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.
Ice Cold Revolution
Dear Children and Minette,
It is the third day in a row that I am writing to you about ice. I can not get it out of my mind. For refrigeration to work, we need electricity. In Cape Town, David de Villiers Graaff has a vision for Cape Town to turn it into a world-class city and I heard that he is planning to bring electricity to our city. The plan is to construct the first power station at the Molteno dam. The dam is named after the country’s first Prime Minister John Molteno. (1)
Electricity from Platteklip Stream
There is a river from Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain, that used to flow above ground, all the way to the sea. Jan van Riebeek built the VOC Castle right next to the mountain river due to the strategic importance of the water. The reason for the creation of the VOC post at the Cape of Good Hope was to sell water and food to passing ships.
I remember that construction started on the dam in 1877 since the city fathers saw the water running into the sea from the mountain as a waste. Construction was completed in 1881. Ten years ago. (1) Both Minette and I have always disagreed with our city fathers on how they altered the landscape. We would prefer for things to have staid natural and wild. Recently they forced the glorious river underground. It would have been a much better plan to keep the river intact and undisturbed. I fear we have lost an important feature of the land forever. Then again, how is that different from loosing countless wild animals to mindless hunting. I long to see the unspoiled parts of Africa which were my home for all the years when I rode transport between Cape Town and Johannesburg.
I will bring up the matter of conserving our land for future generations with David when we meet again. I sent a letter to Oscar yesterday asking him to go out of his way to meet with David to discuss refrigeration for our bacon plant in Cape Town.
I am glad that they will be discussing refrigeration since this single invention has the most profound impact on curing bacon as it has on all meat production, processing and trade.
The fact that meat can be frozen or chilled is of huge importance to the curing of bacon. The fact that we presently do not have electricity in Cape Town and therefore do not have refrigeration plants explains to me, on the one hand, the heavy salting that David has practiced at Combrink & Co and gives a time frame for the start of our own curing plant. We can not do it before David has constructed the electricity plant at the Molteno dam. That is, of course, if we can use some of its electricity. I have read that there is the possibility that he intends using it exclusively to power streetlights for Cape Town.
Refrigeration, as Oscar and I discovered, will allow us to cure bacon in warm climates such as we have at home of the same quality as it is done here in England, Denmark, in Germany, and Holland. The colder the meat and the brine, the better we will be able to control the growth of bacteria and the meat will not spoil before it has cured through.
Recent Scientific Discoveries
Scientists are identifying the effect on bacteria of not just temperature, but also of light rays from the violet range of the spectrum, food, oxygen, dilution, and antiseptic substances. These discoveries will impact on how meat is packaged and sold in the future.
It has been known since time immemorial that meat in a frozen state lasts a long time. At low temperatures, there is little bacterial growth. Scientists have identified three distinct phases in bacterial growth generally speaking. Slow acceleration, maximum acceleration, and reduced acceleration. (Winslow, CEA and Walker, HH. 1939) (2)
The fact that there is a lag time in bacterial action (slow acceleration) has by itself an important lesson for bacon processing apart from the consideration of temperature on bacterial activity. It means that meat must be progressed through the various stages of production at a well-controlled and pre-defined rate which will ensure that no stage takes any longer than it should in order to prevent bacteria from “settling in.” Any step must utilize the “lag time” fully and be progressed before maximum acceleration takes place.
The Harris family’s bacon empire from Great Britain saw the benefits of refrigeration even before refrigeration plants existed. They applied the principles and benefits of cold to bacon production since the time when ice houses existed.
The development of refrigeration and the subsequent revolution it brought about in the meat industry was in the air well before the end of the 1880s. In fact, so many experiments were being done in the 1870s and early ‘80s (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) that it will take a long and cumbersome book to try and chronicle any more than what I have given you in my previous letter.
How to Transport Meat from the New World to the Old
What is of interest is that the supply of meat in England and on the continent has been overtaking supply during the mid-1800s that made the development of refrigeration a national priority for the English and for European countries. Not even refrigeration in particular, but the need for preservation that would allow meat to be transported over long distances. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) Among the many suggested ways to achieve this, refrigeration was only one of many options. Another option was, of course, curing and changing the meat into bacon, but this did not allow meat in its unprocessed form to be moved in large volumes between countries.
If a way could not be found, through whatever means, to economically supply England and Europe with meat from the new world of the Southern Hemisphere, the people of England and Europe either had to learn to be content with less meat or pay much higher prices for it. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) Losing frequent meals that included meat was not just the loss of desirable food, but would seriously hamper the efforts to combat starvation and hunger. Refrigeration was by no means the obvious solution.
In around 1860, the Privy Council, also known as His (or Her) Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, a body of advisers to the sovereign of the Kingdom of England, started to discuss the matter of food supply to England. (3) Many societies and institutions followed their lead. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) This was undoubtedly the most important matter!
In 1863 the Privy Council laid down a rule “that, to avoid starvation diseases, the weekly food of an average adult must contain 28,600 grains of carbon and 1,300 grains of nitrogen.” Dr. Brown, in ” The Food of the People,” published in 1865, wrote that “the plague-spot, the skeleton in the closet of England, is that her people are underfed.”” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) A committee of the Society of Arts was established which first met on 21 December 1866 to give direction to the charge to find a way to increase the food supply to England. (3) (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4)
Hunger and starvation were a major threat to the population and nutritional values were tested to find food that will best prevent starvation. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4) In 1876, Edward Smith writes about the value of bacon to the poor: “Dried bacon divides itself during the process of cooking into two parts, of which the labourer and his wife may have the solid and the children the liquid part, and thus both be in a degree pleased, if not satisfied.” (Smith, E, 1873: 65)
Smith continued that “so far, it may be said, that bacon is the poor man’s food, having a value to the masses which is appreciated in proportion to their poverty, and it is a duty to offer every facility for its production in the homes of the poor.” (Smith, E, 1873: 65) Many patents and methods were proposed to the committee of the Society of Arts. Each thoroughly investigated. Canned meat was just invented and on trial. Pemmican (4), and a certain Mr. Alexander’s powdered beef. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4, 5)
Interestingly enough, the committee found that “weight for weight, the dried beef was four times more nutritious than ordinary beef”. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 4, 5)
In total, 200 patients were registered for the preservation of meat. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5) I list some of the important ones here.
“Medlock and Bailey claimed that by dipping meat in their bisulphide of lime solution “anything of animal origin, from a beefsteak to a bullock, from a whitebait to a whale, can be preserved sweet for months. C. Nielson proposed to fix blood in the form of sausages, puddings, cakes, and so on. The Rev. M. J. Berkeley delivered a stirring address on fungi, but somehow the mushroom palliative failed to impress the committee as a substitute for the roast beef of Old England.” (5) “De la Peyrouse’s idea was to pack meat in barrels, and to pour in fat at a temperature of 300 F. all round the stored viands.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)
“Professor Gamgee loomed large, and his method, though revealing a touch of
Max Adeler, certainly possessed genius. He suggested that cattle should be happily dispatched by being made to inhale carbonic oxide gas, at a cost of 2s. to 3s. per animal. The flesh of oxen so slain was declared to retain its fresh and bright appearance, and the committee reluctantly and warily tasted chops from a sheep killed in this way, reporting, doubtless to the chagrin of the Professor, that the meat was ” slightly flat.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5) (6)
“A tin of meat forty-one years old, from the stores of H.M.S. Blonde, was tested and found sound. Professor Redwood advocated raw meat preserved in paraffin.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5)
“Scores of different processes for tinning meat were tested. Dr. Hassalts ” Flour of Meat,” Australian “mutton hams,” meat dried by sulphurous acid, and many other inventions, were put before this committee, evidence which contained the germs of many of the modern methods of preserving and handling animal substances for food. The work of the committee came to a sudden stop in 1881. After 15 years of focused and hard work, it has failed to produce a way to export meat successfully.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 5, 6)
“In 1881 the committee delivered a gloomy report, and found itself unable to award the 100 prize which Sir Walter Trevelyan had presented for the best means of preserving fresh meat. This 100 was disposed of by being divided into five sums of 20 and granted to food and cooking exhibits at the 1884 Health Exhibition.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 6)
“Without doubt, the introduction of frozen meat in 1880 settled the whole difficulty which the Society of Arts’ committee had spent so many years in trying to solve” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 6)
It was the United States of America who first exported meat in artificially cooled storage units when in 1874, beef was first exported to Great Britain. “Undoubtedly, the real genesis of the meat export trade under conditions of refrigeration is to be found in the shipments of chilled beef from the United States of America in the seventies. By the end of 1880, when only 400 carcasses of mutton had reached home from Australia, Great Britain had imported from North America 120,000 tons of fresh beef.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19)
Solving the refrigeration riddle
Thomas Sutcliffe Mort from Australia is probably the most important name in the story of the frozen meat trade. (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19) Mr. Mort was born at Bolton, Lancashire, on December 23, 1816, and emigrating to Australia in 1838. He founded the great financial and wool-broking firm of Mort and Co..
His company amalgamated with that of R. Goldsbrough and Co., Ltd., under the name of Goldsbrough, Mort and Co., Ltd. In 1843 he turned his attention to meat matters and was introduced by Mr. Augustus Morris to the French engineer Nicolle. Together they took up the subject of freezing meat for export and started experimenting with it. Mort supplying the capital and Nicolle the engineering skill.
Partial freezing or “chilling,” which was Telh’er’s plan, was tried and rejected, as they realized that thorough congealing was required for the preservation of meat. Mr. Mort in 1861 established at Darling Harbour, Sydney, the first freezing works in the world. Thirteen years later Mr. Mort’s company became the New South Wales Fresh Food and Ice Co.. The original freezing process at these works was applied in two large apartments, each about 75 feet square and 9 feet 9 inches high, and enclosed by brick walls 4 feet 6 inches thick. The freezing room below was used for the treatment of meat for export. In 1875 the collateral enterprise, the slaughtering works at Lithgow Valley, Blue Mountains, was completed. The two establishments were intended to supply the Sydney market. Ammonia compression refrigerating machinery was used at these works.
At an inaugural lunch on September 2, 1875, at which 300 persons attended, Mr. Mort made his famous speech, the concluding part of which remains a jewel in the annals of the Australian meat trade. It portrays him as a man of imagination, noble aims, and high character. Mr. Mort in this speech said that Mr. Morris first suggested the “diabolical idea” of freezing meat to send to England. “I can tell you that not once but a thousand times have I wished that Mr. Morris, Mr. Nicolle, and myself had never been born.” Mr. Mort mentioned that the Sydney Chamber of Commerce about 1867 had put up a sum of money for him to provide meat for distribution in England, and to overcome the English prejudice against “frozen” meat. This is an interesting comment since, in 1867, not a single morsel of (mechanically) frozen meat had reached England! The that Mr. Mort served for his 300 guests was, of course, all frozen. He claimed that some of it had been kept since June 1874. In his speech, he said that Australia was to become “the great feeder of Europe.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 19) With great pride, I give you the concluding remarks of Mr. Mort.
“I feel, as I have always felt, that there is no work on the world’s carpet greater than this in which I have been engaged. Yes, gentlemen, I now say that the time has arrived at all events, is not far distant when the various portions of the earth will each give forth their products for the use of each and of all; that the over-abundance of one country will make up for the deficiency of another; the superabundance of the year of plenty serving for the scant harvest of its successor; for cold arrests all change. Science has drawn aside the veil, and the plan stands revealed. Faraday’s magic hand gave the keynote, and invention has done the rest. Climate, seasons, plenty, scarcity, distance, will all shake hands, and out of the commingling will come enough for all, for ‘ the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof,’ and it certainly lies within the compass of man to ensure that all His people shall be partakers of that fulness. God provides enough and to spare for every creature He sends into the world, but the conditions are often not in accord. Where the food is, the people are not; and where the people are, the food is not. It is, however, as I have just stated, within the power of man to adjust these things, and I hope you will all join with me in believing that the first grand step towards the accomplishment of this great deed is in that of which you yourselves have this day been partakers and witnesses.” (Critchell, JT, 1912: 20)
These monumental developments would mark, not only the start of the frozen meat trade, but it would continue to impact the way bacon is being made and priced. Frozen meat will at some point be used as raw material. Freezing will alter the characteristics of bacon and add to the complexity of how bacon is created.
Freezing solved the matter of the long term preservation of meat but proved another point. In our effort to preserve meat we have developed products of such supreme quality and taste that it will be part of human culture for as long as humanity will prevail. Bacon, with its reddish/ pinkish fresh meat colour and distinct taste; its subtle saltiness in the case of mild cured and sweet cured bacon and smokiness in the case of smoked bacon; its inherent ability to withstand bacterial spoilage. Its meatiness. All work together as characteristics of one of the greatest products on earth.
There is one statement that I am not sure if I am in full agreement with Mr. Mort. It relates to his comment that “cold arrests all change.” This is a matter that “feels right”, but animal and human remains that have been discovered in places of extreme cold have been preserved remarkably well and seems to support his point, but in no way can it be said that the flesh is completely without any change. What exactly the changes are and how it will impact on bacon taste is something that must be investigated very carefully.
I keep his speech in front of the notebook I currently use and I refer to it often. It is almost Biblical in its tone. In the midst of all these matters that continue to flood my mind, I think of you, my dear children and Minette. How is the rugby going Mr. Tristan? I hear from Minette that you intend going to Rondebosch boys high for high school. It is an excellent suggestion even though I would have chosen Wynberg Boys High. The decision is, however, yours my son! I miss you, Lauren! You’re infectious laugh! Please remember that someone who laughs as effortlessly as you also feel sorrow in equal strong and unexpected measures! I miss you so much that it physically hurts and it helps to keep my mind occupied with quotes from old Australians.
I continue to miss all of you dearly!
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) The Graaff Electrical Lighting Works, constructed at the Molteno Dam was commissioned in 1895. It was Cape Town Municipality’s first power station. It was able to run on steam (the chimney stack has since been removed) as well as water. It was the first hydro electric station in South Africa.
(2) Ward wrote a ground-breaking paper in 1895, Bacillus Ramosus on the topic. (WINSLOW, CEA and WALKER, HH. 1939)
(3) Its members were often senior members of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, together with leading churchmen, judges, diplomats and military leaders (Wikipedia. Privy Council of England)
(4) “Pemmican is a concentrated mixture of fat and protein used as a nutritious food.” (Wikipedia. Pemmican)
(5) This method of creating “meat replacements” has gained wide popularity in the early 2000’s. So much so that the Woodys Team has put it on their list of long term trends to watch.
(6) “CO2 stunning will reduce bloodsplash,” thus improving quality of meat. The disadvantage is that it is considerably more expensive and difficult to maintain. (Temple Grandin, 2000) Pigs killed with CO2 show a reduced occurrence of PSE meat, less petechiae (red or purple spot on the skin, caused by a minor hemorrhage ) and ecchymoses (larger than 1 centimeter or a hematoma). It appears however that animals who carry the halothane gene are more sensitive to CO2 gas so that the meat quality advantages may be dependant to some extent on the genotype of the pigs. (Warriss, PD. 2010: 54, 55)
Critchell, JT and Raymond, J. 1912. A history of the frozen meat trade. An account of the development and present day methods of preparation, transport, and marketing of frozen and chilled meats. Constable & Company LTD
Hui, YH, et al. 2004. Handbook of Frozen Foods. Marcel Dekker Inc.
Smith, Edward. 1873. Foods. Henry S King and Co.
Temple Grandin. 2000. Methods to reduce PSE and bloodsplash. Veterinary Outreach Programs, UNIVERSITY OF MINNESOTA
*Warriss, PD. 2010. Meat Science: An Introductory Text
Winslow, CEA and Walker, HH. 1939. The earlier phases of the bacterial culture cycle
Figure 1: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molteno_Dam
Figure 2: Waterfall on Platteklip Gorge by Eben van Tonder in 2014.
Figure 3: The Times (London), Thursday, 20 May 1920
Figure 4: Cook County Herald, Friday, 29 Nov 1907.
Figure 5 – 9: Graaff electrical station. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben
Figure 10: The Molteno dam. Photo taken in 2014 by Eben