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.
Minette, the Cape Slaves, the Witels and Nitrogen
Copenhagen, May 1891
We pack as much work into a week as possible but keep weekends free for relaxation and learning. Andreas told me that nothing is scheduled for next Saturday. Uncle Jeppe visits Liverpool once a year. He is returning to Copenhagen and Andreas and his dad asked me to welcome him at the harbour. I am always delighted to spend time with the old man! I was looking forward to the train ride into the city with him. I was up bright and early and we arrived at the harbour as an English steamer docked. I eagerly looked through the crowd to see Jeppe.
The crowd was milling around with people greeting and porters busily hauling luggage to waiting for horse carts and some, off to board the train. I scanned the milling crowd and my eye caught sight of a beautiful young lady, a bit younger than me. She looked lost with no porter by her side, carrying two leather travel bags, too heavy for her. My glance passed over her, looking for Uncle Jeppe. My eyes almost immediately returned to her. She was beautiful and there was something familiar about her! She looked up and right at me and instantaneously I recognized her. “Minette!!”
I could hardly believe my eyes! My heart jumped with excitement! At the same time as I recognised her, she saw me and a broad smile graced her beautiful face! “Minette!” I blurted out! The last person on earth I was expecting and the one person that I most dearly wanted to see! “Minette!” I said again, this time a lot softer as I reached her after a few quick strides towards her “Minette, what on earth!?” I said again. She dropped her bags and we embraced! “I almost did not recognise you with your hat and your nice dress!
“What are you doing here?” “Come,” I said and picked her bags up. “I’m here to visit you,” she replied and started walking with me towards the train. I was still baffled. “Two months ago, Andreas wrote to me. He invited me to visit and surprise you.” I realised that it must have been after Andreas and my long drinking session in Copenhagen that he hatched his plans. He took his lead from the many times I spoke about Minette and all our adventures.
Suddenly I remembered that I was there to welcome Uncle Jeppe! Minette saw the panic in my eyes as I started looking around. “Uncle Jeppe is only arriving next week,” she helps me out of my misery. “He is still in Liverpool. The whole thing was a ruse to get you to the harbour!”
I have never been this excited to see anybody! The last time we spent time together was in Pennys Cave on Table Mountain. Remember, I told you this in one of the earliest letters I wrote you which I called Woody’s Bacon. We briefly saw each other again I left Cape Town a few days later. Minette and my relationship is one big adventure. I realise it again with her here with me tonight!
She joins on a grand quest. We always craved adventure and the journey of discovery I am on is bigger than anything I could have imagined! There is little distinction to me between physical adventure and the adventure of unravelling the eternal mysteries of the natural world and the chemistry which underlies it including human evolution and how our culture developed. The quest for the discovery of the science of bacon and its delicious allure, its connection with the progress of humanity and the natural processes we are all governed by fuses into the present adventure. Life and nitrogen, including the nitrogen species of nitrate and nitrite are as natural to our world as the air we breathe, of which it is a part of the cycles in our bodies that keeps all mammals functioning!
One such adventure was when we discovered the cave on Kogel Bay, Dappa-se-Gat. You will remember Dappa-se-Gat from my letter about the Kolbroek pigs that Oupa Eben and his brother Timo told me about as a child. The English ship called the Colebrook sank at Kogel Bay and the pigs swan ashore where they were taken in by a band of runaway slaves. The pigs later became the Kolbroek pigs, a breed that exists in South Africa to this day.
Minette and I discovered this cave (Dappa-se-Gat) when we hiked from Hermanus to Cape Town. It was on this hike when two legends merged. One is the story of the cave in this area, accessible from the sea during high tide where a band of runaway slaves lived called Drosters-Gat or Runaway-Slave-cave. The other is the story of the Kolbroek pigs and the sinking of the Colebrook. I discovered that Drosters Gat (Runaway-Slave-Cave) is, in reality, Dapa-se-Gat which is the point of connection to the story of the sinking of the Colebrook and the Kolbroek pigs.
At first Minette and I set out to find Drosters-Gat purely because we were drawn to the story of this band of unfortunate runaway slaves. The adventure started in Hangklip at Pringle Bay close to Hermanus where my younger brother, Elmar, Juanita, and their two kids live.
Before I tell you about our adventure, let me explain my interest in the lives of the slaves and the historical progression of the population of this once sparsely populated land which goes hand in hand with the destruction of our natural world. I read Alexander von Humboldt’s work when I was still a small boy and was struck by the devastation brought about by European colonists and their culture. On the other hand, Von Humboldt’s energy with which he explored the natural world inspired me. It was through his eyes that I saw the world started to change and I developed an intense desire to see as much of it as I could before it was gone! In my imagination, I would accompany him on his travels across South America and the Russian Steppe. It was reading about his work with the famous German author Guthrie that I started to get interested in the physiology of human and animal bodies. One of my most memorable stories is how Guthrie and Von Humbolt went from home to home after a severe thunderstorm to buy up corpses of men, women, and children who died from the lightning for dissection to study human anatomy.
Across the decades that separate our lives, Von Humboldt mentored me. In my life, there was no greater priority than exploring and understanding our world. If I had enough money to buy a book I wanted, but not enough for food for the day, I would buy the book and happily go hungry. Choices between using my savings from my Transport work to buy a house in Cape Town or to either travel to Europe to learn how to make bacon or go on an expedition to the Magaliesberg Mountains always ended up on whatever would teach me the most and be the greatest adventure. Buying a house never was a priority!
During my time as a transport rider across the vast open spaces of Southern Africa, I witnessed the destruction that people bring to nature and each other first-hand. I visited old Tswana ruins at the Vaal River between Parys and Potchefstroom and at Hartebeespoort. I hiked through these massive Tswana and Sotho cities at the Suikerbosrand and in Johannesburg on the farm of Sarel Marais. The cities of the Tswana and the Sotho were decimated by Mzilikazi Khumalo, a Southern African king who founded the Mthwakazi Kingdom now known as Matabeleland. It was because Minette and I shared these priorities and values that I was drawn to her. Well, apart from her good looks and inquisitive personality.
The existence of slavery and the wholesale destruction of our natural world went hand in hand. The human drama of one nation lording it over another by seeing them as objects and property to be used, as it has been done for centuries by countless different civilisations and our disregard for the natural world. Like other people through slavery or whatever modern-day form it takes, we believed for centuries we have an inherent right to “lord: it over nature. For a period in my life I developed a lively interest in slavery and the knowledge I gained allowed me to understand our land better. The Kolbroek pigs are an excellent example of a point where my interest in slaves and pigs intersected.
Minette and I heard stories in Cape Town of a cave where a community of runaway slaves lived many years ago. We often used such stories as the basis for our adventures. We would hear a legend and go looking for the site where the drama played itself out. This is how we started looking for Drostersgat (Runaway-Slave-Cave) completely oblivious that this site is intimately associated with pigs. Between Pringle Bay and Rooiels, close to the water’s edge, legend has it that a community of runaway slaves lived. The entrance is very narrow, and one can enter it only during low tide, or so the legend goes. It is accessible from the sea during high tide by boat only. It became known as Drostres-gat (cave).
We rode out to Pringle Bay at Cape Hangklip to go looking for the cave. It is always good to rely on local knowledge when looking for these things. We were directed to a restaurant and bar called Miems. The owners are Morris and Kerneels. Morris, a tall and well-built man, is a trained geologist who worked in Johannesburg mines for many years. Kerneels and Morris travelled to Ireland to earn the money to buy the restaurant and bar. Where most Europeans are hoping for the new world to provide a living, Morris and Kerneels went to Ireland where they worked until they saved enough to start Miems at Cape Hangklip. Morris learned about the legend of Drostersgat from the writings of Laurence Green, a journalist for the Cape Argus. According to legend, the cave is between Pringle Bay and Rooiels.
An old farmer told Green that the Gat (Cave) can only be accessed at low tide, and one had to climb down a precipice with a rope. The old farmer and a neighbour found the cave and went inside for about eighty yards (73m). He remembers that it was dark and damp and one could see bones of large game animals and cattle still scattered across the cave floor. They also found trunks of melkhout trees, used to make a fire to roast the meat. He wrote that there are graves of “strandlopers” (scavengers) around the general location of the cave. Morris found the cave or at least, what is reported to be the cave. It is marked on local Cape maps. He has been there more than once and says that he was not able to get into the cave despite trying from the land during low tide and the sea during high tide. The opening is too small. By itself, this fact did not persuade us to abandon our search since I reasoned that the slaves would have been very skinny.
Minette and I went looking for it, but despite many attempts, we could not find it. Without finding the cave, by simply looking at the area one could see that such a cave could not exist since the elevation of the land between the sea and the mountain would mean that almost the entire cave would be under the water line, at least during high tide and the foot of the nearest hill where the land starts to rise is simply too far. Morris, a trained geologist, is adamant that at the location where the map indicates Drosterscave to be, there is in reality no cave for exactly the reason I just indicated. So, is the legend of Drosters-Gat (Runaway -Slave-Cave) a myth? It is not a myth and the actual cave is a few kilometres further up the coast towards Cape Town, called Dapa-se-Gat!
Minette and I were not able to find Drosters Gat, but it was on our hike from Rooi Els to Kogel Bay that we first came face to face with Dappa-se-Gat. We just passed Kogel Bay, and I got to the stretch of beach, strewn with round boulders, resembling cannon shot, from where it got its name when I saw the cave – Dappa-se-gat! I could hardly believe my eyes. The legend from my youth, now right in front of my own eyes! I immediately recognised it from Oupa Eben’s stories (Kolbroek). The cave is a couple of hundred meters deep and during high tide, it is inaccessible except if you had a small boat. The sea currents are so strong that nobody would attempt swimming to the cave. Exactly as the old man told Green, it is accessible during low tide by climbing down the cliffs to the cave opening. Before the footpath was made which makes the cave accessible from a small beach to its south, climbing down the rockface would have been the only way to access the cave during low tide. The scramble down the rock face is also something easily achieved and I climbed up and down the rock face sever times to test the theory. The distance the cave extends to the back is also completely consistent with the description given by Green. I wrote extensively about this discovery in my letter, Kolbroek. That day I became convinced that Dappa-se-Gat is Drosters-Gat that Minette and I have been looking for. It is one and the same place. So it happened that not even on Minette and my wildest adventures were we ever far from bacon, hams, salamis, and pigs.
While I am in the mood for telling stories of adventure, let me tell you of another favourite adventure of ours namely the Witels Hike. Between the Matroosberg and the Winterhoek Mountains is the town of Ceres which officially existed since 1854. A pass was constructed called, Michelle’s Pass which follows the route to Ceres next to the Bree River. Where the Witels flows into the Bree River is an open “outspan” (rest) area which is clearly seen on the West bank of the river. I am sure that the trekkers spent a couple of nights here, feeding and resting their cattle before taking on the pass.
The first pass was built by Jan Mostert and was called Mostert’s Hoek Pass (1765). Jan was one of the first settlers to settle on Ceres’ side of Tulbagh. The pass was a very rugged 3kms. The road was so bad that wagons had to be dismantled and sections crossed on foot, the cargo and the wagons strapped to the backs of oxen.
Charles Michell surveyed Mostert’s Hoek Pass in 1830 to improve it. Andrew Geddes-Bain constructed the new pass in 1846, with the assistance of 240 convicts. The Bree River runs all the way into the Warm Bokkeveld. The pass effectively reduced the travel time from Cape Town to Beaufort West from 20 to 12 days. It was almost possible to do the route with a horse-drawn carriage.
In those days it was the only way from Johannesburg to Kimberly and I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn many times on my many trips to the interior. It was formerly known as Mill & Oaks Country Inn. The restaurant is built on the foundations of an old wheat mill dating from the 1800s. It was called the Ceres Meul (Mill). It is not known exactly when the Mill was built. Probably in the late-1700s by the first European settlers. The Inn is the kind of place that I prefer. Steeped in history, enough ghosts to chase, legends to unravel, exceptional food, and great company!
One of Minette’s banking clients told her about the Witsels River; which runs down towards the Bree River from the southern Peaks of the Hex River mountains. The best approach is through Waaihoek Kloof. The man who first identified the route will forever remain nameless in accordance with his own wishes. The next time I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn, I asked the locals if they knew the access route. They explained it to me in detail. When I got back to Cape Town a few months later, I immediately looked Minette up at the Bank, and the plan was set out for a legendary hike.
One ascends a mountain and through a precarious route, accesses the river. Once you are in the river, there are very few ways out. The cliffs are, for the most part, right next to the river, forcing you to either swim or jump from boulder to boulder. At certain places, the cliffs fold over the river creating long stretches that you swim through caves, following the flow of the river. Next to the river, there are small stretches that resemble sea sand. It created the most amazing places to sleep. To go up the mountain, into the Witels River, and out at the Bree River takes around 5 days. Some young people are able to cover the distance in a day provided that they don’t take anything heavy in their backpacks. The best Minette and I did were 2 days from start to finish, but the river was very full and progress painfully slow. The Witels River has become a spiritual pilgrimage for us and ranks as one of our favourite routes on this bountiful earth!
On one of the Witels hikes, it started raining. Rain along the Witels can be life-threatening especially if it rains higher up in the catchment area and the river comes down. The force of the river carries large boulders from higher up downstream and the force is such that if one would be in the water when this happens, chances for survival are slim to zero. We moved our backpacks higher up the sandbank and as close to the cliff as we could and still have a comfortable place to lie down. I was trying to get Minette’s mind off the raging river!
On one of my trips riding transport, I studied discoveries of the behaviour of gases and how salts are formed on Earth. This was the frontier of scientific thinking, and I loved it. I would get my hands on as many good periodicals as I can find and study them on the long trek from the Cape to Johannesburg. As I was becoming disillusioned by our mental world’s ability to construct a ladder to heaven to link us with the Devine, as I saw the other candidate connecting me with what is permanent namely nature crumbling before my eyes before colonial forces, I became obsessed with science and I started to realise that what is important is not what is fixed and unchanging but the ever-changing and evolving nature of the natural world. The toolbox that allows me to gaze into these processes and systems is science. On the one hand, I was eager to enlighten Minette about the latest discoveries and on the other hand, I wanted to see how much I remember. I use the opportunity to review it myself and write it down for you for study and meditation.
Little did I know that understanding the omnipresent nature of nitrogen in nature and appreciating its role in feeding planet Earth would lay the foundation for my later studies in nitrogen and its role in our physiology. This would ultimately reveal to me the true nature of bacon curing in all its wonder and complexity.
I was laying under my sleeping bag. Minette was getting her overnight spot comfortable for the night; painstakingly removing the rocks that would irritate her once the initial tiredness had worn off. At this point in my story, I will completely understand if you at once develop the greatest sympathy for Minette for putting up with me, but of all the questions I could ask her on this earth, I asked her if she knew what air was made of. “Oxygen and of course. . . nitrogen!” she answered. “Correct! It was discovered separately in 1772, by the Scotsman, Daniel Rutherford and in the early 1770s by a Swiss, Carl Scheele. Rutherford called it “noxious air” and Scheele, “foul air,” I replied.
Fully convinced that this was the most engaging discussion I could think of, I continued to briefly explain that “it exists as a gas and comprises two nitrogen atoms, joined to form one gas molecule. They are split apart by something of high energy such as a lightning strike. This leaves the two atoms free to react with other matter floating around them.”
“One of these elements floating around in the atmosphere is oxygen. Nitrogen reacts with oxygen and forms nitrogen monoxide (NO). Nitrogen monoxide, a colourless gas, is an extremely important compound. It is also called nitric oxide or nitrogen oxide. The nitric oxide is heated from the energy from the lightning flash that created it.”
The drizzle was coming down softly. Minette finished nesting and I got enough energy together to build a fire. I cleared a small sandy patch at my feet and with a twig, I wrote the simple chemical reaction in the sand.
N2 (g) + O2 (g) lightning —> 2NO (g)
“There are different sources of Nitric Oxide. Later I will tell you about the essential role of this molecule in our bodies.”
“As it cools down, it reacts further with the oxygen molecules around it to form nitrogen dioxide. Nitric Oxide is one nitrogen atom attached to one oxygen atom. It now combines with another oxygen atom and forms nitrogen dioxide, a poisonous, brown, acidic, pungent gas. There is another important molecule that exists in our atmosphere as a gas namely ozone, which is three oxygen atoms that are combined into a molecule. Nitrogen mostly reacts with ozone to form nitrogen dioxide.”
“Like nitrogen, oxygen occurs as two oxygen atoms, bound in one molecule. Ultra-violet light and lightning cause the two tightly bound oxygen atoms to separate and react, either with other single-atom oxygen molecules or with more stable two-atom oxygen molecules. In the latter case, three oxygen atoms are bound into one molecule (O3). It is not very stable and quickly breaks down into one or two oxygen atom molecules or it reacts with nitric oxide to form nitrogen dioxide.”
I wipe my previous simple formulation from the sand to write another very simple one.
NO (g) + 1/2O2 (g) —> NO2 (g)
“Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) reacts with more oxygen and raindrops. Water is H2O. The two oxygen atoms of nitrogen dioxide combine with the one from water to form three oxygen atoms bound together. There is still only one nitrogen atom giving us NO3. There is now still one hydrogen atom left and it combines with NO3 to form nitric acid (HNO3). Nitric acid falls to earth and enters the soil and serves as nutrients for plants. Old writers called nitric acid (HNO3) aqua fortis or spirit of niter.”
I clear the sand at my feet for a third equation.
3NO2 (g) + H2O —> 2HNO3 (aq) + NO (g)
“Nitric acid is highly reactive and combines with salts in the soil. The Hydrogen atom is replaced by a calcium, potassium or sodium atom, converting it to a nitrate salt. This salt is called saltpetre. The extreme importance of this is that it is plant food. Saltpetre is used today for gunpowder, fertiliser, and to cure meat.”
“Fascinating,” Minette said a bit sarcastically. I did not notice that she started cooking supper and I can help. She hands me an onion to peel. “Saltpeter!”, she said, “It’s the sweat from a horse. My dad always said that we ride the horses till the white saltpetre is running down his neck!”
I smiled because she did not know how completely correct, she was! The few raindrops that fell stopped. The sound of the rushing river and the piece of the mountains transcends everything. I looked at her in the glow of the fire and was struck by her beauty!
The Witels became one of those important cathedrals in our life! The first time I came down the Witels, it arrested my soul and I fell in love with it. Unspoiled! If you are thirsty, you drop into the water and drink directly from the river. The only company for almost the entire length of the river is the baboons on the cliffs. The place I gave my first lecture on nitrogen and the place where I first noticed how beautiful Minette is. It was the start of the two great loves of my life. Unravelling the technical reasons why saltpetre cures meat and Minette!
I would love to have you guys here with us. Today, as they say in the Bible, “my joy is complete” with Minette here with me. What I was feeling on the Witels and in Penny’s Cave is now undeniable. Bacon, nitrate and nitrite, the forces that fertilise our amazing planet, the enjoyment of great food, friendship, lust, and adventure unimaginable all came to me on one magical journey!
When we got home, Andreas and his family provided Minette with her own room. I was overjoyed that she is staying with us. That evening around the supper table we told our stories, including my nitrogen lecture on the Witels. Andreas slapped me on the shoulder when he walked past me. “And to think that you put Minette through all that and she still agreed to come and visit! Let Minette join you tomorrow for Uncle Jeppes’ lunchtime lecture. He is going to start with “saltpetre” and since you and Minettes are clearly interested in it, you will both find it fascinating.”
We had the most amazing dinner!
Well, kids, it’s time to go to bed. A great week is waiting for me with Minette here. Next weekend I will write and tell you all about it!
Lots of love,
(c) eben van tonder