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.
Dear Children and Minette,
I have by this time had a chance to work on every machine in the bacon plant of C & T Harris to become familiar with them. The one matter that I can not understand is how the mild curing or, as they call it here, the Danish method did not come to them earlier.
The Invention of Mild Cured Bacon
Remember that it was invented by a chemist, William Oake from Ulster in Northern Ireland in the late 1820s or early 1830s. The Danes learned the system when in 1880 there was a strike among butchers in the Irish town of Waterford. Some shrewd members of the Danish pork processing guild happened to be in Ireland at that time, in Waterford and at the promise of lucrative employment in Denmark managed to persuade a number of the striking men to return with them to Denmark. In Denmark, it was arranged for them to train the Danish butchers. and so mild curing came to Denmark.
Calne 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. He was receiving government salary but the upkeep of his large manor house was extremely burdensome on him as it is on many other landowners. It did then, as it does still now, threaten to reduce some of these men and women to bankruptcy.
The Marquis of Landsdown’s estate manor, Bowood, is situated a mile away from his Calne which is located on the estate for which rent is received. 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.
Why did the mild cured system have to come to Calne through Denmark and not through Northern Ireland with such close ties as being part of the United Kingdom or even the Republic of Ireland where many noblemen from Wiltshire own land. It was Michael who told me that these landowners did not have the same reputation in Ireland as in England. He likened it to wealthy slave owners in the South of America who are well-respected churchgoers, despite the completely non-Christian and barbaric management of their workforce. The disdain for the English absent landlords relates to how they treat their tenants especially in matters related to rent. In England, they are quite forgiving about rental payments and have a high reputation among their tenants but not so in Ireland.
There they instructed their Irish agent, Mr. Trench to collect as much rental as he can from the tenants on their Irish estates. There is no regard for public opinion from their tenants in Ireland. Mr. Trench’s father occupied the same position as the Irish agent to the fathers of the three noblemen.
Despite the fact that Mr. Trench tried to improve the farming by tenants on the Irish property, it seems to have never occurred to him that the occupants can not afford the rent. Nor did he seem to care for the impact on their lives. In 1843 Trench was appointed as the agent over the Monaghan estate of Mr. Shirley, which rental, along with that of Lord Bath, were more than £40 000 per annum. The initial rental charged to the ancestors of the current occupants was £250 per annum, in 1606, payable in Dublin, since it was not safe to collect rent in Monaghan in the 1600s. In 1729, the rental was £4000 per year; in 1769 it was increased to £8000 and 74 years later, it was an astronomical £40 000.00.
Mr. Trench was newly appointed and met Mr. Shirly, the owner of the new estate under his care, in Carrickmacross. His tenants asked him for abatement of rent and he said he would answer the following Monday. Over 10 000 men came to town on that Monday to hear Mr. Shirley’s answer. His decision was that no reduction in rent would be granted.
The late land agent, Mr. Mitchell dropped dead in the courthouse of Monaghan a short time before. To illustrate how these men were viewed, the tenants, on the same night of his death, lid bonfires on almost every hill on the estate on a district of 20 000 acres in celebration of his death. There was no morning from any of the tenants. (Trench, 1869)
Mr. Shirley, not willing to face the crowd himself, asked Mr. Trench to convey the message to the men gathered on that Monday. The tenants told him, “We want a reduction of our rent. We are determined to pay the present rents no longer. We are pressed and ground down and we must have a removal of our grievances.” The first act of the newly appointed Mr. Trench was therefore to convey Mr. Shirly’s message. He went out and stood upon a chair and conveyed the message. A voice called out, “Down on your knees, boys” and the entire crowd dropped to their knees. A voice from the crown sounded, “We ask you upon our knees, for God’s sake, to get us a reduction of our rent” (Trench, 1869)
The crowd was not pleased with the answer that Trench was only acting at the instruction of the landlord. They beat him up in a very clear display of their frustration and desperation. (Trench, 1869)
Michael told me bluntly, “THAT, Eben, is why no butcher had any interest in giving the wealthy landowners in Ireland who lived in Calne, any technology developed in Ireland. The tenants, small farmers, and tradesmen loathed the landowners from Calne.” Many pork traders both in Ireland and in Calne made fortunes on the pork trade, but people trading in pork very seldom ever get involved in the processing of the meat. This was true then and is still true today. Trading in pigs is seen as the easy money. Owning or managing a processing facility is seen as too complex and is simply too much hard work.
Exporting Mild Cured Bacon to the South West of England
This did not mean that mild cured bacon did not make it to England. In fact, such a trade was established by non-other than the son of William Oak who invented mild curing. He set his company up very close to Calne.
I investigated the matter and found in The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Western Countries, 18 July 1885, page 8, a notice appeared for the dissolution of a partnership between William Howard (Horwood??) Oake, John Woods, and William Waring trading as Oake, Woods, and Waring, at Gillingham, Dorset. If the address is not a clear link to the son of William Oake from Limerick in Ireland, the commodities they traded in is the final proof and a picture is emerging of an imminent “bacon” family. They were, according to the notice, bacon and provision merchants. The partnership was dissolved due to Waring retiring. What is fascinating is that if (and there is good reason to suspect this), that William Oake from Limerick is the inventor of tank curing, this would indicate that by 1885 the process has not been exported to England and instead his son is selling the bacon which is being imported from Ireland.
The process of mild curing did not make it to England but the actual product did and front and center in the trade is the son of the man who invented the process. The firm Oake, Woods, and Waring is situated in Gillingham, Dorset which is close to where Lord Digby lives. Remember that Lord Digby also owns land in Ireland, in King’s County near Tullamore. His agent in Ireland is the son of Mr. Trench who was involved in the events in Ireland just described and his treatment of the people on his land is by all accounts the same as the other landowners.
Whether this is the full story of why mild cured bacon never crossed from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to Calne in Wiltshire is not certain, but the animosity that existed between the landlords in Calne and the tenants in Ireland is certainly is a very good possibility. Remember that butcher guilds were closed societies and the secrets of the trade were closely guarded secrets. At the end of the 1800s, it was reported from America that every bacon factory manager had a secret black book that contained his most precious recipes and formulations which he guarded with his life.
The story contributes beautifully to the painting of events in Wiltshire from the time when the first Harris butcher shop was set up until the time when they finally received the coveted mild cure bacon production system. It is a matter that was nagging me and I had to get some kind of closure on the matter.
I will meet Lord Landsdown before I finally leave Calne and this is a matter that I will definitely bring up with him to get his perspective. I am not here to pass judgment on anybody. All I desire is to understand the progression of events. To understand processes and sequences of events is after all at the heart of my quest to understand how bacon is made and then, to answer the “why?”.
Bacon is not something that was developed by anybody setting out to designs – no, it is the result of the interaction of a multitude of scientific discoveries, the requirement of investors and managers of bacon curing operations and the reaction of the public on what is being presented to them. Factors such as nutrition and the practical requirement for meat with a particular longevity drive the process and product design. Its exquisite taste and visual appeal add to the direction of the product design which is, as it were, moved forward by an invisible hand. In addition to these, woven into the story of bacon are some of the most dramatic tales of our human existence and in this way, bacon itself becomes a metaphor for life itself. It tells the story of all of us!
I am immensely thankful for the opportunity to discover this story and to share it with those I love most and in a very small way, to be part of this great story of Bacon & the Art of Living!
I am making arrangements to leave Calne for a short holiday in Cape Town in August. My plan is to spend most of my time in Cape Town before I will leave for a week to Johannesburg and Potchefstroom where I will spend much time with Oscar, designing our Cape Town plant. Will it be possible for you, Minette to join me on the trip to the interior? I will very much like it if it will be possible. I also expect to spend much time with Elmar and Juanita in Hermanus.
The knowledge that I will very soon see all of you fills me with great excitement. Please send greetings to my mom and dad!
Much love from Calne!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Elmar and Juanita is my brother and sister-in-law.
Trench, William Steuart, 1869, Realities of Irish Life, London, Longmans, Green, and co.
Drawings from Ireland: Trench, William Steuart, 1869, Realities of Irish Life, London, Longmans, Green, and co.