Chapter 12.01.1: William Oakes Mild-Cured Bacon

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.

* A note on this letter. I searched for this information for almost seven years. I had various clues that such an invention was made, but for years could find no details of it or any information related to its invention.  I knew the system was called “the Danish Method”, but was this the same as tank curing or the live brine system? Was the invention Danish, and if not, who invented it and when? Here I provide all the answers. Mild-Cured bacon is dealt with across two chapters, this chapter, William Oake’s Mild-Cured Bacon and the next chapter, Mild-Cured Bacon and the Curers of Wiltshire. The bulk of the information is given in this chapter, but the next chapter contains essential additional remarks.

William Oakes Mild-Cured Bacon

March 1891

Dear Minette,

It is Sunday. I arrived in a small town with Andreas and his dad on Friday. The plan to go away this weekend was made long before I arrived, and I insisted that they leave the plans unchanged. Since I got to Denmark, I have wanted to write but have been unable. My first week was monumental. This week, in a way, I achieved everything we’d set out to accomplish on this journey. It all came together in one volcanic lecture by Jeppe on Friday. 

I expected a slow introduction to the art of curing bacon on the scale the Danes do it. I was completely wrong! Right at the outset, on my first day at Uncle Jeppe’s curing plant, I saw in operation exactly what I set out for when I left Cape Town. I now sit by the window in my small hotel room, looking out onto the main street of the beautiful town from where I am writing to you. (1) I am supposed to be celebrating but instead, I am very tired. I can exhale for the first time since I conceptualized Woodys. The fact that I travelled to Denmark first when my main aim was to learn about the English curing of hams and bacon weighed on my mind. Was it an unnecessary detour? Now I am convinced that I am in exactly the right place where my goal is coming to fruition. The system of curing they use is known as the Danish system. Some call it tank curing, while others refer to it as Mild Curing, and it relies on what they refer to as “the live brine system” or the mother brine.

The most noticeable difference between the bacon my dad cured on my grandparent’s farm and Uncle Jeppes Danish cured bacon is that the Danish bacon is pale. In this way, my dad’s bacon looked far more appealing, but the Danish bacon is safer and lasts longer. It is stunningly obvious how we make bacon in the Cape and how it’s done in Denmark is different. All this became apparent and was resolved completely within the first week of my stay in Denmark!

The Industrialisation of Bacon

On Friday morning, Uncle Jeppe called me to his office after I’d spent a week in his factory. It was only the two of us. “Eben”, he said, “it’s time we have a talk. I have a story to tell you. I know why you are here and will tell you what you are looking for.” Since I started in his factory, he rotated me between his different departments. I did deboning to learn the different cuts. I did meat trimming. The departments that I liked most are the brine preparation, pickling, and smoking departments.

I walked up the stairs to the second story of his very industrial-looking factory. In his office, I settled in the chair in front of his large desk. He sat forward in his creaking chair and folded his hands in front of him. He spoke with a heavy Danish accent. “You will find very few places on earth that cure their bacon the way we do in this factory. Ya, in Denmark, you will, but in no other land except in Irland. It is also true that the new system of producing bacon yields pale bacon! How you ended up coming here, yes, of course, is a mystery. You could not have known what I am about to tell you. Few people do. You came here because your ancestors hail from Denmark, and a spice guy in Johannesburg talked you into it. You said you met the spice trader purely by accident? Events brought you to Denmark which has nothing to do with bacon curing and you had no idea that Denmark is the best place to learn this. It is remarkable!”

Uncle Jeppe continued. “There is only one other place on earth where they cure bacon in the way we do, and that is in Ireland. The reason for this is quite simple. The invention is Irish!”

I was most intrigued! “The very early details are sketchy, but here is how I understood the development to have happened. “The man responsible for the invention was a young chemist, William Oake. It is reported that he was from Ulster in Northern Ireland. I was told by friends that the earliest mention of mild cured bacon, as it became known, came from Antrim, Northern Ireland, as far back as 1837. It is fair to conjecture that the invention did not happen far from there or at a much earlier time. Probably in the early 1830s. Antrim is in Ulster. The primary objective of the work around bacon in the 1800s also did not focus on colour, but on preservation and nutrition – the exact two key considerations that were probably the motivation for the earliest curing, going back possibly millions of years ago and definitely hundreds of thousands of years ago.”

It is this exact system William Oake invented sometime before 1837 that is now used in his factory and across Denmark. “Since you have seen this system firsthand over the last week,” Uncle Jeppe continued, “it will be more meaningful to enlighten you with the details of Oake’s invention today! The complete system was not his invention. He investigated both what the “preserving principle” was in curing and what process provides optimal nutrition. He found that it was not salt itself that preserves the meat. It was not even the saltpetre, but something happens in the liquid curing brine, and he suspected this to be the secret behind the curing. To “keep”, the curing agent, the old brine must be re-used. What he did was to put together a system or sequence of steps that incorporates all the different curing steps, and progressions of many different people from around the world, which has been shown to make a difference or give better, more effective curing and faster curing. In our business, the driver is always speed, but there is no point in speed without curing. The object is properly cured meat that lasts! He found that salt not only does not preserve itself but is responsible for drawing out the albumen from the meat which is key in nutrition. It was, in his system, therefore of the greatest importance to reduce salt, but at the same time, how do we affect longevity? His entire complete system was dedicated to achieving this! Colour, to him and therefore to us, is secondary!”

The Timing of Oake’s Invention

No invention ever happens “in a vacuum”, and before he explained the process, Jeppe gave me a glimpse into the world of Chemistry in the 1830s. The formidable statesman of Chemistry, Justus von Liebig, started publishing his journal, Annalen der Chemie (often cited as just Liebigs Annalen) in 1832 with Friederich Wöhler. It would be one of the most critical journals in the field of organic chemistry on earth. Knowledge of chemistry was being made available around the world, and a survey of newspapers from Antrim indicates that Liebig’s progress in chemistry was regularly reported on here. For sure, Liebigs Annalen was available at institutions of learning and in Coffee shops and reading rooms across the county of Antrim.

Even more so than in many other areas in Ireland. Liebig continued his work with his journal until his death in 1873. It means that Oake’s invention took place in the most foundational years of the science of chemistry, at a time when chemists started to stand on their own two feet, as it were, and were not only seen as servants of the medical profession and in an area where Liebig was well known and highly regarded. Von Liebig was himself, of course, stationed at Giessen in Germany.

It was a time when Chemistry was formalised and when nitrogen was being recognised as essential for nutrition. In the 1830s “Jean Baptiste Boussingault, Gerrit Mulder, and Justus von Liebig all suggested that the nitrogen content of food could serve as an indicator of its nutritive value. Liebig went further and suggested that “muscular motion can be produced only by the oxidation of protein.” The protein era had begun. The majority of all dietary recommendations in the nineteenth century were based on Liebig’s concerns about meeting the need for protein and energy.” Nitrogen is at the heart of curing, which is accomplished with the reactive nitrogen species of nitric oxide, the nitrogen molecule being accessed directly from the meat proteins or from nitrate or nitrite. The latter would become the heart of tank curing.

A major contributor from France came in this time, from the work of Dumas. He invented the method for the quantitative determination of nitrogen in food samples which is still used today and, by calculation, determines the protein content using the factor of famous 6.25. The relevance is that he invented this in 1826, painting the picture further of the state of chemistry by 1830.

In Germany, working in his Giessen laboratory, Liebig influenced the world, not just through his Annalen der Chemie but the men he trained from across the world. “In 1837, five young foreign students were working in Liebig’s Giessen laboratory. Three of them were English: T. Richardson, W. Eatwell, and Thomas Thomson, the son of the Glasgow professor of chemistry who invited Liebig to attend the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), which took place in Liverpool in September 1837.” (Blondel-Mégrelis, 2007)

Most of the students of Liebig became giants in the field, and Thomas Thomson (1773-1852) was no exception. He supported Dalton’s atomic theory and visited Dalton in Manchester on 26 Aug. 1804, when Dalton gave him an account of the new theory, which he introduced into the third edition of his ‘System’ published in 1807. This was the first detailed public announcement of the theory, as Dalton did not publish his ‘New System of Chemical Philosophy’ until 1808. “After the publication of the second part of the first volume of Dalton’s work in 1810, Thomson issued a long series of papers (Annals of Phil. 1813–14) in which the atomic theory was applied to elucidate the composition of a very large number of compounds. These contributed largely to making the theory known, especially on the continent of Europe.” (Wikisource) Thomson would undoubtedly have been an influential figure in the life of young Oake. If not directly, then indirectly through Thomas Andrews, who was probably the most important Chemist in Ireland at the time. He studied under Thomas Thomson, and “in 1830, he travelled to Paris, where he became acquainted with many of the leading French chemists and spent a short time in the laboratory of Dumas.” (Wikisource) So, Thomas, Dumas and Andrews would have been influences of Oake and, undoubtedly, Liebig through his writings and through Andrews.

Chemistry achieved something similar to what physics accomplished in industry. The chemical revolution swept through industry and would become the bedrock of industrial processes, which is what William Oake effectively achieved in the 1830s. This concept, of basing industrial processes on systematic scientific thinking and predicating the process on chemistry was, as it were, “in the air.” The country probably best positioned to take advantage of the application of chemistry to industry and agriculture was England. Liebig himself was fascinated by technology from early on. “During his study in Paris, he was impressed by Nicolas Clément’s lectures and the applications of chemistry to the arts. In 1832, on Liebig’s insistence, Vieweg accepted the idea of publishing the Handwörterbuch der reinen und angewandten Chemie (‘Dictionary of Pure and Applied Chemistry’), which would become of great help to technological chemists and manufacturers. Liebig also pushed Vieweg to manufacture his own paper “as beautiful as English paper” and, after visiting the most important paper mills of Ireland, Scotland, and England, he advised Vieweg about the manufacturing technologies.” (Blondel-Mégrelis, 2007)

En route to his Liverpool meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at the invitation of Thomson Senior, in September 1837, “Liebig took the opportunity to visit many factories of soda, sulfuric acid, soap, steel, and paper. He became more aware of the importance of chemistry in every sector of industry and of its crucial importance to the prosperity of a country, “chemistry, the real mother of every industry” (Liebig 1838). He considered chemistry the most worthy science and the most useful matter of education: ‘If a person well trained in pure chemistry, but completely inexperienced, happens to manage soda, sulfuric acid, or sugar factories, dying industries or any other industry, he will be familiarized with the methods of fabrication within half an hour; and he will allow substantial improvements within the first hour. Thanks to the knowledge of the bases and laws of science, applications were easy and would automatically follow.'” (Blondel-Mégrelis, 2007) What Liebig describes here is exactly what happened to William Oake.

Liebig’s visits to factories and his discussions with men such as W. Crum, J. Muspratt, Ch. Macintosh, and Trueman made him more concerned with industrial problems than before. “He became convinced that developing the teaching of chemistry and making it more popular at the state level as well as in the common mind, was the primary aim. Just after Liebig’s return to Giessen, Thomas Graham wrote to Liebig, “my ambition and the object of my life will be to raise something like a chemical school in London, and your example of success is my most efficient stimulus” (Blondel-Mégrelis, 2007)

“Liebig wanted everybody to believe that chemistry commanded every phenomenon in living nature: “Alles ist Chemie.” (‘Everything is chemistry.’) Knowing the laws of chemistry, everyone would be able to understand and improve. The first task was to prioritize the teaching of chemistry, particularly pure chemistry that he considered as the trunk of a tree. A prospectus that advertised the Handwörterbuch summarized Liebig’s points: “Nobody is able to do completely without chemistry, nobody has been studying chemistry without any profit at all: chemistry is closely related with trade and industry, with medicine and the natural sciences, with everything connected with life”.” (Blondel-Mégrelis, 2007)

He was not just the inventor of the systems, but also its most enthusiastic evangelist. His work was translated and widely distributed.

The Agricultural Chemistry was published in England as soon as 1840, translated in the Giessen laboratory by Playfair. Gregory, at the 1840 meeting of the BAAS, added, after Graham had read an abstract of the glorious book: “The object of the work was to show that, without a profound knowledge of chemistry, no real progress in Agriculture and Physiology was possible.”[25] The first English edition was quickly introduced in America, pirated and sold very cheaply by an American editor. Liebig’s views were popularized by the Cultivator as soon as 1841, and his theory of the fixation of ammonia quickly replaced Davy’s (Rossiter 1975). In 1842, Gregory drew up a laudatory report on Liebig’s Physiology pronouncing that chemical research had proved some facts, “which the boldest imagination dared not have ventured to conceive”. He concluded that “there is no living philosopher to whom the Chemical Section could have more appropriately entrusted their investigation” (Playfair 1843). (Blondel-Mégrelis, 2007)

“Liebig frequently wrote articles for newspapers. “In 1842 and 1843, he wrote a series of articles for the supplement of the Augsburger Allgemeine Zeitung. Some of them were united in a book on the suggestion of E. Dieffenbach, one of his first pupils, and published in 1843 in an English edition: “I hope that this little offering may serve to make new friends to our beautiful and useful science.” Of course, a major impact made Liebig’s Chemische Briefe, which he wrote “for the special purpose of exciting the attention of governments, and an enlightened public, to the necessity of establishing Schools of Chemistry, and of promoting, by every means, the study of a science so intimately connected with the arts, pursuits, and social well-being of modern civilized nations.” (Paoloni 1968, p. 106) C. Paoloni (1968) has established the complete chronology of the multi-language editions of the Familiar Letters, as it was called in English: thanks to the services of his former pupils, it was translated into nine languages, with eleven editions in Italy alone. Brock (1998) has studied how this monument of German literature enlarged the public knowledge and raised a large interest in chemistry.” (Blondel-Mégrelis, 2007)

The time was ripe for industrialisation to come to the bacon manufacturing process, and William Oake was at the right place and time, trained in the right profession to exploit it and become the man to change the way that can is made.

Salting and draining on the floor

With this hiatus into the prevailing thought and the “appetite” for industrialisation, Jeppe asked me what the first step is in his curing process. He wants to get to the details! “The flitches,” which is what the sides of bacon are called, “are put on the factory floor, which must be made from concrete. We lightly sprinkle it with saltpetre so that any leftover blood is drawn from the meat. Here is, of course the loss of a bit of albumen, but nearly as much as is done by the salt in dry curing. After this, the curing tanks are stacked.” The fact that the floor must be concrete is something that someone, somewhere, had to discover. A farmer who normally stacked his meat on a normal barn floor not made with concrete must have installed a new barn floor made from concrete and discovered that his bacon and hams lasted longer. So, it became the practice to stack onto concrete floors.

Tanking or bringing (stacking and pickling) for seven days

“A curing tank was constructed to replace the wooden barrels to put the meat in. Before we put the meat in curing tanks, the bottom of the tank is sprinkled with salt. One row of flitches is stacked on the bottom. We lightly sprinkle saltpetre over them with sugar and salt. The next layer of flitches is stacked on top of the first but done crosswise. This is again sprinkled exactly as was done with the first, and so it is repeated till the tank is full. A lid is now placed inside the tank with an upright on top, and a pickle is poured into the tank. The lid and upright serve the purpose of keeping the bacon sides submerged.” 

“The pickle is made as follows: To every 10lbs. of salt, we add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar; 1 lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella.” Sal prunella is a mixture of refined nitre and soda. Nitre is refined saltpetre used in the manufacturing of explosives. We make the mix strong enough to float an egg; we let it settle a bit and then skim any impurities off before we pour it into the tank. (3) Saltpetre plays a very important role as does the grade of saltpetre used.”

A 1905 pickle recipe comes to us from South Africa. “Two pounds of II Black Horse” brand Liverpool salt is dissolved in every gallon of water. This liquid is then strong enough to float an egg or a potato. To every gallon of the liquid the following is added:-

4 lbs. brown sugar,
2 oz. saltpetre,
2 oz. sal-prunella,
t lb. allspice,

and to every 50 gallons added 1 lb. of ground pepper corns. The allspice is sewn in a cotton bag to prevent it from mixing with the pickle.” (Transvaal Agricultural Journal, 1905)

“It is important to turn the meat over after forty-eight hours into another tank. The meat that was on top is placed at the bottom of the next tank. Salt, sugar, and saltpetre are again used exactly as it was done during the first salting. Now the real trick comes in. The same pickle is reused! In the past, the pickle was discarded.”

“The reason for this is that it contains the ‘preserving matter’. The re-use of the old brine was not Oake’s idea, as were probably few if any of the different steps. A progression that came from Oake may have been not to boil the brine after it was used and before it is used a second time. It was Catherine the Great of Russia who suggested the re-use of the brine, not for faster curing which results from it but to save on the cost of the salt used in the brine. In Russia and parts of Germany, they boiled the brine to ‘clean it’, and they re-used it only twice. They noticed that the second time, the meat cured quicker, which is what gave Oake the idea that something developed in the brine that was the preserving matter which cured the meat. It may also have been him who realised that if you do not cure in wooden vats, there is no reason why the brine must be boiled. It can be re-used many times.”

The brine is re-used many times, and a description of the process from The Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia (1897) reads, “The same pickle can be used for many years — the older the better; it only requires, when it becomes somewhat muddy, to be boiled and clarified. I have seen pickle which had been used in one factory for sixteen years, and that factory produces some of the best bacon and hams in Australia.” (Tank Curing Came from Ireland)

Maturing/ Resting and Drying for 21 days.

“After seven days, the flitches are removed and stacked on the floor, putting some salt between each layer. We are careful not to stack it higher than four sides deep until it has been on the floor for some days when it should be turned over and stacked higher each time until the fourth week from the day it went into the tanks; the bacon will then be cured. This system cuts at least a week from conventional curing; possibly even longer if larger meat pieces are used!”

Washing, drying, trimming and smoking

“We then place the bacon in tanks of cold water. Here it is soaked overnight to draw out excess salt. The next morning we wash them well with a brush. Whether smoking is done or not, after tank curing, the meat should be rinsed off and dried before ageing or maturation. The reason for this is that the meat pores should be closed, leading to a hardening of the surface and a considerable reduction in the drying rate. The meat is trimmed and hung till it is properly dried. It is then smoked. (3) 

The Transvaal Agricultural Journal from 1905 again gives us wonderful insight into this part of the system. “After the bacon is cured it is placed in water, just warm enough to bear one’s hand in, and is then brushed over with a dandy-brush, which removes all fat, sugar, slime, etc., from the surface. It is then placed in a tank or vat and covered with clean cold water, in which it is allowed to remain for from eighteen to twenty-four hours. This takes a lot of the salt out, and renders it a mild-cured bacon.” This essential step ensures that the bacon is mildly salted.

Their Trimming and Polishing step they described as follows: “In trimming the bacon the sharp points of the rib bones are sawn off, and the remaining part of the fore-leg also sawn off level with the shoulder. The knife is then run over the belly part of the rib bones and any loose pieces removed. The sweat skin is scraped off with a sharp knife, and the side is then rubbed over with a little”olive oil, which gives it a nice glossy appearance. This was undoubtedly a later addition to Oakes system.

Uncle Jeppe continued to refer to the steps which are followed in his factory, reading them from a printed piece of paper. “You agree, Eben, these are the steps we follow in my factory? Do you not think that I know these steps off by heart?” He laughed, to which I nodded in affirmation. “I am, however, reading the steps of Oake’s process as he explained it to an apprentice who years later wrote it down,” Uncle Jeppe said, showing me the piece of printed paper, which was torn from a book. “The Danish and the Irish method is the same thing!”

“Of course,” Uncle Jeppe continued, “it remains a question of exactly what was Oake’s invention! “It is likely that Oake only combined the best available date at the time into a logical process, but in order to have done it in this way, one can also see that he has a detailed understanding of the natural sciences.” This got my attention immediately, and suddenly, I was back in Africa on the great plains, riding transport and musing about the mental world of the modern cognitive and conscious human. I realised that the work of Oake was in the metaphysical realm as opposed to the natural. He had to look at work as a stepwise process, combining logical actions in a sequence in such a way that the optimal outcome is guaranteed in terms of the quality of the product and quantity produced. He was, in a way, mimicking the actions of biology in terms of the conservation of energy, the most logical next step, the utilisation of available resources, and the self-regulatory nature of what later will be described as feedback loops”. It was brilliant, and the entire endeavour was first conceptualised in his mind! Oake was probably in his late teens or early twenties!

Comparisons with Dry Curing

Comparing Oake’s new system with dry curing and barrel pork curing of the time highlights the improvement of his system and showcases his brilliance.

– Dry Cured vs the Oake System: Salting

Remember that during dry-cured salting, the meat is placed in a wooden casket. Salt was sprinkled in the bottom of the casket where the meat was kept during the process, and it was laid with its skin down on top of the salt, beginning with hams (legs) and shoulders and then the small pieces on top. In the old system, far more salt was used which is very important to see. The new system is mild as opposed to the harshness of the old system in its saltiness.

– Dry Cured vs the Oake System: Drying and Resalting

The old system of dry curing required that the meat be left in the casket for 4 or 5 days before it was removed and thoroughly rubbed with salt again. Blood and meat juices that drained out into the casket were cleared out at this point only. In contrast, William Oake’s new system called for the extraction of excess meat juices before the meat is placed in the caskets and then for cover brine to be added.

Far fewer meat juices were thus extracted in Oake’s system compared with traditional Dry-cured systems. A principle used to remove the excess meat juices by Oak and in the Dry-Cured system was alluded to by none other than Liebig, who said that the preserving power of salt was not due to the chemistry of salt or some secret power contained in it but due to the fact that it drew out the moisture from the meat. Oake explains that it was believed that salt drew out the albumen from the meat, and it is when water encounters the albumen that putrefaction sets in.”

The essence of the invention, according to Oake, speaks to this exact point. According to him, it is that the meat is cured while the albumen remains in the meat. (2) It is therefore more nutritious!

Aron Vecht expanded on exactly how William Oake saw the effect of salt and the role of albumen before Liebig weighed in on the matter in an interview he did nit a newspaper in New Zealand in 1894. He said, “The mode of curing adopted in the early history of the movement did not appear to have been altered much for the better and consisted merely of salting, with the addition of a little sugar and saltpetre. This process of course made an article which was very nice as a relish, but the true nature of the nutritive qualities of bacon was only discovered some twenty years ago (i.t. in the 1870s).”

“In some expeditions sent out by the British Government as late as the sixties, many ships were provided with meat and bacon cured in the old-fashioned way and it was a well-known fact that those who were compelled to live on it suffered from poorness of the blood, and in consequence, scurvy followed in many cases. Scientific research proved that, notwithstanding the fact that these people did not suffer from lack of something to eat, the nutritive value of the food consumed was absolutely nil, for the simple reason that chloride of sodium (salt) possesses the quality of chemical affinity for albumen.” So, completely missing the role of Vitamin C, the thinking was centred around albumen and salt and the affinity of one for the other.

“Under the old method, the salt and the albumen contained in the pork combine and make a pickle which runs away in the process of curing, taking away all the nutriment from the meat, and leaving only the fibrous system and the fat. The saltpetre also acts chemically upon the fibrous tissues of the meat, giving a high colour, unnatural to the flesh, and this high colour was often mistaken for goodness by the uninitiated. After this fact became generally known, scientists, foremost amongst whom was Professor Liebig, set about to remedy the evil, so far as beef was concerned, by preserving in tins instead of salting, and also by extracting the albumen from the beef and bottling it. Of course, this referred to the time when freezing chambers were unknown. This process, of course, it was impossible to apply to bacon, because at that time pigs were fed to such a weight that by far the greater proportion of the carcase was composed of fat, and as fat is impervious to saltpetre and also to the action of salt, people continued to preserve pig’s flesh in the old-fashioned way, and the world trade in the pig line was not interested to any extent in the new discovery, and bacon and ham still continued to be used simply as a relish more than a sustaining food.

. . . Mr Vecht said the world had to thank the late Mr William Ouke, an eminent chemist of Ulster, for the discovery of the new method of curing. This gentleman was related to one of the largest bacon-curers in that centre, and took considerable interest in the business. In the course of experiment, he discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were to be found in Nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt), and that the obnoxious effects of dissolving the albumen in the curing process could therefore be avoided. This was really the key to the new system of curing.” (Interview with Aron Vecht 1894)

It is difficult to try and make sense of the 1830 thinking. What we know for sure is that William Oake saw a preserving property in nature, apart from salt. It also had something to do with the fact that the albumen was not drawn from the meat as in dry curing (meat juices and water, extracted from the meat). The role of the albumen not being extracted and in the new system, where it is extracted to some extent remains in the cover brine, is something of such considerable importance that I feel compelled, at this point, not to discuss it any further for fear of putting in jeopardy, commercial undertakings I am currently engaged in.

– Dry Cured vs the Oake System: Resting (equalising)

“At this point, we are seven days into the curing. William Oake’s use of liquid brine, which covers the meat in the tanks, has, by this time, penetrated the meat and diffused throughout its structure. The old system has only achieved the removal of the excess juices and the application of salt, which now started to ingress slowly into the meat. Re-stacking the flitches has the effect of making the brine available to all the meat. Small and big pieces would have equal time exposed to the brine over the seven days of brining.

In the old Dry Curing system, after the first week of salting the meat, it was rested for roughly the same time as curing to allow the salt to penetrate through the meat completely. It is, therefore, also referred to as the equalising step. How long the meat rested depends on the size of the piece. As a very general guide, the rate of penetration of the salt into the meat is estimated at around 2.5cm/ week. 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 that were at the bottom were placed at the top and those at the top, at the bottom. The reason for this is that pressure interferes with the spread of salt through the meat. Shoulders will be thoroughly salted in about three weeks and hams in four.

Oake’s system overcame the challenges by using liquid brine and the changing pressure of being at the top of the tank and in the next rotation, at the bottom.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake system: Rinsing

“Whether smoking is done or not, whether Oake’s system is used or traditional dry curing, after equalizing, which in the Oake system happens simultaneously with the curing step in the tanks, the meat should be rinsed off and dried before ageing or maturation. The reason for this is that the meat pores should be closed, leading to a hardening of the surface and a considerable reduction in the drying rate. The world’s best butchers recommend an ambient temperature for dry-cured bacon of between 7o C – 13o C. After drying, the meat will be well prepared for smoking, and, if Dry Curing is done, a ripening stage follows.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake System: Drying

“Oake uses a completely different method to dry his bacon. In general, the first way that bacon was normally dried was through salting. As we said before, the main purpose of salting was to remove water which is the matrix that bacteria use to do what they do. Without moisture, bacteria cannot do their work of consuming food from the environment and excreting toxins and other metabolic byproducts with off flavours and disagreeable taste. The second, third, and fourth ways are through the use of heat, airspeed, and relative humidity.

“In a Dry Cured system, before smoke is applied, the meat is first dried for 2 – 3 days, with high humidity around 66% to 75% with a very light breeze/airflow. High air velocities will influence the quality of dry-cured ham negatively. The surface layer of ham or bacon will dry out and collapse. The diffusion rates in the meat and outside must be the same to achieve an efficient and uniform drying process. The air velocity must be very low, and the air circulation must be uniform to ensure uniform air temperature and relative humidity through the curing chamber. Otherwise, the meat could be spoiled by microorganisms. In the end, the meat needs to be tacky to the touch for the smoke to adhere.”

Oake’s system very cleverly used pressure, no doubt in combination with relative humidity, temperature and airspeed, but he makes no mention of the last three. Humidity, temperature, and airspeed are important because we know that the higher the temp, the lower the humidity, and the higher the airspeed, the dryer the end product, and the greater the weight loss will be. His system does not have the huge weight loss of dry-cured bacon, and he very cleverly used pressure to achieve much faster what temperature, humidity, and airspeed normally do. The pressure is achieved by stacking the flitches outside the curing tank on the level floor after brining and resting or equalising and then incrementally increasing the weight on the bacon as the flitches are re-stacks with the ones at the bottom now on the top and by stacking them higher and higher every time it is restacked while always rotating the position of the meat pieces.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake system: Time

“The overall time of Oake’s system was 21 days from the time when the meat went into the tanks. After this, it is left in freshwater for one night and dried. The old system required the meat to be rested for between 3 and 4 weeks, depending on the size of the meat. The total process would therefore be completed in between 4 to 5 weeks or between 28 and 35 days. It meant that the new system was between a week and two weeks quicker than the old.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake system: Quality

“William Oakes system materially improved the quality of bacon. He removed the need for high salt levels by a number of techniques that we already discussed. He used liquid brine in combination with pressure adjustment through re-stacking to facilitate a quicker ingress of brine into the meat. He facilitated the drying of the meat after curing with the application of pressure. As a result of his overall system, the bacon would not have lost as much weight as in a dry-cured system. Salt in meat is concentrated through the process of drying, and by keeping things relatively “moist”, he achieves less weight loss and, therefore, a less concentrated salt taste experience by the consumer.

The other way that he achieved a higher quality product was through major improvements in hygiene. The point should not be lost that his entire system hinged on his ability to manage hygiene differently (better) in that a wetter product is far more susceptible than a dry product to bacterial spoilage. So, he hard-wired hygiene by limiting the continual contamination of the meat through contact with the wood, as is the case with barrel pork or dry-cured bacon cured in wooden caskets. We know that wood is a major contributor of undesirable micro in any meat factory and his application of baths, constructed from concrete, was a major advance in sanitary conditions in the factory and his overall product quality.”

– Dry Curing vs the Oake system: Re-using of old brine

“The biggest benefit to consumers of the new system was the improved taste and the fact that bacon and hams cured in this way lasted longer. The benefits to the curing company, the producer, would be on two levels. On the one hand, the speed of curing 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. “Friends of mine,” Uncle Jeppe said, “suggested that similar techniques on the re-use of brine to me as far back as 1830. The question comes up if this was Oake’s invention.

The cornerstone of mild-curing is the continual use of old brine! Oake, a trained chemist may have discovered it during the process of evaluating the preservation properties of various aspects of the curing process. 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 reuse of old brine is a different matter.

Oake probably had an inkling that there was power in the old brine. This concept of “seeding” was nothing new. It has been known for millennia. Some of the men working with me on the floor call it the mother brine. Andreas’ mom tells me that the same thing happens when she makes sourdough bread. They keep a small piece of dough that they constantly feed and reuse. They call it the mother dough. In some households, there are doughs of which the age is measured in generations. The older the brine, the better! When it becomes a bit muddy, all you do is boil it and leave it to cool down. Let any sediment sink to the bottom and scoop the clear brine off after you remove any impurities that may have floated to the surface. (5)

In terms of the reuse of the brine, Jeppe suggested that we look carefully at reports from 1830 in The Complete Grazier, where mention is made of the reusing of old brine. The report says that a 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: 304)

The “other ingredients mentioned above” refer 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: 304)

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 five years old if it appeared in the 1st edition. The 3rd observation is that the brine can be used “a second time.”

The practice of reusing old brine was already described in 1830, possibly as early as 1825. William Oake, however, took the first steps towards this complete system by re-using the brine many times over and putting the essentials of the overall process together. reusing the old brine would become the cornerstone of the mother brine or live brine system of tank curing. It definitely describes the start of the invention. The continual re-use of the brine and packaging of it within a factory context was then the brainchild of William Oake.

It shows clearly that by the 1830s, which coincides with Oake’s invention of mild curing, the practice of reusing the brine was being phased into curing techniques in England. 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 would 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 gives an important clue about the possible origin of the reuse of brine, and it is not surprising that he points to Germany. The region of interest is 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.”

It was this link with Westphalian hams that introduced me to the name they gave for the brine that was boiled between the batches as the Empress of Russia’s Brine. (For a detailed treatment of the link between Westphalian hams and bacon and the Empress of Russia’s brine, see Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon) Upon investigation, the Empress of Russia, which is being referred to was none other than the legendary Catherine the Great of Russia. During her reign, salt was heavily taxed. She had a lively interest in the latest developments in food technology, and the excessive cost of salt was a major concern for her. It was under her rule that she or someone in her court suggested that instead of discarding old used brine, the brine should be boiled, impurities removed, and it should be used repeatedly. The reason for doing this was not to lose the salt that was still in the brine. Her brine, called the Empress of Russia’s Brine contained salt, sugar and saltpetre.

From South Africa, the Transvaal Agricultural Journal from 1905 elucidates the boiling of the brine. It says that, “the ‘pickle is boiled for an hour, and is ready for use as soon as it is cold. This pickle can be kept in constant use if it is boiled every two months ‘and replenished with spice, sugar, etc. Boiling causes all blood, fat, etc., to rise to the surface, when such matters can be easily skimmed off. Pickle, properly looked after, becomes stronger and more valuable ‘with age and will last a long time.”

The problem with William Oakes system was his inclusion of Sal Prunella which contained a strong preservative which would have also killed the bacteria resulting in the same thing as one would boil the brine namely the killing of the bacteria which would result in saltpetre remaining nitrate and not converting to nitrite and without nitrite present, nitric oxide could not form to cure the meat (or colour it). Nitric oxide is itself a powerful preservative as is nitrite and something else in Sal Prunella would have been responsible for preserving the meat without proper colour development. Let’s leave the details for a bit later when I deal with Sal Prunella in detail.

Let’s get back to Oake’s Mild Curing. Of great interest is the same report that appeared in the Belfast News-Letter (Antrim), 1841 Belfast News-Letter. This is important because I did a survey of the occurrences of the word “mild cured bacon” in old newspapers. The very first reference goes back to 1837 to a report from Antrim, Northern Ireland.  It is fascinating that following this initial reference, Antrim completely disappears from the map, and Limerick and Waterford take over.  This report simply said about bacon arriving from Ireland and that the Bacon market was dull the past week but for “a small parcel of mild cure.”  (Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) 21 July 1837) Before this date – nothing. No mention at all! There are many references from Limerick and Waterford from the 1840s and 1850s onwards.

So, here is what I think happened. I think that the Empress of Russia’s brine was known in Antrim, one of the counties in Northern Ireland. It is very important that the first mention in a newspaper of mild cured bacon occurs in Antrim. The report said, “a small parcel of mild cure.”  (Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) 21 July 1837).  Following this initial reference, Antrim completely disappears from the map, and Limerick and Waterford take over. The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland), 23 September 1853, reported that the previous Wednesday, letters from London “announced the disposal of the provisions contract for the Royal Navy, 12 000 tierces (casks) of pork and 4000 tierces (casks) of beef.”  The short notice says that “we have the satisfaction to add that half the pork contract was taken for Irish account, and a considerable portion will be made up in Limerick, by Shaw and Duffield, William G. Gubbins, William Oake, and Joseph Matterson.” The article quotes the Limerick Chronicle. It would seem that after William Oake invented his mild cured system, he relocated to Limerick. Following the 1837 mention of Antrim, mild cured bacon is most often reported as being produced in Limerick and Waterford.

What I think happened was that William Oake got some exposure to the Empress’s special brine. It is even possible that he knew that this brine was different from other brines in that it cured the meat faster. I base this on the statement often repeated when the use of old brine is mentioned that it is used “with advantage.” It was clear that something was different about it. Catherine’s brine was boiled between batches to essentially recover the salts in line with recognised techniques in use in Russia to recover salt for centuries. They would have noticed the difference in the speed of curing. Oake, a trained chemist experimented with something that was available from his chemistry shop, namely sal prunella. His genius was to remove the boiling step and he realised that it can be reused indefinitely. Based on the Youatt reference quoted above that the concept of the re-use of old brine came from Westphalia, it is possible that the invention of the Empress of Russia’s brine came to Ireland from Russia through Westphalia.

Remember that Catherine’s invention of her brine (or the invention by an unknown court official) was based on the fact that salt was an expensive and scarce resource and the initial motivation was to save. Look one more time at the 1830 reference from The Complete Grazier, which we looked at above. The issue at hand was likewise the cost of the brine. A liquor, poured over the meat as a brine and “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: 304) The link with Catherine’s brine is unmistakable!

Comparisons with Barrel Curing

Jeppe wanted me to see Oake’s invention not just in contrast to dry curing but also the wet curing techniques which existed. He pulled a document from his bottom drawer. “Here we have a report on the production of barrel pork which comes to us from 1776. He read from it carefully and slowly, as if he saw it for the first time and did not want to miss a point. “After the meat has cooled,” probably after the hair was removed, “it is cut into 5 lb. pieces which are then rubbed well with fine salt. The pieces are then placed between boards and a weight brought to bear upon the upper board so as to squeeze out the blood.” “You see,” Jeppe interjected an editorial comment, “the value of ridding the meat of excess juices before salting and curing was appreciated for some time well before Oake!”

He continues reading, “Afterwards, the pieces are shaken to remove the surplus salt, [and] packed rather tightly in a barrel, which when full is closed. A hole is then drilled into the upper end and brine is allowed to fill the barrel at the top, the brine being made of 4 lb. of salt (1.8kg or 10%), 2 lb. of brown sugar (0.9kg or 5%), and 4 gallons of water (15L or 84%) with a touch of saltpetre. When no more brine can enter, the hole is closed. The method of preserving meat not only assures that it keeps longer but also gives it a rather good taste.”  (2) It is noteworthy that taste has remained a constant feature in the improvement on the brining technology and the consumer’s experience of milder salted bacon became the name given to the products of Oake’s system: Mild Cured Bacon!

Sal Prunella

The mistake that Oake made was his use of Sal Prunella, but it was an understandable mistake since it was the latest and most modern addition to curing at the time. The Irish were, at the time of Oake’s invention, actively experimenting with preservatives in their medical universities. Uncle Jeppe said that he “believes the invention was in part done because of knowledge they developed on how to preserve human bodies for the purpose of gaining medical knowledge or training physicians. Oake was probably trained by men, proficient in the morbid arts.”

We find this advertisement for Sal Prulenna in England in a magazine. It would have been typical of what was available in Ireland and across the world. This mention is from the Chemist and Druggist of 1859. It is for “Sal Prunella Tabloids.” and reads, ” A popular remedy, sometimes successful in mild cases of incipient inflammatory sore throat, is a small piece of nitre allowed to dissolve slowly in the mouth” (Warning: “An excellent saline for throat cases, having very marked local efficacy when slowly dissolved on the tongue. It is a popular remedy, and for mild inflamed sore throats its ancient reputation is deserved. Directions One or more (5gr) Tabloids should be slowly dissolved in the mouth for the local effect. Supplied in bottles of 100 at 14/ per doz. Retail price, 1/6.”

Chemist and Druggist of 1859

That it has antiseptic properties must have been known or suspected, and that the properties “emerge” and is not immediately present could very well have been suspected for many years.

The manufacturing is described in an 1835 publication as “Sal prunella (from sal, a salt, and pruna, a live coal) is nitrate of potassium melted over a fire and cast into cakes or bullets. The nitric radical is univalent (NO3′)” (Attfield, 1835) It correlates with Sal Prunella, fused Potassium Nitrate (Saltpeter) from the Glossary of Drugs Prescribed or Dispensed in Colonial New England from 1620 to 1820.

Attfield (1835) writes that “the word nitric is from nitre, the English equivalent of the Greek vatpov (nitron), a name applied to certain natural deposits of natron (carbonate of sodium), for which nitrate of potassium seems at first to have been mistaken. Saltpetre is simply sal petrce, salt of the rock, in allusion to the natural origin of nitrate of potassium. (Attfield, 1871)

The fact that he used Sal Prunella had, however, an unexpected negative result. You see, Sal Prunella also contains sulphate. The best description of Sal Prunella’s make-up comes to us from Wootton (1910). “Sal Prunella was at one time in high esteem, as it was believed that by the process adopted for making it the nitre was specially purified. Purified nitre was melted in an iron pot and a little flowers of sulphur (1 oz. to 2 lb.) was sprinkled on it, a little at a time. The sulphur deflagrating was supposed to exercise the purifying influence on the nitre. The actual effect was to convert a small part of the nitrate of potash into sulphate. It was first called Sal Prunella in Germany from the belief that it was a specific against a certain plum-coloured quinsy of an epidemic character. Boerhaave advised the omission of the sulphur, but believed that melting the pure nitre and moulding it was of medicinal value by evaporating aqueous moisture.” (Wootton,1910; also see Sal Prunella)

The relevance of this comes to us from the fascinating interview with Aron Vecht, a man I will tell you much more about at a later stage, in 1894 (Interview with Aron Vecht 1894). In this interview, Vecht explains that mild cured bacon, despite being far less salty than the old technique, was pale. He recalls as a young boy in London how ongoing work was done to incorporate the new curing system into England. The reason for the pale appearance of the bacon produced with this system is, of course, the presence of sulphite would have had an anti-microbial effect. It is, therefore, entirely possible that the main “keeping” principle in the original Mild Cured system is related to sulphites.

I looked at cookbooks from the late 1700s and very early 1800s and found that sal prunella was used in meat dishes. Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell includes sal prunella in ham recipes from 1807. (Sal Prunella in History) The use of sal prunella in bacon and ham curing itself was not William Oake’s invention. There may have been an event that motivated or inspired Oake namely the establishment of a pilchard drying industry in Devon by Admiral Sir Isaac Coffin in 1829. A newspaper reported on the venture that the “the pilchards dried by Sir Isaac, are not only equal but superior to the best red herrings ever brought to the market, the flavour being much better. The process of curing them is simple and inexpensive; 3lb of sugar or molasses, 12lb of salt, 6 ounces of sal prunella, made into a pickle, strong enough to swim a potato on the surface, being all the ingredients required. The fish being left a week in the pickle, and then smoked as herrings are, will be ready for use. Hitherto this plan has been tried on a small scale, but we understand, that Mr Wm. Billing, of Devon port, is about to undertake the curing of pilchards, according to Sir Isaac’s suggestion, and that he will form a large establishment for the purpose.” (The North Devon Journal-Herald, 4 Sept 1828; Sal Prunella in History) The fact that sal prunella was being incorporated into formal, industrial-scale curing operations in 1829 could not be a mere coincidence. There is the possibility that Oake’s invention possibly inspired Sir Isaac!

As a side note, when they produced the Sal Prunella, I also suspect that they did not melt the nitrate as many descriptions claim because if they did, it would have converted the nitrate into nitrite, a conversion step that can normally only be done through bacteria unless extreme heat is used, as would be the case if it was heated to the melting point.

Smoking Bacon and Hams

The step that rounds the bacon off is smoking which, I learned, does not always have to be done—the English love unsmoked bacon, or green bacon, as they call it. I spent two weeks in the smoking department. The most important point I learned is to have the smoke as cool as possible before coming into contact with the bacon.  This is the reason why the bacon or hams should hang as high as possible from the fire below. The floor should be 6ft. 6in. or 7ft. from the ground, with only a slight opening between the flooring boards to allow the smoke to make its way up to where the bacon is hung.

The flitches or hams should be hung as close together as possible but should never touch. This will allow the smoke to penetrate from every side. The men who work in the department try and teach me as much as possible so that when I get back to Cape Town, I can build a perfect smokehouse. They tell me that a small slide can be put in the gable of the smokehouse to regulate the smoke as required. A place should be made in the centre of the floor, say 6ft. by 3ft., where the sawdust is placed. This is lighted, and if the door is kept closed, there will be no flame, but the sawdust will smoulder and cause a great quantity of smoke. From twenty-four to forty-eight hours will suffice to properly smoke the bacon if the weather is suitable, after which it may be packed and forwarded to market.  Where tea tree (Melaleuca) is obtainable, it is excellent for smoking; it imparts a flavour to the bacon, which is much appreciated by many people. (6) A proper smoking cycle will look as follows: Day one: 8 hours of smoke and rest overnight; days two to eight will be the same, which gives you 48 hours of smoking.

This is exactly what I was hoping to learn from the Harris operations in Calne. I don’t even know if they use this exact system, nor do I care right now. The system is fast and cheap, and the results are spectacular. My dad would approve of the quality, and this is really all I need. It is a perfect model to follow back home.  What I have been learning in Denmark is unique. I thought this was how all of Europe is doing it. The uniqueness of the system blows my mind.

This was my first major introduction to what later developed as the science of industrial processes. Not only was I hooked on the concept of bacon production, but the underlying science fascinated me. A vague concept started to form in my mind that our industrial design is effective or not in how it relates to and mimics actual biological and mechanical processes of the natural world. In years to come, these principles would become fundamental to my view of life! Oake became more than my introduction to bacon production. He became a raw model for industrial process design!

Uncle Jeppe was very pleased with himself. He could see that I was completely astonished. He placed the papers he was reading from in a neat bundle back on his desk and folded his hands in satisfaction. “How closely does this describe what we do in our factory and the mild cure process of William Oake!” “Almost 100 years later, we continue to progress these concepts. A recent development is pressure pumps to inject the brine into the meat through needles instead of simply leaving the meat in the tanks to diffuse into the meat. This latest invention calls for a plank to be run across the barrel opening. The meat is placed on the plank for injection with between one and three needles. The three needles are fed brine through a hand pump that pumps brine directly from the barrel. The barrel is half-filled with brine. After the meat has been injected, it is pushed off the plank to fall into the brine, which acts as a cover brine. It would remain in the cover brine for the prescribed time before it is removed and smoked. This technology must now be incorporated into the tank curing system.”

The Danes are an impressive nation with a thoroughness about them that is remarkable. I am amazed at Uncle Jeppe’s knowledge of the art and how it was progressed by the Irish. He has friends all over the world who correspond with him regularly so he is constantly learning. It is very impressive, and I am honoured to know him!

How did it get to Denmark?

Uncle Jeppe sat back in his chair and wiped one hand over his face. “Now, young man, he continued, how did it happen that this perfect system of bacon production ended up in Denmark before almost any other nation on earth even heard of it?” As if he really ponders the point, he gets up and looks out of the window onto a lush green garden below from his second-story office. He has a conversation with himself. “A very good question! Indeed, a very good question!”

“The year was 1880,” he began answering himself. “Denmark is a tiny nation. To remain competitive, we realised many years ago that we have to learn as much as we can from other nations and peoples and adapt. Every industry is constantly looking at where new discoveries have been made and how we can adapt. This is very Danish.”

“Nine years ago, this factory did not exist, nor did we know how to make industrial bacon. We were large dairy farmers, and a sizable pork industry developed from the by-products of dairy farming. It was very simple and profitable. Raise pigs on the byproducts from milk and sell them to England and Germany. Someone from the pork industry learned about the new mild cured bacon produced in Ireland. We tried many times to send people to learn the techniques, but the Irish were careful not to employ the young Danish men we sent over for employment in their large bacon plants. We needed an opening in their market to go and learn. Such an opening was presented through industrial action by their workers. The thing about Ireland is that the workers often go on strike and how they are treated by the companies they work for is often very harsh. Those on strike do not get paid and stand a large chance to be laid off.”

“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, and at the promise of lucrative employment in Denmark, managed to persuade a number of the striking men to return with them to Denmark. In Denmark, we quickly arranged for them to train our butchers. It was at such a training seminar where I learned the art.”

Uncle Jeppe learned the art of curing bacon the Irish way from these Irish butchers, and so did many other Danish butchers. I am exhausted.  This is not the end of Uncle Jeppe’s Friday revelation to me.  How and why the Danish people overnight became the largest curers of bacon on earth is the second instalment of this great story.  It is important, particularly to us in South Africa, because it gives a model for our bacon curing company.  It is the secret of how we will be able to raise the cash needed to put a factory up to accommodate this exact system. It is no less important than what I just described, is not a single point.  Nor is it less interesting. The story will keep you riveted like a good novel, but my mind is shutting off. I need rest and will continue tomorrow. Tonight, I will sleep well! 

After you read my letters, please show them to my mom and dad and please mail them to Oscar. I wish that you were here with me today! Of all the days since I am gone, I miss you more than ever tonight!

Much love!


Further Reading

The Mother Brine

Chapter 11.04: Wiltshire Cured or Tank Cured Bacon

Tank Curing Came From Ireland

Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon


(c) eben van tonder

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Note 1:  The actual event was when I visited an English town with Jeppe.  I was sitting at the window looking out on the main town square, writing an email to the kids.  I was very homesick and felt that I have achieved my goal of being in Egland.

Note 2: The exact quote about the system invented by Oake is, “He discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were to be found apart from chloride of sodium (salt), and that the obnoxious effects of dissolving the albumen in the curing process could, therefore, be avoided. This is supposed to be the key to the new system of curing. By the new process of treatment, it is said that the bacon and hams, although thoroughly cured with the very essence of salt, still retain all the albumen originally in the meat, and yet do not taste salty to the palate.”  (Molineux, 1898)

Note 3:  “As the carcasses are cut up the portions are laid on the floor of the factory (which should be made of concrete or flagged), flesh uppermost, and lightly powdered over with saltpetre, so as to drain off any blood. It can then be placed in the tanks for salting in the following manner: — Sprinkle the bottom of the tank with salt, then put in a layer of sides or flitches, sprinkle saltpetre over them lightly, and then salt and sugar. The next layer of sides or flitches is put in crosswise, and served in the same way, and so on until the tank is full. Then place a lid to fit inside the tank (inch battens 3in. apart will do) ; fix an upright on top of the lid to keep the bacon from rising when putting in the pickle. The pickle to be made as follows : — To every 1Olbs. of salt add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar, lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella. Make it strong enough to float an egg ; let it settle for some time, then skim, and it is ready to go on to the meat.”  (Molineux, 1898)

Explanatory note by Eben:  Note Sal-Prunella is, according to Errors of Speech or Spelling by E. Cobham Brewer, Vol II, published by William Tegg and Co, London, 1877, a mixture of refined nitre and soda.  Nitre, as used at this time was refined saltpeter used in the manufacturing of explosives.

Note 4: “At the end of forty-eight hours turn the meat over into another tank, taking care to put the sides that were on top in the bottom of next tank, treating it as regards saltpetre, salt, and sugar exactly the same as at first, and using the same pickle. It can then remain until the seventh day from when first put in. It can then be taken out, and stacked on the floor of the factory, putting some salt between each layer, but do not stack higher than four sides deep, until it has been on the floor for some days, when it should be turned over, and stacked higher each time until the fourth week from the day it went into the tanks; the bacon will then be cured.

The bacon can then be placed in tanks containing cold water, and allowed to soak all night. Wash well with a brush, then hang up to dry, and when properly dry it can be trimmed and smoked.”  (Molineux, 1898)

Note 5:  “The same pickle can be used for many years — the older the better; it only requires, when it becomes somewhat muddy, to be boiled and clarified. I have seen pickle which had been used in one factory for sixteen years, and that factory produces some of the best bacon and hams in Australia.”  (Molineux, 1898)

Note 6:  “Smoking Bacon and Hams.  The smokehouse should be built according to the intended output of bacon and hams, and the walls of the building should not be less than 12ft. high. One of the principal things in smoking bacon is to have the smoke as cool as possible before coming into contact with the bacon, and to assist this it is well to put a floor 6ft. 6in. or 7ft. from the ground, just allowing a slight opening between the flooring boards to allow the smoke to make its way up to where the bacon is hung. The flitches or hams should be hung as close together as not to touch, so as to allow the smoke to penetrate every portion. A small slide can be put in the gable of the smokehouse to regulate the smoke as required. A place should be made in the centre of the floor, say 6ft. by 3ft., where the sawdust is placed. This is lighted, and if the door is kept closed there will be no flame, but the sawdust will smoulder and cause a great quantity of smoke. From twenty-four to forty-eight hours will suffice to properly smoke the bacon if the weather is suitable, after which it may be packed and forwarded to market.

Where teatree (Melaleuca) is obtainable it is excellent for smoking ; it imparts a flavor to the bacon which is much appreciated by many people.”  (Molineux, 1898)

Note 7:  “Mild-cure Bacon. — In all of the large cities of Britain and the European continent, the public demand is for mild-cure bacon. The system of cure is very simple and perfect but requires expenditure of at least £1,000 on the plant for carrying it out. By this process, the albumen of the meat is retained and is not coagulated, so that the bacon is devoid of excessive salt, is by no means hard or dry, and there is no loss of weight in the curing. A factory costing £2,000 to construct could easily cure 400 pigs per day. The process takes about a month to complete, but after the first day, there is no further labour involved.”  (Molineux, 1898)

Note 8:  Quote from Holland, LZ, 2003: 9, 10


Attfield, John (1871) Chemistry, general, medical, and pharmaceutical.

Bacon Curing – a historical review

Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 26 Oct 1841, Tue

Blondel-Mégrelis, M. (2007) Liebig or How to Popularize Chemistry. HYLE–International Journal for Philosophy of Chemistry, Vol. 13, No.1 (2007), pp. 43-54. Copyright © 2007 by HYLE and Marika Blondel-Mégrelis

Chemist and Druggist of 1859

Fereira, J..  Treatise of Food and Diet.  Fowler & Wells.  1843.  P 109, Sodium of Chloride

The Mother Brine

Molineux, (editor).  1898.  The Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia, Molineux was the General Secretary of Agriculture, South Australia, Volume 1 covering August 1897 – July 1898 and printed in Adelaide by C. E. Bristow, Government Printer in 1898.

Tank Curing Came from Ireland

Transvaal Agricultural Journal, Volume 4, Issue 13, 1 Oct 1905

Wootton, A. C.. (1910) Chronicles of pharmacy, Vol. I. Macmillan and Co., Limited, ST. Martin’s Street, London, Richard Clay and Sons, Limited, Bread Street Hill, E.C., and Bungary, Suffolk.


Image Credits:

Robert Goodrich and members of the Salt Cured Pig

Photos of Minette and I taken by myself