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.
Sweet Cured Irish and Wiltshire Pork
Dear Minette and Kids,
Last Monday evening I arrived at Bowood!
I was received by Mr. Henry Herbert Smith, Esq. the agent of Lord Landsdown and other wealthy landowners. While I was in Peterborough, Lord Landsdown was informed of my visit to the United Kingdom, my quest to make the best bacon on earth and the subsequent invitation to Bowood.
It was late when the coach arrived at Bowood. Mr. Smith and staff members welcomed me. I was shown to my very impressive room in this magnificent mansion and invited to dine with Mr’s Petty and Smith.
After the service started, Mr. Smith inquired as to the purpose of my visit. I started recounting to him and Mr. Petty in order for the events that brought me here. When I started telling them of my arrival in Copenhagen, Andreas and Uncle Jeppe, Mr. Smith interrupted me.
Yes, it is true that the firm C & T Harris was established on Lord Landsdown’s property and that he already made arrangements for me to meet with them after I had a few days to recover from my travels. There was something important that he had to tell me about. He is not only the agent for Lord Landsdown and a number of local landowners which means that he is amongst other responsible for collecting rent from the tenants but he is also the first chairman of a new firm that was created to provide the Wiltshire farmers with an alternative market for their pigs, the Wiltshire Bacon Curing Co. Ltd.. The Harris operation has for years established a monopoly in the bacon trade and continued operating for years with no competition. The firm was created to challenge that status quo.
I listed in silence. “The privilege is mine then,” I told them, “that I have the honour of not only learning from one bacon company but two.” “That is true,” he replied, “but I do not want you to divulge everything you learned in Denmark without knowing that you are talking to a competitor of C & T Harris.” He told me that he is amazed that the Danes shared so much with me of a trade that is still very much secretive as it was in the time of the old guilds where every small process and practice was a closely guarded secret, revealed only to members of the society. He told me that in his estimation if Andreas and Uncle Jeppe did not know Kevin who sold English bacon knives in Denmark, he doubts that I ever would have found my way to Calne, let alone received an audience with two such prominent firms.
For the first time ever, I became conscious of the very intense international rivalry on how to make bacon and the importance of the English market. Suddenly I did not feel like a “beggar” for knowledge from unsophisticated South Africa, the son of a magistrate and a former transport rider. I was very thankful that Mr. Smith interrupted me and for the first time became wary of what I was going to tell him. I decided that I would guard my words and tell him very little about the actual Danish process and especially about mild cured bacon and the art of re-using old brine in tanks. It amazes me that they seem to know nothing about this process despite being so closely connected to Ireland where it was invented.
By this time a small number of staff from the Bowood estate who came to hear me speak about my many experiences started filling up the dining room as word spread of my presence. I was glad for this because the questions they had had more to do about Africa than Denmark. I probably told the story of Kolbroek and the sinking of the Colenbrook 5 times that evening. Every time I would get to the part of the story where the ship hit Anvil rock at Cape Point, there would be a collective gasp from the audience. When I told them how the Colenbrook limped across False Bay towards Kogel Bay, the two other English ships following closely, some of the listeners started crying. When I told them of the water started coming through the front hatches as they approached land, the small crowd grew as the word spread through the estate and children sat at my feet, hanging on every word.
This was the first time I realised that the story of bacon is powerful and belongs to all of humanity! Mr. Smith and Petty gave up their seats to allow more people to get close to me and hear me speak. It was a magical evening and took me completely by surprise.
They kept serving me wine as I spoke and being completely unaccustomed with situations like this, I kept drinking it! To be honest, I can not quite remember when I finally retired to my room. The next morning I found myself still in the same cloths as I had on the previous day and laying on top of the blankets. I had a throbbing headache. I decided to change and go and look for some food and water.
It was not the best introduction to the noble and sophisticated English but it was very real. I realised that being at Bowood is not the same as being at the Bull in Peterborough with Kevin, but it was still who I am. As if, in a way, I would not be true to my new friendship with Kevin. If there was anything I learned from him, it was to be real and be true to who I am without apology. I suddenly felt that I would be more at home in the village of Calne than here, in the splendour of Bowood and that, before I give them any detail, I would first want to meet with the management of C & T Harris. Right there and then I decided that I will never apologise for being who I am or being human and that in the end, we are all the same. Noble or commoner; former slave or eternal free man. Our blood is the same. Our bodies feed on the same nitrogen-rich proteins and we all love bacon. Rich and poor alike!
I spend a full week at Bowood before I eventually made it to C & T Harris. During that week I used most of my time reading books on chemistry which I naturally gravitated to. I enjoyed its formal and predictable structure. I was also very interested in the business side of the work of running a large curing operation as managing the business will be just as important as making the bacon.
Mr. Smith shared what knowledge he had about C & T Harris with me. This iconic firm stood for many years as the benchmark of bacon quality around the world and was appointed official bacon curers to the King of England.
C & T Harris: The making of a Legend
The making of a legend in the bacon world was, as is usual in these cases, the result of several seismic movements of tectonic plates that created the world of C & T Harris and their Wiltshire bacon cure. Several key ingredients were blended together to create a remarkable bacon curing company. I was there to learn what these ingredients are so that we can duplicate it in South Africa. I decided that instead of giving information, from Mr. Smith, I wanted to glean information, not volunteer information. I asked him what, in his estimation created the legendary company.
C & T Harris: Abundant supply of local and Irish Pigs
Mr. Smith told me that to him, the first ingredient needed in blending this bacon legend was an abundant supply of pork at good prices. In Calne, there was a large local supply of pigs. Wiltshire has been an area associated with pigs since very early. There is a reference from a book by Daniel Defoe, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published in 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 others, 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’ed milk, which so many farmers have to spare, and which must, otherwise be thrown away.” (Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S.; 1998: 38, 39)
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 were done to London. (Cullen, L. M.; 1968: 71) The pigs arrived by ship in Bristol. From here they were walked on the hoof all the way to the Smithfield Market in 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. Calne is a convenient location for such a resting place on the long walk.
Not only were the pigs in abundance, but they came at good 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 important requirements for a successful curing operation. It was important back then as it is important today.
Availability is driven by seasonal domestic and export demand and external influences such as the supply of the army and the navy. With the English fighting several foreign wars and a large navy to supply, the demand for bacon was unusually strong. There are other factors such as pork disease that impacts on its availability. Even the time of year plays a role since pork could only be cured in the winter on account of it going off in the summer before the cure could diffuse through the entire muscle.
It would, therefore, be a very important benefit to have access to pigs from local as well as foreign sources. The demand and supply in the foreign market will inevitably differ from local trends and the producer is able to exploit low price cycles to ensure low input cost and the best possible quality.
The room where Joseph Priestly on 1 August 1774, acting as a tutor for the children, did his experiments and discovered oxygen has since been turned into a small library and study.
It was in this library that I discovered two books that shed the most light on my desire to understand the economic makings of a legendary bacon company and the very delicate balance with Ireland. The one was “The Economics of the Industrial Revolution,” by Joel Mokyr and “The Foundations of British Maritime Ascendancy – Resources, Logistics and the State, 1755–1815” by Roger Morriss.
The second important ingredient was saltpeter. Mr. Smith invited a local historian living in Calne over one night for supper to give me some background on the origins of the Harris operation. Her name is Susan Boddington.
C & T Harris: Saltpeter
The dinner was set for 6:30 p.m.. I spent most of my day in the library reading. Suzan arrived around 5:15. Mr. Smith, very punctual as usual, arrived at 6:30 exactly. After introductory pleasantries, we were escorted through to a large dining room. Mr. Smith continued the analogy of ingredients required for a masterful brine blend and set the stage for Suzan by giving her an overview he presented of the first ingredients namely a good local and international supply of pigs. “The second important ingredient is obviously saltpeter”, Mr. Smith said more formally than he normally speaks. It was clear that he was somewhat unnerved by Suzan’s presence.
Suzan sat very quietly, listening to his every word. She immediately impressed me as someone who listens quickly and is slow to speak. My dad and grandfather would have liked her with a deep-seated dislike for a “salesman-like” approach to storytelling. She started very quietly at first. “Well, yes, Mr. Smith, “the geology around Calne was excellent for saltpeter. The Calne Guild Stewards’ Book has an entry for 1654 listing a payment for the removal of saltpeter 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. Saltpeter 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)
“This means, therefore, gentleman, that in your analogy you can say that the essential ingredients for good bacon were all present by the late 1700s. An almost unlimited supply of pigs, both local and imported, low prices and a mature local industry for the supply of the principal curing ingredient of saltpeter. The scene was set for an entrepreneur to step forward, mix all these together and create a legend!”
C & T Harris: John Harris and Sons
Suzan continued with the story. “The first Harris to come to Calne was John Harris in the late 1700s. He moved there with his widowed mom, Sarah Harris, in 1770. They were living in a small market town of Devizes, about ten miles from Calne. When they moved to Calne, they set up in a small property in Butchers Row. (SB) When he died in 1791 the business was carried on by his wif but on a very 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. 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)
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 12 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 Bowyers Bacon factory in Trowbridge.” (SB)
C & T Harris: Sweet cure
They remained close and innovations were done together. The first progression that created the legend was a simple one. Add sugar to the bacon cure.
I excitedly interrupted Suzan. I have first-hand knowledge of what sweet cure was. “The process was invented by my father!” Of course, I was saying it as a joke, but the point was very well made. My dad’s legendary new cure recipe from the Cape called for the use of molasses resulting in a magnificently sweet bacon taste. My dad never told me where he got the recipe and I always suspected he got it from an American farmer or a British bacon-man. He started curing bacon with the new recipe in 1886 which was many years after the Harris brothers introduced their sweet cure and it may very well have been that it was similar to the old Harris sweet cure which was in use in Wiltshire by the beginning of the 1800s.
My first thought about “sweet cure” was that it was achieved by simply adding sugar or molasses to the brining process. I spend the day in the Library looking for the oldest reference I could find where sugar was added to the brine. I found just such a reference to the mix of salt and sugar from 1776 where a liquid curing brine is described for bacon as containing “4 lb. of salt, 2 lb. of brown sugar, and 4 gallons of water with a touch of saltpeter.” (Holland, LZ, 2003: 9, 10) This salt/water mix was used to cure barrel pork.
Suzan was getting excited. “Yes,” she said. “Barrel pork was a crude process of laying pork joints in a wooden barrel and immersing it in a water brine-mix of salt, saltpeter, and sugar. It was food for a poor family, shared by slaves, farmers or wage earners. It was disdained by the elites as “sea-junk”, cured by sopping in brine that imparted a nauseous taste to the meat. (Horowitz, R.; 2006: 45) It is easy to see how adding sugar to barrel-pork was an attempt to improve its taste.” I was fascinated. “Could it be that sugar was not part of the standard dry-cure process employed in Calne and the Harris brothers took this idea of adding sugar to the dry-cure from barrel pork?”
Suzan knew her facts and responded by informing us that “there is a description of the dry-cure process employed in Calne that would have been used by John Harris when he opened his butchery in 1770 and also by his sons in their curing operations. “The description comes to us”, Suzan said, “from an 1805 account from right here in Wiltshire. She probably gave the quote verbatim. “When the hog is killed, the sides are laid in large wooden troughs, and sprinkled over with bay salt, after which they are left for twenty-four hours, in order to drain off the blood and superfluous juices. Next, they are taken out and wiped thoroughly dry, and some fresh bay salt, previously heated in an iron frying pan, is rubbed into the flesh till it has absorbed a sufficient quantity; this rubbing is continued for four successive days, during which the sides, or flitches, as they are usually called, are turned every other day. Where large hogs are killed, it becomes necessary to keep the flitches in brine for three weeks, and in that interval to turn them ten times, after which period they are taken out and dried in the common manner; in fact, unless they are thus treated, they can not be preserved in the sweet state, nor will they be equal in point of flavour, to bacon that is properly cured. (Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S.; 1998: 114)
I was excited and even more certain that I discovered the possible inspiration for my father’s new brine. The salt in his recipe was also roasted before it was rubbed into the meat, just like the Wiltshire process called for just described by Suzan. I sat back and smiled. “The world is indeed a very small place,” I thought to myself. Uncle Jacobus would have been very excited at the news that I may have located the source of my dad’s legendary Cape Cure. I suddenly missed Uncle Jacobus tremendously.
The ever formal Mr. Smith interpreted the likely meaning of the term “sweet state.” “It probably should be taken”, he said, “sweet as opposed to bacon turning putrid due to curing that was not effective.” Suzan agreed! “Sugar could have been part of the cure because it also omits saltpeter, a widespread ingredient in bacon cures of this time.” “Still”, I interjected, fascinated by the discussion, “it begs the question if the mention of salt in the 1805 account is supposed to be an exhaustive list.” It probably was not.
I have done much reading on the subject and the use of bay-salt as opposed to rock salt intrigued me. “Bay-salt regularly contains very small traces of nitrate which have a reddening effect in the meat. A second point is that it was a well-known practice by certain butchers to omit saltpeter and only use salt. Some curers of this time described using salt alone as a superior curing technique even though unbeknownst to them, in using bay-salt, it probably contained nitrate which the saltpeter was added for. On the other hand, due to nitrogen being part of the proteins as building blocks for muscle, it is entirely possible to cure meat without any saltpeter – the only drawback is the time it requires. There was at that time no refrigeration and a long curing time would have been difficult to maintain without the meat spoiling before it cured which meant that dry-cured bacon was extremely salty. As much as possible moisture had to be drawn out of the meat before the temperatures rise and the bacon spoils which can be overcome by using lots of salt to draw out the meat juices.” I knew that in places like Italy they overcame this by starting the curing process in the winter and if a warm snap threatened to interfere in a long curing process, they would carry the vats of sides up the mountains to higher and therefore colder altitudes where they would simply continue the process. England did, however, not have these luxuries.
I summarised the discussion so far. “So, is it fair for me to say that taking everything into account, the most likely scenario, therefore, seems to be that that the Harris brothers borrowed the concept of adding sugar from barrel-pork. They added the sugar to the cure, not to give a sweet note to the bacon, but to reduce the salty taste of the bacon. An added advantage of adding sugar is that it enhances the meat flavour. Viewed overall then, it improved the taste which was and remained a key feature of Harris bacon.”
The ever-observant Susan added something important. They would most definitely have used cane sugar. She gave us a short overview of the history of sugar in Europe and England. The use of sugar in Europe was greatly expanded in the 13th century when the Crusaders brought a new “spice” from North Africa. There are records of sugarcane being produced in Spain as far back as 600 A. D.. Sugar cane was industrialized in Europe during the 1600s as can be seen from records that show it was imported regularly and being processed. The Portuguese colonized West Africa from the 1600s and started growing sugarcane on the back of good climate conditions and cheap labor. The profits from these ventures were substantial. So much so that they were able to finance their expansion into the new at least partially from it. Columbus, for example, brought sugarcane to the Americas in 1493 and the Portuguese used the new found land to expand the lucrative sugar cane trade.
The term used in Brittain in the early 1700s to refer to their colonies which produced sugar was “sugar colonies.” In Barbados, the British established a sugar cane industry in the 1800s and managed to retain a monopoly of its supply into Europe for well over a century. The Napoleonic wars (1803 to 1815) temporarily put an end to the English sugarcane trade with Europe as was the case with all merchandise. This created a shortage of sugarcane in Europe which lead to the search for alternative sources for sugar. This directly led to the discovery of beet sugar. The first sugar factory for beet sugar was opened in France in 1812. In the 1820s, farmers started growing beet sugar on an even larger scale than ever before. (Clemens, et al, 2016)
Mr. Smith confirmed that in their factory they use what they call Egyptian sugar. The point is not that it is produced in Egypt, but that it is pure cane sugar. He knows about Beetroot Sugar but according to the most experienced butchers, it is a dangerous product to use for curing. He is not sure why, but it is a matter that I will investigate further. Harris may have used it initially to reduce the saltiness of their bacon but it is added today more for flavour than anything else. He said that they add it in his plant to sweet pickles, pumping pickles, pickles for curing tongues – they use it in just about everything on account of the enhancement to the taste. There are reports that it is slightly antiseptic, but that is not why they use it. They generally use it at a rate of 2 ½ percent. ( William Douglas & Sons Limited, 1901)
The diversion into a short history of sugar was interesting and I had a nagging thought that it would become more important later. The fact that I now know about two types of sugar meant that there is probably more I have learned that different sugars will in all likelihood have different reactions in meat. I was glad that I continued Uncle Jeppe’s extensive use of notebooks and took careful notes while Susan was talking with a note to myself to return to the subject. Back to the subject of the nature of the “sweet cure”, Sazan, Mr. Smith and I all three agreed that the conclusion we came to is plausible. The astute historian whom Suzan is, came to the fore, again and she added, “until more facts come to light young man. There are various contextual hurdles to overcome when looking back at history and correctly interpret events, especially if the men and women did not leave us with exact reasons why they did something or gave certain names such as “sweet cure”. You are right, however, that by inference, this certainly seems to have been the case.”
We then turned our attention to the delicious dinner prepared by the staff of Bowood. Lord Landsdown would have been proud, as I am sure he is being kept informed of what is happening at his official English residence.
The story is epic and more is to come!
Lots of LOVE,
(c) eben van tonder
Like our Facebook page and see the next post. Like, share, comment, contribute!
(1) Blackland Mill, Calne, c. 1903 from the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham,
“It is likely that there was a mill on this site in the 13th century or earlier. The mill was rebuilt in three stages in c.1800 to incorporate the mill, a mill house, and a detached granary. This mill had a 19 ft. wheel, three pairs of stones, and a loft, which could accommodate 1,000 sacks of wheat. Milling ceased between 1915 and 1920 but then continued until 1982. The mill was restored between 1982 and 1983 and then produced wholewheat flour until 1993. When this photograph was taken the miller was Abraham Lock.”
Special thanks to Susan Boddington (SB), curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, for the liberal supply of information, insights, advice and photos.
Cullen, L. M.. 1968. Anglo-Irish Trade, 1660-1800. The University Press, Manchester.
Clemens, R. A., Jones, J. M., Kern, M., Lee, S-Y., Mayhew, E. J., Slavin, J. L., and Zivanovic, S.. 2016. Functionality of Sugars in Foods and Health. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety Vol.15, 2016
Holland, LZ. 2003. Feasting and Fasting with Lewis & Clark: A Food and Social History of the early 1800’s. Old Yellowstone Publishing, Inc.
Horowitz, R. 2006. Putting Meat on the American Table. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Kha, AR. 2006. Cryogenic Technology and Applications. Elsevier, Inc.
Lawrie, R. A.. 1985. Meat Science. Pergamon Press.
Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S.. 1998. The English Pig: A History. Hambledon Press.
Smith, Edwards. 1873. Foods. Henry S King and Co.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 9 October 1892
Susan Boddington (SB) is the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre. Information from private correspondence.
Warde, F. and Wilson, T.. 2013. Ginger Pig Farmhouse Cook Book. Mitchell Beazley.
Wilson, W. 2005. Wilson’s Practical Meat Inspection. 7th edition. Blackwell Publishing.
http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-one-family-helped-change-the-way-we-eat-ham-21978817, article by Rachel Nuwer
http://www.theshipslist.com/1847/ Emigration To North America In 1847
Bowood Photos: https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/bowood.html
Wiltshire cut. Harrington, G. 1958. Pig Carcass Evaluation. Page 55. Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux Farnham Royal, Bucks, England. Robert Cunningham and Sons, Ltd. Alva
The Wiltshire injection: Wilson, W. 2005: 220