Wiltshire Cured or Tank Cured Bacon Eben van Tonder 12 December 2021
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One of the most important British heritage bacon is Wiltshire bacon. Not only was the legendary curing operation of C & T Harris located in Calne, Wiltshire, but the curers from the county created legendary bacon for centuries.
Wiltshire Cured Ham, Wiltshire Cured Bacon, Wiltshire Cured Gammon is eligible for consideration as a traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG) product. The British Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs launched an application process to afford the terms special protection and to specify the manufacturing process of such products.
Considering the application, I did more research on the subject to pull various historical strands together and ask the question, what is Wiltshire Bacon/ Ham? I divide this document into two parts. First, a historical consideration where I rely on my own research over many years and for the technical description of how Wiltshire bacon and ham is cured, I exclusively quote sections from the discussion document set out as part of the TSG registration process.
My latest work and updates, like this chapter, forms part of Bacon & the Art of Living. I reference several important chapters. Each chapter is coated in a story format where I write letters to my kids as I discover bacon curing and learn about life. I am sure this will frustrate many to no end, but when I conceived the idea, I wanted a book that people will read from beginning to end. I am convinced that I did not achieve this due to my lack of talent in writing narrative, and also because of both the complexity and volume of the subject matter. Still, the format stands and those who read it will have to excuse me. The research underpinning each chapter I reference is sound!
A. HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
Early Reference to Wiltshire Bacon
The bacon curers from Wiltshire have been known for their excellent quality of bacon and hams for an exceedingly long time. Below is a short selection of references to Wilshire cured bacon in major international newspapers. The earliest I could find goes back to 1759.
There is a reference from a book by Daniel Defoe, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published which goes back even further, to 1720 about a strong pork industry in Wiltshire on account of the abundance of whey from the local dairy industry. He makes mention of large quantities of bacon sent from among other, Wiltshire to London. He wrote, “The bacon is raised in such quantities here, by reason of the great dairies . . . the hogs being fed with the vast quantity of whey, and skim’d milk, which so many farmers have to spare, and which must otherwise be thrown away.” (Malcolmson, 1998)
C & T Harris: Located in Calne
The firm, C&T Harris (Calne), is, without doubt, one of the most famous Wiltshire curers. Their fame is such that it is easy to equate Wiltshire cure and Wiltshire cuts with Harris cures and Harris cuts. This, however, is not necessarily always the case despite Calne being in Wiltshire. I will therefore give special mention of them. The fact that the small town of Calne in Wiltshire played a key role in the history of curing in the region stems from both the strong dairy industry where pigs follow dairy on account of the abundance of whey and the import of Irish pigs through Bristol to London.
There was a strong supply of imported pigs from Ireland. Between 1770 and 1800 exports of Irish pork to England increased eight-fold. Over 60% of the Irish imports into England was done to London. (Cullen, 1968) The pigs arrived by ship in Bristol and were walked on the hoof all the way to London. Along the way, it was important to rest the animals and give them a chance to graze to ensure good meat quality when they arrive in London. The small town of Calne, in North Wiltshire, was a convenient stop-over on the long walk.
Not only were the pigs in abundance, but they came at decent prices and from a diversity of suppliers. Pork is a commodity, the price of which fluctuates on a daily or weekly basis. The price is an indication of its availability and some level of price stability for quality pigs are an important requirement for a successful curing operation. It was important back then as it is important today.
Another reason for the existence of a strong curing industry is the abundant availability of saltpetre in Calne. “The geology around Calne was excellent for saltpetre. The Calne Guild Stewards’ Book has an entry for 1654 listing payment for the removal of saltpetre tubs. It is mentioned in relation to glassmaking in the 17th Century. A token was found for use at the glasshouse in Calne, suggesting there was glass manufacture going on in the town, although no record has been found of it. Saltpetre is essential for making glass. The antiquarian John Aubrey in his book ‘Topographical Collections’ 1659-70, says concerning Calne that the ‘Sand on the hills here about is very fit for glass making.’ He described it as being very white and having the largest grains he had ever seen. He also mentions on page 94, ‘The deep lane from Bowden to Raybridge is very full of nitre, as a warm day will indicate.’ Bowden Hill and Raybridge are only a few miles from Calne.” (SB)
The first Harris to come to Calne was the widow, Sarah Harris in 1770, who moved there with her son, John Harris. They were living in a small market town of Devizes, about ten miles from Calne. When they moved to Calne, Sarah set up in a small property in Butchers Row. John must have been around 10 years old. (SB) This means that when they arrived, Wiltshire bacon was already famed for its quality.
When John died in 1791 the business was carried on by his wife but on a small scale. (SB) She ‘thought it a good week if she had killed five or six pigs and sold clear out on a Saturday night’. Two of her sons helped her in the butchery, John and Henry. (british-history) When she passed away, she left in her will £60 to each of her three sons, John, Henry and James. Henry and James were twins, but James had no interest in butchery and became a civil servant. (SB) As John and Henry’s own bacon interests grew over the years, this must have been a story that she told them many times and it must have been a favourite family tale.
“Her one son, John, married Mary Perkins in 1808, who, in 1805/1806, opened a butcher’s shop and bacon curing business of his own in Calne, High Street. His younger brother, Henry Harris, married Sophia Perkins in 1813. He managed the Perkins Family Grocery and Butchers in Butcher’s Row (later Church Street). He took the business over when his father-in-law passed away.”
“John and Mary had twelve children. Disaster struck the young family when John passed away at a young age in 1837. “His wife, Mary, continued to run the business until eventually handing it over to one of their sons, Thomas. Henry and Sophia were childless and looked after four of John’s children. He left the Church Street business to his nephew George. Charles later joined George as a partner in Church Street. John’s son Thomas took over the High Street business when his father died. George died in 1861, leaving Charles running the Church Street factory. Charles and Thomas amalgamated their businesses in 1888. It is interesting to note that one of Thomas Harris’ sons struck out on his own and founded the Bowyers Bacon factory in Trowbridge.” (SB)
C & T Harris: Sweet Cured Bacon
The first progression of curing technology came in the 1840s when the Harris brothers invented Sweet Cured bacon. What this cure exactly was is a question that I have wrestled with over the years. The most complete treatment of the subject is given in Bacon & the Art of Living under Sweet Cured Harris Bacon, with support for the main conclusion related to the smoking of bacon found in Robert Henderson and the Invention of the Smokehouse and related to the injection of meat, found in Dublin and the Injection of Meat. The thoughts on the development of tank curing are taken further in Harris Bacon – From Pale Dried to Tank Curing!
There is a record showing that C & T Harris (Calne) used injection with their bacon from 1843 (SB). After it was dry-cured, the meat was smoked at a temperature of not higher than 38 deg C (100 deg F) in order to prevent nitrate burn which presents itself as green spots that appear on the meat. In the report, mention is also made that care should be taken if these products are stored to prevent damage from insects such as cheese skippers, mites, red-legged ham beetles, and larder beetles. (Hui, 2012) The result was sweet cured bacon!
After careful considerations of all the available evidence in Sweet Cured Harris Bacon, I conclude that sweet cured bacon was cured with less salt and saltpetre, with or without the addition of sugar and smoked immediately after curing in a built-for-purpose smokehouse which resulted in less moisture loss (and therefore tasted less salty); liquid brine was injected with a single needle injector into the meat which further allowed for reduced salt levels and cover brine may or may not have been used.”
Wiltshire Cure 1843
If Harris changed to Sweet Cured Bacon, it is interesting to look at another reference to Wiltshire curing in 1843. An article from the Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald (1840) reports on the following method of curing used in Hants, Wilts, and Somerset. “Somersetshire and Wiltshire bacon which is the best in England is cured as follows:- The sides of the hogs are laid in large wooden throughs sprinkled with bay salt and left unturned for 24 hours, to drain off the blood and juices. Then they are taken out and wiped quite dry, and some bay salt previously heated in an iron frying pan is rubbed into the flesh till enough of it is absorbed. This is continued for four consecutive days during which the flitches are turned every second day. With large hogs, the flitches must be kept in the brine for three weeks and must be turned every other day, after which they are dried as usual. In these methods, the skin or hide is left on but in some counties, there is a different practice, which has been recommended abroad as preferable because it affords an opportunity of converting the skin into leather, while the meat takes the salt and is cured as well as in the former mode. The hides of swine have long been made into shoes in China. Where the consumption of bacon is very rapid, the last-mentioned practice may be adopted but it is certain that bacon will in a short time become rusty and consequent loss be incurred if it be not cured with the rind and kept in a dry room.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1843)
That both a liquid brine as well as dry salt is used is stated plainly. The bacon is either “salted in brine or with dry salt and then either kept moist as pickled pork or merely dried; white bacon or cured, dried and smoked bacon;” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1843)
“Other interesting processing techniques are described from across England. “In Hampshire, and some adjoining counties after the hog is killed, they first swale him or singe off the hairs, by kindling a fire around him which is far preferable than scraping off the bristles with warm water, as the latter mode softens the rind, and injures the firmness of the flesh.” Old postcards from Harris in Calne shows that this was practised in Wiltshire also.
Michael Caswell sent me the postcard. He grew up in Calne and his personal recollections include the Harris Bacon factory and the pigs on hoof en route to London from Bristol. He writes about the postcard, “this historic postcard shows what most local people did with their backyard pigs shortly after slaughter. The pigs were laid on a bed of straw and then the straw was set alight to burn off all the hair! Pretty simple really.”
The description of Hampshire curing continues. “He is then cut into flitches, which is well rubbed with common salt and saltpetre mixed and are laid in a through, where they continue for three weeks or a month, according to the size and are often turned. They are then taken out, suspended in a chimney or over a wood or turf fire or in regular curing-houses till they are quite dry.
What is interesting is that there is no reference to the re-use of old brines, the injection of liquid brine into meat or the use of built-for-purpose smokehouses. It would appear that our conclusions about the nature of the invention of sweet cured bacon are on solid ground.
What set different bacon’s apart?
The fact that matters such as singeing vs scalding was features that set different curing traditions apart is clear. A case was brought before a count in Northern Ireland under the Merchandise Markets Act related to the designation of a product as Wiltshire Bacon. The matter of what sets one kind of bacon apart from the other is set out in the court case. “He understood that there was in the trade a very well-known distinction between “Cumberland cut bacon” and “Cumberland bacon” and “Wiltshire bacon” and “Wiltshire Cut Bacon;” in fact, there was a particular method of dealing with the curing of bacon that was described and known in the trade, and used by the wholesale houses in the trade under the phrase. It applied partly to the singeing of the bacon – in one it is singed and in one it is scraped off. . .” (Belfast News-Letter, 1892)
C & T Harris: The invention of Ice Cured Bacon
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.
The mass migration of people from Ireland to places like the USA happened on an unprecedented scale. 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 Irish 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 carry full compliments of passengers on every voyage, sometimes even exceeding the legal limits. (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 Harris and his mom, Mary, hatched a plan to rescue the situation.
The plan was ingenious. George would leave for America to set up a pork business 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 had 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 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 buying 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)
“For a year he travelled about America visiting many bacon-curers and sending home bacon, lard, cheese, and other provisions. After a brief visit home in the summer of 1848, he again returned to America and opened a bacon curing establishment in Schenectady (New York State). The venture was not successful, however, and the American branch was closed.” (british-history) If George travelled around in America for a year it would set the date for his trip to America to around 1846 which is after “sweet cure” was introduced by them. He could therefore not have gotten the idea from America as is cited in several sources.
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.
Thatching is extremely popular in Calne, and the Harris ice houses have 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)
Two important conclusions follow from this. The first is that sweet cure had nothing to do with refrigeration. Sweet cure was introduced in the ’40s and refrigeration only arrived in Calne in the ’50s. The patent on the icehouse was taken out only in ’64!
The second is that Harris not only brought refrigeration to the bacon trade in England but would re-invent its curing system to incorporate it. So was born, Ice Cured Bacon!
The Harris’s Ice Cured Bacon
When refrigeration was introduced, the Harris brothers invented a famous cure called the “Ice Cure.” (The Gazette, 1904) Ice-cured pork was being marketed as being superior to dry, highly salted cured pork. (Richmond Dispatch, 1871) In 1873 Ice cured bacon is advertised in the USA. (The Norfolk Virginian, 1873)
In 1876, 1877 and 1878 American ice cured bacon is being sold in England. (The Leeds Mercury, 1878, Sat) (The Leeds Mercury, 1877) (The Leeds Mercury, 1876) An 1869 reference from the Pittsburgh Gazette where ice cured meat is advertised is the oldest reference I have in the USA.
In 1885 ice cured pork is listed on the Liverpool Provisions Market. (The Gazette, 1885) An 1871 American article celebrates the virtues of ice cured pork and states that ice cured operations are rapidly increasing. (The Weekly Intelligencer, 1871)
In 1883 an advertisement appeared in the Maidenhead Cookham and Bray, Thames, Angling Association. Diprose, Bateman & Co. London. It references Harris’s Patented Ice Cured Bacon.
The 1888 Overview of C & T Harris by Wyman
We have in Wymann’s Commercial Encyclopedia of Leading Manufacturers of Great Britain (1988) an interesting look back at the ould and current Harris operation. It summarises the business as follows:
John Harris took over from his mom in 1805. Thomas Harris took over from John in 1850. He had three sons, J. M. Harris, Tom Harris and Henry G Harris. On 1 July 1885, they were admitted into partnership with their father, Thomas and the firm Thomas Harris & Sons were created.
The two-story building was serviced with a hydraulic lift. Two large boilers were supplying steam to the equipment. Dedicated smoke rooms were used to smoke the bacon. Smoking bacon took a considerable time and the chambers were kept full. The curing where the bacon is salted before smoking with the and ice rooms were underground.
It reports that important changes were recently made to the curing process. The changes have been made on scientific grounds and are reported to have been done gradually over many years. The system was thought through well and changes have been made only after much experimentation. It claims that the current curing system has been “brought to perfection.”
The essential difference is the incorporation of refrigeration and it relates to the ability to drop the temperature in the curing room if the temperature in the atmosphere is too high. The credit for this invention is given to Thomas Harris who installed the first ice house in England in 1864. This was also patented.
Ice was collected around Calne in the winter, but when it was not too severe, ice was bought from Norway. It reports that the new firm, Thomas Harris & Sons, replaced the old ice chamber with a machine that reduces the temperature. The new machine did, however, not change the method of curing bacon as it was done in the ice house. The rest of the process is described as follows:
- the carcassess were singeid as per the method of Henry Denny. For a detailed discussion on this, please read The Jewish Master Curer and the Prince of Ireland.
- Carcassess are removed to another part of the building for cleaning and dressing.
- Hang for a day.
- Move sides to the curing room.
- The great expansion of the bacon trade in calne only really happened after refrigeration was introduced.
The advertisement for Harris Ice Cured bacon in the previous section pins a date of 1883 by which time Ice Cured Bacon was available from Harris. This synopsis from Wymann’s in 1888 shows that at this time it was still a novelty, but the development took years to complete and was present in 1883. 1888 would be an important year in the life of the firm for another reason also!
The Development of Technology in Calne and the birth of C & T Harris and the amagamation in 1888.
“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!
What was meant by the term “Wiltshire Bacon”?
Despite the huge influence that the Harris operation had in Wiltshire, Harris bacon and Wiltshire bacon has not always been the same as we can see from the many progressions of Harris bacon. I am sure that many of the innovations filtered through to the rest of the curers in Wiltshire and some did not, notably those protected under Harris patents.
The following advertisement makes it clear that C&T Harris, in their marketing drew a distinction between Wiltshire bacon produced by C&T Harris and those produced by other Wiltshire curers.
What exactly the definition is of Wiltshire bacon is something that was asked from early on. Under the Merchandise Markets Act, another case was heard in 1893 related to this question. John Harris from the form C & T Harris, Calne was called as a witness. In his view, Wiltshire Bacon does not necessarily mean that the hogs came from Wiltshire. He is referenced as saying that “hogs came to Wiltshire from various parts of Great Britain and if cured there he would call it Wiltshire bacon.” Two views emerged. On the one hand, it seemed that the act “meant bacon that was brought up, fed, and cured in Wiltshire, whereas the evidence of Mr Harris was to the effect that swine were brought from various parts of the country into Wiltshire and sold afterwards as Wiltshire bacon.
Wiltshire Cut bacon
A distinction was made, albeit being of a technical nature, between Wiltshire-cured-bacon or hams, and Wiltshire-cut-bacon. One chapter in Bacon & the Art of Living is dedicated to the subject of this paragraph, The Wiltshire Cut
In England, bacon is made from a typical Wiltshire cut or from the whole side of the pig and not just the belly as in the USA. In the photo below a fresh Wiltshire side is shown. The neck bone, blade, backbone, tenderloins, and aitchbones are removed. The feet are cut off at the hock or knee. The entire side is then given a mild sweet pickle, sprinkled with borax, and packed in 300 lb. capacity wooden boxes for shipment to Britain where it is smoked before its sold.
The Gazette, CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA, Tuesday, April 2, 1946
From Sweet-, Ice- and Pale Dried Curing to Tank Curing
The Harris family progressed bacon curing as often as the opportunity presented itself to remain competitive. At some point, they transitioned to tank curing.
– The re-use of old brine
We turn to the 1830 account of wet-curing where we identify important developments in brining technique. The farmer who wrote down the brining technique suggests that the brine mix must be boiled over a gentle fire for the impurities to rise to the top before these were skimmed off and the brine allowed to cool down. (The Complete Grazier, 1830)
When it is cooled down, the brine is poured over the meat so that the meat is completely submerged. Meat from small pigs is kept in the brine for three to four days and longer. An older pig may require one, two, or three days longer. (The Complete Grazier, 1830)
If the meat is intended for hams, it must be left in the brine for two days. At the end of the curing time, rub with pollard (a by-product from the milling of wheat, like bran) and cover with a paper bag to keep flies away. In warm weather, make sure that the blood is all drained from the meat and the meat is rubbed with fine salt before the brine is poured over. (The Complete Grazier, 1830)
Let us look carefully at the description given in the 1830 edition of The Complete Grazier of re-using old brine. The report says that wet cure is more expensive than dry cure unless the brine is re-used. First, the meat is well rubbed with fine salt. A liquor is then poured over the meat and “though the preparation of such brine may, at first sight, appear more expensive than that prepared in the common way, yet we think it deserves a preference, as it may be used a second time with advantage if it be boiled, and a proportionate addition be made of water, and the other ingredients above mentioned.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830)
The “other ingredients above mentioned” refers to the following. “First, let two ounces of saltpetre, one pound and a half of refined sugar, and four pounds of common salt be boiled in two gallons of pure spring water, over a gentle fire, and the impurities, that may rise to the surface, be carefully skimmed off. When this brine is cold, it should be poured over the meat, so as to cover every part.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830)
Three observations should be made here. The 1830 description indicates that this process is still in its infancy. Liquid brine, it says, may appear to be more expensive than if it is done “in the common way” which in the context should refer to dry curing or rubbing a mixture of dry ingredients onto the meat. Secondly, the edition of the Complete Grazier quoted is from the 5th edition which means that by this time, the description may already be 5 years old if it appeared in the 1st edition. The 3rd observation is that the brine can be used “a second time.”
The origins of this brine are not lost in antiquity, and we can know much more than this 1830 description. Catherin the Great, the last reigning Empress Regnant of Russia (from 1762 until 1796) was responsible for the practice. Salt was a heavily taxed commodity. She worked hard to reduce its price on account of the suffering it inflicted on the general Russian population. One of the measures under her reign was to increase the supply. The method of re-using the brine after boiling it was called the Empress of Russia’s Brine and Catherine is credited as the inventor. One of the first regions of the world that adopted this Russian curing practice was Westphalia. Their method of smoking made their hams world-famous and large volumes were exported around the world to America, England, into the rest of Europe and to Russia. For a detailed treatment on Westphalian smoking and the Empress of Russia’s Brine, see Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon. The detailed look at the Complete Grazier (1830) reference to the boiling of the old brine and re-using it is an important introduction to the Empress of Russia’s Brine because it is clear that Complete Grazier is talking about the same brine with the only difference being that the reference comes from Westphalia. The reign of Catherine the Great makes it clear that the development took place in the latter half of the 1600s.
What in all likelihood happened is that the technology spread to Northern Ireland where it was picked up by William Oake. As a trained chemist, I have a suspicion that he may have been aware of recent discoveries in the early 1800s through the application of the microscope to the natural world that microorganisms existed in the brine and that boiling the brine would either kill these organisms or would not be necessary. Whatever his exact thought patterns were, he progressed the thought of re-using the old brine and removed the boiling step (see Mild Cured Bacon).
The initial practice of re-using the old brine was in the first place done for economic reasons – not to waste the scarce and expensive commodity of salt. Without a doubt, the curers would have noticed the superior curing power of this brine that now contained nitrites. William Oake seized on this concept and made this a key feature in his new mild cured system!
William Youatt who compiled the Complete Grazier repeats this process in his 1852 work, Pigs: A Treatise on the Breeds, Management, Feeding and Medical Treatment of Swine; with directions for salting pork, and curing bacon and Hams. Here he writes, “in three weeks, jowls, &c, may be hung up. Taking out, of pickle, and preparation for hanging up to smoke, is thus performed: — Scrape off the undissolved salt (and if you had put on as much as directed, there will be a considerable quantity on all the pieces not immersed in the brine; this salt and the brine is all saved; the brine boiled down [for re use].” Notice that his 1852 description is far more “matter of fact” and he does not go into all the explanations and caveats he did in the 1830 description.
Youatt is the source for the link to Westphalia. In the above-mentioned publication, he writes, “The annexed system is the one usually pursued in Westphalia: — ” Six pounds of rock salt, two pounds of powdered loaf sugar, three ounces of saltpetre, and three gallons of spring or pure water, are boiled together. This should be skimmed when boiling, and when quite cold poured over the meat, every part of which must be covered with this brine. Small pork will be sufficiently cured in four or five days; hams, intended for drying, will be cured in four or five weeks, unless they are very large. This pickle may be used again and again, if it is fresh boiled up each time with a small addition to the ingredients. Before, however, putting the meat into the brine, it must be washed in water, the blood pressed out, and the whole wiped clean.”
Neither in Russia, Westphalia, Ireland, or England of the 1600s and 1700s could they have had any idea of why the re-use of old brine worked so well is clear from the following comment he makes in the publication just mentioned. He writes under the heading, “Poisonous Properties of Brine” the following. “It is a fact worthy of notice that the brine in which pork or bacon has been pickled is poisonous to pigs. Several cases are on record in which these animals have died in consequence of a small quantity of brine having been mingled with the wash, under the mistaken impression that it would answer the same purpose and be equally as beneficial as in the admixture of a small quantity of salt.”
The key development related to the reuse of the old brine was therefore Russian. It was taken up by Westphalian curers who exported the idea to places like Ireland. The honour of the first nation to have combined the best practices of the time into one complete and logical system is the Irish.
– Tank Curing: Invented in Ireland
The concept of the re-use of old brine taken to Ireland but in particular to Northern Ireland, to Antrim. The man credited for the invention of mild cured bacon which later became tank curing was a prolific chemist, William Oake from Ulster in Northern Ireland. The earliest mention of mild cured bacon, as it became known, came from Antrim, Northern Ireland as far back as 1837. The chapter in Bacon & the Art of Living dealing with this progression is Mild Cured Bacon. His system is discussed in detail in that chapter and a blow-by-blow comparison is made with dry-cured bacon.
The biggest benefit to consumers of the new system was the improved taste. The benefits to the curing company would be on two levels. On the one hand, is the speed of curing which became increasingly important as industrialization took hold and the concept of the factory. The other was the fact that expensive brine in Oake’s system was continually re-used, which was the reason for the invention of the Empress of Russia’s Brine under Catherine the Great. The question comes up as to Oake’s thought pattern as he progressed it. Is there anything we know from history that can give us insight into his investigations?
Fortunately for us, we have good evidence from history as to the method Oake used to investigate the brine. His main concern was not cost, as was the case of its Russian inventors, but preservation! The cornerstone of mild-curing is the continual use of old brine! It is what reveals the genius of Oake the clearest! Oake investigated the preservation properties of different aspects of the curing process and the ingredients in the brine. What is it that causes bacon and ham to last a long time? He evaluated salt and discovered that on its own it does not have much antiseptic power. The other ingredient regularly used is saltpetre and similarly, it is not very antiseptic if compared to things like boric acid. Even combining it does not offer good preserving properties, but the re-use of old brine is a different matter. If the same brine is used repeatedly and never replaced, it continues to give exceptional preserving power. Oake’s training as a chemist taught him that there had to be something from nature at work but even if he is unable to identify it. He chose to rather harness it than explain it. This meant that his observations were very similar to that of Polenski. Polenski understood it. Oake used it! (See the important work done by Ed Polenski and his seminal article about nitrite curing, The Polenski Letter)
The concept of the mother brine harkens back to the mother dough concept from the sourdough industry but even this link does not explain why it was invented. Even though it was invented to save the salt (reduce the cost), I wonder if Oake did not think about sourdough when he decided to leave out the boiling step. They keep a small piece of dough that they constantly feed and re-use. They call it the mother dough. In some households, there are doughs of which the age is measured in generations. The genius of Oake was not to boil the brine and so destroy the microorganisms responsible for converting the nitrate to nitrite and which contribute to the flavour profile of the hams and bacon thus cured. This allowed for the re-use of bacon or ham brine for many years and the possibility is there that this may have inspired William Oake to use the same approach with the curing brine.
– Tank Curing: Spread to Denmark
The year was 1880. Denmark is a tiny nation. To remain competitive, they realised years earlier that they have to learn as much as they can from other nations and peoples and adapt. For a fascinating insight on the extent to which the Danes took this, read from Bacon & the Art of Living, The Danish Cooperative and Saltpeter.
Every industry in Denmark was constantly looking where new discoveries and how they can adapt. 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. They promised the striking workers lucrative employment in Denmark and persuaded a number to return with them to Denmark. In Denmark, they quickly arranged for them to train their butchers and the new system of mild cured bacon invented by William Oake.
Eight years later this investment in continual education paid off handsomely for the Danes. The Danes were large dairy farmers and a sizable pork industry developed from the by-products of dairy farming. Before 1888, Danish farmers relied on selling all their live pigs in Germany. The Germans, in turn, produced the finest Hamburg bacon and hams from it and it was mainly sold to England. Disaster struck the Danish pork industry when swine fever broke out in the autumn of 1887. This halted all export of live pigs. Exports to Germany fell from 230 000 in 1886 to only 16 000 in 1888.
One of the most insane industrial transformations followed. In a staggering display of practical efficiency, the Danes identified the problem, worked out the solution and dedicated every available nation resource to action it. The creation of large bacon curing cooperatives was born out of the need to switch from exporting live pigs to processed pork in the form of bacon and to sell it directly to the country where the Germans were selling the processed Danish pork namely England. The project was a stunning success. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, the number of pigs converted to bacon in that one year was 1 250 000 pigs.
After breeding and pig farming, the next step in the process is slaughtering. On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region created the first shared abattoir. On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsens’s Share Abattoir), received their first live pigs for slaughter. In 1887 and over the next few years eight such cooperative abattoirs were set up and there is still no end in sight for the ongoing expansion. Each is in excellent running condition. As in the case of the dairy farmers, each member of the cooperative has one vote. The profit of the middleman and the volumes exported for butter and bacon are determined by the cooperative. The market price is fixed in Copenhagen on a daily basis by an impartial committee.
William Oake’s mild curing system or tank curing as it would become known became the way that Danish companies cured their pork.
– Tank Curing: Spread to Wiltshire
How exactly tank curing spread to Wiltshire is not known, but I have a very plausible hypothesis. I don’t think that it came to Wiltshire from Denmark, but from Ireland and the man responsible for this was the son of William Oake, William Harwood Oake. At first, I believe that Oake distributed the mild cured bacon produced by his father in Ireland, in the Southwest of England. He set a curing operation up in Dorset, adjacent to Wiltshire. Here his firm, Oake – Woods, used his dad’s basic concept of mild cured bacon along with the key re-use of the old brine and incorporated this in the American curing method of Rapid Curing, invented by Robert Davison. The result was a new system of curing called Auto Curing.
Auto curing turned out to be a highly patentable system and they became the British firm with the largest footprint internationally through the effective marketing of the auto cure system. For a detailed discussion on WH Oakes Auto Cured system, read Oake Woods & Co., Ltd., Rapid – and Auto Cured Bacon, in Bacon & the Art of Living.
It would have been natural, normal and to be expected that staff moved from Gillingham in Dorset to the Wiltshire curers. Slowly but surely, the fundamentals of the repeated use of old brines would have settled in among the Wiltshire curers. Still, the system of curing was at first not called the Irish method, but the Danish method. My guess is that the success of Tulip and the Danish marketing strategy of their bacon in the UK had much to do with this. Even if the Wiltshire curers learned the system from WH Oake in Gillingham, they could easily continue to refer to it as the Danish system due to its wholesale application in Denmark and the presence of a massive quantity of Danish bacon in England. Most certainly, Danish curers must have found employment in Wiltshire. It is a fascinating fact that this seems not to have happened in relation to the Harris operation and I suspect that Harris only acquired the technology either late in the 1800s or early in the 1900s.
– Tank Curing: The Harris Enigma
Clues to the date of the Danish adaption of the system and its subsequent transfer of technology to England come to us from newspaper reports about the only independent farmer-owned Pig Factory in Britain of that time, the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory Ltd. in Elmswell. The factory was set up in 1911. According to an article from the East Anglia Life, April 1964, they learned and practised what at first was known as the Danish method of curing bacon and later became known as tank-curing.
A person was sent from the UK to Denmark in 1910 to learn the new Danish Method. (elmswell-history.org.uk) The Danish method involved the Danish cooperative method of pork production founded by Peter Bojsen on 14 July 1887 in Horsens. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri)
The East Anglia Life report from April 1964, talked about a “new Danish” method. The “new” aspect in 1910 and 1911 was undoubtedly the tank curing method. Another account from England puts the Danish invention of tank curing early in the 1900s. C. & T. Harris from Wiltshire, UK, switched from dry curing to the Danish method during this time. In a private communication between myself and the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, Susan Boddington, about John Bromham who started working in the Harris factory in 1920 and became assistant to the chief engineer, she writes: “John Bromham wrote his account around 1986, but as he started in the factory in 1920 his memory went back to a time not long after Harris had switched over to this wet cure.” So, late in the 1800s or early in the 1900’s the Danes imported the Irish system and practised tank-curing which was brought to St. Edmunds around 1911. In the same way, it could have made its way to the Wiltshire curers.
It only stands to reason that the power of “old brine” must have been known from early after wet curing and needle injection of brine into meat was invented around the 1850s by Morgan. Before the bacterial mechanism behind the reduction was understood, butchers must have noted that the meat juices coming out of the meat during dry curing had special “curing power.” It was, however, the Irish who took this practical knowledge, undoubtedly combined it with the scientific knowledge of the time and created the commercial process of tank-curing which later became known as Wiltshire cure.
What we know for certain is that tank curing undoubtedly developed from the Oake Woods factory in Gillingham, Dorset and “diffused” into Wiltshire. It was probably independently incorporated into the Harris operation as was the case with the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory Ltd who both claim to have received the technology from Denmark.
So far with the historical consideration of Wiltshire cured hams and bacon!
B. TECHNICAL DESCRIPTION
Following the historical overview, we now turn our attention to the actual system itself.
Detailed Process Description
I quote extensively from the discussion document made public by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs entitled “Wiltshire Cured Ham, Wiltshire Cured Bacon, Wiltshire Cured Gammon product specification” found at https://www.gov.uk/protected-food-drink-names/wiltshire-cured-ham-wiltshire-cured-bacon-wiltshire-cured-gammon. I omit their section where they give the historical background due to errors in their document.
– Wiltshire Cured Bacon & Wiltshire Cured Gammon
Uncooked – Moist but not wet with a dark deep red/pink cured appearance with creamy white internal fat. An iridescent colour effect may be present after slicing due to light refraction across the cut surface of the muscle. Whilst a slight mature/musty odour is normal, it must be free from any indication of spoilage or rancidity.
Cooked – The meat has a dark pink appearance that is free grey patches within the muscle which is a sign of mis-cure. External fat has a golden/ light caramelised brown colour which is darker towards the edge of the rasher. Small amounts of white exudate (‘cook out’) may be seen on the surface of the product. Wiltshire Cured Bacon & Gammon is moist and succulent with a firm but tender texture. It has a fresh clean meaty aroma and the bacteria in the live brine imparts a malty buttery flavour with hints of yogurt. Wiltshire Cured Bacon & Gammon tastes slightly more meaty and saltier than non-cured bacon & gammon.
The ham, bacon & gammon must meet the physical criteria as presented in the latest version of the British Quality Assured Pork (BQAP) Standards Ham & Cooked Pork modules and Bacon &Gammon modules including the additional criteria as follows: –
Finished product salt level:
|Product||Target (per 100g)||Range (per 100g)|
|Ham (cooked)||2.4g||1.6 – 3.4g|
|Bacon (raw)||2.6g||1.5 – 3.7g|
|Gammon (raw)||3.5g||2.0 – 4.5g|
Wiltshire Cured Ham, Bacon & Gammon must meet the legally permitted levels of nitrites and nitrates as laid out in relevant regulation. The limits for both nitrites and nitrates relate to the maximum residual levels permitted in finished products. (Nitrates may be present in some heat-treated meat products resulting from natural conversion of nitrites to nitrates in a low-acid environment)
|Product||Name||E-number||Maximum level (mg/kg)|
|Wiltshire Cured Ham||Potassium Nitrite Sodium Nitrite||E249 E250||100|
|Sodium Nitrate Potassium Nitrate||E251 E252||250|
|Wiltshire Cured Bacon and Gammon||Potassium Nitrite Sodium Nitrite||E249 E250||175|
|Sodium Nitrate Potassium Nitrate||E251 E252||250|
|Sodium Nitrate Potassium Nitrate||E251 E252||250|
– Production method
Wiltshire cure is a process by which pork is wet cured by pumping brine into the meat at numerous points with either a single or multi – needle injector. The meat is then immersed in a “live” brine which is maintained indefinitely to allow ongoing re-use.
- Pork raw material
- Injection brine
- Live cover brine
Pork Raw Material
Only British pork material accredited to the relevant BQAP standard can be used in the production of Wiltshire Cure products. Pork raw material must be either cured on the side, as primal cut, or as individually butchered muscles. The use of ham hock incorporating primary and/or secondary hock muscle may be used. The pork may be fresh or frozen, but if frozen must be thawed before curing begins.
Fresh Injection Brine Composition
The injection brine must be fresh brine only, composed of the following ingredients:
Bacon and Gammon
|Sodium chloride (salt)||20%||18 – 22%|
|Sodium or potassium nitrite||0.5%||0.1 – 0.6%|
|Sodium or potassium nitrate||0.1%||0 – 0.2%|
|Water (potable)||79%||77– 82%|
|Injection liquid||Target Uptake||Acceptable Range|
|Fresh injection brine||10%||8 – 12%|
|Sodium chloride (salt)||18%||13 – 22%|
|Sodium or potassium nitrite||0.5%||0.1 – 0.6%|
|Sodium or potassium nitrate||0.1%||0 – 0.2%|
|Water||80%||77 – 88%|
|Injection liquid||Target Uptake||Acceptable Range|
|Fresh injection brine||N/A||6-20%|
- Due to variance in product size some of the acceptable ranges are broad allowing for a more consistent final product.
- Fresh brine must be used within 24 hours of preparation
- Fresh injection brine must be maintained at 4°C, with a tolerance of 1-7°C
- Nitrite and nitrate legal limits relate to the maximum residual levels (not added levels) permitted in finished products.
- All percentages are expressed as weight on volume of brine solution.
- The solutes must be evenly dispersed throughout the brine.
Live Cover Brine
In the Wiltshire-curing process, a live cover brine is continually reused and must be maintained in a stable condition with a predictable and controlled rate of conversion of nitrate to nitrite, which then goes on to become the active curing compound. However, it is recognised brines may vary in their behaviour due to differences in their microbial.
For the live cover brine to mature and stabilise the fresh batch must be used to cure other non-Wiltshire cured pork products for at least two months before it can be used to manufacture Wiltshire Cured Ham, Bacon or Gammon.
The ideal temperature for the live cover brine is +3°C but a range of +1°C to +5°C is acceptable.
The pH value of a live cover brine should stay within a range of 5.0 – 6.9 and must be measured whenever brine is being re-strengthened. Live cover brine with pH outside this range can be used providing the brine remains stable (different starter cultures can create different pH levels).
Procedures must be in place to ensure the compositional targets and tolerances (salt, nitrate, nitrite, pH and temperature) of the cover brine are maintained and, when necessary, corrective action taken.
Due to yield loss the quantity of live cover brine will deplete over time and will require “topping-up” In extreme circumstances, the creation of a new batch of live cover brine may be required. Where a “top-up” brine is used it must not exceed 25% of the mother (original) batch of live cover brine.
If a live cover brines is not in regular use it must be regularly aerated and monitored to maintain its condition.
Records must be maintained for live cover brine composition. A recorded log of cover brine history, adjustment and “top-up” must be kept verifying composition and provenance.
Use of starter culture for live cover brine:
The use of a starter culture in the production of Wiltshire-cured products is restricted to the creation of a fresh batch of cover brine after the original has been lost or has soured or spoiled.
A starter culture ensures that the right microbiological flora is present for the live brine to mature to a point where it can be self-maintaining with only the occasional additions of salt, nitrite, and nitrate to maintain its condition.
Typical numbers of microflora are a CFU count greater than 106 and are predominantly made up of large concentrations of micrococci and lactobacilli. Once the mature live cover brine has been created the brine can then be re-used without further addition of the starter culture. The unique production method of continual reuse of the live cover brine maintains an active live microbial population.
It is not necessary for a culture to be added prior to each immersion; the culture may well be present within the permittable parameters from previous use of the immersion solution. However, before you use the brine you will need to check that the live cover brines meet the requirements. If you need to add a starter culture, then this should be considered and added if there is a need.
The unique production method of continual reuse of the live cover brine maintains an active live microbial population. As a mature brine, Wiltshire brine is an environment in which microbial populations are in strong competition with each other, aiding a homeostatic environment. It should be noted that live cover brines will vary in their microbial makeup and change over time and with replenishment frequency.
The table below shows the acceptable concentrations of added ingredients in an established live cover brine which is ready for use in Wiltshire curing. To achieve the compositional requirements stated, constant monitoring and adjustment of the brine is necessary.
Method of production:
- All prepared pork raw materials for curing must be clean, free of blood, bruising, bone splinters, dust and loose pieces of meat or glands.
- Fresh injection brine injection may be carried out either by single or multi-needle injection. Injection brines should be at an optimal temperature of 4°C (may range between 1-7°C).
- Pork must be fully immersed in the live cover brine for a minimum period of 3 days (72 hours). The brine should be at an optimal temperature of 3°C (may range between 1-5°C).
- Excess surface brine drains off and the lean and fat become firmer in texture and noticeably drier. These changes are due to the gelling of the water/salt/protein complex formed within the meat during curing and a gradual hardening of the fat as the crystallizing process continues after slaughter.
- The pork can then be used to produce bacon, gammon or ham according to producer requirements.
- Post-cure boning, cutting, slicing and similar operations must be carried out with minimal damage to soft tissues.
Traditional Wood Smoking
Wiltshire Cured Bacon, Gammon and Ham may be smoked in a temperature-controlled smoking chamber. However, this must be carried out using natural wood smoke derived from charred and smouldered hard woods such as oak, beech or applewood. Scented or resinous wood such as conifer is not allowed due to their tendency to tar and/or taint the resulting product. Wood flavours, wood extracts or liquid smoke applications are not permitted.
The evolution of the brine played a significant role in the production process and the development of the flavour of Wiltshire-cured products. The unique production method of continual reuse of the live cover brine maintains an active live microflora and bacterial population.
The background of the legendary bacon, hams and gammons from Wiltshire is buried under mountains of information. It has been my pleasure unearthing these over the past 10 years and sharing them with the curing community. Combining the story I uncovered with the application for special protection of the name in England is particularly rewarding!
I will transform this chapter into the story format of bacon & the Art of Living at a later stage, but for now, I retain it with its more “formal” character.
Please mail me with errors of any kind that I made or any additional information you wish to share. My SA number for whatsapp is +27 71 545 3029 or you can mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Complete Grazier. 1830. Fifth edition. Paternoster Row. Baldwin and Cradock
Cullen, L. M.. 1968. Anglo-Irish Trade, 1660-1800. The University Press, Manchester.
The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Tuesday, April 2, 1946
Maidenhead Cookham and Bray, Thames, Angling Association. Diprose, Bateman & Co. London. 1883.
Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S.. 1998. The English Pig: A History. Hambledon Press.
The Pittsburgh Gazette. (Pittsburgh, Pa.) 1866-1877, July 17, 1869
www.theshipslist.com/1847/ Emigration – To North America In 1847
www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-one-family-helped-change-the-way-we-eat-ham-21978817, article by Rachel Nuwer
Susan Boddington (SB) is the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre. Information from private correspondence.
Wymann’s Commercial Encyclopedia of Leading Manufacturers of Great Britain, Wyman & Sons, 1988
Youatt, W. 1852. The pig: a treatise on the breeds, management, feeding, and medical treatment, of swine; with directions for salting pork, and curing bacon and hams. New York, C. M. Saxton