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.
American Icehouses for England: Year-round Curing
Dear Minette and Kids,
I stayed at Bowood for a week before Mr. Smith arranged with Mr. Petty to arrange with the servants to prepare the couch and take me to C & T Harris where I was expected. I remained very surprised that the discussion about curing was centered around sweet cured bacon and not mild cured which was the way it was done in Denmark. I read in local newspapers that C & T Harris were advertising pale dried bacon and wondered what it was. Was it a form of mild cured bacon where the meat juices were used to increase the curing rate? Remember that bacteria in the meat juices and old brine removing an oxygen atom from the nitrate or saltpeter molecule consisting of a nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms. Two being rightly bound and one sitting rather loosely enable the bacteria to, so to speak, pluck the “loose” oxygen atom off and thus change the nitrate into nitrite which in turn results in a quicker curing time. The short curing time is then, as Jeppe speculated because the old brine will already have nitrites and there is no need to first wait for the bacteria to do their “plucking” job. I however seriously doubt that pale dried bacon has anything to do with mild cured bacon.
These matters were swirling around in my mind when I bid farewell to my host at Bowood. I was to return to Bowood many times at the invitation of Mr. Smith and later Lord Landsdown himself but for now, I was on my way to finally visit the legendary C & T Harris Bacon factories in Calne. I could scarcely contain my excitement. It is nothing less than a priest being invited to visit the Vatican! I am allowed into the heart of the most sophisticated curing operation on earth. Uncle Jacobus Combrinck, David de Villiers Graaff, my dad, and countless newspapers proclaimed the absolute superiority of bacon produced in this legendary factory.
We drove through the streets of Calne. I spend the week at Bowood very productively. Apart from the access to an impressive library, I had copies of newspapers stretching back to at least the last fifty years. I made it my habit to start very early in the morning while most of the Bowood residents were still asleep to very systematically paged through local newspapers where I carefully read any mention to the Harris operation. Besides these, the chambermaids and groundsmen provided me with by far the most vivid descriptions of more ingredients that blended together to form the legendary company.
C & T Harris: George in America
I have, for example, learned much about George Harris’s famous trip to America. In the mid-1800s, catastrophic events unfolded in Ireland that precipitated George’s travel plans. A devastating potato famine occurred between 1845 and 1852. When it was all over, more than a million people died and another million immigrated to flee the devastating conditions in Ireland. It was human suffering on an unprecedented scale.
The mass migration of people from Ireland to places like the USA happened on a scale never before seen. It was reported in England that the emigration of 1847 would probably end up being as high as between 200,000 or 300,000 people from Ireland alone. An international effort followed and government agents from Europe prepared for the influx of people as the number of people heading to the port cities of the continent dramatically increased. Vessels were being hired to ship people to such cities at an ever-increasing rate and Captains were forced to carrying full compliments of passengers on every voyage, sometimes even exceeding the legal limits. (theshipslist)
While ships sailed from Ireland to North America with passengers, they sailed from America and Canada to Ireland with provisions. One such example I read about was on March 4, 1847, when the Constitution and Sarah Sands sailed from Boston. The Tartar sailed in April. The destination was in all cases, Ireland! A New York paper reported that in March some $1,250,000 of supplies a week were leaving from that port for Ireland and about $5,000,000 from all parts of the U.S. (theshipslist)
The disaster in Ireland had a severe impact on the Harris brothers, as it did on food production around the world. The pigs stopped arriving in Bristol, threatening the existence of the butchers of Calne. George and his mom, Mary, hatched a plan to rescue the situation.
The plan was ingenious. George would leave for America to set up a pig business deal with an American farmer. They would slaughter the animals and figure out a way to carry the meat across the Atlantic, packed in boxes, well-salted to prevent spoilage. The plan was that the meat would cure in transit into ham. (Smithsonianmag) The plan was not novel. By 1847 barrel pork has been exported from America to England for years. On Saturday, 4 November 1843, a circular appeared in Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri) by George K. Budd where advice is given to American pork producers on what they can do to ensure that the barrel pork reaches England in an excellent condition in order to fetch the best possible price.
The plan seems to have been for the 23-year-old George to procure the pigs directly from farmers as opposed to buying it from American packing plants. If George could procure the pigs directly from the farmers, pack the pork in America and export it, the Harris brothers would cut out the middlemen and would again regain not only their supply of foreign pork but also affect the imports at the best possible price. The supply of cured meat for bacon from America to England was, however, the poor quality barrel pork. Besides procuring the pork directly from the farmers and packing it himself in the USA for export to England, George planned to do it by using their well-known dry cure process. George was the innovator and the driving force behind the Harris brothers. His brothers said about him, “ Of all us brothers George was a long way ahead; he was the smartest businessman of any of us. He was the means of lifting us out of the old rut and laid the foundation of the new system and its prosperous future.” (SB)
One can only imagine what the voyage to America was like. Hundreds of thousands of Irish were fleeing the deadly conditions in Ireland, cramming the ships. “Adding to the misery, the northern U.S. and Canada had a hard winter in 1846-7 and the snow and ice were causing delays for many of the vessels. There are reports of gales and of vessels being stuck in the ice for weeks. The Albion, from Greenock, for example, sailed on March 25, 1847, and on April 10 hit the ice about 40 miles off Cape Ray. The vessel did not arrive in Quebec until June 4, 1847!” (theshipslist)
Curing – All Year Round
George arrived in America witnessing the misery of the Irish. He took a year traveling and visiting many bacon-curers. He bought bacon, lard, cheese, and other provisions that he sent home. In the summer of 1848, he briefly visited home and returned to America to opened a bacon curing establishment in Schenectady (New York State). The venture failed and the American business was closed. (british-history) In the process, he was exposed to a development in America that would transform the way that bacon is cured and would give rise to the birth of the legend.
Ice houses started to be built in the northern hemisphere, including England, on the property of wealthy owners from the 1700s. These were generally brick-lined pits, build below the ground where ice from surrounding lakes was stored (Dellino, C, 1979: 2) to keep ice-cream, fruit and vegetables from the kitchen garden but they were not used much in industry at this time in Britain. (SB) This concept of this natural refrigeration was first used as a business venture by the 23-year old businessman and merchant, Frederic Tudor (1783 – 1864), from Boston. (Kha, AR, 2006: 26) He initiated the international distribution of ice in 1806.
Later in the 1800s, commercial cold storage facilities were being built at harbors in America and Europe, mainly for the storage of carcasses, fruit and dairy products. The ice was cut from frozen ponds, lakes or rivers in the winter and stored in the heavily insulated ice house. (Mfo.me.uk) “In the U.S., this method allowed farmers to slaughter pigs not only in months ending in an ‘r’ (or those cold enough for the meat not to rot before it could be cured and preserved) but during any time of year – even in steamy July or August. Curing was then the only way to preserve pork for periods of time longer than 36 hours. Such horrendously salty meat was eaten out of necessity rather than enjoyment, however, and it often required sitting in a bucket of water for days at a time before it could be rinsed of its saltiness to the point that it would even be palatable.” (smithsonianmag)
The revolutionary idea was the storage of meat on a commercial scale in ice houses for the purpose of slow curing. George did not make the link with the curing of bacon straight away. It was Back in Calne, butchers attempted to find a way of curing bacon in hot weather instead of curing it in the winter and keeping it hard salted for summer use. Despite great effort, they were not successful. George finally made the connection and suggested that they should follow the American method of cooling, and so apply cooling to bacon curing.
CURING IN ICE HOUSES
George persuaded his brother Charles who owned the Grocer and Butchers shop on Butchers Row with Thomas and some of his staff to go back to America with him and look at the process. “As a result, both he and Charles set up ice houses in their separate factories.” (SB) The first ice-house was constructed at the High Street factory in 1856.
After a great deal of experimentation, it was found that charcoal was the best insulating material for use in the walls around the ice-chamber. This fascinated me because it was the exact way that the “cooler” on my grandparents’ farm was built. Laid out with bricks on the outside and filled with charcoal on the inside. Water was trickled down the sides from the roof and the result was cooling inside to, oh, if I must think back and try and gauge the temperature, probably at around 15 deg C. In the very hot African summers, this was already a huge improvement. (2)
Thatching is very popular in Calne and the Harris ice houses had thatched roofs. A steel-plated ceiling was installed to pack the ice on with drainage outlets. They measured the rate of melting and could estimate the stock of ice that was in the ceiling at any point in time. They used the unemployed and people from the workhouse to collect ice from streams and ponds but in warmer winters it was imported from Norway and transported by Canal. The ice preservation process was patented by Thomas Harris in 1864. (SB)
“Most of the important bacon-curers throughout the country took advantage of the chance to improve their output by constructing such ice-houses under license.” The volume of trade from the two Harris operations continued to increase throughout this time and in 1863 the Harris family joined with other local interests to finance a branch railway line between Calne and Chippenham. Meanwhile, the income from the ice-house patent together with their own expansion enabled the two Calne businesses to increase their rate of mechanization. “At the High Street premises a new ice-house, furnace, and pigsties were built in 1869; and ten years later it was said that at the Church Street factory the pigs were moved almost entirely by machinery after they had been killed.” (british-history) “The first mechanical refrigeration was introduced in 1885. One 6 ton and one 4 ton Pontifex and wood absorption machines” (SB) “There was always close co-operation between the two firms and in July 1888 they were amalgamated as Charles & Thomas Harris & Co. Ltd.” (british-history) The legend of C & T Harris was born!
PIGS TO SUITE INDUSTRIALISATION
While the Harris brothers were working towards greater mechanization, shortly before the installation of brine refrigeration in place of the ice-house method, they set out on a campaign to persuade farmers to breed the type of lean pig best suited to bacon. Pigs were received from 25 counties in England and Wales in 1887, of which Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset, Dorset, and Devon were the most important. In the same year, large quantities of pigs were again being received from Ireland. (british-history)
I was exceptionally positioned to, on Monday morning, on 11 April 1892 to arrive at the offices of C & T Harris. I was received by none other than John Mitchell Harris. Dear children, the level of excitement off the chart! It has been the most amazing experience imaginable. I wish Oscar, Minette and you guys could have been here with me. If my dad could see me, this amazing day, walking through these large imposing and formal doors and meeting John Harris!
LOTS more to follow!
(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.”
(2) My grandparents used a similar system on their farm Stillehoogte in Fredefort district. The “cooler” had two layers of bricks. Between the inner and the outer was a layer of insulation of anthracite. The outer layer was “staggered”. Water dripped over the outer part of the wall to affect refrigeration on the inside.
They continued using the system, well after they got electricity on the farm.
To the right of the cooler, my grandfather, Eben Kok is looking through his binoculars. He was sitting like that many afternoons to see who was driving over his motor-gates (motorhekke). He had signs put op next to the gates “privaat motorhek/ private motor gate”. The idea was that only his family could use these gates. The rest of the people had to use the traditional gates. He passed away when I was either 7 or 8.
Special thanks to Susan Boddington (SB), curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, for the liberal supply of information, insights, advice and photos.
Cullen, L. M.. 1968. Anglo-Irish Trade, 1660-1800. The University Press, Manchester.
Holland, LZ. 2003. Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark: A Food and Social History of the early 1800’s. Old Yellowstone Publishing, Inc.
Horowitz, R. 2006. Putting Meat on the American Table. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kha, AR. 2006. Cryogenic Technology and Applications. Elsevier, Inc.
Lawrie, R. A.. 1985. Meat Science. Pergamon Press.
Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S.. 1998. The English Pig: A History. Hambledon Press.
Smith, Edwards. 1873. Foods. Henry S King and Co.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 9 October 1892
Susan Boddington (SB) is the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre. Information from private correspondence.
Warde, F. and Wilson, T.. 2013. Ginger Pig Farmhouse Cook Book. Mitchell Beazley.
Wilson, W. 2005. Wilson’s Practical Meat Inspection. 7th edition. Blackwell Publishing.
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-one-family-helped-change-the-way-we-eat-ham-21978817, article by Rachel Nuwer
http://www.theshipslist.com/1847/ Emigration To North America In 1847
Bowood Photos: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/bowood.html
Wiltshire cut. Harrington, G. 1958. Pig Carcass Evaluation. Page 55. Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux Farnham Royal, Bucks, England. Robert Cunningham and Sons, Ltd. Alva
The Wiltshire injection: Wilson, W. 2005: 220