Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the crucial developments in bacon took place. The plotline occurs in the 2000s, with each character referring to a natural person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes, and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Characters interact with one another with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this. The period of technology it covers is breathtaking. Beginning in pre-history, it traces the development of curing technology until the present, where bacon curing is possible without adding nitrites.
Once Upon a Time in Africa
Cape Town, 13 April 1885
An exceptional story does not begin with a chemistry class but with people and the most beautiful setting imaginable. This location is Cape Town; the people are my friends and me.
My birth was a very ordinary event. The midwife on duty that night recounted her incomplete memory of events on my 16th birthday to the gathering of friends and family. She remembered it well because of a traumatic event that occurred on the day I was born. The daughter of a certain Edwin Gregory (1), Lady Gregory, was struck by a Cape Cobra when she visited her father’s grave on Somerset Road. She was rushed to the hospital, where the midwife, a trained nurse, attended to her. Lady Gregory 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 I learned on my 16th birthday was that my birth was largely overshadowed by the death of Lady Gregory, whose father passed away in June 1858 on 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 the mountain.
The second fact I learned was that my mother was admitted at around 6:00 p.m. with bleeding and that I was born with no complications. The third was that my father produced a small piece of bacon from his knapsack after my birth. From this, he carved a bit with his pocketknife and offered some to Maria de Lange, for that was the midwife’s name, to gain sustenance.
These facts surrounding my birth proved prophetic and foreshadowed what would become the passions of my life. Not Lady Gregory’s death, 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 worshipped 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 and the secrets of life. I lost god and found him again in these cliffs and many crevasses!
The second important fact was the bacon my dad had with him. Every year, we cured our bacon on the farm of my grandparents. My dad told us that it is the only food enjoyed by the rich and the poor. The rich eat it as a delicacy on account of its unique taste. The poor benefit from the fact that curing and smoking preserve meat for future use. A quarter of half a kilogram can be cut from a single loin of bacon each morning, sustaining a worker for an entire day. In the evenings, it can be boiled in water the children drink while the parents eat the meat to gain strength for the next day’s work. That way, each family member can go to bed with a measure of satisfaction. (2) Making good bacon was essential 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). At the invitation of the 64-year-old Uncle Jacobus Combrinck (4), my Afrikaans-speaking mother, Santjie (Susanna) and my father, Dries (Andries), decided to host the celebrations at his large Papendorp (5) mansion. The enormous house had a small stream running through an elaborate garden, ideal for events like a 16th birthday celebration.
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 age ten 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.
Schietlin was an example of the kind of man 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 Schietlin was born in Switzerland. When he turned 18, he left home, travelling 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 butcher’s shop in Papendorp. It was this business where Uncle Jacobus was a foreman, which he later took over when Schietlin returned to Switzerland with his family. (6)
A good butcher has an intimate knowledge of herbs and spices, and Uncle Jacobus, even in his old age and despite being retired, was still the master of his trade. At his home, he grew his herbs in his enormous garden. Sage, rosemary, thyme, bay leaf, chives, ginger, garlic, saffron, and paprika. He despised the Dutch’s straight and “unnatural lines”, as he called the layout of Cape Town. Instead of “hideous straight-lined herb gardens,” he planted his herbs throughout his garden. Some under trees, some against walls, in shady spots, or open, well-drained areas. Sage grows best in sunny places. In between, he planted paprika. Wild rosemary, indigenous to the Cape, is 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 whatever spices he required. I still see him strolling through his garden, pruning scissors in one hand and basket in the other. On the night of my 16th birthday celebrations, he prepared the meat with the skill of the master butcher that he was.
Pork is my favourite meat and was featured prominently. Pork loins, wrapped in pickled pork skin, roasted to perfection. Rind-on pork belly, spiced with black pepper and cold smoked for seven 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 many 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 and our family doctor, Dr. Van Eeden, were there. My mother’s brother, Ds. Jan Kok, a Dutch Reform minister, and his wife, Magna, attended with their three daughters, Joretha, Suria, and Daleen. Of course, my two brothers were there, Andre and Elmar, and the midwife, Maria de Lange, with whom my parents kept contact because they attended the same church.
De Villiers Graaff
An old friend of mine and a 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 didn’t have children. He took some Graaff brothers and one sister in when their parents fell on hard times, farming on their Wolfhuiskloof farm in the Villiersdorp district. Dawie was eleven when 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 that 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 does not have much interest in them. He has a full head of black hair and a droopy black moustache. Short in stature and slender build, he has an enormous spirit. He pressed me to finish high school before learning a trade and conquering the world.
He was never that fortunate to follow his own advice. 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 he is an example to me of what can be achieved through part-time education.
My mountain friends also attended. 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; over the years, we would both continue to feel most at home there.
Dawie was never 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 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 1870s was not so. Unfortunate and shameful acts of powerful European nations cast devastating spells over this beautiful land, and a unique culture emerged from the struggles of many.
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 the Malay Peninsula, even from St Helena, where Napoleon died. It seems as if I can 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 the 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 shirts under their jackets and no shoes. (8)
Despite these differences in colour, background, income, and religion, when we all played together, we were oblivious to any differences adults make a big fuss about. We mainly played 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 like cricket or baseball; 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 started playing card games, which was 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 our rooms, in big houses. Some lived in tiny houses that looked 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 some of us exchanged late-night swimming at Table Bay while venturing ever higher up on Table Mountain. By age 16, Table Mountain was part of our lives as much as our daily bread.
Most of our friends did not share our newfound passion. Slavery no longer existed at the Cape, but stories of runaway slaves hiding in the caves were supplanted by the fear of escaped convicts who might hide on the mountain. These, along with the exaggerated accounts of leopard sightings, meant that only a handful of us transitioned 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 a passion for adventure, and these were all there with me at the house of Uncle Jacobus, celebrating my 16th birthday well into the night.
What none of us comprehended that night was that our forays onto the mountain were training for bigger adventures that awaited us. Some involve actual battle and war; some, revolution and a fight for freedom, and in my case, unlocking the mysteries of the universe, the answer to the question of life, death, and everything that exists! I shared the end of the quest to know what cures bacon right up front with you in the previous chapter. I will, however, not share the ending of my search for the loftiest answers imaginable at this time.
I can reveal that the answer did not come to me through revelation from a god or as answers following a conscious search. It came to me through the most superficial pursuit imaginable – understanding and practising the art and science of bacon curing. All these started once upon a time in Africa.
(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 1800s was published in the Indiana State Sentinel on 17 Nov 1880, page 6, written by E. B. Biggar, called The Boys of Cape Town.
Old Cape Town: http://www.lifestories.co.za/old-cape-town-jpg-2/