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.
John Harris Reciprocates!
“I recall Calne being a quiet place, pastoral, country town, with little to do, other than roam the fields and pastures, fish in the streams, and play in the streets,” Michael Caswell, the consultant to John Harris, told me over supper one evening. With a broad smile, he told me about Ellen Viveash who said about life in Calne, that there is a “want of education and refinement.” Mike added that she is not wrong. “Saturday nights, usually involved local lads brawling outside the pubs, and many a tooth was knocked out. They wore their smiles like a badge of honor, to show how ‘tough’ they were. They were an unpleasant lot!” What Mike is saying is that Calne is an industrial town just like Johannesburg or Castelemain in Australia or Chicago in the US.
He told me that “before Calne was turned into a ‘pig’ town by the Harris family, it was an important market town for wool. The local Downs (rolling hills) were perfect for raising sheep, and all the farmers raised thousands of them, going back to neolithic times. Sheep bones were found in many of the local ‘barrows’, Celtic mounds that scatter the hills across Wiltshire. Stonehenge, and in particular, Avebury, go back 5000 years.
His own family, the Caswells, (it means someone who lives by a watercress bed (Cress – well) have farmed the area for over 1000 years. Fortunes were made on sheep. Wiltshire was famous for cloth making. Spinsters (local single women- hence the name) were engaged in the manufacture with spinning wheels. In the 1300s Witney (in Oxford) was a major manufacturer of blankets and his family grew rich supplying wool from Yatesbury, near Calne).
Over the years, the Caswell wealth moved from Yatesbury, Cherhill, Calne, towards Trowbridge, where cloth manufacture was prominent. The Casswells (two SS’s now (posh) owned many properties in this town. In fact, the church bells have RICHARD CASSWELL CHURCHWARDEN cast on them. They all emigrated to Canada and became major pork and cheese exporters. (1)
John Harris did as he promised and made all the factory plans and details of equipment available to me. Mike helped me to start putting a list together of essential equipment for our Cape Town bacon plant. Even though he gave me lots of information for abattoirs, I will give it to you when you visit or when I make it back to Cape Town for my break, whichever happens first. I want to get the information on the equipment for our bacon plant to you enable you to look at it and see what we can make in Cape Town and what we must buy over here or in Europe. I also send you a few plans to start looking at our factory lay-out.
Here are three meat cutting machines used to mince the meat for sausages, lunch loafs, salami, and certain hams. The hand-driven system will be sufficient for us to start with, but at some point, we will have to change to the ones driven by electricity. These are the types used in the Harris factory but even they have many hand-driven meat cutting machines which they use whenever there are interruptions in the power supply.
Auto-Cure for Bacon
The system was developed in 1861 and is currently in use in England, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. The process is as follows. The pig is slaughtered in the usual way and the sides trimmed and chilled. After chilling, it is laid out in rows on a sort of truck that exactly fits into a large cylinder of steel 32 feet long, 6 feet in diameter and which will hold altogether 210 sides. When the cylinder is filled, the lid, weighing 3 ½ tons (7000lb. Danish) is closed and hermetically sealed by means of hydraulic pumps at a pressure of 3 tons to the square inch.
A vacuum pump now pumps all the air out which creates a vacuum of 28 inches. It takes about an hour to pump all the air out.
The brine channel which leads to the brine reserviour, holding around 6000 gallons of brine is now opened. The brine rush into the chamber and as soon as the bit of air that also entered has been extracted again, the curing starts. It happens as follows.
The brine enters the cylinder at a pressure of 120 lbs. per square inch. It now takes between 4 and 5 hours for the brine to enter the meat completely through the pores which has been opened under immense vacuum. When it’s done, the brine runs back into the reservoir. It is filtered and strengthened and used again.
The bacon can then be shipped overseas immediately. The time for the total process is around three days. On day 1 the pig can be killed, salted on day 2 and packed and shipped on day 3.
There are two brine reservoirs. The one is used with a stitch pump to inject brine into the sides as usual before they are placed in the cylinder and the second tank is used. The largest benefit of this system is the speed of curing and many people report that the keeping quality of the bacon and the taste is not the same as bacon cured in the traditional way.
There is a fascinating point to be made here. The system cured the meat in a short time, not because of the vacuum or the penetration of the brine into the muscle, but because it too used the power of the old brine which is based on the reduction of nitrate to nitrite.
Mild curing uses the same method in tanks. The brine is distributed into the meat through step one and not, as is believed, even here in Wiltshire, by what they call the “opening of the meat pores.” Michael and I conducted an experiment where we added colour to the brine and used one of the smaller autoclaves. We did not use the injector needle to inject brine as is done in step one. This way we can see the effect of the vacuum on its own. At the end of the 5-hour curing process, we cut the muscle in two and saw that almost no brine entered the meat.
We repeated the experiment but this time we injected the meat first as per the prescribed method. When we cut that meat open at the end of the process, we saw that small brine pockets formed in the meat, but not even this distributed the brine evenly. It explains to me on the one hand why there are many problems with bacon cured in this way and on the second hand, it shows the superiority of the tank curing or mild bacon system where brine is allowed to enter the meat over several days. Tank curing, therefore, removes the expensive cylinder and vacuum and it achieves much better brine distribution using time. It can be shown that the distribution of brine through the meat happens through diffusion which is simply the movement of the brine from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration.
We concluded our experiment by smoking and heating some of the bacon that we injected with colour in the smoke chamber with the oven attached. The results were most surprising. Proper diffusion of the brine took place during smoking. My guess is that it takes place as the meat heats up. This gives me an inkling of how to improve on the system, namely by adding a heating step during smoking in order to effect proper diffusion. I like the concept of the pale cured bacon that Harris currently makes, but maybe they take the temperature up too high which is a reason for the pale colour. They all like it over here, but I am not convinced!
Bacon is branded in the same way as hams.
Bacon and Ham Rolling
The rolling machine rolls and wraps the bacon evenly. The machine below is able to roll and wrap 2500 pieces in one day. To work the machine requires one man and two youths. The one youth makes the first tie and hands it to the man. The man wraps it and hands it to the second youth. The youth makes the second tie.
Factory Plans 50 Pigs per Week
Factory Plans 75 Pigs per Week
Factory Plans 1000 Pigs per Week
I have written to you much about the design of the chilling room. I will not repeat it in this letter, save to attach a photo of it here.
Interior of the Bacon Factory
Mike made recent photos available to me of the C & T Harris operation.
This device measures how salty the solution is. The reason, given to me by butchers, on why they use salt is very interesting. For starters, they say that it makes the meat “last”, but why this is true, nobody was able to tell me. They also tell me that when meat is cooked, one loses up to 70% of the natural salt in the meat and it is, therefore, necessary to replace the lost salt. In order to understand why bacon is made the way we do, it will be very important for me to understand why we use salt. If I understand the “why”, we will be able to manipulate it in order to improve on the way it is being used today.
Cleavers are large size choppers.
This is an apparatus that is designed to spray fat over meat which does away with any objectionable, old fashioned method of putting the fat into the mouth and spouting it. Spouting by the mouth is not only objectionable but in the highest degree objectionable and disgusting, not only to the operator but also to the consumer, who, in many cases was compelled through the practice to swallow disease germs. The mechanical device is easily operated. The outer cylinder is filled with warm water, and the melted fat poured into the center of the apparatus through a strainer. The operator then blows through the pipe and the fine spray of fat falls evenly on the meat.
The reason for spraying the meat with fat is to keep flies and other insects off the meat.
In a way, this letter is the fulfillment of our quest. This is what we need to set up our bacon factory in Kraaifontein. This is the highest point we have reached over the last two years and still, we are only beginning our quest. There are more matters to understand before we can design a curing system that is not on par with C & T Harris or Jeppe’s bacon plant in Denmark but better. Nothing less than creating the best bacon on earth will do.
Please ask James to send me the date for their wedding so that I can start planning my vacation. Remember that I am bringing back many more plans and drawings! I intend spending most of my time with the children in Cape Town. Will it be possible for you and Trudie to visit us? I am planning to ask Minette to marry me and it would be great if you could attend the function.
Please keep this very quite as we can not let this get to her. Don’t tell anyone my plans, but please give them a credible excuse for your visit to Cape Town.
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Edwin Casswell had several farms in Trowbridge, which he sold. His business was responsible for Maple Leaf Foods, a major pork producer in Canada. He exported much cheese to England and was involved with Black Diamond brand cheeses.
All equipment drawings and photos are from William Douglas & Sons Limited, 1901, Douglas’s Encyclopaedia, University of Leeds. Library. All or at least most of these equipment pieces would in all likelihood have been found in the Harris factory. Description of the auto-cure for bacon comes from the same source.