevins Julie) is someone who is looking for white picket fences. She wants to grow old with a man, a small house, the white picket fences, and a cat! I, on the other hand, want to die as a man who lived a full life and explored everything! From there the love for mountaineering and bacon!
I told her how I started to see Minette in a new light when we camped out at Penny’s cave the night before I left for Denmark. Kevin’s Julie was quite intrigued about what I meant. “You know,” I stuttered, “I saw that she was beautiful. She is genuine as if she belongs here on the mountain and not in a city. There is a connection that I can not explain. As if something is drawing her to me.” Julie laughed! “And you think that when she came all the way to Denmark, she only came over to have a holiday?!” She shook her head. She then turned to Kevin and said, “I did not think I will meet another man as ignorant as you when it comes to matters of the heart!” Kevin’s Julie made me think differently about Minette, our friendship and her visit to Denmark. Suddenly I felt very silly for not seeing this. Suddenly I wanted to get on the next steamer bound for Cape Town to go to her and tell her how I feel about her. That I think she is gorgeous and that I want to spend the rest of my life with her, exploring our world together! As much as this is what I wanted to do, sense and sensibility prevailed and with the encouragement from Kevin, I decided to first establish myself at Bowood and then look for an opportunity to go back to Cape Town for a short visit.
There was something else that I learned in Peterborough which Kevin and Mr. Petty explained to me. The landowner was often very involved in the affairs of the villagers who resided around them. Lord Landsdown, for example, supplies 30 Highland Bulls for use by the small tenants on the estate. They explained to me that the same was true of pigs. That the landowner would secure the best boars from China and make them available for the tenants on his farm to impregnate their sows which meant that the pigs raised in such a village all have similar characteristics.
I could not help to think back to the Kolbroek pigs of Oupa Eben. Uncle Timo and Oupa Eben told me about the pigs that came to Cape Town with the Colebrook ship. (Kolbroek) I did not understand the importance of the boar in transmitting its characteristics to his offspring and how, if the pigs are bred in a closed unit like on the land of a landowner, that the kind of pigs raised will become typical of that village. In this way, they explained to me, breeds started forming, typical to specific towns and counties across England. I know that the origin of the Kolbroek breed is debated in South Africa but sitting in the Bull in Peterborough, and listening to these men, I have a feeling that they know a thing or two about pigs and that unless slaves or farmers kept the pigs that swam from the Colebrook together and farmed with them, that they would not have developed as a “breed” in the Cape Colony.
I was on my plenty-ith beer. Still, I could think straight enough to wonder about C & T Harris. Back home, Oscar and I did the calculations of how much it will cost to set up a commercial curing operation. It requires an enormous amount of money and I wondered if Lord Landsdown and his ancestors somehow supported or funded the establishment of such a large business as C & T Harris.
These matters will be investigated carefully over the next few months. That night, I must confess, as I fell asleep in Kevin’s son’s bed who very graciously agreed to sleep in the living room for me to have the use of his room, my thoughts were more with you and Minette than with the enigmas of pork farming and bacon curing. To be honest, more with Minette! 🙂
Tomorrow I leave with Mr. Petty for Bowood and Calne! I can hardly wait!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Blackland Mill, Calne, c. 1903 from the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham,
“It is likely that there was a mill on this site in the 13th century or earlier. The mill was rebuilt in three stages in c.1800 to incorporate the mill, a mill house, and a detached granary. This mill had a 19 ft. wheel, three pairs of stones, and a loft, which could accommodate 1,000 sacks of wheat. Milling ceased between 1915 and 1920 but then continued until 1982. The mill was restored between 1982 and 1983 and then produced wholewheat flour until 1993. When this photograph was taken the miller was Abraham Lock.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 9 October 1892
Blackland Mill, c. 1903, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham
Postcard dated 1917: Calne railway station: http://mfo.me.uk/wiki/index.php?title=C%26T_Harris_(Calne)_Ltd