Chapter 07.00: The Shambles – meat quality investigated

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting.  Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.

The Shambles

Cape Town, December 1886

Unlocking the secrets of how bacon is made would soon become the single obsession of my life.  The monumental discoveries that would elucidate the complex and altogether mesmerising set of chemical reactions responsible for producing the world’s greatest culinary delight would be revealed mostly from Europe and England. The history of unravelling the secrets of bacon became intimately connected with the greatest discoveries of humanity. Bacon was part of my life, yet I did not comprehend the all-consuming passion it would become. Producing the world’s best bacon on an industrial scale would become as much an obsession as would the mountains and the seas of our great land.

The Dilemma with Impermanence

It is in our minds where we live and breathe and have our beings. Our culture resides there. The first phenomenal mental development of humans was our ability to think in the 3rd person. We could think in the hypothetical. Our advanced brains allowed us the power to construct mental patterns and as the sophistication of these patterns evolves, we worship them.

Our ability to distil pictures into letters to form an alphabet is no more or less than the further ordering of language. In language, the nouns probably developed first. The ability to tell the tribe members about animals, and water, and warn them of danger. Humans developed verbs to indicate action. We invented techniques to be very precise in details by the modifying power of pronouns and adjectives. As is the habit of humans, we worshipped our crowning invention, the spoken “word”. We poured into the mental image of a “word” mythical power. We imagined that through this powerful tool, the universe to be created and it to be the medium of our communion with the divine whom we imagined being in control of all of reality.

Words, however, disappointed us because it was, as we found out, very impermanent. It is fleeting and exists only for as long as humans can accurately remember them. We invented all kinds of techniques to help us remember vast amounts of information which we passed on from generation to generation in poems.

In the never-ending cycles of ever-increasing levels of sophistication and complexity, we made the progression from mental pictures contained in spoken language to the greater permanence of writing. We endowed the spoken word with permanency by writing it down. First in images and then in letters which form words that carry meaning. For the first time, we were able to give greater permanence and so, as is the way of humans, we worshipped it. The written word became our god!

It is no wonder that Europeans equated the need to spread the technology of writing to the spread of the Gospel. From an early age, I understood this. I saw the different cultures of our land existing in the first place in the minds of the peoples of this great land, transferred from one generation to the next, not as something we are born with, but as something that we are taught from the moment of our first interaction with the outside world when we enter it as babies. I understood that the technology of the black tribes compared to the Europeans was not any different. Both were inventions of the mind; both were developed due to pressing needs in their environment. One may be more useful compared to the other in certain environments, but both stand on equal footing as being human inventions. By itself, one is not superior to the other.

When I look at the culture of the African tribes, it increasingly filled me with great respect and wonder. I did not see it as something that had to be replaced with a so-called superior Western or even eastern culture, but something so precious that all efforts had to be made to celebrate and preserve it.

One of the dilemmas of the human experience is that we are temporary in our bodies, but our consciousness perceives us as eternal. We are very impermanent, and frail, and still, we search for a tangible connection with our past and future generations to connect with what lasts. Before I could discover the magnificence of bacon, which is completely apart from any human intervention, I had to be disappointed in what I thought was my connection with the ancients and the worlds to come. I had to come face to face with the brutality of the human mind. This knowledge did not come from Oupa Eben but when I turned 18, I had my first introduction to the brutal man! 

The Savage Human

At age 18 I knew that life was beautiful. Surrounded by a loving family and my own mountain and sea kingdoms to explore, I found myself happy and content. No other reality brought my romantic notions of humanity crushing down more dramatically than the Cape Town Shambles.

Khoi cattle and sheep

While growing up, the city abattoir was at the bottom of Adderley Street on the beach. It was aptly named the Shambles after the famous Smithfield Market in London known by the same name. Years earlier, so my parents told me, the slaughter of animals happened across the city and a formal city abattoir was only established in 1820. What was intended to be an improvement on home slaughter, the Shambles became a city eyesore. Cattle would be slaughtered, and the offal left on the beach for the tide to take away into the sea. The offal not taken away by the tide was feasted on by stray dogs and leopards that came down from Table Mountain. In the sea, sand sharks gorged themselves on offal. They were so numerous that the bay was called Haaibaai (shark bay).

The stench from the beach was nauseating. On a hot and windless day in the bowl in front of Table Mountain where Cape Town was developing, a foul smell hung over the beach below the abattoir. It would hover over the sea and slowly envelop the city. I later learned that setting slaughterhouses up next to waterways for the exact reason to carry away the offal and blood to soak into the sand was a well-known European and English practice, but in few locations did it have the dramatic effect it had in Cape Town. Sailers who know India well later told me that the only possible place on earth where the abattoir was more objectionable, was the city abattoir in Bombay.

As children, we avoided the abattoir but on one November day, after a week of uninterrupted rain, I found myself aimlessly wandering through the streets to get some fresh air. Suddenly I was on the outskirts of the city. Without realizing it, I started to follow the cattle route into town. Of course, I always knew it was there. Cape Town was not such a large city, but I never went there. 

That day, as I followed the cattle trails into the city, the air smelled fresh with the scent of fynbos (the local fauna biome). All the nasty odours were mercifully washed from the air by the persistent Cape storms of the previous week. The usually dusty Cape roads turned muddy with pools of water everywhere. Droves of cattle were being herded into town. Curiosity took over. It was not so much that I decided to follow them as it was like an invisible hand pulled me, herding me along with the cattle.

The boys driving the cattle gleefully whistled for the animals to keep moving while they chatted amongst themselves and threw small rocks at animals who stopped to graze. As they approached the Shambles, the animals became weary but kept moving, spurred on by thirst and hunger until they reached the cattle pens. The animals were driven from the many farms that developed around Cape Town from as far afield as Piketberg and Worcester. I was intrigued by the scale of the sight before me as curiosity turned into amazement. (1) Cape Town was the tavern of the sea and the number of animals slaughtered had little relation with the number of souls living in the expanding city.  

Cattle traders sold the animals to butchers who dispatched their apprentices to bring the animals to the slaughter. The entire affair was neatly divided between the cattle pens where animals were received and kept. From these pens, they would be sold to restaurant owners and agents for shipping companies and government officials. There was one man in charge of receiving the cattle who also had the largest pens. He was a kind of overload in this section of the Shambles. I had an opportunity to visit the cattle markets in West Africa. In Lagos, at one of the largest abattoirs, the overlord is a man by the name of Alhaji Guruna. Alhaji came to Lagos as a jong boy who did not have a cent to his name. Here he worked his way up by first hustling with cattle and later becoming a respected cattle trader. The Cape Town Shambles worked on exactly the same principle. The receiving and slaughtering of the cattle were two separate sections of the complex.

Myself and Alhaji Guruna

Alhsji, his son and Kole Funsho in price negotiations.

The trading part of the animals impressed me greatly. The Shambles was like a world within a world. A city within a city. The dust roads were lined with stalls where cattle feed was prepared and sold. Women were baking all kinds of cakes to feed the hungry men who were driving the animals in from mainly Saldannah’s side. There were booths with tailoring shops and even hairdressers where the men could get a haircut and go for a shave.

My experience in West Africa was the same. The organisation and the feeling of being in another world than the one you just stepped out of. I had a sensation, as I had in Cape Town, that it follows a ritual and an order that has been the same for thousands of years. Of course, I knew that not to be the case because the Khoe doesn’t have these massive cattle markets, designed to feed a hungry city like cape Town of Lagos. The order was created by humans as was the need for this scale of operation by the number of people.

From the pens, animals are selected for slaughter. As much as I was impressed with the scale of the operation and the order of the cattle city – to the same extent I was unimpressed with what followed, especially in Cape Town. As the apprentices herded the cattle from the holding pens to the slaughtering area, the animals smelled the blood on the beach. They did not know what was happening up ahead, but they knew it was not a place they wanted to go. In response to their reluctance to move forward, the herders became brutal in goading them. They beat them mercilessly with wooden sticks. I was shocked that humans could inflict such cruelty on other creatures. From stress and fatigue, some of the animals collapsed in the mud just to be picked up by men pushing wooden carts who would pull them onto the carts and take them to the slaughter site.

The dreary sight of animals laying in the mud; the sound of the butcher’s apprentices beating them; the mud mingled with blood ahead and the foul smell of the offal and on the beach below the slaughtering sites made for a miserable picture. The sun was coming through the clouds and the sudden November heat did not improve the picture as the nasty smell developed and filled the air. Nearby, Uncle John Woodhead’s tanning business was boiling the last scraps of fat off skin and bones which did not help with the smell.

The end of the animals who were brought to the slaughtering sites by wooden carts and those who fearfully walked there by themselves were the same. Their hooves were tied together in pairs and all four pulled together till the animal fell. The butchers moved swiftly to slit the animal’s throat to bleed out. As soon as the animal is dead, the skin is removed on the ground and the intestines are taken out and thrown onto the beach. Khoe (indigenous people), sitting on the outskirts of the killing area on their haunches collect it. To them, it is a delicacy. The more well-off butchers had specially constructed poles that allowed them to hoist the carcasses up, but this was not always the case.

When I compare it with what I witnessed in Lagos a major difference is the fact that unlike Cape Town where the blood is diverted onto the beach for the sand to first soak it up and then to be dispensed by the tide, in Lagos it is carried away by well-constructed waterways. A master-butcher and good friend who accompanied me on my trip to Lagos remarked that, unlike the Shambles in Adderly street, at the Lagos abattoir there is no foul smell. This is a matter that greatly intrigued me.

Beyers with me at the Oko Oba Abattoir Complex in the realm of Alhaji!

The fact that the animals were killed is in no way what distressed me. Like other predators, humans have sustained themselves on the flesh of animals for millennia. The rhythm of birth and death is a fundamental truth of our existence. When it was a matter of life or death, humans have the innate character of predators. What I could not understand was how it was being manifested. The same drive for procreation developed almost in every human culture into something ordered and beautiful. We could reconcile our psychological needs with our physical needs in marriage or something similar in other cultures. I abhorred that we invented ways to slaughter animals that were crueller than any predator on earth evolved into when killing its prey. In Cape Town, at the Adderly street abattoir, my impression was that the animals are not treated with respect.

Combrink & Co.

Still, I decided to make the most of my visit despite the disturbing stench and culture of brutality and I decided to look up an old and dear friend. My friend was none other than David de Villiers Graaff who was running Combrink & Co for Uncle Jacobus. He was, however, not at his butcher’s shop. I stood in his shop, looking at large men, skillfully turning the carcasses of hogs, cattle, and sheep into meat cuts familiar to me. Much of the meat was packed with salt for preservation. Most were sold from the shop to the public. Those destined for the ships were packed in barrels. Combrink & Co. was a well-run operation. It had meat wagons which they stocked for home deliveries. Their wagons were a feature of life in Cape Town and later they set up small retail outlets across town which they supplied from the butchery at the Shambles.

That night I could not sleep. Of course, I did not describe everything that I saw that day, choosing to forget some of the details.  Not all the butchers were good butchers, and some were in too much of a hurry to start removing the skin before the animal was dead.

When I got home, I told my dad what I saw. He saw everything as ordered under the sun and in the center of it all is an almighty God who orders and assigns a role to every creature. The lion does not feel pity for the buck that it hunts. The buck feels no pity for the grass that it feeds on. It is God’s decreed order in life. “In the same way,” my dad explained, “God gave us animals to sustain us through their milk and their flesh. It is God’s way.” He did, however, not like the brutality. The animals, my dad believed, should meet their end swiftly and cleanly and should not be mistreated on their way to taking their place in the circle of life. He did not like that we made a sport out of death at all, and he reminded me that the San Bushman, as they were called, have the greatest respect for the animals their hunt.

My dad drew parallels between the brutality towards the animals and people. He told me that we cannot expect people who enslaved other humans and traded them like commodities to show any mercy to the domesticated animals or to the wild beasts of the field. He maintained that people who do not treat the indigenous people of this great land with respect will likewise not treat animals with dignity. Europeans, according to my dad, lost their own humanity and replaced it with arrogance. They do not respect themselves, yet they lord it over others and impose their views and beliefs as if they alone possess knowledge. Like Uncle Jakobus, my dad abhorred the straight lines of the Dutch and often said their thinking can be seen in their architecture and city design. My dad sometimes referred to the straight lines of the Dutch as being evidence of their cruelty!

I learned for the first time that night that my dad was an abolitionist. He told me how, as a young man of law, he vigorously campaigned for the freedom of slaves and the equality of all. We spoke about a vision for a world where we would live in harmony with all and show the same respect for our domesticated animals as the Khoe has towards their cattle and their fat-tail sheep and the San shows towards the wild beasts of the field.

The Khoe

The Khoe were the first pastoralists in southern Africa. They called themselves Khoikhoi (or Khoe), which means ‘men of men’ or ‘the real people’. This name was chosen to show pride in their past and culture. The Khoikhoi brought a new way of life to South Africa and to the San, who were hunter-gatherers as opposed to herders. Both groups had ancient traditions based on respect for animals.

My dad told me that an old Khoe captain once told him, referring to his own people as the real owners of the land, that the Europeans are “the greatest slaves in the world with our so exactly fixed and precise way of life.” (2) The Khoe and San, according to my dad, are the truly free people while we are prisoners to a merciless culture with no heart.

Moving the Abattoir

The Adderly Street Abattoir was ordered to move soon afterwards in 1883. It was done as part of a general campaign to clean up the city. Instrumental in this campaign was my friend, David de Villiers Graaff, then only 22 years old.  It was this event of closing the Shambles that prompted Combrinck & Co. to install their own slaughtering line.

In 1883 a lawsuit was brought against the city on the basis that the Shambles was a public disturbance and had to be removed. Sir Henry de Villiers, who was chief justice, led a full bench of the supreme court to hear the case. An in-person inspection was carried out one morning after the slaughter of animals. The judges and lawyers walked the beach; sewage was flowing into the sea; the stench was unbearable. Late in 1883 Justice de Villiers delivered judgment and said that the least the city could do was to slaughter the animals elsewhere. This sealed the fate of the Shambles, and it was moved. David de Villiers Graaff and Lord/ Sir John Henry were close family. (3)

Meat Quality and Stress

One day I related my experience to Dawie (David). He grew up in the Shambles and I was keen to get his perspective. He told me something that piqued my interest. That the animals with the best meat quality are animals who not only had the right feed but were not exposed to stress before slaughter.

It begins by feeding them well on good grass, months before they are brought to the abattoir. Then, once at the abattoir, the animals must be properly rested before slaughter. Stress destroys good meat. David later showed me their new slaughtering lines and explained to me how stress either creates dark and dry meat or, especially in pork, meat that is pale, soft and characterized by exudate. Unbeknownst to me, this became my first chemistry lesson related to bacon and I was intrigued. Despite the cruelty underlying the lessons, the experience of the butchers fascinated me.

Good bacon comes from good meat and good meat comes from happy animals. I wondered why the meat from game was not as soft as the meat from domesticated animals since, in my estimation, the wild animals were the happiest.  I would question my teachers in school about these matters, but they had no real answer.  It would be years before I understood the chemistry of meat.  Still, a seed was planted. Interest in meat production would become an all-consuming obsession and, in the end, the facts I learned here in Cape Town would become the cornerstone of producing the best bacon on earth.

Events soon transpired in my life that would set the stage for me to travel to Europe on the most exciting learning adventure ever.  Like the cruel treatment of animals which led to the discovery that happy animals have the best meat, the impetus which moved me to leave the shores of Africa to study the art of bacon was dark, disturbing, and altogether alarming.

Beyers Cronje told me something else of great interest. He said that when he slaughters an animal in the summer and hangs the meat for a day or two under a tree, that the meat is more tender than if the animal is slaughtered in the winter close to the evening and the meat freezes during the night after it was slaughtered. It seems as if the freezing of meat, very close to it being killed toughens it! Makes it more difficult to chew. In Lagos, when Beyers and I travelled to West Africa, we met a cattle rancher from the North, Deji Ogunjimi who told us the same thing.

The matter of the relationship between stress and meat quality and cooling immediately after slaughter is something that would occupy my thoughts in years to come.

Following our visit to Oko Oba in Lagos, Beyers Cronje, Deji Ogunjimi, Kole Funsho and I got together to discuss the matter of cold shortening which is what the phenomenon is called that meats get tough if it is refrigerated immediately post-slaughter.

I was still looking for permanence in the wildlife of Africa and the people who came to call her shores “home”. Bacon would replace all of these and lead me to uncover the true art of living. Before this could happen, I had to know humans better and how we create myths and legends in our minds and how close we are in our developed psyche with the cruellest of human instincts. I first had to understand the depth of the problem before I could thirst for an answer! All this happened just after my 18th birthday!

Private Log of Abattoir visit

The context of the video is a visit I had with Beyers Cronje, Kole Funsho and Deji Ogunjini to a large abattoir in Lagos. Cameras and photo-taking are obviously frowned upon. Slaughter is mainly done on slabs. Due to the sensitivity of the subject matter and respect for those concerned, I did not include many photos of the actual abattoir. It is mainly my description of the surroundings which I did as a log to record my observations and what others pointed out to me.


(c) eben van tonder

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(1) The experience comes from visiting the largest abattoir across Africa, where time stood still.

(2)  François Valentijn (1726), quoted by Mansell Upham.

(3)  Three De Villiers brothers came to South Africa with their wives. They were Abraham and his wife Susanne, Pierre and his wife Elizabeth, daughter of the hat maker of Thierry in the province of Bri and Jacob and Susanne’s sister, Marguerite. The three sons’ father was Pierre de Villiers from La Rochelle in France.

The second son, Pierre and his wife Elizabeth had a son, also called Pierre. Young Pierre married Hester Roux and in 1725, they had a son. Since French as a language was dying out at the Cape, the named him Pieter. Pieter married twice. With his first wife, he had nine children and with his second wife, eight. The biographer of Lord de Villiers, Eric A. Walker called him a “notable parent” which is probably an understatement! 🙂

Jacob Nicolaas was born to them in Paarl in 1786. He married Suzanne Maria Bernhardi and named their oldest son Carl Christiaan who, in 1834 married Dorothea Elizabeth. They had nine children and the fourth son was John Henry de Villiers. He signed his name, not as John Henry, but as Johan Hendrik. He was born on 15 June 1842.

Sir David’s father was Petrus Novbertus Graaff and his mother was Anna Elizabeth, daughter of Pieter Hendrik de Villiers. This has definitely been traced somewhere, but it is fun working it out for oneself. It seems that Anna’s father was the brother of J. H. de Villiers, which then makes Lord de Villiers, the uncle of the wife of Petrus Graaff, the father of Sir David de Villiers Graaff. Whichever way you look at it, there is a rather close family relationship between Lord/ Sir John Henry de Villiers and Sir David de Villiers Graaff.

Photo Credit:

Khoi cattle and sheep:

Cattle in holding pen before slaughter.  Eben van Tonder

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