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.
This chapter is particularly special to me as I use experiences I had as a child on my grandparents’ farm, Stillehoogte, as the backdrop. The account of the bacon is fictional, but on this farm, we all grew up. All the cousins (Andre, Elmar, Joretha, Suria, Daleen, Stefan, Marius and Anneliese). Every winter, we prepare our meat that would last us for the year.
I would walk in the field for hours, telling myself stories. If I had a good story, I would re-tell it to myself countless times for weeks. It was a place where you could let your imagination run wild, and it is appropriate that Stillehoogte (literally, silent height) features prominently as a backdrop to the imaginary part of this book! Apart from the direct references to bacon, every anecdote I tell is entirely accurate. The only imaginary thing is the story that we made bacon on Stillehoogte. We made lots of biltong, droe worse (dried sausage), boerewors and cut and packed fresh meat, but never bacon.
narrative – the history of bacon
Dry Cured Bacon
Cape Town, January 1886
Bacon is in my blood, and adventure is my religion. Once a year, every winter, we would go to my grandfather, Oupa Eben’s farm. The adult men would hunt game for biltong, and we would slaughter a pig and make our own bacon. My grandfather’s full name was Ebenhaezer, and his surname was Kok. Kok is the Dutch word for chef or kook. The occupation of a very distant relative is undoubtedly the historical root of the surname. My mom insisted that I be christened Ebenhaezer Kok van Tonder, after my grandfather, despite her dad’s opposition to using his full name and surname as my name. “Just call the boy Eben,” he told her, but she did not, and I was stuck with a long name of biblical and Dutch origin.
All of us as kids helped to make the biltong, droe wors (dry sausage), and bacon. It was a unique time for the family to work together, and each child got a chance to help with the different aspects of butchering and curing. The curing process fascinated me. In Cape Town, I never missed going with my dad to visit Uncle Jacobus. They would discuss politics and bacon, and in those days it was not always two different subjects. Often, producing bacon had its own politics. For years, we made our bacon the same way Uncle Jacobus and most other butchers in Cape Town cured theirs.
All the photos are from Joretha, Stephen and Janke’s visit to Stillehoogte in the winter of 2023 after her dad’s funeral (my Ook Jan). You will see the headings and descriptions if you click on the image.
Feeding and Size and Pen Curing
The basic process of feeding was simple. It started by selecting the best pig and preparing it with the right feed. The pigs used for bacon should not be too big so that the salt strikes through the meat more equally and the smoke penetrates more perfectly. Uncle Jacobus told my dad once that in Johannesburg, the pigs should be fed maize four to five weeks before they are slaughtered to ensure that the meat is nice and compact, but in the Cape Colony, I know it is wheat or young barley. Besides firming the meat up, it makes the kidney fat not greasy and runny like lard, but hard like beef or mutton fat or suet around the kidneys.
Uncle Jacobus told us that good bacon curing starts in the pen by how the animals are treated before slaughter. Butchers have seen for centuries that the meat of game is tougher than domesticated animals. The meat of domesticated animals living out in the bush on the farm is not as tough as game, but animals raised in pens have more tender meat than farm animals raised in the bush. Pigs, raised in pens with a shelter to rest under if it’s too hot or when it rains and have enough water and food, have the best meat.
We mixed our own curing salt. It was 27 kg of the finest Cape salt from the West Coast, combined with 500g of saltpetre for every 500kg pork to be cured. Salt quality is related to its purity. Contaminated salt doesn’t cure meat well.
The next step was salting. The mixture of salt and saltpetre was rubbed into the meat and spread liberally on the outside. Butchers are never concerned with oversalting, but instead not allowing the meat enough time to cure. Any good butcher will tell you the three curing ingredients are salt, saltpetre and time. In the Kok and Van Tonder households, we followed the same philosophy.
The well-trained Cape or Johannesburg butcher sprinkled salt in the bottom of the casket where the meat was kept during the process and laid its skin down on top of the salt, beginning with hams (legs) and shoulders and then placing the smaller pieces on top.
Four or five days later, the meat was removed and thoroughly rubbed with salt again. Some butchers, at this point, added a teaspoon of red pepper to each piece. We never did this. Blood and meat juices drained into the casket were cleared out before the meat was returned. The object of salting is to dry the meat.
After the first week of salting, the meat was rested to allow the salt to completely penetrate through the meat. How long the meat rested depends on the size of the piece. The small pieces, placed at the top, will be done two weeks later and could be removed. Small pieces can, therefore, be salted and rested for 19 days. The casket is repacked with only the large pieces. It was important to rotate the larger pieces so that the ones at the bottom were placed at the top and those at the top, at the bottom. The reason pressure interferes with the spread of salt through the meat. Shoulders will be thoroughly salted in about three weeks and hams in four.
The colonies became used to smoked bacon since it was always done on bacon for exports from England. Smoked bacon lasts longer. In South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada, bacon is almost always smoked because this is what people became accustomed to. At that time, butchers started building smokehouse, and it was important that the bacon should not touch the sides of the smokehouse or that it is not too crowded when hung so that the meat pieces touch. There had to be a good circulation of smoke and air in the smokehouse.
Smokehouses were being erected all over Cape Town, which gave rise to fierce competition for the best in town. This is why I said that, during those years, there was no significant difference between curing bacon and local politics.
The smoking time and resting time were the same. Four weeks for hams, three weeks for shoulders and two weeks for small pieces. Humidity is the main reason why making good bacon in the Cape Colony has always been challenging. The Cape has winter rainfall, and dampness is unsuitable for smoking bacon. The dampness that settles on the meat gives the bacon a sour taste. This is why we do not cure our bacon at home but instead trek to my grandparent’s farm in the interior, where winters are dry.
Oakwood is good enough for smoking, but good American or European bacon is smoked with maple chips or hickory logs. Two fires a day are sufficient if they are well made. I know that some butchers occasionally throw some red pepper on the fire. It is said to keep insects away after smoking and somewhat improves the flavour.
After smoking, the bacon is matured by leaving it in the smokehouse for the same length as it rested. No shorter than two weeks. If the smokehouses are secure against insects and are dark and cool, the meat can be kept there for maturing, but Uncle Jacobus tells me there are only a few in the colony like that. When summer approaches, the bacon is, in any case, taken down and packed away for storage. We always covered it with salt, hickory ash or oats when packed away to secure it against insects and dripping. We kept it in a cool, dry place. Hams, my dad believed at that time, are best packed in powdered charcoal. This not only prevents insects from getting to it but also prevents off flavours from developing. It also keeps the meat dry. (1)
The New Recipe
The meat was definitely salty, and as my parents did not listen to my Oupa Eben’s advice on naming me, they did not stick to Uncle Jacobus’ recipe. My dad never told me where he got the new recipe from, but when I was in my early teens, my Oupa Eben and my dad changed the recipe. I am sure he got it from an immigrant or a traveller who stayed over at the Cape. He was not a butcher and would not have invented it himself.
The new recipe was a major change. Ouma Susan and my mom were very sceptical. I heard them in the kitchen complaining that we were about to waste a lovely pig. I don’t think my dad even discussed his new recipe with Uncle Jacobus, a very conservative man regarding meat. He would surely have talked my dad out of such a wild scheme!
The pig was selected in the usual way and prepared by feeding it wheat by Oupa. We waited for a very cold morning when the pig was killed, and the hams and sides were left to dry in the breeze outside and then placed in the cooler. The cooler was a new addition to the farm. It was a square construction, similar to the smokehouse, built with two layers of brick, filled in with charcoal in the middle. Water trickled down from its roof over the sides and onto the charcoal. After the meat dried, it was cooled down in this manner for 24 hours or so.
The major change was that my dad used molasses. After cooling and drying, the hams (legs) and sides were rubbed with it. They handled the preparation of the salt entirely differently. The salt was put in a cast iron pan and fried until red hot and a dry fine powder formed. The hot salt was then quickly spread over the pork sides and hams, smeared with molasses. When it cooled down sufficiently, the salt was thoroughly mixed with the molasses by hand. The meat was returned to the cooler, and the process was repeated after three days. My dad gave thick hams an extra treatment by making minor cuts in the meat to the joints and filling it with hot salt.
This was the new “Van Tonder” Salting and Drying step. It was repacked in the cooler and left for a couple of weeks. They made sure that the cooler was dry. After two or three weeks, it was ready for smoking.
During smoking, great care was taken to ensure the heat stays as low as possible by not making more than two fires per day. As always, my dad used oak wood, but he told me that they would probably use corn cobs in the Transvaal if they tried to imitate our new recipe. Apparently, the Germans also use hickory.
The new recipe called for one to calculate the time the meat is surrounded by smoke, which had to be 100 to 120 hours. This worked out to around 15 days if the smoke was kept up for 8 hours in the day and the meat was left in the smokehouse overnight with no fire. As kids, it was our job to regularly inspect the smokehouse to see if the smoke was still thick enough and the temperature was still low. Any deviation was immediately reported, and in later years, the entire process was left to us.
My Oupa Eben told me it is better to have a cement floor in the smoking room than one with only compacted soil. After drying, sprinkle a thin layer of pea flour over the bacon and then hang the bacon on iron or wooden beams. The floor must be covered with stubble (strooi), and this must again be covered with sawdust from hardwood (harde hout), white oak (wite dennehout) or seder so that when the sides of the stubble are set alight, the sawdust must smoulder and not burn, thus creating smoke. (Seymore, 1937)
The material must not be too moist so that it won’t burn and also not too dry so that it will ignite. If this happens, the fat will melt. An easy way to manage this is to create a barrier between the bacon and the fire with a corrugated iron sheet on rocks or bricks. Granddad told me that when he only made bacon for his household in earlier years, he used a barrel. He would place a round iron bar across the opening to hang the bacon on. He knocked the bottom out and placed the barrel on a double layer of bricks. As they did with the new smoking room, he placed a sheet of corrugated iron with holes in directly on the bricks and the barrel on top of the iron sheet. This allowed the sawdust to smoulder without too much heat on the bacon. To regulate the smoke, he used to put a wet cloth over the barrel. (Seymore, 1937)
The longer smoking time yields better taste, but in the early days, he used to smoke it for 2 or 3 days only at a temperature of around 30o C (85o F). He used to smoke it till it had an attractive golden brown colour. (Seymore, 1937)
After smoking, the meat was hung up in a dry, cool place to mature for two or three weeks, as we have always done. After this, the bacon was covered with bran (semels), coarse oatmeal (growwe hawermeel), shelled oats (gedopte hawer) or pea flour (ertjiemeel) or with clean wrapping paper and stored on shelving or in the closet. Every attempt had to be made to prevent flies from getting to the meat. A simple way to achieve this was to cover the bacon with black pepper, or a blend of black and cayenne pepper. Another option was to soak a cloth, a bag (goiingsak) or unused bag material (skoon sakmateriaal) in a creamy mixture of lime (kalk) and water and to wrap the bacon in this after the bacon or ham was rolled in oat bran (hawersemels). My grandmom then used to stitch the bag shut tightly around the bacon and hang it in a cool area until it was used. (Seymore, 1937)
Mild cured bacon (matig ingesout) is preferred but does not keep as well as bacon where more salt is used (strawwer ingesout). Mild-cured bacon should not be left too long before consumption. The shoulder should be consumed first since the hams and middles keep better. (Seymore, 1937)
The day my dad walked into the large farmhouse with a piece of bacon in his hand for testing, I learned a valuable lesson about success. You know you were successful by tasting it, and triumph, in this instance, was actually sweet. My mom, Ouma Susan, and all the kids entered the kitchen. My Oupa Eben followed close on my dad’s heels. I knew they tested it in the cooler already; this was my dad’s victory parade. My mom took a large pan and placed it on the coal stove. She dropped a small piece of butter into it, and as soon as it started to bubble, she put the thinly sliced rashers of bacon onto it.
A soft, sweet, delicious aroma filled the kitchen. It slowly and gently crept through the entire house. I saw the bacon rashers in the thick black pan change colour from a pinkish colour to a dark golden brown as the sugar caramelised. She took a fork and picked each rasher up with care, placing them on a plate. We all had some.
I was expecting the salty taste of our old recipe, but instead, delicious flavour exploded in my mouth. A salty note was coated with a cascade of delightful soft sweetness delivered by the molasses. The pork, molasses, and salt proved to be perfect dance partners. That day, I learned a second lesson which I will never forget. Good food elicits a powerful physical sensation. I tasted the bacon with my entire body. It was heavenly!
My dad was sitting by the table, watching our every reaction. My mom stood motionless in the middle of the floor as if in a trance. She was a “blunt” woman, not given to drama, but this time was different. As if the bacon caused temporary insanity, she slowly turned to my dad. “I have never. . . . ” My Oupa completed her sentence by paraphrasing what we knew she wanted to say. “Ongelooflik!” (unbelievable)
So, a legend was born. When we got home, my dad took some of the bacon to Uncle Jacobus. We sat under the enormous trees around his Woodstock home, talking bacon till late that night. He loved it. To say that bacon was a deeply entrenched subject in our family is not an understatement; indeed, it is in my blood!
Combrink & Co. soon started selling bacon cured with my dad’s recipe. Strangers would stop him in the street and congratulate him on it. The mayor once proposed a toast to him and wished he would grace the Cape Colony with many similar inspirations at a New Year’s celebration. We kept going to the farm every year to make our own. When the process was done, we would roll the bacon in newspapers and tightly pack it in caskets, covering the packed meat with a thick layer of wood ash. We kept making small changes every year, and the process of making it remained as enjoyable as eating it.
It is strange that even as a child, being on the farm with my parents, grandparents, brothers, cousins, uncles, and aunts, I knew these days would not last. That knowledge did not make me sad. It created in me a desire, on the one hand, to tell the story and, on the other hand, to start on a lifelong quest of creating many similar experiences. One day, I knew it would all end for me also, but until that day, it became a lifelong quest never to stop making delicious bacon and insatiable experiences. I was happy.
One day, we were playing in the mulberry trees on a neighbour’s farm when my dad called us to the house. Oupa Eben passed away from a heart attack that morning on the doctor’s table during a checkup. Back on their farm, I was crying in the kitchen, and my mom held me, saying that there was now only one Eben left in our family.
I remember how my grandmom cried when she cleared his razor from the bathroom he used that morning. Soon, my dear grandmom would follow him to their eternal home, as would my grandparents on my dad’s side. Eventually, my mom and dad also departed, and in the end, I knew that life is as life always was and is meant to be. I saw clearly that birth and death are parts of life, yet my soul yearned to connect to the immortal and the lasting. The point of connection for me became the eternal story of bacon.
It connects me with the broader, eternal story of humanity and my own family. As I sit here, years later, in a hotel room in Johannesburg, I know that even though they are all gone, we have their memories and our amazing stories; we forever will have the sweet smell of delicious bacon cured with salt and molasses, cold smoked to perfection over two weeks on my grandparent’s farm. Their stories and the soft, gentle aroma of bacon lingering in the old farmhouse remain as vivid as the day it was created.
I am glad my mom did not listen to my Oupa and shortened my name.
(c) eben van tonder
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(1) Modern dry curing procedure. See Dry Cured Cold Smoked Bacon
Making Bacon, New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusettes), 29 Jan 1840, p3.
Dry curing pork and beef (with molasses), The Indiana Herald, 17 December 1879, page 6, recipe by Mr. Gilette as told by an American Agriculturalist.
Seymore, D. J. (Ed). 1937. Hulpboek vir Boere in Suid Afrika, Union of South Africa, Departement van Landbou en Bosbou Derde en Uitgebreide.
Meat Curing and Smokehouse – Built in Goria after plans by the United States Dep of Agriculture. Photo – 1919 from Woodford County Journal (Eureka, Illinois), 20 Jan 1919, p 3.
Photos from Stillehoogte were done by Joretha.