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 2000’s to late 1800’s 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 mold the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
Once Upon a Time in Africa
Cape Town, 13 April 1885
My birth was a very ordinary event. The midwife on duty that night recounted her sketchy memory on my 16th birthday. She recalled it on account of the daughter of a certain Edwin Gregory (1) who was struck by a Cape Cobra when she visited the grave of her father in Somerset Road. She was rushed to the hospital where she passed away minutes before my birth, just before 11:00 p.m. on the evening of the 13th of April 1869. It was a Tuesday.
Three facts that I learned on my 16th birthday was that my birth was largely overshadowed by the death of Lady Gregory who’s father passed away in June 1858 when he climbed Table Mountain. He was trapped by bad weather and perished from the cold. The inscription on his gravestone makes it the earliest recorded death on Table Mountain.
The second was that my mother was admitted at around 6:00 p.m. with bleeding and that I was born by 11:00 with no complications. The third fact was that after my birth, my father produced a small piece of bacon from his knapsack. From this, he carved a piece with his pocket knife and offered some to Maria de Lange, for that was the name of the midwife, to gain sustenance. She doubled as a nurse when there were too many emergencies at the hospital and was on duty that night.
These facts surrounding my birth proved to be prophetic since both became passions of my life. Not Lady Gregory’s death or the cobra that bit her or even her father who perished but the connection with the mountain. Table Mountain became my playground as a young child and as a teenager, I heard the calling of her majestic cliffs. It became my church where I worshiped God and felt closest to the creator. Here, I dreamt and fought imaginary battles, hunted with mighty dragons and later contemplated the marvels of our natural world. A place of reflection to seek wisdom for every business decision I later had to make or was fortunate to be part of.
The second fact was the bacon my dad had with him. It was important to my dad and to our family. Every year we cured our own bacon. He told our kids that it is the only food that is enjoyed by the rich and the poor alike. The rich eat it as a delicacy on account of its unique taste. The poor benefits from the fact that the curing and smoking preserve meat for future use. A full quarter of half a kilogram can be cut from a single loin each morning and sustains a worker for an entire day. In the evenings it can be boiled in water which the children drink while the parents eat the meat to gain strength for the work of the next day. That way, each family member can go to bed with a measure of satisfaction. (2) Making the good bacon was important to us and later, making the best bacon on earth became an obsession that completely consumed me.
When my 16th birthday was celebrated, Cape Town was known among sailors as the Tavern of the Seas. Despite this, in those days, there was not a single good hotel in town (3) and at the invitation of the 64 years old Uncle Jacobus Combrinck (4), my Afrikaans speaking mother, Susanna (Santjie) and my father, Andries (Dries), decided to host the celebrations at his large Papendorp (5) mansion. The enormous house had a small stream running through an elaborate garden and was ideal for events like 16th birthday celebrations.
Uncle Jacobus was a butcher. He was taught the business by a family friend, Johannes Mechau who graciously took him on as an apprentice at the age of 10 after his father passed away and his mother could not make ends meet. Following his apprenticeship, he was appointed as foreman of the business of Othmard Bernard Schietlin. Schietlin was the leading butcher in Cape Town who eventually returned to Switzerland and Jacobus started his own butchery.
Scheitlin was an example of the kind of men who came to Cape Town in those days. Adventure was in their blood and few other places in the world attracted more of them than the Cape of Good Hope.
Uncle Jacobus tells me that Scheitlin was born in Switzerland. When he turned 18, he left home, traveling through France, Holland, England, and Germany. He got a job as a cabin boy and worked his way to the Cape of Good Hope. Here he set up the pork butchers shop in Papendorp. It is this business where Uncle Jacobus was a foreman which he later took over when Scheitlin returned to Switzerland with his family. (6)
Flavours and tastes are things butchers specialise in. A good butcher has an intimate knowledge of herbs and spices and Uncle Jacobus, even in his old age and retired, remained an excellent butcher. At his home, he grew his own herbs in his enormous garden. Sage, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, chives, ginger, garlic, saffron and of course paprika. He abhorred the straight and “unnatural lines” of the Dutch, as he called it. Instead of “hideous straight lined herb gardens” he planted his herbs throughout his garden. Some under trees, some against walls, in shady spots or in open, well-drained areas. Sage grows best in sunny spots. In between, he planted paprika. Wild-rosemary, indigenous to the Cape was planted along the fences. This bushy evergreen shrub grows up to 1 meter high with a silvery, grey leaf. He would walk through his garden and harvest the spices. Seeing him ambling through his garden, pruning scissors in hand and basket in the other is an image I that will live with me forever. For the night of my 16th birthday celebrations, he personally prepared the meat with the skill of the master butcher that he was.
Pork is my favourite meat and featured prominently. Pork loins, wrapped in pickled pork skin, roasted to perfection. Rind-on pork belly, spiced with black pepper and cold smoked for three days. Pork neck, roasted in honey and pineapple juice. Small kebabs with cured, smoked pork belly and apricot pieces. Pork trotters, cured in vinegar and fried over an open fire. Eisbein with bay leaves, cooked in dark Dutch beer which he bought from the Woodstock Hotel. Colon stuffed with kidneys and heart. These were a few of the dishes that adorned the large, heavy wooden tables set out under tall Essenhout trees close to the homestead.
Our Dutch Reformed pastor who baptized me as a baby, Ds. Lindeque was there as well as our family doctor, Dr. Van Eeden. My mother’s brother, Ds. Jan Kok, also a Dutch Reformed minister and his wife, Magna, attended with their three daughters, Joretha, Suria, and Daleen. Of course, my own two brothers were there, Andre and Elmar and the midwife, Maria de Lange, with whom my parents kept contact on account of the fact that they attended the same church.
An old friend of mine and family member of Uncle Jacobus, Dawie de Villiers-Graaff (7) who has been running Uncle Jacobus’ butchery since 1876, attended with his younger brother, Jacobus. Uncle Jacobus Combrinck never married and subsequently didn’t have children of his own. He took some of the Graaff brothers and one sister in when their own parents fell on hard times, farming on their Wolfhuiskloof farm in the Villiersdorp district. Dawie was only 11 when his Uncle Jacobus brought him to Cape Town to work in his butchery.
Hannie, the Graaff sister, kept house for the boys and was our host for the evening. Dawie finished evening high school run by the Dutch Reformed Church where my uncle, Ds. Jan Kok was a part-time teacher. This made the evening very personal. Everybody knew each other.
Dawie was a serious young man and became a mentor to me. As a strict Calvinist and accustomed to hard times, he has a relentless work ethic. In appearance, he is dark and handsome. Girls are smitten by him, but he shows not much interest in them. He has a full head of black hear and a droopy black mustache. Short in stature and slender build, he has an enormous spirit. He pressed me to finish high school before setting out to learn a trade and conquer the world.
He himself was never that fortunate. At least not as far as schooling was concerned. As a boy, he had to attend school in the evening while learning the butchery trade by day. Long hours at the small space allocated to Uncle Jacobus’ butchery, Combrinck & Co., down at the local abattoir at the bottom of Adderley Street, made him value school learning and is forever an example to me of what can be achieved through part-time learning.
The other people at my 16th birthday celebrations were mountaineering friends. There was the inimitable Minette Bylsma with Achmat Jackson and Taahir Osman. A love for the mountain bound us and in later years would become a common interest that would evolve into love between Minette and me. Our relationship would be much more than the mountains but never less. It all started there and over the years we would both continue to feel most at home there.
Dawie has never been keen on mountaineering. His life revolved around school and work in his teen years and now, building an empire as the heir apparent of Uncle Jacobus’ butchery business. Unlike Dawie, we, however, grew up in the shadow of the majestic mountain. Our friendships were forged well before we took to the mountain to fuel our dreams and before we set our ambitions on more daring pursuits. Cape Town has been, as it is to this day, a unique place for kids to grow up.
Since Cape Town is at the Southern tip of Africa one may expect the children to be hailing from the indigenous tribes but Cape Town in the 1870’s was not so. Unfortunate and shameful acts of powerful European nations cast devastating spells over this beautiful land and from the struggles of many a unique culture emerged what is unlike anywhere else.
For sure, I grew up with many black boys. My white friends were from America, England, Scotland, France, Germany, Russia and many other places. I have friends from Arabia, Egypt, India, China and from the Malay Peninsula. Even from St Helena where Napoleon died. It seems as if I am able to count friends from every part of the world and every country. (8)
Some wore red jackets and round red caps made by their mothers for pilgrimage to Mecca. Some were Christian and had to go to Sunday school when I wanted to play. Some of my black friends wore no shirt under their jackets and no shoes. (8)
Despite these differences of colour, background, income, and religion, when we played we were all just children. We played mostly Dutch games since these were the European people who first came here. In the daytime, we would play a kind of a pitch and toss game similar to cricket or baseball and at night we would gather in the bright moonshine and dance in a ring, singing Dutch songs. The police would allow us to play these games and only interfere when we start playing card games which were not allowed. (8)
After we played, we all ran down to Table Bay and swam in the sea before returning to our different houses. Some, like myself, stayed in their own rooms, in big houses. Some lived in small houses that look more like two bedroom barns, sleeping at times up to 30 children in one room. (8)
As we grew into our early teenage years, the games of bat and ball and dancing in circles evolved into a quest for adventure. This is how it happened that some of us exchanged late night swimming at Table Bay with venturing ever higher up on Table Mountain. By the age of 16, Table Mountain was part of our lives as much as our daily bread.
Most of our friends did not share our new found passion. Slavery no longer existed at the Cape but stories of runaway slaves hiding in the caves were supplanted by the fear for escaped convicts who may hide on the mountain. These, along with the exaggerated accounts of leopard sightings meant that only a hand full of us made the transition from the bay to the mountain and at the age of 16, the desire for adventure in most of my childhood friends was spent. A few of us cultivated the desire for adventure and these were all there with me at the house of Uncle Jacobus, celebrating my 16th birthday well into the night.
What no one of us comprehended that night was that our forays onto the mountain were mostly training for far bigger adventures that awaited each of our group of friends. Some involving actual battle and war; some, revolution and a fight for freedom and as in my case, something altogether more ordinary and yet, so elusive, that it would completely consume my life – unlock the many mysteries and the art of curing bacon and along the way, learning the art of living.
All these started once upon a time in Cape Town and is the story of bacon and the art of living.
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) From a tombstone in Maitland cemetery, originally in Somerset Street. Edwin Gregory “perished from cold on Table Mountain,” June 1858.
(2) The evaluation of bacon was made by Edward Smith in his 1876 book, Foods, page 65. (D. Appleton and Co, New York)
(3) Quote: “The very best hotel in Cape Town would disgrace the meanest, dirtiest, most unsanitary village in England,” William Clark Russell, English nautical novelist, 1880.
(4) Jacobus Combrinck was born in Worcester on 21 May 1828
(5) Papendorp is the current Woodstock.
(6) Linder, Adolphe. 1997. The Swiss at the Cape of Good Hope. Creda Press (Pty) Ltd; page 270
Simons, Phillida Brooke. 2000. Ice Cold In Africa. Fernwood Press; page 7
(7) Dawie or David de Villiers-Graaff would have been 26 and a city councilor. He served as city major in 1891 – 1892.
(8) A beautiful description of the life of boys in Cape Town at the end of the 1800’s was published in the Indiana State Sentinel on 17 Nov 1880, page 6, written by E. B. Biggar, called The Boys of Cape Town.
Detroit Free Press, Sunday 31 May 1896, p. 28.