Chapter 7.03 Dr. Polenski

Introduction

The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.

The cast I use to mold the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.

Dr. Polenski

April 1891

My dear Son,

the_noord-nieuwland_in_table_bay_1762
The Noord Nieuwland in Table Bay 1762

Since my last letter about the city and the food, the strange shops, elevated above the streets, the beer and the warm people, I realised that the culture of this amazing land is having just as big an impact on me as what I am learning about the curing of bacon.  I wrote Minette two letters in which I laid out how unbelievable it is that I came to this land first who adopted the Irish system of curing and took it to new heights by combining it with their powerful and unique cooperative model!  Andreas gave me a word of caution that knowing the steps of a process and understanding the process are two different things. No sooner did I hear those words when the ever-resourceful Jeppe presented me with the next gold nugget.

After supper, at the Østergaard home, we follow another tradition of this knowledge hungry people and read together and discuss what was read.  This is customary in many households. The Danes have a  practicalness about them.  As I have seen from their unique high school model, they never stop learning and if something works, they adopt it.

Every night after supper, Andreas’ dad reads for us from a book called Foods, written over 20 years ago in the 1870s by an Englishman, Edward Smith.  He helped me to see the curing of meat as both a necessity and a delicacy.  We cure meats because, for the most part, using modern curing methods, cured meat tastes great.  On the other hand, meat curing was started to impart longevity;  to prevent spoilage.

Back home we are of course well familiar with the value of meat that “last.”  In Europe and England with their growing populations and vast navies which have to be fed, it has been an obsession and a priority to solve the problem of conserving meat for future use.  Edward Smith says in his book that “the art of preserving meat for future use, with a view to increase the supply and lessen the cost of this necessary food (meat), is of very great importance to [England] and all the available resources of science are now engaged in it.” (Smith, 1876: 22)

He lists the main ways that this is being done as “by drying, by cold, by immersion in antiseptic gasses and liquids, by coating with fat or gelatin, by heat, salted meat and by pressure.” (Smith, 1876: 22 – 38)  All have their benefits and disadvantages and I have a feeling that over the years, the technology within any one of these groups may develop, but these broad categories will remain and continue to be available to the public.

Edward Smith says that pork is particularly prized over beef and mutton because of the  “taste, but chiefly perhaps [due] to the universal habit among the peasantry of feeding pigs, which has descended from Saxon times.  Moreover, there is a convenience in the use of it, which does not exist with regard to beef and mutton, for in such localities the pork is always pickled and kept ready for use without the trouble of going to the butcher, or when money could not be spared for the purchase of meat.”  Pigs proved to be an equally prized meat in the new world due to the “ease with which pigs are bred and reared, and the meat preserved, whilst there is great difficulty in obtaining a sufficient number of persons, in a thinly populated country or a small village, to eat a sheep or ox whilst meat is fresh.  (Smith, 1876: 59)

“Bacon is made when cuts from the pig are preserved by salt and saltpeter.”  (Smith, 1876: 64).  This gives bacon its characteristic pinkish/ reddish colour, a nice flavour, and it lasts a long time before it tastes “off”.  This is the kind of things we learn at night.  After a good supper, we discuss what has been read for an hour or two before retiring to bed.

In the day I work at Uncle Jeppe’s cooperative bacon curing factory.  I started working in the curing and spice department where we mix herbs and spices.  Uncle Jeppe is a knowledgeable man and it seems as if he has been around in the meat industry forever.  I have not asked him any question that he did not know the answer to.

Take saltpeter for example. It is the curing salt for bacon which I work with every day in the curing department.  When we do dry curing, we use 1.25 st. (10 pounds) salt, 0.375 st. (3 pounds) of brown sugar, 0.04 st. (6 ounces) of black pepper and 0.02 st. (3 ounces) of saltpeter.  We use 1.25 st. (10 pounds) of this mixture per 12.5 st. (100 pounds) of meat.  (1, 2, 3)  The Irish system of mild cured bacon calls for a liberal use of saltpeter and the purer form of sal prunella. This is the main curing system we use and in both dry curing and tank curing (as mild cure is also called), it is a key ingredient.

What confused me much about saltpeter was that Trudie’s dad, Anton, also talks about the value of phosphates and saltpeter in fertilizing their fields in the Transvaal.  I have learned in school that saltpeter is one of the ingredients in gunpowder.  I know that the Dutch East Indian Company was created, in part, for the purpose of transporting saltpeter from India to Amsterdam and other European cities like Copenhagen for fertilizer and to make gunpowder. I always wondered if it is the same substance that is used to cure meat and if it is, how can this one substance be useful for such diverse applications.

I asked Jeppe about saltpeter one morning.  He put his arm around my shoulders and told me that there are interesting answers to these interesting questions.  That he hopes I paid attention in chemistry class in school.  For the next week, our Tuesday and Thursday afternoon classes during lunch break were dedicated to saltpeter.

The power of saltpeter is the fact that it contains nitrogen and nitrogen is one of only two elements, with carbon, that can exist in 8 oxidation states.  This means that nitrogen can react in a diverse and complex way and, like carbon, is foundational to all of life.  The two substances that contain nitrogen, most familiar to us, are saltpeter and ammonia.

The nitrogen in saltpeter and ammonia makes it very reactive, giving it an explosive power.  In saltpeter it has a particular effect on blood, explaining the fact that it gives cured meat its pinkish/ reddish colour.  Nitrogen exists in the first place as a gas in our atmosphere and comes into our world in different ways, the most important being through microorganisms with the ability to take it from the air and convert it to food for plants.  The plants take these compounds from the soil and water where the bacteria lives and nitrogen become part of the plant’s structure.  This is why saltpeter is a great fertilizer.  It is plant food!

Uncle Jeppe will tell me the fascinating story of how this was discovered but he said I had to be patient to hear this another day.  I am here to learn the modern way of curing bacon.  In Europe, I find myself right in the middle of the most up to date and advanced thinking about curing.

I know the steps and benefits of the Irish system, but science is only now unlocking the “why?” and “how?” behind its power. A major step has been taken in understanding the speed and better consistency in mild curing when compared with dry curing when a friend of Uncle Jeppe discovered something remarkable.

His friend’s name is Dr. Ed (Eduard) Polenske (4), a chemist, working at the Imperial Health Office in Germany.  Jeppe tells me that 1891 will forever be remembered as a watershed year for Woody’s since it is the year I arrived in Denmark and started learning about bacon curing; for the curing industry in South Africa since it is the year when Woody’s took the first steps to excellent bacon in Africa; and for the curing industry around the world because of Ed’s discovery.

It is the year when he made a startling discovery that brine and cured meat contain nitrite. This is remarkable since we know that saltpeter does not contain nitrite, but nitrates and we only use saltpeter in curing of meat which begs the question as to where the nitrite comes from.  Even though nitrite and nitrate are spelled almost the same, in reality, these are two completely different compounds with different characteristics.  Despite the fact that we do not add nitrite to the meat, how does it get there?  It is also a fact of great concern because nitrite is very toxic.

So, before Uncle Jeppe learned about Dr Ed’s findings in 1891, what we knew is that only saltpeter or nitrate is used to cure meat.  We also know that the Irish system of curing compared to dry curing cures the meat much faster.  This matter of the speed of curing is important.  Dry curing is accomplished in 28 days where mild cured bacon can be produced in 19 days. On farms, long curing is generally not a problem, but for a commercial curing operation, it means that you keep large stocks of bacon that are in the process of curing. If you produce bacon for household consumption, that is one thing, but when you have an army to feed, speed is of the essence.  Speed to the modern curer is key.

Jeppe and Ed met up in Wiesbaden, Germany, earlier this year.  This has been an annual winter ritual when the two men took their annual retreats at the same time.   They became acquainted at the  General Congress on Hygiene in Brussels in 1852.  It is exactly the hygienists that Dr. Ed fears will be most concerned about the fact that he found nitrites in cured meat.

Both men attended the conference and struck up a friendship based on their shared passion for good quality and safe meat.  Wiesbaden is famous for it’s hot springs since ancient Roman times and the second shared love between these men, besides meat technology and science, is their love for hot springs.

They have been hosted each year by an equally interesting man, Francois Blanc, at one of his gambling resorts in Wiesbaden.  It is said that he is the man who made Wiesbaden what it is today.  Jeppe describes Blanc as a mighty wizard with an eye, quick to see the possibilities of a situation, with a brain to plan and a hand to execute.  His ambitions and achievements are great across Germany, yet, Jeppe tells me that his tastes are simple.

His clothes do not attract any attention and he wears his spectacles on the tip of his nose.  He does not pay attention to flattery, yet, he is a hard-headed, silent man without any enthusiasm and equally without any weaknesses.  He keeps lavish tables, yet he himself eats sparingly.  His wine cellar rivals those of the autocrats in Russia, yet, he himself only drinks mineral water.  He is one of the largest gambling hall owners in Europe, yet, for entertainment, he may occasionally play Dominoes and frequently goes on a drive through the countryside with his wife.

It was at their annual visit to Wiesbaden, earlier this year, where Dr. Ed told Jeppe about a monumental discovery.  Dr. Ed is not a huge fan of cured meat since in producing it, nutrition is lost.  That is, of course, especially true of dry cured meat. The new Irish system largely overcomes this by filling the tank with liquid brine. The partial pressure difference between the meat and the brine has the effect that instead of drawing the albumen out of the meat, as is the case in dry curing where the meat is only rubbed with salt, in the mild curing technique, brine seeps into the meat. No albumen is lost. But for the most part, dry curing is practiced with an accompanying loss of nutrition. At a time when most families across the world can not afford to eat meat more than two days a week and where most children go to bed hungry, at least a couple of times a week any loss of nutrition is a problem in any food source. In the current world context, Dr. Polenske believes the most important consideration in evaluating methods of preservation is its effect on the nutritional value of the preserved food. He is obviously not very familiar with the Irish mild cure and in his work, he mainly considered dry curing.

He designed an experiment to study just how much nutrition is lost.  The brine he prepared was a combination of salt, sugar, and saltpeter.  (5)  He put this in three jars with three pieces of meat which he sealed and opened again after 3 weeks, 3 months and 6 months respectively.  When he tested for nitrite, he unexpectedly found it in the brine and the meat, despite the fact that he did not add any. (6)

Dr. Polenske told Jeppe that he was not that surprised to find nitrite in the brine since he knew that saltpeter is a compound of potassium or sodium nitrate.  Nine years earlier a drama unfolded with a discovery by French scientists of bacteria that changes nitrate into nitrite and further into nitric oxide.  In 1882 a team of researchers, Ulysse Gayon from the French commune or town, as we call it, Bouëx in Charente and his 22-year-old collaborator, Gabriel Dupetit, from the town of Auch, Gers, coined the term denitrifying bacteria.  This formidable research team went on to make a number of very important discoveries about denitrifying bacteria. (7)

Nitrification starts with nitrogen gas which is one of the most abundant gasses in our atmosphere and through the nitrification process, bacteria create more complex compounds such as nitrate (codecogseqn-2).  An example of nitrification is ammonia (codecogseqn-7) which is changed into nitrite (codecogseqn-5) and finally into nitrate (codecogseqn-2) which serves as the nutritional source for plants.

Denitrification is the reverse where a more complex molecule is broken down to the point where it ends up with a simple molecule like nitric oxide (NO) or pure nitrogen gas (codecogseqn-6).  Denitrification is, therefore, the reverse of nitrification.  This time it starts with a complex compound of nitrate (codecogseqn-2)  which is changed into nitrite  (codecogseqn-5), into nitric oxide (NO), into nitrous oxide (codecogseqn-8) and finally back into nitrogen gas or molecular nitrogen (codecogseqn-6).  Note the gain or loss of the oxygen atom in both processes.

Louis Pasteur, the renowned French chemist, and microbiologist urged Gayon to follow what happens with the oxygen of the nitrite utilised in the process of denitrification.  They heeded his advice paid close attention to this.  They conclusively refuted an old notion that nitrate was reduced through chemical means by the hydrogen, generated during fermentation.  As to the purpose of the loss of oxygen they believed that the bacteria used the oxygen from nitrogen for the combustion of organic matter to generate  CO2. (8)

Based on their very thorough work, Dr. Polenske believes that nitrite is present through this process of denitrification of nitrate by bacteria.  He expects there to be much public concern following his discovery since nitrite is seen as a poison.  (9)  There is a constant battle from farmers to keep their cattle away from water that has nitrite and in every major newspaper, in every town and city, the nitrite levels in the town’s drinking water are published every week so that citizens know to avoid it.”

Jeppe was now becoming particularly excited. “Eben,” he said and put his hands around my shoulders. In his other hand, he had a pen and started drawing a picture for me on a blank piece of paper on his desk.  “In dry curing we start with nitrate. Sodium or potassium or calcium or magnesium nitrate, depending on where you harvest the nitrate from. We now use it to mix into salt and rub it on the meat to cure in dry curing. What is happening?”

I told him that the nitrate will be turned into nitrite by bacteria. “Yes, yes, yes!” He said impatiently. “But what else? What do you see?” Still, I had no clue what he was talking about.

“Time!” He exclaimed, “It will take time!”

“What is the faster process? Dry curing or mild curing”, he asked.

That one I gladly knew. “Mild curing!” “Correct!”, he exclaimed. “Correct!” “But why?”

Suddenly I saw what he was driving at! “The time it takes the bacteria to convert the nitrate to nitrite . . .” “And what?”, he spurred me on. “What does this points to?” “What is doing the curing?'”

I suddenly saw it and it a bolt of energy hit me. “It is the nitrite doing the curing and not the nitrate!” “The time difference between the old system of dry curing using nitrites and the new system which re-uses old brine is that in the old brine, the nitrate is converted to nitrite! This is the power of the old brine! This is why it is so much faster!”

His secretary walked in at that moment announcing that his next appointment is there. “Oh, let him wait”, Uncle Jeppe exclaimed! “”Get us coffee! There is some hope for South Africa after all!!” He gave me an enthusiastic slap on my back!

“Exactly!”

“Exactly!”

He walked around his desk and sat down. “This I did not discuss with Polenski but I saw it immediately! If I told him the entire Germany would convert to mild curing and Denmark’s competitive edge would be lost.  I sat there thinking of what Andreas told me. That I will find that my greatest discovery won’t be the mild curing process, but why it works the way it works. The “why?” And “how?” of curing. I was exhilarated! Like last Friday when I learned about mild curing and the Danish Cooperative model.

Tristan, I know you love biology and the natural sciences. This is why I address this mail to you and I have no worry that I become too technical. The reaction sequence and mode are beautiful. I can honestly say that I am completely in love with the natural world.

I now want to know every element present in the brine, and its exact function. What is the chemistry in the meat itself?  How does curing happen? When we know this, we will be in a position to manipulate the process and improve on it.

My son, you know me; that there is another important point in this story that strikes me.  Right at the start of this journey, I realised that what we are discovering is much more than simply learning how to cure bacon.  This journey back to the lands of my forefathers is a big deal! In a way, it was already an end in itself for me. History and context if of enormous importance. Our lives are never in isolation. We come from the soil of Denmark and the fact that it is here where I find the answers is hugely important to me!

Besides this, bacon is in the center of scientific research of Europe, America, and the United Kingdom, and the combined scientific focus of these countries are directed at unlocking its secrets which are bound up with that of agriculture and superior technology in warfare.  Besides these, there are the many human stories that are part of the story of bacon.  Real people who each contribute to small parts of a very large jigsaw puzzle that is coming together.  They teach us about life. We do not live in isolation, my son! What I am recounting is not fiction! I tell you real stories of real people! Let us pause right here and think about this truth! It is deeper than bacon!

Within the same year of publishing a major paper on denitrifying bacteria by Gabriel and Ulysse, tragedy struck.  The young Gabriel Dupetit’s tragically ended his own life.  He traveled to the Italian city of Savano and booked in at the Albergo Svizzero under the false name, Gaston Dunault.  Overcome by anxiety of all sorts, on the evening of 28 December 1886, he injected poison into himself.  He was discovered, barely alive and despite much effort to save his life, he passed away on the morning of the 29th.  He left a note in French explaining some of his worries.  The use of the false name was done to hide his identity and spare his parents embarrassment.

I am humbled and saddened by this story.  His work directly contributes to our quest of understanding bacon and still, his death reminds me that our lives are bigger than our goals and dreams.  Despite our ambitions, we must pay attention to each sunset and sunrise and never make the mistake of thinking that achieving goals define us.  A man who got this balance right, I believe, is Francois Blanc who seems to find fulfillment in small things, despite his success.  His success does not define him.  He finds the greatest fulfillment in the ordinary in life.  In this, bacon and life become inseparable and I am never sure when I stop learning about the one and start learning about the other.

Maybe, I wonder, the biggest and most important acts of his life was the drives he took through the countryside with his wife. His relationship with his sons and the evenings that Uncle Jeppe and Dr. Polenski spent with him of which Uncle Jeppe tells me that Blanc was really happy.

We don’t understand any of the processes, but identifying the different elements in the brine, including microorganisms, nitrate, nitrite, salt, potassium, and sugar is the basis for understanding the process and should open up the possibility to do it faster and better and safer system without losing quality.  I would love to take back to Cape Town a curing method where curing can be done in a shorter time than 19 days, yielding a product that tastes just as exquisite as Irish or Danish Mild Cured bacon.

Even so, with all the drama offered by our quest, never forget the priority of each sunset. Knowing that we are but small parts of a very big whole. That our highest achievements will be measured in whom we loved and how content we were with whatever life offers us. My heart goes out to that young man and his parents! My heart goes out to him! Imagine his final moments – alone, in a foreign land! With these, my dear son, it is time for me to go. Know that, no matter what, my love for you and your sister is eternal. It will be my last thought when I die. The vision of you and my dear Minette! You guys are my entire world and as certain as I write these words today, one day you will read it and I will be gone. Know that my life was not just about bacon, but like Gabriel Dupetit, it is also about the art of living! Imitate me, my son! Live!!

Be well, my boy!  Take care of Lauren and Minette.

Lots of love from Denmark,

Your Dad.

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(c) eben van tonder

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Notes:

(1)  “St” is the abbreviation for “stone.”   Until as recent as the Second World War, the Smithfield market in London used the 8 lb to a stone measurement. (hansard.millbanksystems)

The stone weight differed according to the commodity weighed.  Animals were weighed in 14 lb to a stone before they were slaughtered and once slaughtered, the carcass and meat would be sold in 8 lb to a stone measure.  Spices were also sold in 8 lb to a stone weights.  (Newman, 1954)

(2)  A survey was done in the US in the 1950’s to determine the most common brine mix used for curing bacon at the time. (Dunker and Hankins, 1951: 6) Even though it is 60 years after this letter was presumably written, I include it since methods and formulations in those days seemed to have a longevity that easily would have remained all those years later.  The survey was also done among farmers, in an environment where innovation are notoriously slow.

(3)  How salty was this bacon in reality?  The recipe is used by most US farmers by the 1950’s was 10 lb (4.54kg) salt, 3 lb (1.36kg) of brown suger, 6 ounces (170g) of black pepper and 3 ounces (85g) of saltpeter.  10 pounds (4.54kg) of this mixture per 100 pounds (45.36kg) of meat.

The total weight of dry spices is therefore 6.07kg of which salt is 74% or  3.4kg.  This was applied at a ratio of 3.4kg salt per 45kg of meat or 1 kg salt per 13 kg of meat.  Not all salt was absorbed into the meat, but the meat was regularly re-salted over the curing period which means that this ratio would be applied many times over before curing was complete.  Compare this with the salt ratio targeted by us in 2016 of 25g per 1kg final product, this means that the bacon made with this recipe would be extremely salty, irrespective of the use of sugar to reduce the salty taste.  The bacon would have to be soaked in water first to draw out some of the excess salt, before consumed.

(4)  Eduard Polenske (1849-1911) was born in Ratzebuhr, Neustettin, Pommern, Germany on 27 Aug 1849 to Samuel G Polenski and Rosina Schultz. Eduard Reinhold Polenski married to Möller. He passed away in 1911 in Berlin, Germany. (Ancestry.  Polenske)

The Imperial Health Office was established on 16 July 1876 in Berlin,focussing on the medical and veterinary industry. At first it was a division of the Reich Chancellery and from 1879, fell under the Ministry of the Interior. In 1879, the “Law concerning the marketing of food, luxury foods and commodities” was adopted, and the Imperial Health Office was tasked with the responsible for monitoring compliance with it. Established in 1900, the Reichsgesundheitsrat supported the Imperial Health Office in its tasks. (Wikipedia. Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt)

(5)  Brine is a solution of salt in water.

(6)  Qualitative and quantitative techniques for measuring nitrite and nitrates in food has been developed in the late 1800’s.  (Deacon, M;  Rice, T;  Summerhayes, C,  2001: 235, 236).  The earliest test for nitrites is probably the Griess test.  This is a chemical analysis test which detects the presence of organic nitrite compounds. The Griess reagent relies on a diazotization reaction which was first described in 1858 by Peter Griess.

Schaus and others puts the year of the discovery by Griess as 1879.  According to him,  Griess, a German Chemist used sulfanilic acid as a reagent together with α-naphthylamine in dilute sulfuric acid.  In his first publication Griess reported the occurrence of a positive nitrite reaction with human saliva, whereas negative reactions  were consistently obtained with freshly voided urine specimen from normal individuals.   (Schaus, R; M.D. 1956:  528)

(7)   Gayon and Dupetit’s discoveries include the following:

  • they demonstrated the “antagonistic effect of heat as well as oxygen on the process.”
  • “They also showed that individual organic compounds such as sugars, oils, and alcohols could supplant complex organic materials and serve as reductants for nitrate.”
  •  In 1886 they reported on “the isolation in pure culture of two strains of denitrifying bacteria.”

(Payne, W. J..  1986)

(8)  In reality, the key to understanding the function of the utalization of the oxygen atom is understanding cell respiration.  The purpose of cell respiration is the formation of ATP.  The organism needs nutrients for respiration which is obtained from sugar, amino acids, fatty acids and an oxidizing agent (electron acceptor), oxygen (codecogseqn-9).  Now, in environments where oxygen is depleted (where the rate of oxygen consumption is higher than oxygen supply, the bacteria respire nitrate.  The nitrate serves the purpose of the terminal electron acceptor, a function which is better performed by molecular oxygen, if it is available.  It is not only nitrite that is used by microorganisms in respiration when molecular oxygen is depleted.  Other electron acceptors are sulfate, iron and manganese oxides.

(9)  Dr Ed Polenski’s findings has been published in “Arbeiten aus dem Kaiserlichen Gesundheitsamte , 7. Band, Springer, Berlin 1891, S. 471–474” (http://books.google.co.za/books?id=R_YAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA471&redir_esc=y)

References

Asheville Citizen Times (Asheville, North Carolina), 20 August 1895.  All information on Francois Blanc was from an article on page 3.

Dunker, CF and Hankins OG.  October 1951.  A survey of farm curing methods.  Circular 894. US Department of agriculture

Jones, Osman, 1933, Paper, Nitrite in cured meats, F.I.C., Analyst.

Drs. Keeton, J. T.;   Osburn, W. N.;  Hardin, M. D.;  2009.  Nathan S. Bryan3 .  A National Survey of Nitrite/ Nitrate concentration in cured meat products and non-meat foods available in retail.  Nutrition and Food Science Department, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M, University, College Station, TX 77843; Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Texas, Houston Health Science Center, Houston, TX 77030.

Payne, W. J..  1986.  1986: Centenary of the Isolation of Denitrifying Bacteria.

Smith, Edward.  1876. Foods. D. Appleton and Company, New York.

Schaus, R; M.D. 1956.  GRIESS’ NITRITE TEST IN DIAGNOSIS OF URINARY INFECTION,    Journal of the American Medical Association.

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1938/mar/01/meat-prices

Picture References:

A cargo ship at the Cape:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_Western_Cape

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Chapter 7.02 – The Danish Cooperative

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Introduction

The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.

The cast I use to mold the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.

The Danish Cooperatives

March 1891

My dear Minette,

It is Sunday afternoon.  I slept most of the morning.  I am excited and refreshed.  I know you are here in spirit.  I can sense you.  Life has turned out much more insanely exciting than I could ever have hoped for. The entire thing is a grand adventure of discovery.  I could never dream that trying to unlock the secrets of bacon would be as insanely exciting as it all turned out to be.  Hopefully, you will receive the letter I wrote yesterday before you get this one.  I will hold on to it and post it next Friday.

Getting Up

The morning was crisp and interesting.  Andreas’ dad is an impressive man.  He is very intelligent with an amazing knowledge of many things.  He gave me a lot of perspective on what Jeppe told me on Friday.  For example, how did it come about that a man of Jeppes age was exposed to learning new butchering and curing techniques?  Why was there in Denmark such a focus on continued education that people showed up for lessons by the Irish, in sufficient numbers to make a proper transfer of skills possible.

It often takes a prophet to change long help perceptions.  A visionary to change entrenched positions.  An inspirational man who draws his own strength from the Divine to lift peoples gaze from their own depressed positions and onto better things.  To instill hope.  These are however not all that is needed because these are often also the qualities of an imposter and someone who destroys.  What is needed are all these qualities with a simple and effective plan to improve things.  A person who can lead people to a better and more profitable future.

Andreas’ dad told me about just such a man.  In many ways, he is the father of the agricultural miracle of Denmark.  It may sound like a boring report on men and woman who lived very long ago, but the truth is that it is an inspirational story about men and woman with their backs against the wall.  Who triumphed against the odds.  The man at the center of the story is N. F. S. Grundtvig.  Denmark was an impoverished nation.  They lost Schleswig-Holstein to Germany.  The soil of their lands was depleted and yielding fewer crops with every harvest.  In all of Europe, the Danish soil seemed to be the poorest.   The conditions in 1864 were dire and farmers had little hope competing with Russia and America with their crops.  They were not making money.  Apart from little diversified agriculture, there was very little money in the country.  Farmers identified dairy farming as a lucrative diversification of their economy, but they lacked money to make their plans a reality.  The depleted soil on the farms offered little collateral for lenders to advance money against.

I wish so much that I would get every South African to hear their message.  We are a nation of faith and still, we complain as if we have no hope.  What we need in South Africa is a prophet, a visionary and a very good plan!  The plan will in all likelihood have to be built on very practical education!

Grundtvig was a churchman who lived between 1783 and 1872 and was described by some as the Apostle to Denmark.  He taught that Danish people must love their own country above all, more than any other real estate on earth.  He taught that Danes must love God and trust each other; their own skill and ability to solve problems; that success will come through cooperation.  The principal way to achieve this was through education and what he called the “cultivation of the people.”  This was distilled through his concept of high school which is completely different from high school in the rest of the world.

N. F. S. Grundtvig’s high schools were initially attended by people from the age of 18 to 60 or even older and everyone in between.  Every farmer’s adult son and daughter, every farmer himself or his wife, considered it a loss not to attend High School for at least one term.  The poor and the rich paid the same small fees and lectures covered an array of interesting subjects.  Religion and nationalism were part of the course, but it never dominated the other subjects.  Men and woman looked forward to high school in the same way as Americans looked forward to a trip to Europe.  What he achieved is that even more than the information that was imparted, a general method of teamwork was created which would become the basis for cooperative farming and production.  Later, men and women aged between 16 and 35 mostly attended these high schools.  Young men attended in the winter and young ladies, in the summer.  Experimental agricultural farms were set up around the schools.  The teaching was not done from textbooks, but from practice.

Cooperation

His teachings against individualism slowly but surely sowed the seeds which germinated into mutual trust and a belief that by doing things together, more can be achieved.  Directly as a result of this, in 1881/ 1882 the first cooperative dairy farm was established in Jutland.  The Danes realised that to be successful, they must find ways for their fields to yield better crops and they must develop better ways to use their crops.  Better than selling it at depressed margins on the open market in competition with the Russians and the Americans would be to utilise it to produce commodities.  On par with a relentless focus on scientific farming practices was unprecedented cooperation.  The middle man had to eliminate.  The farmer and the salesman joined forces and discovered that by cooperating they always had “something to go on,” a phrase which became an example of the new approach.

The cooperatives were set up where every member had equal rights.  Each member of the dairy cooperative had one vote and his milk was collected every morning and the cooperative agents returned the skimmed milk.  The cows, therefore, produced butter and feed for the pigs.  Money is loaned from the bank. Each member made himself responsible for repaying the lone in accordance with the number of cows he had.  Every seven days, the members received 25% of the value of the milk they delivered to the cooperative.  Apart from selling the milk to the cooperative, the member was entitled to his shares of the profit on the sale of the produce.  The cooperative kept 25% from which running expenses were paid and the loan was repaid.

There is another reason, Andreas’ dad tells me, why the Danish system works so well.  Not only did they manage themselves, but they also elected farmers to positions of power in government.  It was not only, like the Americans, for the people, by the people, but the Danes took it one step further.  The need and most pressing priority was their agriculture and so the cooperatives elected representatives for the farmers, by the farmers to the government.  These men and woman abhor profiteering so that the priority is the benefit of the many.  This hatred for large trusts and monopolies goes back to the old feudal system which was so prevalent in Europe.  Peasants did not own land, but in Denmark, this changed and the peasants were allowed to own their own farms.  This gave them every stimulus and motivation to improve the small farms.  It is said that 90% of all farmland in Denmark is owned by small scale farmers.  The first revolution in Danish agriculture was ownership.  This was only the beginning.

The new farm owners started protesting against rulership and land aristocracy.  They sought more political power and proper representation.  They worked out a constructive plan to break up the remaining large feudal farms and to distribute it among sons and daughters of the workers.  Farm ownership, a systematic and thorough education system and the cooperative model for farming and production all work together.  The one feeding the other and strengthening the overall agricultural experiment.  In large part, the middle man was eliminated and the few matters run by the state is done for the benefit of the farmers and not for the government to make a profit such as the railways.  Still, the Danish farmer is not a socialist.  They simply believe in cooperation who thinks in terms of self-help and are not reliant on the state for help.

As Andreas’ dad spoke, I again wished I could get him to South Africa to come and tell them how it was done in Denmark.  I know that cooperation runs much deeper than simply pooling resources.  The role of education and private ownership was the basis of the Danish miracle and I see no reason why the exact same model cant work in South Africa.  The one large reason I see is how deeply distrust runs between the different peoples who call South Africa their home.

Skimmed Milk to Pork to Bacon

In Denmark, it was probably the need to find a use for the skimmed milk that gave the farmers the idea of raising pigs in the same way that the need to feed cows indoor for nine months of the year forced them into intensive farming in fodder.   Pig farming therefore directly grew out of dairy farming.  It was going well with the establishment of cooperative pig farming and the live pigs were sold to Germany.

Before 1888, Danish farmers relied on selling all their pigs live to Germany.  The Germans, in turn, produced the finest Hamburg bacon and Hams from it and it was mainly sold to England.   A disaster struck the Danish pork industry when swine fever broke out in the country in the autumn of 1887.  This halted all export of live pigs.  Exports to Germany fell from 230 000 in 1886 to only 16 000 in 1888.  One of the most insane industrial transformations followed.  In a staggering display, the Danes identified the problem,  worked out the solution and dedicated every available nation resource to solving it.   The creation of large bacon curing cooperatives was born out of the need to switch from exporting live pigs to processed pork in the form of bacon and to sell it directly to the country where the Germans were selling the processed Danish pork namely England.  The project was a stunning success.  In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.

The first step in bacon production is slaughtering.  On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region created the first shared abattoir.  On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsen’s Share Abattoir), received their first live pigs for slaughter.  In 1887 and over the next few years eight such cooperative abattoirs were set up and there is still no end in sight where it will end.  Each is in excellent running condition.  As in the case with the dairy farmers, each member of the cooperative has only one vote.  The profit of the middleman and the volumes exported for butter and bacon is determined by the cooperative.  The market price is fixed in Copenhagen on a daily basis by an impartial committee.

Every farmer in Denmark or manager of a bacon curing plant cant be a scientific person, and yet, it is important that farmers and factory managers alike know something of the science underpinning their trade.  It is here where the high school lessons play an important role because it provides a solid foundation and the government is doing the rest.  They have a system of inspectors who look after farms and factories where they do the exact calculations, for example, to show how much butter must be produced from the milk of each cow.  The reason for the inspections was that the Danish Government were required to guarantee the quality of the bacon and the butter it delivered to England, but it had the double benefit of on the one hand guarantees the quality and satisfy the English requirements and on the other hand, improved the quality by assisting the farmers and producers.

The logic of cooperation was extended into England, the largest market for Danish bacon.  Some years ago the English bacon market was being serviced for the Danes by middlemen.  The farmers organised a selling agency in England to represent them known as the Danish Bacon Company of London.  Banking and buying in Denmark are also done cooperatively.  Every village has a cooperative store.

The farmer uses the state in another interesting way.  Commissions are sent abroad to study foreign methods.  It was most probably on one of these trips that the Danes came across the striking workers in Ireland whom they brought back to Denmark to teach them mild curing.  Mild curing technology that came from Ireland years earlier became the cornerstone of Danish bacon.  It was this industrialised model which allowed the Danes to become the undisputed leaders in the world bacon trade.

Neat, Prepared, Ready

Many years ago, on one of my visits to Johannesburg, I met another chemicals traders with the name of Willie Oosthuizen.  Willie told me that wherever I am in the world, before I leave home, every morning I must ask myself, “am I ready, prepared and neat?  These are according to him, the three essentials without which nobody will be in a position to use opportunities that come our way every day.

Thinking about the Danish Bacon trade, I realise that the government ensured that when the right time came, the industry was ready, prepared and in a general position of neatness.  It is a strange thing that as we walked through this small Danish town and I saw the small but neat Danish houses, that I could see this Danish approach to life in everything.  I do not see class differences between people.  I see people from all walks of life getting together in small coffee shops at the end of the day, celebrating life and sharing stories.

I can see how my quest to unravel good bacon curing is teaching me as much about life than it is teaching me about meat.  Andreas told me something this afternoon before I retired to my room which is very curious.  He told me that I am too quick to claim that this is the end of my quest.  That simply knowing the steps of bacon curing without understanding it is not to know the steps at all.  On the one hand, and on the other hand I think that this is not the end.  It is not even the beginning of the end.  My discovery thus far is quite possible only the end of the beginning.

Please give the kids all my love and to our dear parents.  Please give them both my letters to read before you sent it on to Oscar, James, and Will.  I will write Dawie Hyman, David de Villiers Graaff, and Uncle Jakobus separately.

I miss and love you dearly!

Eben

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Photos from Chris Speedy and my visit to Denmark in 2011 when Andreas Østergaard introduced us into the science of bacon production.  Chris was a master, but I knew nothing!

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——————

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Bacon Curing, a Historical Review

Detroit Free Press (Detroit, Michigan) 7 October 1906, p 60.  From The Little Kingdom at the Mouth of the baltic Great Nations May Learn How to Build Up a Trade in Dairy and Meat Products.

Ellsworth County Leader (Elsworth, Kansas) 18 December 1919, p 2.

The Mother Brine

Tank Curing came from Ireland

The Yazoo Herald (Yazoo City, Mississippi), 7 November 1914, p 2, from the article, Agriculture in Denmark.

Chapter 7.01 – Mild Cured Bacon

 

Introduction

The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.

The cast I use to mold the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.

 

Mild Cured Bacon

March 1891

Dear Minette,

It is Sunday.  I arrived in the small town with Andreas and his dad on Friday.  They planned for us to go away for the weekend for some time.  Since we got here I wanted to write, but have been unable.  My mind was numb ever since Friday morning.  I learned exactly what I set out for when I left Cape Town.  I have been dreaming about what I would do if I discover the secret of the mass production of good quality bacon.  That I would write to Oscar, Will, and James first.  Possibly to Dawie Hyman or David de Villiers Graaff, to Uncle Jakobus and my dad.

I sit by the window in my very small hotel room looking out onto the main street of the beautiful town.  I am suddenly very tired.  For the first time in years, I am able to exhale.  It is strange that now that the main reason behind my quest has been resolved that the overarching thought in my mind is not our imminent success in South Africa, or bacon curing or science but it is you. (1)

You are pure and volcanic.  You contain in your being the tempests that lash the great Cape land.  The spirit of every wild animal and bird who makes the Table Mountain range their dwelling is in you.  You are the arch mother of every ancient inhabitant of this land.  The peoples who lived here even before the Khoe of the San moved down.  This position you hold not by birth but by decree of the Ancients!  Suddenly I think of us and the beauty of being with you and sharing the bounty of whatever this great land has to offer.  The quest I am on is meaningful only because I can share it with you and the fact that life was good to me and allowed me to discover the truth behind exceptional bacon at my first port is magnificent.  You are the first person I share this with.  This is not my quest but ours; nor is it my triumph!  It is ours!  Like you, it is grace!

 

The Industrialisation of Bacon

On Friday morning, Uncle Jeppe called me to his office.  It was only the two of us.  “Eben”, he said, “its 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 with him 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 was brine preparation, pickling, and smoking.

I walked up the stairs in the very industrial looking building.  In his office, I settled in the chair in front of his large dest.  He sat forward in his chair and folded his hands in front of him.  He spoke with a heavy Danish accent.   “You will find very few places on earth who cure their bacon the way we do in this factory.  Ya, in Denmark you will, but in no other land. How you ended up coming here, yes, of course, that is a miracle.  You could not have known what I am about to tell you. Few people know.  You came here because your ancestors hail from Denmark and the spice trader in Johannesburg talked you into it.  You told me you and Oscar met him purely by accident!  Of course, this is most amazing!”  “There is one other place where they cure bacon like this.  In Ireland.  The reason for this is very simple.  The invention is Irish!  They industrialized the process!”

“All right, here the information is a bit sketchy but I believe the man responsible for the invention was a proficient chemist, William Oake.  For sure it is reported that he was from Ulster in Northern Ireland.  I was told by friends that mention of mild cured bacon, as it was called, appeared from Antrim, Northern Ireland as far back as 1837.  He probably hails from a place not far from there.”

 

Oake industrialised bacon curing and he did so magnificently!   It is, according to Uncle Jeppe, exactly the system developed by Oake sometime before 1837 which we follow in his factory.  The carcass is put on the factory floor which must be made from concrete.  We lightly sprinkle it with saltpeter so that any leftover blood is drawn from the meat.  We then put the meat in curing tanks.  The bottom of the tank is sprinkled with salt.  We call the sides of pork, flitches.  One row of flitches is stacked on the bottom.  We lightly sprinkle saltpeter 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.

Lastly, a lid is placed inside the tank with an upright on top and 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 1Olbs. of salt we add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar; 1 lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella.” Sal prunella a mixture of refined nitre and soda.  Nitre, is refined saltpeter 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)  This means that saltpeter plays a very important role as does the grade of saltpeter.

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 saltpeter are again used exactly as it was done during the first salting.  Now the real trick comes in.  The same pickle is used!  After seven days it is 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.

We then place the bacon in tanks of cold water.  Here it is soaked overnight.  The next morning we wash them well with a brush and hang to dry.  When it is properly dried, we trim it and hang for smoking. (3)  Oake’s invention is probably the the stepwise process of repeated light salting which starts as soon as the pig is slaughtered, the use of specially designed tanks, his insistence on a good factory floor, his scientific description of the preservation process, incorporating the steps of the turning of the meat, which was not being done with barrel pork, and the final soaking in cold water.  The last important step in his process is incorporating the re-use of the old brine.”

 

Uncle Jeppe believes that Oake’s genius was to pull various technologies together that has been developed in various parts of the world over many years and develop a coherent system.  He eliminated weaknesses and exploited strengths. He told me that “when I started looking into the different aspects of curing that is united in Oake’s invention, I wondered what exactly did Oake invent?  It is possible that the entire process of handling the animal from killing to actual bacon is his claim to fame and not any one particular part of the invention.  As is so often with great inventors, they often take information which is out there and combines it in new and useful ways.  This may be the exact legacy of Oake.  He thought through the entire process, packaged it, named it and then advocated it.  To the Irish belongs the credit for this!”

“Friends of mine,” Uncle Jeppe said to prove his point “suggested similar techniques on the re-use of brine to me as far back as 1830.  They wrote that the brine mix must be boiled over a gentle fire for the impurities to rise to the top before these were skimmed off and the brine allowed to cool down.  They reported that such brine is re-used “with advantage”.  Before it is re-used, the old brine must be boiled first and water and the other ingredients must be added proportionately.  This may actually be a report on the process invented by Oake which may take the invention by Oake back to 1830.”

Like a good lawyer, Uncle Jeppe presented his next set of evidence, acknowledging that his first argument may not be that strong since the actual invention by Oake may be what was described by his friends.  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 a weight brought to bear upon the upper board so as to squeeze out the blood. Afterward, 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 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 salt-petre. 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)

Uncle Jeppe placed the paper on his desk and folded his hands again.  “How closely does this describe what we do in our factory and the mild cure process of William Oake!” “Almost a 100 years later, in our time, pressure pumps were introduced to inject the brine into the meat through needles.  A plank would 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 would pump 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 the prescribed time before it is removed and smoked.”

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

As I sit here, writing, as tired as I am, I see him sitting in front of me.  I want to write as much as I can today lest I forget something. The next element Oake improved on was the actual place where the curing is done.  Instead of wood, Oake designed special curing tanks and moving away from barrels with its obvious drawback of using wood to cure bacon in and the accompanying problem of insects that inhabit the wood.  The next major improvement was in the design of the actual brine.   The most interesting aspect of his cure is his use of sal prunella.  He used a very pure form of saltpeter.  Not the kind that is used as fertilizer, but the kind that is used to make black powder.  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.”

“Apart from the use of sal prunella, Oak used a position proposed by none other than Liebig 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 meat.  Oake explains that it was believed that salt drew out the albumen from the meat and it is when water comes into contact with the albumen that putrefaction sets in.  The essence of the invention, according to him, is that the meat is cured while the albumen remains in the meat and does not taste as salty as dry cured bacon. (2)

Uncle Jeppes conclusion is that “Oake’s invention rests, then, on the stepwise process, the use of specially designed tanks and his scientific description of the preservation process which was made possible by his training as a chemist.  This gave his system instant credibility because he was able to describe it in the scientific language of our time.”

The thing about the pickle

The re-use of the brine is absolutely mesmerisingly interesting!  Some of the men working with me on the floor call it the mother brine.  Andreas’ mom tells me that the exact same thing happens when she makes sourdough bread.  They keep a small piece of dough which they constantly feed and re-use.  They call it the mother dough.  In some household, there are doughs of which the age is measured in generations.  In the same way, the bacon or ham brine is reused for many years.  The older the brine, the better!  When it becomes a bit muddy, all you do is to boil it and leave it to cool down.  Let any sediment sink to the bottom and scoop the clear brine off after you removed any impurities that may have floated to the surface.  (5)

Smoking Bacon and Hams

After the bacon has been cured, it is smoked.  I have 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 center 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.  (6)

Benefits

The new system that Oake developed is much cheaper than dry curing and the bacon is soft and not nearly as salty as dry cured bacon.  The bacon lasts a lot longer in any climate compared to dry cured bacon.  The downside of the entire undertaking is the huge capital input that is needed to build such a factory.  Uncle Jeppe told me that I should not be overly worried about this because the Danes has, in his opinion, devised the most perfect way of overcoming this hurdle.

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, 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 is how all Europe is doing it.  The uniqueness of the system blows my mind.

 

How did it get to Denmark?

Uncle Jeppe sat back in his chair and wiped his 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 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 by-products from milk and sell it to England and Germany.  Someone from the pork industry learned about the new mild cured bacon produced in Ireland.  We tried many times to sent 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.  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 installment 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.  In 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.  My mind is still racing but I am so exhausted that tiredness is taking over.  I will now sleep well!  After you read my letters, please show them to my mom and dad and please mail them on to Oscar.  How I wish that you were here with me today!  Off all the days since I am gone, I miss you more than ever tonight!

Much love!

Eben

 

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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 very homesick and felt that I have achieved my goal 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 labor involved.”  (Molineux, 1898)

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

 

References:

Bacon Curing – a historical review

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

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Image Credits:

Robert Goodrich and members of the Salt Cured Pig

Photos of Minette and I taken by myself

Chapter 2: Dry Cured Bacon

Introduction

The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000’s to late 1800’s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.

The cast I use to mold the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.

Dry Cured Bacon

Smokehouse 1919 Georgia
Meat Curing Chamber and Smokehouse – 1919

I had an amazing childhood.  Once a year, every winter, we would go to my grandfather, Oupa Eben’s farm.  The adult men would hunt game for biltong and we would slaughter a pig and make our own bacon.  My grandfather’s full name was Ebenhaezer and his surname was Kok.  Kok is the Dutch word for chef or kook. The occupation of a very distant relative is certainly the historical roots of the surname.  My mom insisted that I be christened Ebenhaezer Kok van Tonder, after my grandfather, despite her dad’s opposition to using his full name and surname as my names.  “Just call the boy, Eben,” he told her, but she did not and I was stuck with a long name of biblical and Dutch origins.

All the kids helped to make the biltong, droe wors, and bacon.  It was an exciting time for the entire family to work together and each child got a chance to help with the different aspects of butchering and curing.  From as early as I can remember I was fascinated by the curing process.  In Cape Town, I never missed going with my dad to visit Uncle Jacobus.  They would discuss politics and bacon and in those days it was not always two different subjects.  Often producing bacon had its own politics.  For years we made our bacon the same way that Uncle Jacobus and most of the other butchers in Cape Town cured theirs.

Feeding and Size

The basic process was simple.  It started with selecting the right pig and preparing it with the right feed.  The pigs used for bacon should not be too big so that the salt strike through the meat more equally and the smoke penetrate more perfectly.  In Johannesburg, Uncle Jacobus told my dad once, the pigs should be fed maize four to five weeks before they are slaughtered to ensure that the meat is nice and compact, but in the Cape Colony, I know it is wheat or young barley.  Besides firming the meat up, it makes the kidney fat not to be greasy and runny like lard, but hard like beef or mutton fat or suet around the kidneys.

Curing Salt

The curing salt was mixed by ourselves.  It was 27 kg of the finest Cape salt from the West Coast, mixed with  500g of Saltpeter for every 500kg pork to be cured. Salt quality is related to its purity.  Contaminated salt doesn’t cure meat well.

Salting

The next step is salting.  The mixture of salt and saltpeter is rubbed into the meat and spread liberally over the outside.  Butchers are never concerned with oversalting, but rather not giving the meat enough time to cure.  The three curing ingredients, any good butcher will tell you, are salt, saltpeter and time.  In the Kok and Van Tonder household we followed the same philosophy.

The well-trained Cape or Johannesburg butcher sprinkle salt in the bottom of the caskets where the meat was kept during the process and lay it skin down on top of the salt, beginning with hams and shoulders and then placing the small pieces on top.

Drying/ Resalting

Four or five days later the meat was removed and thoroughly rubbed with salt again.  Some butchers, at this point, add a teaspoon of red pepper to each piece.  We never did.  Blood and meat juices that drained out into the casket were cleared out before the meat is put back.  The meat had to be dried out through the process of salting.

Resting

After the first week of salting, the meat was rested to allow the salt to completely penetrate through the meat.  How long the meat rested depends on the size of the piece.  The small pieces, placed at the top will be done two weeks later and can be removed.  Small pieces can, therefore, be salted and rested in 19 days.  The casket is repacked with only the large pieces.  It is important to now rotate the larger pieces so that the ones that were at the bottom be placed at the top and those from the top, at the bottom.  The reason for this is because pressure interferes with the spread of salt through the meat.  Shoulders will be thoroughly salted in about three weeks and hams in four.

Smoking

The colonies became used to smoked bacon because smoking was always done on bacon for exports from England.  Smoked bacon lasts longer.  In South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, America and in Canada, bacon is almost always smoked because this is what people became used to eating.  At that time butchers started building smokehouses and it was important that the bacon should not touch the sides of the smokehouse or that it is not too crowded when hanged so that the meat pieces touch.  There had to be a good circulation of smoke and air in the smokehouse.

The smoking time and resting time was the same.  Four weeks for hams, three weeks for shoulders and two weeks for small pieces.  Humidity is the main reasons why it has always been difficult to make good bacon in the Cape Colony.  The Cape has winter rainfall and dampness is not good for smoking bacon.  Dampness that settles on the meat gives the bacon a sour taste.  This is the reason why we do not cure our bacon at home but instead trek to my grandparent’s farm into the interior where winters are dry.

Oakwood is good enough for smoking but good American or European bacon is smoked with maple chips or hickory logs. Two fires a day is enough if they are well made.  I know that some butchers occasionally throw some red pepper on the fire.  It is said by some that it keeps insects away after smoking and improves the flavour somewhat.

Maturing

After smoking, the bacon is matured by leaving it in the smokehouse for at least the same length of time as it was rested.  No shorter than two weeks.  If the smokehouses are secure against insects and are dark and cool, the meat can be kept there for maturing, but Uncle Jacobus tells me there are only a few in the colony like that.  When summer approaches, the bacon is, in any case, taken down and packed away for storage.  We always covered it with salt, hickory ash or oat when it was packed away to secure it against insects and dripping.  We kept it in a cool, dry place.  Hams, my dad believed at that time, are best packed in powdered charcoal.  This not only prevents insects from getting to it but also off flavours from developing.  It also keeps the meat dry (1)

The meat was salty, for sure and as my parents did not listen to my Oupa Eben’s advice on naming me, so they did not stick to Uncle Jacobus’ recipe.  My dad never told me where he got the new recipe from, but when I was in my early teens him and Oupa Eben changed the recipe.  I am sure he got it from an immigrant or a traveler who stayed over at the Cape.  He was not a butcher and would not have come up with it himself.

The new recipe was a major change.  Ouma Susan and my mom were very skeptical.  I heard them in the kitchen complaining that we are about to waste a very nice pig.  I don’t think my dad even discussed it with Uncle Jacobus who was a very conservative man when it came to meat.  He was sure to have talked my dad out of such a wild scheme, I am sure!

The pig was selected in the usual way and prepared by feeding it wheat by Oupa.  We waited for a very cold morning when the pig was killed and the hams and sides were left to dry in the breeze outside and then placed in the cooler.  The cooler was a new addition to the farm.  It was a square construction, similar to the smokehouse, built from with two layers of brick, filled in with charcoal in the middle.  Water was trickled down from its roof over the sides and onto the charcoal.  After the meat dried, it was cooled down in this manner for 24 hours or so.

The major change was that my dad used molasses.  After the cooling and drying, the hams and sides were rubbed with it.  They handled the preparation of the salt completely differently.  The salt was put in a cast iron pan and fried till it was red hot and a dry fine powder formed.  The hot salt was then quickly spread over the smeared pork sides and hams.  When it cooled down sufficiently, it was thoroughly mixed in by hand.  The meat was returned to the cooler and after three days the process was repeated.  My dad gave thick hams an extra treatment by making small cuts in the meat all the way to the joints and filling it with hot salt.

This was the new “Van Tonder” Salting and Drying steps.  It was repacked in the cooler and left for a couple of weeks.  They made sure that the cooler was dry.  After two or three weeks, it was ready for smoking.

Smoking

During smoking, great care was taken to ensure the heat stays as low as possible by not making more than two fires per day.  As always, my dad used oak wood, but he told me that in the Transvaal they would probably use corn cobs if they tried to imitate our new recipe.  Apparently, the Germans also use hickory.

The new recipe called for one to calculate the time that the meat is totally surrounded by smoke which had to be a total of 100 to 120 hours.  This worked out to around 15 days if the smoke was kept up for 8 hours in the day and the meat was left in the smokehouse overnight with no fire.  As kids, it was our job to regularly inspect the smokehouse to see if the smoke is still thick enough and the temperature still low.  Any deviation was immediately reported and later years the entire process was left to us.

Maturing

After smoking the meat was hung up in a dry and cool place to mature for two or three weeks as we have always done.  The day when my dad walked into the large farmhouse with a piece of bacon in his one hand for testing, that day I learned a valuable lesson about success.  You know it when you, in this instance, taste it and triumph was literally sweet.  My mom, Ouma Susan, and all the kids came into the kitchen.  My Oupa Eben followed close on my dads heels.  I knew they tested it in the cooler already and this was my dad’s victory parade.  My mom took a large pan and placed it on the coal stove.  She dropped a small piece of butter into it and as soon as it started to bubble, she placed the thinly sliced rashers of bacon onto it.

A soft, sweet, delicious aroma filled the kitchen.  It slowly and gently crept through the entire house.  I saw the bacon rashers in the thick black pan change colour from a soft pale white to a dark golden brown as the sugar caramelised.  She took a fork and picked each rasher up with care, placing them on a plate.  We each had some.

The flavour exploded in my mouth, expecting the salty taste of our old recipe.  This was also salty, but in between every experience of salt was a cascade of delightful soft sweetness delivered by the molasses.  The pork, molasses, and salt proved to be perfect dance partners.  That day I learned a second lesson which I will never forget.  Good food elicits a powerful physical sensation.  I tasted the bacon with my entire body.  It was heavenly!

My dad was sitting by the table watching our every reaction.  My mom stood motionless in the middle of the floor, as if in a trance.  She was a “blunt” woman, not given to drama, but this time was different.  As if the bacon caused temporary insanity, she slowly turned to my dad.  “I have never. . . . ”  My Oupa completed her sentence by paraphrasing what we all knew she wanted to say.  “Ongelooflik!” (unbelievable)

So, a legend was born.  When we got home my dad took some of the bacon to Uncle Jacobus.  We sat under the enormous trees around his Woodstock house talking bacon till late that night.  He loved it.   To say that bacon was a deeply entrenched subject in our family is not an understatement.

Combrink & Co. soon started selling bacon cured with my dad’s recipe.  Strangers would stop him in the street and congratulate him on it.  The mayor once proposed a toast to him and wished that he would grace the Cape Colony with much more similar inspirations.   We kept going to the farm every year to make our own.  When the process was done we would roll the bacon in newspapers and tightly pack it in caskets, covering the packed meat with a thick layer of wood ash.  We kept making small changes every year and the process of making it remained as enjoyable as eating it.

It is strange that even as a child, being on the farm with my parents, grandparents, brothers, cousins, uncles, and aunts, I knew that these days would not last.  That knowledge did not make me sad.  It created in me a desire, on the one hand, to tell the story and on the other hand to start on a lifelong quest of creating many similar experiences.  One day, I knew, it would all end, for me also, but until that day it became a lifelong quest to never stop making delicious bacon and insatiable experiences.  I was happy.

One day we were on a neighbor’s farm playing in the mulberry trees when my dad called us to the house.  Oupa Eben passed away from a heart attack that morning on the doctor’s table during a checkup.  Back on their farm, I was crying in the kitchen and my mom held me saying that there is now only one Eben left in our family.

I remember how my grandmom cried when she cleared his razor from the bathroom which he used that morning.  Soon my dear grandmom herself would follow him to their eternal home as would my grandparents on my dad’s side.  Eventually, my mom and dad also departed and in the end, I knew that life is as life always was and is meant to be.

As I sit here, years later, in a small apartment in Johannesburg I know that even though they are all gone we have their memories and our amazing stories.  We forever will have the sweet smell of delicious bacon cured with salt and molasses, cold smoked to perfection over two weeks on my grandparent’s farm.  Their stories and the soft, gentle aroma of bacon lingering in the old farmhouse remains as vivid to me as the day it was created.

I am glad my mom did not listen to my Oupa and shorten my names.

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green-previous  green-home-icon  green-next

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(c) eben van tonder

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Note 1.  Modern dry curing procedure.  See Dry Cured Cold Smoked Bacon

References

Making Bacon, New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusettes), 29 Jan 1840, p3.

Dry curing pork and beef (with molasses), The Indiana Herald, 17 December 1879, page 6, recipe by Mr. Gilette as told by an American Agriculturalist.

Photo Credit

Meat Curing and Smokehouse – Built in Goria after plans by the United States Dep of Agriculture.  Photo – 1919 from Woodford County Journal (Eureka, Illinois), 20 Jan 1919, p 3.

Bacon and the art of living 15: Concerning the direct addition of nitrite to curing brine

by Eben van Tonder

This article is available for download in pdf: Concerning the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines

ebenvt bacon belly ebenvt Prague Powder

Introduction

Bacon and the art of living is a study in the birth of the elements of bacon curing.  Neither the chemical reactions, nor the different mechanical processes are simple.  Everything about bacon is complex and beautiful.  One of the most amazing stories within the grand story of bacon, is the story of sodium nitrite.

Pork is changed into bacon by the reaction of nirtrite (NO2-).  With salt, it is the curing agent.  The meat industry uses nitrite in the form of an ionic compound, sodium nitrite.  It is sold as Quick Cure or Insta’ Cure, Prague Salt, Prague Powder or simply Pink Salt or Curing Salt.  It is coloured pink to distinguish it from ordinary salt (sodium chloride).  Every spice company sells it.  It is the essential ingredient in the meat curing process.

Meat changes colour from the red fresh meat colour to an unappetising brown colour within days. (1)  If one injects nitrite into the meat or rubs a mixture of salt and a small percentage of nitrite onto it, the meat will develop an appatizing reddish/ pinkish fresh meat colour (Hoagland, Ralph.  1914) and a characteristic cured taste.  It will retain this colour for weeks and months if packed in the right conditions.  (1)  Nitrite provides an indispensable hurdle against a particularly nasty food pathogen, clostridium botulinum.  It also endows the meat with a distinct cured taste.

During ages past, it has however not been nitrite that was added to meat to accomplish this, but its cousin, nitrate (NO3-).  They may be cousins, but are very different in characteristics. Nitrate takes several weeks or even months to cure meat where nitrite accomplishes the same task in 12 hours.  How the change happened from using nitrate or salpeter in meat curing to nitrite is an epic story.

Overview

This article tracks the migration of the meat industry from the use of saltpeter (potassium or sodium nitrate) as curing agent to sodium nitrite.  It gives an overview of the scientific discoveries which started to reveal the mechanisms of meat curing.   This understanding lead to the realisation that a direct application of nitrite as the curing agent will be vastly superior to the use of saltpeter (nitrate).

This was a dramatic discovery since in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the world saw nitrite as a dangerous drug at best and a poison that polluted drinking water and cause death of cattle.  Using this directly in food and meat curing was unthinkable.

Sodium nitrite was available in this time for application in the coal-tar dye and medical industries.  Science and engineering have however not worked out its large scale production in a way that will make it a commercially viable proposition for direct use in meat curing from a price and availability perspective.

World War One provided the transition moments required to change everything.  Germany invested heavily in nitrogen related technology for the war.  The most organised scientific and engineering environment on the planet in the early 1900’s focused its full attention on overcoming the manufacturing challenges in the service of the manufacturing of munitions.  It also required this technology to overcome the challenge of being cut off, as a result of the war, from the natural sodium nitrate deposits in Chili that it required as fertilizer to drive its enormous agriculture sector during the war.  At the same time, the use of saltpeter in meat curing was prohibited under the leadership of Walther Rathenau so that the valuable nitrate could be reserved for manufacturing of munitions.

This prohibition, I believe, was the initial spark that caused butchers to change to the use of sodium nitrite.  At the same time, sodium nitrite was being produced in large volumes since it had, in its own right, application in the manufacturing of explosives.  Health concerns and probably the need to have it reserved for munitions, lead to a ban, similar to nitrate, on its use in meat curing.  So, World War One solved the scientific challenges of large scale manufacturing of sodium nitrite, the engineering challenges of building production facilities and provided the impetus for the meat industry to change by banning the use of saltpeter in meat curing.  The ban was lifted after the war.

Following the war, Germany had to find markets for its enormous war time chemical stock piles.  One of the ways it “sold” sodium nitrite was as a meat curing agent based on its inherent benefits of curing consistency and the vastly shorter curing time required.

It was introduced to the world mainly through the Chicago based firm, Griffith Laboratories, who imported it as Prague Salt from Germany and later improved on it by fusing the sodium nitrite to sodium chloride and sold it as Prague Powder.

Early humans to Polenski (1891)

Early humans did not know they added nitrate to the meat.  A mixture of salt and a small amount of saltpeter was used to cure meat in order to preserve it and to retain the fresh meat colour.

Saltpeter is found naturally around the world in typically dry areas.  Deposits exist in India, China, Mexico, the USA, and the Middle East.  Despite its wide occurrence, the concentration of natural saltpeter is low.  (Whittaker, CW, 1932: 10)

Saltpeter is also made by human effort.  Europe, particularly Germany and France, Great Britain, India and the United States all acquired the technology to produce satpeter.  (Van Cortlandt, P, 1776:  7, 8)

In South Africa, saltpeter deposits are found in the Griquatown beds of the Transvaal geological system.  It extends from just South of the Orange River Northwards to the Kalahari Desert and then Eastwards into the Old Transvaal from Zeerust to Polokwane. The nitrate deposits occur in the middle portions of these beds, in softer and more decomposed shale.  These South African reserves have fortunately never been mined even though it was used on a small scale to make gunpowder for the old Boer government.  (Whittaker, CW, 1932: 10)

Saltpeter was at the heart of the arms race of the middle ages.  It was used mainly in gunpowder, but as the worlds population grew, it became indispensable as a fertilizer and for curing meat. (See Bacon and the art of living, chapters 2, 3 and 4)

The French chemist, Antoine Lavoisier worked out its chemical composition.  It is an ionic compound consisting of the metal potassium and its power is nitrate.  Potassium Nitrate.  (Mauskopf, MSH.  1995:  96)  Trade in Saltpeter around the world was done through companies such as the Dutch East Indian Company (Dutch abbreviation, VOC) who traded it for its main use as an ingredient in gunpowder.  It was by volume one of the largest commodities traded by the Dutch East Indian Company who set up the trading post in 1652 that became Cape Town.  

Major developments shifted the balance of power away from Indie, China and home grown saltpeter production to South America where huge deposits of sodium nitrate were discovered that would become the principal source of the worlds nitrate for much of the 1800’s.

A man walks down a dirt road in the Atacama Desert. Despite being one of the most inhospitable places on earth, the Atacama is still mined: in 2010 this made world-wide news, when the Copiapó mining accident led to the dramatic rescue of 33 trapped miners (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills).
A man walks down a dirt road in the Atacama Desert. Despite being one of the most inhospitable places on earth, the Atacama is still mined: in 2010 this made world-wide news, when the Copiapó mining accident led to the dramatic rescue of 33 trapped miners (AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills).

A popular legend tells the story of the discovery by two Indians in the Atacama desert in the South of Peru.  According to the legend, after a hard day’s work, they camped in the Pampa and started a campfire to warm themselves.  All of a sudden the ground started to burn and they ran away, thinking that they have seen the devil.  They reported the event later to a priest in Camina who returned to the site.  He had it analysed and found it to contain sodium nitrate (the same power as potassium nitrate, but linked to another common metal).  The priest, according to the story, threw the rest of the soil in the courtyard of his house and saw the plants grew vigorously.  He recommended the soil as an excellent tonic for the plant kingdom.  (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :433)

So was discovered the enormous sodium nitrate deposits of the Atacama desert. The fertilizer properties of the salt was known long before the 1600’s.   There are references to saltpeter and the nitrate ground in 1604.  During the time of the Spanish Conquest, in the 1700’s, miners working in the South of Peru realised that gunpowder could be manufactured from the material in the soil instead of potassium nitrate.  (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :433)

A report published in 1803 by Juan Egana, Secretary of the Royal Court of Mines in Chile showed the Huasco region is “covered in a large part by a crust of niter salt, well crystallized, and several inches thick” (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :434)

The region was developed and by 1850 exports reached 24 000 tons/ year.  In 1910 it was 2.4 million tons per year and by 1916, 3 million tons per year from 97 plants. (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :434)

By the beginning of the 1900’s the country buying the largest quantity of the Chilean saltpeter was Germany (Wisniak, J, et al., 2001 :434) who used it aggressively in their agriculture sector as fertilizer.

There is a close correlation between sodium and potassium nitrate.  Its difficult to distinguish between sodium and potassium nitrate just by tasting it.  Scientists were able to distinguish between the two compounds from the mid 1600’s and knew that sodium nitrate had a much greater ability to attract water (Whittaker, CW, 1932:  3).  This made sodium nitrate a much better curing agent than potassium nitrate.

Nitrite was described in 1864 by the English Physiologist, B. W. Richardson.  He outlined how to manufacture it and its chemical properties.  (Wells, D. A., 1865:  233)  Much earlier, in 1777 the prolific Swedish chemist Scheele, working in the laboratory of his pharmacy in the market town of Köping, made the first pure nitrite. (Scheele CW. 1777)   He heated potassium nitrate at red heat for half an hour and obtained what he recognized as a new “salt.” The two compounds (potassium nitrate and nitrite) were characterized by Péligot and the reaction established as 2KNO3→2KNO2+O2. (Péligot E. 1841: 2: 58–68) (Butler, A. R. and Feelisch, M.)

The technology existed in the 1800’s to not only produce potassium nitrate (salpeter) and nitrite, but to also test for these.

Remember that curing up till 1890 has been attributed to saltpeter (potassium nitrate) or Chilean saltpeter (sodium nitrate).  In 1891 a German food scientist, Dr Ed Polenski, working for the German Department of Health made an observation that would change the world while studying curing brines.  When he tested the curing brine made from saltpeter and salt, days after it was made, he found nitrite to be  present.  This was surprising since saltpeter is potassium or sodium nitrate, not nitrite.

Dr Ed speculated that the nitrate (NO3-) was changed into nitrite (NO2-) through bacterial action, a reduction step between nitrate and nitrite that was well understood by this time.  He had a hunch that nitrite is responsible for curing of meat and not the nitrate directly, as was previously thought.

From Polenski (1891) to WWI (1914 to 1918)

world war 1

Following Dr Ed’s observations in 1891, considerable resources from around the world were dedicated to understand the chemistry of meat curing.

When World War One broke out, the concept of nitrite as curing agent (as opposed to nitrate) was firmly established.

Ralph Hoagland, Senior Biochemist, Biochemie Division, Bureau of Animal Industry, United States Department of Agriculture, published an article in 1914, Coloring matter of raw and cooked salted meats.  In this article, he shows that nitrite as curing agent was a known and accepted fact by the outbreak of World War One (Hoagland, Ralph.  1914)

Readers who dont have an interest in the detailed description of the key discoveries may want to skip over the rest of this section altogether or glance over it generally.  The goal of the section is to give the reader a sense of how firmly and universally the concept of nitrite as the curing agent was established by 1914.  In the midst of the technical names and jargon, don’t lose the sense of the universal interest.  The 1700’s, 1800’s and beginning of the 1900’s was a time when the average person was as interested in chemistry as we are today about communication and information technology.

The difference between nitrates and nitrites, for example, was taught in school curriculum. An article appeared in the Daily Dispatch in Brainerd, Minnesota in the 20’s, that gives as an example of a diligent high school student, that he or she would know the difference.    (The Brainerd Daily Dispatch (Brainerd, Minnesota).  17 January 1923.  Page 3.)

Following Dr. Polenski’s observation, the German scientist, Notwang confirmed the presence of nitrite in curing brines in 1892, as observed by Dr Polenski, but attributed the reduction from nitrate to nitrite to the meat  tissue itself.  The link between nitrite and cured meat colour was finally established in 1899 by another German scientist, K. B. Lehmann in a simple but important experiment.

Karl Bernhard Lehmann (September 27, 1858 – January 30, 1940) was a German hygienist and bacteriologist born in Zurich.

In an experiment he boiled fresh meat with nitrite and a little bit of acid.  A red colour resulted, similar to the red of cured meat.  He repeated the experiment with nitrates and no such reddening occurred, thus establishing the link between nitrite and the formation of a stable red meat colour in meat. (Lee Lewis, W., 1925: 1243)

In the same year, another German hygienists, K. Kisskalt, confirmed Lehmann’s observations but proved that the same red colour resulted if the meat was left in saltpeter (potassium nitrate) for several days before it was cooked. (Lee Lewis, W., 1925: 1243)

K. B. Lehmann made another important observation that must be noted when he found the colour to be soluble in alcohol and ether and to give a spectrum showing an absorption band just at the right of the D line, and a second band, often poorly defined, at the left of the E line. On standing, the color of the solution changed to brown and gave the spectrum of alkaline hematin, the colouring group (Hoagland, Ralph.  1914).

The brilliant British physiologist and philosopher, John Scott Haldane weighed in on the topic.  He was born in 1860 in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was part of a lineage of important and influential scientists.  (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009.  The Haldane Effect)

J. S. Haldene contributed immensely to the application of science across many fields of life.  This formidable scientist was for example responsible for developing decompression tables for deep sea diving used to this day.  (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009.  The Haldane Effect)

“Haldane was an observer and an experimentalist, who always pointed out that careful observation and experiments had to be the basis of any theoretical analysis. “Why think when you can experiment” and “Exhaust experiments and then think.” (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009.  The Haldane Effect)

An interesting anecdote is told about him from the time when he was studying medicine  in Jena.  He apparently carefully observed the amount of beer being drunk, noting that the students on the average drank about 20 pints per evening.”  (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009.  The Haldane Effect)

Before we look at Haldene’s contribution, let us re-cap what has been determined thus far.

Polenski and Notwang discovered that nitrite were present in a mix of saltpeter and salt, after a while, even though no nitrite were present when the brine was mixed.

Karl Bernhard Lehmann linked nitrite conclusively with the reddening effect of fresh meat that was boiled in a nitrite and water solution with some free acid.  He also showed that this does not happen if fresh meat is placed in saltpeter and water solution and boiled immediately.   K. Kisskalt showed that the same reddening occurred if fresh meat is left in saltpeter for some time.

K. B. Lehmann managed to “isolate” the colour by dissolving it in ether and alcohol and analyze it spectroscopically.

What S. J. Haldele did was to apply the same rigor to cured meat and became the first person to demonstrate that the addition of nitrite to hemoglobin produce a nitric oxide (NO)-heme bond, called iron-nitrosyl-hemoglobin (HbFeIINO). (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009:  119)

Nitrite is further reduced to nitric oxide (NO) by bacteria or enzymatic reactions and in the presence of muscle myoglobin forms iron-nitrosyl-myoglobin. It is nitrosylated myoglobin that gives cured meat, including bacon and hot dogs, their distinctive red color and protects the meat from oxidation and spoiling. (Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009: 119)

This is how he did it.  He concluded (1901) that its red colour is due to the presence of the nitricoxid hemochromogen resulting from the reduction of the coloring matter of the uncooked meat, or nitric-oxid hemoglobin (NO-hemoglobin). (Hoagland, Ralph.  1914)

Remember the observation made by K. B. Lehmann that the colour of fresh meat cooked in water with nitrites and free acid to give a spectrum showing an absorption band just at the right of the D line, and a second band, often poorly defined, at the left of the E line.  (Hoagland, Ralph.  1914)

Haldene found the same colour to be present in cured meat.  That it is soluble in water and giving a spectrum characteristic of NO-hemoglobin. The formation of the red color in uncooked salted meats is explained by the action of nitrites in the presence of a reducing agent and in the absence of oxygen upon hemoglobin, the normal coloring matter of fresh meats. (Hoagland, Ralph.  1914)

Ralp Hoagland (1908) studied the action of saltpeter upon the colour of meat and found that its value as an agent in the curing of meats depends upon the nitrate’s reduction to nitrites and the nitrites to nitric oxid, with the consequent production of NO-hemoglobin.  The red colour of salted meats is due to this compound.  Hoagland conclusively shows that saltpeter, as such, has no value to preserve the fresh colour. (Hoagland, Ralph,  1914: 212)

The reason why the knowledge did not translate to a change in curing brines was very simple.  The technology and infrastructure did not exist to produce enough nitrite commercially to replace saltpeter.  This means that to produce nitrite was very expensive.

There were some attempts to capitalise on the knowledge gained.  The German scientist,  Glage (1909) wrote a pamphlet where he outlines the practical methods for obtaining the best results from the use of saltpeter in the curing of meats and in the manufacture of sausages. (Hoagland, Ralph,  1914: 212, 213)

Saltpeter can only effect the colour of the meat if the nitrate in the saltpeter is reduced to nitrite.  Glage gives for the partial reduction of the saltpeter to nitrites by heating the dry salt in a kettle before it is used.  It is stated that this partially reduced saltpeter is much more efficient in the production of color in the manufacture of sausage than is the untreated saltpeter. (Hoagland, Ralph,  1914: 212, 213)

The fear of nitrites

The lack of a large scale production process for sodium nitrite and the engineering to build these plants were however not the only factors preventing the direct use of sodium nitrite in meat curing brines.  As one review literature from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, one realises that a major hurdle that stood between the use of sodium nitrites in meat curing was the mistrust by the general public and authorities of the use of nitrites in food.  The matter relate to the high level of toxicity of nitrite, a matter that will be dealt with separately in Bacon and the art of living.

The first recorded direct use of nitrite as a curing agent was in 1905 in the USA where it was used in secret. (Katina, J.  2009)   The USDA finally approved its use as a food additive in 1906. (porkandhealth)  This did not mean that the public would accept it.

Sodium Nitrite started to be used in this time as a bleach for flour in the milling industry.  Several newspaper articles reveal public skepticism and the great lengths that the scientific community and industry had to go to in order to demonstrate its safety as a bleaching agent  for flour.  An article appeared in The Nebraska State Journal Lincoln, Nebraska on 29 June 1910 entitled,  “All for bleached flour.  No harm can come from its consumption says experts”.  The article deals with a federal court case about the matter and interestingly enough, it seems from newspaper articles that the government was opposing its use.  Many other examples can be sited.

There is a 1914 reference in the London Times that shows the general view of nitrite as not just restricted to the USA.  The article appeared on 9 June 1914 and a reference is made to sodium nitrite where it is described as “a dangerous drug with a powerful action on the heart.”  (The London Times. 1914.  Page 118)  The reference was to the use of nitrite for certain heart conditions.

It is interesting that sodium nitrite did not find an immediate application in the meat industry, even after it was allowed in 1906 in the USA.

In my view, this points to problems surrounding availability and price.  If the issue was the public perception alone, this could have been overcome with a PR campaign by the meat industry as was successfully done by the milling industry.

On 13 Dec 1915 George F. Doran from Omaha, Nebraska,  filed an application for a patent for a curing brine that contained nitrites.  His application strengthens the evidence that it was not the knowledge of nitrite and its role in curing that was lacking, but availability and price.  He states the objective of his patent application to “produce in a convenient and more rapid manner a complete cure of packing house meats; to increase the efficiency of the meat-curing art; to produce a milder cure; and to produce a better product from a physiological standpoint.”

One of Doran’s sources of nitrite is “sterilized waste pickling liquor which he [I have] discovered contains soluble nitrites produced by conversion of the potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate, or other nitrate of the pickling liquor when fresh, into nitrites. . .”   “Waste pickling liquor is taken from the cured meats.  Nitrites suitable for use in carrying out the present invention may be produced by bacterial action from nitrates and fresh pickling liquor by adding a small percentage of old used pickling liquor. The bacteria in old pickling liquor are reducing bacteria and change nitrates to nitrites.”  (Process for curing meats. US 1259376 A)

The use of old pickle has been described much earlier than Doran’s patent.  His usage of old pickle when he understood the reduction of nitrate to nitrite and nitrite’s role in curing along with the fact that sodium nitrite was available can point to only one reason – price.   It comes 10 years after sodium nitrite was first tested in curing brines for meat and shows that it has never become the curing agent of choice most probably due to limited availability and price.  Much more about this later.

The post WWI era (1918 and beyond)

US troops marching

After WWI something changed.  Saltpeter (potassium or sodium nitrate) has been substituted by the direct addition of nitrite to the curing brines.

The question is who pioneered this.  Why and how did sodium nitrite production become so commonplace that it became available to bacon curing plants around the world?

Industry developments like this do not happen “by itself.”  Someone  drives it in order for it to become general practice in an industry.

Chilean Saltpeter is a good case in point.  Even though natural sodium nitrate deposits were discovered in the Atacama desert, it took a considerable effort on the side of the producers (mainly the Chilean Government) to work out the benefits of sodium nitrate and to market it to the world.  It is, for example, famously reported that the first shipment to Britain was dumped in the sea before the ship docked on account that the cargo attracted customs duty and the ships owners could not see any commercial application for sodium nitrate. (2)

In the same way, the direct application of nitrite in curing brines must have been driven by someone.

The Griffith Laboratories, Inc.

The Chicago based company of Enoch Luther Griffith and his son, Carroll Griffith started to import a mixture of sodium nitrite and salt as a curing substitute for saltpeter from Germany in 1925.  The product was called Prague Salt (Prague Powder, 1963: 3)

The Griffith Laboratories (3) played a key role in marketing the new curing brine in the USA.    They took the concept of the Prague Salt (sodium nitrite) and in 1934 announced an improved curing brine, based on the simple use of sodium nitrite, where they fuse nitrite salt and sodium chloride in a particular ratio.  They called it Prague Powder.  Their South African agents, Crown Mills (4), brought the innovation to South Africa. (Prague Powder, 1963: 3, 4)

It is fair to assume that if Prague Salt was being sold to Griffith in the 1920’s, the German producers must have sold it to other countries and companies around the world also.

The benefits of Prague Salt and later Prague Powder over Saltpeter is dramatic.  Prague Salt (sodium nitrite) does not have the slightly bitter taste of saltpeter (Brown, 1946:  223).  It allows for greater product consistency since the same percentage of nitrate was not always present in the saltpeter and the reduction of nitrate to nitrite takes longer or shorter under various conditions (Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, December 1925: 1243).  The big benefit was however in the curing time required.  Instead of weeks or even months that is required with saltpeter, curing could now be done in days or even hours with sodium nitrite.  (The Food Packer, 1954:  64)  From there, brand names like Quick Cure or Instacure.

This means that we have narrowed the time line for invention of Prague Salt (Sodium Nitrite) to between 1914, the beginning of the Great War and 1925 when Griffith imported it from Germany.

However, a document, published in the USA in 1925 shows that sodium nitrite as curing agent has been known well before 1925.

The document  was prepared by the Chicago based organisation, The Institute American Meat Packers and published in December 1925.  The Institute  started as an alignment of the meat packing companies set up by Phil Armour, Gustavus Swift, Nelson Morris, Michael Cudahy, Jacob Dold and others with the University of Chicago.

A newspaper article about the Institute sets its goal, apart from educating meat industry professionals and new recruits, “to find out how to reduce steers to beef and hogs to pork in the quickest, most economical and the most serviceable manner.”   (The Indiana Gazette.  28 March 1924).

The document is entitled, “Use of Sodium Nitrite in Curing Meats“, and it it is clear that the direct use of nitrites in curing brines has been practiced from earlier than 1925. (Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, December 1925: 1243)

The article begins “The authorization of the use of sodium nitrite in curing meat by the Bureau of Animal Industry on October 19, 1925, through Amendment 4 to B. A. I. Order 211 (revised), gives increased interest to past and current work on the subject.”

Sodium Nitrite curing brines would therefore have arrived in the USA, well before 1925.

It continues in the opening paragraph, “It is now generally accepted that the salpteter added in curing meat must first be reduced to nitrite, probably by bacteria, before becoming available as an agent in producing the desirable red color in the cured product.  This reduction is the first step in the ultimate formation of nitrosohemoglobin, the color principle.  The change of nitrate to nitrite is by no means complete and varies within considerable limits under operating conditions.  Accordingly, the elimination of this step by the direct addition of smaller amounts of nitrite means the use of less agent and a more exact control.”

Griffith describes the introduction and origin of Prague Salt and later, Prague Powder as follows in official company documents:

The mid-twenties were significant to Griffith as it had been studying closely a German technique of quick-curing meats.  Short on manpower and time, German meat processors began curing meats using Nitrite with salt instead of slow-acting saltpeter, potassium nitrate. This popular curing compound was known as “Prague Salt.”  (Griffith Laboratories Worldwide, Inc.)

The World War One link

The tantalizing bit of information from Griffith sets World War One as the background for the practical and large scale introduction of direct addition of nitrite into curing brines through sodium nitrite.

There has to be more to the reason for saltpeter being replaced by sodium nitrite as curing agent than the reasons given by Griffith.  For starters, the meat industry has always been under pressure to work fast with less people due to pressure on profit margins.  The need to cure meat quicker due to short manpower and time as a result of the war could not be the full story.

The World War One link from Griffith does not give all the answers, but it puts the introduction of sodium nitrite to meat curing between 1914 and 1918, at least 7 years before Griffith started to import Prague Salt.

A document from the University of Vienna would fill out the story.  According to it, saltpeter was reserved for the war effort and was consequently no longer available as curing agent for meat during World War One. (University of Vienna). It was reserved for the manufacturing of explosives, and for example, the important industry of  manufacturing nitrocellulose, used as base for the production of photographic film, to be employed in war photography.  (Vaupel, E.,  2014: 462)  It gets even better.  Not only did the prohibition on the use of saltpeter expand the information from Griffith as to why people started using sodium nitrite (macro movements in culture does not take place because of one reason only), but it provide a name to the prohibition.

In August 1914, the War Raw Materials Department (Kriegsrohstoffabteilung or KRA) was set up under the leadership of Walther Rathenau.  It was Rathenau who was directly responsible for the prohibition on the use of salpeter.  (5)  He therefore is the person in large part responsible creating the motivation for the meat industry in Germany to change from saltpeter to sodium nitrite as curing medium of choice for the German meat industry during Wold War One.

Walter Rathenau’s actions may have motivated the change, but it was the developments in synthesizing ammonia, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite which provided the price point for the compound to remain the curing agent of choice, even after the war and after the prohibition on the use of saltpeter was lifted.

Atmospheric Nitrogen

One of the most important scientific riddles to be solved in the late 1800’s/ early 1900’s was how to produce ammonia and its related chemicals from atmospheric nitrogen.  Sir William Crookes delivered a famous speech on the Wheat Problem at the annual meeting of the British Association for the advancement of Science in 1898.

In his estimation, the wheat production following 1897 would seriously decline due to reduced crop yields, resulting in a wheat famine unless science can step in and provide an answer.  He saw no possibility to increase the worlds wheat yield under the prevailing agricultural conditions and with the increase in the world population, this posed a serious problem.  He said,  “It is clear that we are taxed with a colossal problem that must tax the wits of the wisest.”  He predicted that the USA who produced 1/5th of the worlds wheat, would become a nett importer unless something change.  He pointed to the obvious answer of manure, but observed that all available resources  are being depleted fast.

Sir William saw a  “gleam of light in the darkness” and that “gleam” was atmospheric nitrogen.  (Otago Witness.  3 May 1900, Page 4)

It was the German Chemist, Fritz Harber who solved the problem, with the help of Robert Le Rossignol who developed and build the required high pressure device to accomplish this. (www.princeton.edu)

In 1909 they demonstrated that they could produce ammonia from air, drop by drop, at the rate of about a cup every two hours.  “The process was purchased by the German chemical company BASF (a coal tar dye supplier), which assigned Carl Bosch the difficult task of scaling up Haber’s tabletop machine to industrial-level production.  Haber and Bosch were later awarded Nobel prizes, in 1918 and 1931 respectively, for their work in overcoming the chemical and engineering problems posed by the use of large-scale, continuous-flow, high-pressure technology.”  (www.princeton.edu)

“Ammonia was first manufactured using the Haber process on an industrial scale in 1913 in BASF’s Oppau plant in Germany.”  (www.princeton.edu)

It was the vision and leadership of Walther Rathenau, the man responsible for restricting the use of saltpeter, that drove Germany to produce synthesized Chilean Saltpeter.  He saw this as one of the most important tasks of his KRA.  He said:  “I initiated the construction of large saltpeter factories, which will be built by private industries with the help of governmental subsidies and will take advantage of recent technological developments to make the import of saltpeter entirely unnecessary in just few months“.  (Lesch, J. E.,  2000:  1)

Fritz Harber was one of the experts appointed by Rathenau to evaluate a study on the local production of nitric acid.

During World War One production was shifted from fertilizer to explosives, particularly through the conversion of ammonia into a synthetic form of Chile saltpeter, which could then be changed into other substances for the production of gunpowder and high explosives (the Allies had access to large amounts of saltpeter from natural nitrate deposits in Chile that belonged almost totally to British industries; Germany had to produce its own). It has been suggested that without this process, Germany would not have fought in the war, or would have had to surrender years earlier.”  (www.princeton.edu)

So it happened that Germany became the leader in the world in synthesised sodium nitrate production and it effectively replaced its reliance on saltpeter from Chile with sythesised  sodium nitrate, produced by BASF and other factories.

So, as a result of the First World War, sodium nitrite was produced at levels not seen previously in the world and in large factories that was build, using the latest processing techniques and technology from a scientific and an engineering perspective.  Sodium nitrite, like sodium nitrate was being used in the production of explosives.  Nitroglycerin is an example of an explosive used extensively by Germany in World War One that uses sodium nitrite in its production.  (Wikipedia.org.  Nitroglycerin and  Amyl Nitrite)

Ball-and-stick model of Amyl nitrite used in the production of nitroglycerin. Amyl nitrite is produced with sodium nitrite. The diagram shows the amyl group attached to the nitrite functional group.
Ball-and-stick model of Amyl nitrite used in the production of nitroglycerin. Amyl nitrite is produced from sodium nitrite. The diagram shows the amyl group attached to the nitrite functional group.

Sodium nitrite and the coal-tar dye industry

The importance of the manufacturing cost of nitrite and the matter surrounding availability can be seen in the fact that sodium nitrite has been around since well before the war.  Despite the fact that it was known that nitrite is the curing agent and not nitrate, and despite the fact that sodium nitrite has been tested in meat curing agents, probably well before the clandestine 1905 test in the USA,  it did not replace saltpeter as the curing agent of choice.  My hunch is that it did not enter the meat industry as a result of cost.

The technology that ultimately is responsible for synthesising Chilean Saltpeter and made low cost sodium nitrite possible was being incubated in the coal-tar dye and textiles industry and in the medical field.  The lucrative textiles and dye industry was the primary reason for German institutions of education, both in science and engineering to link with industry, resulting in a strong, well organised skills driven German economy. For example, “Bayer had close ties with the University of Göttingen, AGFA was linked to Hofmann at Berlin, and Hoechst and BASF worked with Adolph Baeyer who taught chemists in Berlin, Strasbourg, and Munich.” (Baptista, R. J..  2012:  6)

“In the late 1870s, this knowledge allowed the firms to develop the azo class of dyes, discovered by German chemist Peter Griess, working at an English brewery, in 1858.  Aromatic amines react with nitrous acid to form a diazo compound, which can react, or couple, with other aromatic compounds.” (Baptista, R. J..  2012:  6)

Nitrous acid (HONO) is to nitrite (NO2-) what nitric acid (NO3) is to nitrate (NO3-).

According to K. H. Saunders, a chemist at Imperial Chemical Industries, Ltd., Martius was the chemist to whom the introduction of sodium nitrite as the source of nitrous acid was due.   (Saunders, K. H., 1936:  26)

The economic imperative

The simple fact is that ammonia can be synthesized through the direct synthesis ammonia method at prices below what can be offered through Chilean Satlpeter.  (Ernst, FA.  1928: 92 and 100)  Sodium Nitrite can be supplied at prices below Chilean saltpeter and this made sodium nitrite the most effective curing agent at the lowest price since World War One.

As an example of the cost differences, the price of Nitric Acid (HNO3) from direct synthesis in 1928 was $23.60 per ton HNO3 plus the cost of 606 lb. of NH3 by-product  and from Chilean Nitrate at $32.00 per ton of HNO3, plus the cost of 2840 N NO3 by-product.  (Ernst, FA.  1928: 112)

The advantage of scale and technology

By 1927, Germany was still by far the worlds largest direct syntheses ammonia producer.  Production figures of the year 1926/ 1927  exceeded Chilean saltpeter exports even if compared with the highest levels of exports that Chilean saltpeter ever had in 1917.  A total of 593 000 tons of nitrogen was fixed around the world in 1926/27.  Of this figure, Germany produced 440 000 tons or 74%.  The closest competitor was England through the Synthetic Ammonia and Nitrates Ltd. with a total capacity of 53 000 tons of nitrogen per year.  (Ernst, FA.  1928: 119, 120)

In the USA 7 direct synthesis plants were in operation with a combined capacity of 28 500 tons of nitrogen per year.  (Ernst, FA.  1928: 120)

Supporting evidence from the USA

The thesis that before the war, the production of sodium nitrite was not advanced enough for its application in the meat industry (resulting in high prices and low availability) is confirmed when we consider the situation in the USA.

The first US plant for the fixation of atmospheric nitrogen was build in 1917 by the American Nitrogen Products Company at Le Grande, Washington.  It could produce about one ton of nitrogen per day.  In 1927 it was destroyed by a fire and was never rebuild. (Ernst, FA, 1928: 14)

An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer of 27 September 1923 reports that as a result of cheap German imports of sodium nitrite following the war, the American Nitrogen Products Company was forced to close its doors four years before the factory burned down.  The imports referred to, was as a result of Germany selling their enormous stockpiles of sodium nitrite at “below market prices” and not directly linked to a lower production price in Germany, even though this was probably the case in any event. ( The Cincinnati Enquirer ( Cincinnati, Ohio), 27 September 1923. Page 14.)

The Vienna University document indicate that the fast curing of sodium nitrite was recognised and the ban was lifted when the war ended.  It was this fact that Griffith picks up on in their literature.

This is how it happened that sodium nitrite replaced saltpeter as curing salt.

Conclusion

The ban on the use of saltpeter for non military uses by Walther Rathenau is the likely spark that caused butchers to look at alternative curing systems.  A known alternative was sodium nitrite.  Despite a similar ban on the use of nitrite, later imposed for concerns over the safety of nitrite in meat and because sodium nitrite was also used to produce explosives,  it was available in such large quantities around Germany that it was possible to defy the ban. 

The likely consequence of the developments surrounding the production of atmospheric nitrogen is that sodium nitrite was being produced at prices that was previously not possible.  These prices, combined with the volume of sodium nitrite now available made it a viable proposition to replace saltpeter in meat curing and to remain the curing brine of choice, following the war.

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Notes

(1) “The red color of fresh lean meat, such as beef, pork, and mutton, is due to the presence of oxyhemoglobin, a part of which is one of the constituents of the blood remaining in the tissues, while the remainder is a normal constituent of the muscles. When fresh meat is cooked or is cured by sodium chloride, the red color changes to brown, owing to the breaking down of the oxyhemoglobin into the two constituents, hematin, the coloring group, and the protein, globin.

On the other hand, when fresh meat is cured by means of a mixture of sodium chloride and a small proportion of potassium nitrate, or saltpeter, either as a dry mixture or in the form of a pickle, the red color of the fresh meat is not destroyed during the curing process, the finished product having practically the same color as the fresh meat. Neither is the red color destroyed on cooking, but rather is intensified.” (Hoagland, Ralph.  1914)

(2)   The first export of salitre (sodium nitrate) was authorised by the Chilean government in March 1830 and went to the USA, France, and to Liverpool.  It is the latter shipment which failed and was thrown overboard.  Different sources give different reasons for the action.  One, that price was not attractive,  another, that the excise duties were to high, and a third that the Port captain did not allow the boat to come in because it was carrying a dangerous load.  A few farmers in Glasgow received a few bags.  They used it as fertalizer and reported a three fold increase in crop yield.    (Wisniak, J, et al.  2001:  437)

(3)  Steve Hubbard, Vice President, Global Marketing and Innovation at Griffith Laboratories Worldwide, Inc. graciously provided me with much of the information from company documents.

(4)  Crown Mills was bought out by Bidvest and became Crown National.

(5)   The first War Raw Materials Department (KRA) in Germany was created (KRA) in mid-August 1914,  as suggested by Walther Rathenau.   (Vaupel, E.  2014:  462)  Walter was the son of the founder of AEG and “one of the few German industrialists who realized that governmental direction of the nation’s economic resources would be necessary for victory, Rathenau convinced the government of the need for a War Raw Materials Department in the War Ministry. As its head from August 1914 to the spring of 1915, he ensured the conservation and distribution of raw materials essential to the war effort. He thus played a crucial part in Germany’s efforts to maintain its economic production in the face of the tightening British naval blockade.”

References:

Baptista, R. J..  2012.  The Faded Rainbow: The Rise and Fall of the Western Dye Industry 1856-2000.  From:  http://www.colorantshistory.org/files/Faded_Rainbow_Article_April_21_2012.pdf

Brown, Howard Dexter et al.  1946. Frozen Foods: Processing and Handling

Butler, A. R. and Feelisch, M.  New Drugs and Technologies.  Therapeutic Uses of Inorganic Nitrite and Nitrate From the Past to the Future.  From:  http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/117/16/2151.full

Determination of nitrite in meat products.   University of Vienna, Department of Analytical Chemistry, Food Analytical Internship for nutritionists.

Ernst, FA.  1928.  Fixation of Atmospheric Nitrogen.  D van Nostrand, Inc.

Griffith Laboratories Worldwide, Inc. official company documents.

Hoagland, Ralph.  1914.  Coloring matter of raw and cooked salted meats.  United States Department of Agriculture.  National Agricultural Library.  Digital Collections.

Hwei-Shen Lin.  1978.  Effect of packaging conditions, nitrite concentration, sodium erythrobate concentration and length of storage on color and rancidity development of sliced bologna.   Iowa State University Digital Repository @ Iowa State University

Katina, J. 2009.  Nitrites and meat products.  Czech Association of Meat Processors. http://www.cszm.cz/clanek.asp?typ=5&id=1136

Lang, M. A. and Brubakk, A. O. 2009.  The Haldane Effect.   The American Academy of Underwater Sciences 28th Symposium.Dauphin Island

Lee Lewis, W.  December, 1925.  Use of Sodium Nitrite in Curing Meat.  Industrial and Engineering Chemistry.

Lesch, J. E..  2000.  The German Chemical Industry in the Twentieth Century.  Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Mauskopf, MSH.  1995.  Lavoisier and the improvement of gunpowder production/Lavoisier et l’amélioration de la production de poudre.  Revue d’histoire des sciences

Nitrogen.  University Science Books, ©2011

Otago Witness.  3 May 1900.  Sir William Crookes and the wheat problem.  Issue 2409, Page 4, from:  http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/

Péligot E. 1841.  Sur l’acide hypoazotique et sur l’acide azoteux. Ann Chim Phys.; 2: 58–68.

Prague Powder, Its uses in modern Curing and processing.  1963.  The Griffith Laboratories, Inc.

Process for curing meats.  US 1259376 A

Redondo, M. A..  2011.  Effect of Sodium Nitrite, Sodium Erythorbate and Organic Acid Salts on Germination and Outgrowth of Clostridium perfringens Spores in Ham during Abusive Cooling.  University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

Salem, H. et al.  2006.  Inhalation Toxicology, Second Edition.  Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.

Saunders, K. H.  The Aromatic Diazo-Compounds and their technical applications.  Richard Clay and Company.

Scheele CW. 1777. Chemische Abhandlung von der Luft und dem Feuer. Upsala, Sweden: M. Swederus.

The Brainerd Daily Dispatch (Brainerd, Minnesota).  17 January 1923.  Page 3.

The Food Packer.  Vance Publishing Corporation. 1954

The Indiana Gazette, 28 March 1924

The Indiana Gazette.  28 March 1924.

The Nebraska State Journal Lincoln, Nebraska.  Wednesday, June 29, 1910.   All for bleached flour.  No harm can come from its consumption says experts.  Page 3.  

The Times (London, Greater London).   8 June 1914.  Adulteration.  Examples of fraudulent manufacture.  Page 118

The Times (London, Greater London).  1 May 1919.  Government Property for by direction of the Disposal Board.  Explosives and Chemicals.  Prices were coming down in 1920, as reported in The Cincinnati Enquirer ( Cincinnati, Ohio), 2 July 1920. Page 17.

Van Cortlandt, P, et al.  1776.  Essays upon the making of salt-petre and gun-powder.  Published by order of the Committee of Safety of the colony of New-York.

Vaupel, E.  2014.  Die chemische Industrie im Ersten Weltkrieg
Krieg der Chemiker. Wiley-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

Wisniak, J, et al.  The rise and fall of the salitre (sodium nitrate) industry.  Indian Journal of Chemical Technology.  Vol. 8, September 2001, pp 427 – 438.

Wells, D. A.   1865.  The Annual of Scientific Discovery, Or, Year-book of Facts in Science and Art for 1865.  Gould and Lincoln.

Whittaker, CW, et al.  July 1932.    A Review of the Patents and Literature on the Manufacture of Potassium Nitrate with notes on its occurrence and uses.  United Stated Department of Agriculture.  Miscellaneous Publications Number 192.

http://www.porkandhealth.org/filelibrary/PorkAndHealth/freebies_SodiumNitriteFactSheet.pdf

http://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/Haber_process.html

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/491966/Walther-Rathenau

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitroglycerin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amyl_nitrite

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amyl_nitrite

Images:

Picture 1:  Smoker trolly with pork belly taken by Eben

Picture 2:  Curing salt taken by Eben

Picture 3:  Atacama Desert.  Photograph by  Dario Lopez-Mills/AP.  Source:  http://www.theguardian.com/science/the-h-word/2014/jun/02/caliche-great-war-first-world-war-conflict-mineral

Picture 4:  World War One:  http://www.excaliburunit.org.uk/#/world-war-1/4580632440

Picture 5:  US troops returning from World War One.  http://www.ww1medals.net/WW1-US-Victory-medals.htm

Picture 6:  Amyl nitrite.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amyl_nitrite

Bacon and the art of living 9: Ice Cold in Africa (1)

25 December 1891

Dear Children and my beloved Ava,

It is Christmas today.  I hope you received the gifts I’ve sent you and the letters I’ve sent to each one of you.  I write with mixed feelings and great affection.

Cape Town, 1877
Cape Town, 1877

I miss Cape Town and I miss Table Mountain.  It’s summer back home and you have the most beautiful days of the year.  The sun and the festive atmosphere make one forget about the wind and the rain of the winter that sometimes persists up till new years day.  Mostly, the days in December are glorious!   We always do a long hike on boxing day and new years eve.  This year I’m missing it, but next year we will do it again.

I am also excited because I think back today about all that I have learned.  That curing bacon, like living life, is indeed an art that is worth cultivating.  Paying close attention to how it has been done and the traditions that brought us to this place is not intended as a burden.  It increases the pleasure of its consumption!

Christmas in Copenhagen in unlike any I could have imagined.  For starters, it snows!  The home is cozy and friendly!

Juleaften, as they call Christmas eve is the mots important time of the Christmas celebration.  The entire family is together.  Like we do it at home, great food and family are the focal point of the celebration. (Wikipedia.  Culture of Denmark)

Andreas’ dad told me that after the industrial revolution of the 1860’s, Wood-fired ovens and meat grinders became common items in Danish household and a whole new range of foods started to dominate the Christmas supper. (Madadpakjan-sunshine, Traditional Danish Food).

Andreas’ mom prepared the dish in their wood-fired oven, the same way as my mom and you, Ava do.  She selected a pork roast for last night.

Andreas brought home from Jeppe’s factory a joint of pork from the neck with the rind still on.   He cut through the rind to the meat in narrow, long strips.  His mom then rubbed salt and pepper onto the joint and inserted bay leaves into the cuts and roasted it in a hot oven.

The dish was served with boiled and caramelized potatoes (brunede kartofler). These she specially prepared by melting sugar in a frying pan over strong heat, adding a clump of butter, and allowing a portion of small round peeled potatoes to bathe in the mixture until they become richly browned or caramelized. She also served red cabbage (rødkål) with slices of apples. (Wikipedia.  Flaeskesteg)

You would have loved it!

Last night was my chance to tell a few stories.  It was snowing and the discussion around the table turned to the matter of using ice to preserve food and why we have difficulty curing bacon in South Africa.  I think I finally know why Oscar and my attempt to cure bacon did not work.

Edward Smith in his book, Foods, that you are familiar with at this point, listed cold in 1876 as one of the ways to preserve food.

For him refrigeration was mainly the supply of  ice.  Remember that the challenge in the 1800’s was to supply enough food for the old world and a solution was to import food from the new.  Apart from the long voyage from the new world to the old, the fact is that new worlds have warm climates.

Smith says that the “real difficulty is to provide a sufficient quantity of ice at the ports of South America and Australia.” (Smith, Edwards, 1873:  25)  of course, one solution was to load a ship with enough ice to make the journey to the new world, load the meat and transport it back to the old world, still under refrigeration of the ice.

This would be very costly though and Smith stays that “so long as our supplies of meat are from hot climates the expense will be a serious impediment to such a commercial enterprise.”  He suggested that countries with cold climates should either start producing meat for the old world or “by storing large quantities of ice in an economical manner at the ports of other meat-producing countries” (Smith, Edwards, 1873:  25, 26) such as Australia.

He refers to the work of Messrs. Nasmyth of Manchester who “produced machines on the patent of M Mignot, by which 50 lbs. of ice may be made per hour at the cost of condensing and then rerafying air, ”  (Smith, Edwards, 1873:  26)

Andreas knows a lot about the development of refrigeration.  He has been to London and many American cities.

Apparently, ice houses started to be build in the northern hemisphere on the property of wealthy owners from the 1700’s.  These were generally brick-lined pits, build below the ground where ice from surrounding lakes were stored.   (Dellino, C, 1979: 2)  This concept of this natural refrigeration was first described by Frederic Tudor (1783 – 1864). (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

In the 1800’s commercial cold storage facilities were being build at harbors in America and Europe, mainly for the storage of carcasses, fruit and dairy products.  The ice was cut from frozen ponds, lakes or rivers in the winter and stored in the heavily insulated ice house.  (Mfo.me.uk, Harris) (2)  It is no wonder that Smith equated refrigeration to the production of ice!

As Smith observed, this was obviously not an option for the warmer climates of the new world from the Southern Hemisphere.  It never gets cold enough in Cape Town for any ice to form.

From what Andreas told me, it is clear that the seeds for solving the refrigeration problem were planted and in the 1600’s, the Englishman  Robert Boyle (1627 – 1691) showed that water under pressure have a reduced boiling temperature. (3)  (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

The mathematics Professor, Sir John Leslie (1766 – 1832) at Edinburgh university in Scotland created ice in his laboratory by absorbing water from a water container with sulfuric acid , thereby producing a vacuum in the closed container.  The vacuum in turn  caused the saturation temperature of the water producing the vapor to be low enough to form ice.

Dr William Cullen at Glasgow University observed in 1755 showing that an isolated water container dropped in temperature during evaporation.  In 1871 Thomas Masters in England demonstrated an ice cream maker where a temperature of close to freezing point can be obtained if a brine mix of salt and ice is used. (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

The American Charles E. Monroe of Cambridge, Massachusetts, demonstrated a food cooler that effected cooling through the evaporation of water through the porous lining of the refrigerator.  (2) (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

M. Howell observed in 1755 that air leaving a pressurized air line cooled when it escaped.  A patent, based on this observation, was granted to Dr. John Gorrie (1803 – 1855) for the first machine to work successfully on the air refrigeration cycle.  (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

In 1824 Ferdinand P E Carre showed that ammonia could reach much lower temperatures than water when boiled at the same pressure.  (4) (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

Refrigeration was “in the air” in the 1800’s.  It was just a matter of time before this was being done successfully in our homes, at harbours, meat markets and on ships.

The Groote Kerk, 1841.  Center of religious life for David Graaff.  Also the church where Jacobus Combrinck was buried from in 1891.
The Groote Kerk, 1841. Center of religious life for David Graaff. Also the church where Jacobus Combrinck was buried from in 1891.

It is doubtful that David Graaff kept abreast of all the particular developments in refrigeration that Andreas is telling me about.   The practically minded man that I know, and without having talked to him about this, my guess is that he paid close attention to the development of freezing technology generally.  In particular, the race to apply it to ships in order to transport frozen meat successfully from Australia to England and the creation of refrigerated railway car’s.  This affected him directly, after all, and I am sure he noticed the commercial opportunity immediately.

He no doubt took careful notice of the development in England where the railways were using refrigerated cars for transporting perishable goods.  Cold storage works were springing up in docklands and markets from Auckland and Buenos Aries, London, Antwerp and Chicago. (Brooke Simons, P, 2000:  22)

One year after he was appointed manager of Combrinck & Co, he noticed the docking of the Dunedan.  This was the first successful shipment of meat between Australia and England.  David was consumed by the quest to make Cape Town a world class city generally and by making Combrinck & Co a world leader in the supply of meat.  (Brown, R.)  It is only to be expected that David must have identified the creation of large storage works in Cape Town and across Southern Africa and linking these by the equipping of railway cars with refrigeration as a priority and something that he could be instrumental in.  He had the background and the means to effect this.

I would expect that one of the things that was on his mind as the Dunedan docked was the question:  why is the beef not being transported from South Africa?  A much closer source than Australia and why are we not setting up a network to support similar distribution across Africa?

Where our current quest is discovering the art of preserving pork through the curing process and creating of the worlds best bacon, David was looking at solving the problem of preserving meat for later use by the application of refrigeration.

He set out in the 1880’s on a world journey to investigate refrigeration and to familiarise himself with every aspect of the meat trade in England and in the USA.  In Chicago he looked at the most modern systems of meat packing.  As soon as he returned to Cape Town, he set out to apply refrigeration to Combrinck & Co.  (Brooke Simons, P, 2000:  22, 23)

Great business leaders often capitalist in areas where they already have a presence.  Combrinck & Co was best positioned to take advantage of refrigerated railway car’s and cold storage works.   A Scotsman, Sir Donald Currie, the owner of the Castle Line of mail ships, servicing the line between South Africa and Great Britain, was best positioned to capitalise on the transport of meat between South Africa and England. (5)  Currie’s first ship with a refrigeration facility was Grantully Castle which set sail from Cape Town on 13 February 1889 with 15 tons of grapes.  The experiment with grapes was a disaster, but David was ready with a supply of a far more durable product to ship under refrigeration.  Meat!  (Brooke Simons, P, 2000:  23)

There is a very specific application of refrigeration to the production of bacon.

Remember that I told you how Oscar and myself tried to cure our own bacon on his farm in the Potchefstroom district and how, when we ate it, the meat was off?  I think that I finally have the answer why this happened.

It was August 1890 when we tried to make our own bacon based on what we were told by an old Danish spice trader in Johannesburg.  August is the last official winter month in Potchefstroom, but its already warm during the days with temperatures reaching as high as 25 deg C and sometimes even higher.

We thought that the curing salt would prevent the purification of the meat, but the fact is that pork takes approximately 7 days to cure properly.  Whether wet or dry cure is used, the brine must have sufficient time to permeate the joint in order for it to do its preserving work.  Pork goes off quicker than beef or lamb.  If it has not been cured, it will be off within 3 days under warmer conditions like we have in Potchefstroom.

The only way that this can be done in our warm climate is under constant refrigeration.  This is also the reason that it is good for us to focus on the curing of bacon and possibly other pork cuts and not on cold storage refrigeration as David is doing.  Our investment is in the process of curing and not in large scale storage or transportation.  Donald Currie and David Graaff have already staked these claims.  We have neither the money, not the time to compete against them.  Since they are not experts in the curing and processing of pork, this is an area where we can steak our claim with a great likelihood of success for our venture.

The fact that David is about to build a new, much bigger storage works in Cape Town will be to our advantage since we can use this as refrigerated storage for our carcasses as well as for our bacon, before it is sold to ships and clients throughout South Africa.

Not just have I received a letter from David, informing us that he is interested in discussing our venture when he visits Denmark early in 1892, but I have also received a telegram from Oscar that he will be visiting at about the same time.

I have mailed both and asked if we can combine their visits.  I believe Oscar and David will have much to discuss on the trip and will find great pleasure in each others company since they are of similar personalities.

We will need some form of refrigeration at our factory in Cape Town, but not to the size as David is building.  David and Oscar will have many practicalities to discuss.

Another lesson that I have learned is that we can look at cooking methods and technology that are generally available to households and build the products that we produce around these technology.

Take as an example the meat that Andreas’ mom prepared for Christmas.  I see a clear trend that people have less and less time to prepare dishes that were prepared by our grandparents in the home.  Ovens are also becoming generally available to households in Cape Town and this opens up the opportunity for preparing roasts.

If we can prepare neck joints with the skin on and cut in the same way as Andreas did, in narrow lines, cut through the rind and fat, to the meat and we can rub salt and spices onto the meat in the same way as the housewife would do, people who dont have as much time as our grandparents did will support us.

This level of curing and preparing of meat is something that David and his Combrinck & Co never had to do.  They are used to supplying basic joints to clients throughout the Cape Town and surrounding area.  It is here that Oscar and I intend specializing and being different.

Here is my Christmas promise to you.  In two years time, this time, I will be in Cape Town and Oscar, I and the Woody’s team will make you a Prague Ham.

Prague Ham
Prague Ham

I have learned that we will be in the business of creating the exceptional for people from all walks of life.  The fact that they will eat our food is a sacred trust.

The Christmas lunch is coming up.  I cant wait to see the magic that Andreas’ mom has prepared for us.   My sadness of missing you is balanced by the excitement to share with you everything that we are learning.

Christmas love and greetings from Denmark!

Your Dad.

Bacon and the art of living Home Page

 

Notes

(1)   Ice Cold in Africa is the title of a book by Phillida Brooke Simons, on “The history of the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Limited” which was taken over by Tiger Brands in October 1989.  ICS dates its official foundation to Wednesday, 19 February 1902 when it was legally registered in Pretoria.  The company’s origins were much older.  It was in 1868 when a Swiss-born butcher names Othmar Bernard Scheitlin handed the over his business which he owned since 1849 to his foreman Jacobus Combrinck.  The business became Combrinck & Co and dominated the meat trade in Cape Town Peninsula.  When Jacobus retired, he handed over the reigns to David Graaff who was his foreman, just as he has been to Mr Scheitlin.

During the 1880’s David Graaff traveled extensively throughout Europe and the USA to familiarise himself with among other, developments in refrigeration.

Upon his return refrigeration chambers were constructed on the premises of Combrink & Co., thus bringing refrigeration to Southern Africa.

Combrink and Co was transformed into the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Limited who later changed its name to ICS.

By the time that ICS lost its independance, ICS had over 100 subsidiaries as well as branches all over South Africa. (Brooke Simons, P, 2000: 7, 22, 27)

 

Phillida Brooke Simons
Phillida Brooke Simons

This chapter is named in honour of the work of Phillida Brooke Simons who has been responsible for many other books, including ones on South African architecture.  She was the editor responsible for retelling the story “Jock of the Bushveld” by  Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.

One obituary reads: “A distinguished Honorary Life member of the Historical Society of Cape Town, Phillida Audrey Fairbridge Brooke-Simons died on 29 July 2013 and we remember her with deep affection in this memorial to her life and work. Her contribution to historical literature was considerable, particularly in recording the history of the old buildings in the Cape and the lives of those who have contributed to progress in South Africa.”  (Sabinet.co.za)

(2)  My grandparents used a similar system on their farm Stillehoogte in Fredefort district.  The “cooler” had two layers of bricks.  Between the inner and the outer was a layer of insulation of anthracite.  The outer layer was “staggered”.  Water dripped over the outer part of the wall to affect refrigeration on the inside.

The cooler on the farm Stillehoogte.  Taken some time before 1977
The cooler on the farm Stillehoogte. Taken some time before 1977

They continued using the system, well after they got electricity on the farm.

To the right of the cooler, my grandfather, Eben Kok is looking through his binoculars.  He was sitting like that many afternoons to see who was driving over his motor-gates (motorhekke).  He had signs put op next to the gates “privaat motorhek/ private motor gate”.  The idea was that only his family could use these gates. The rest of the people had to use the traditional gates.  He passed away when I was either 7 or 8.

(3)  The French meat processing equipment producer Lutetia used the same basic principle discovered by Robert Boyle in their thawing massager/tumbler (patent 92-07091).

Under pressure, the temperature of steam, injected into a chamber drops and thawing of meat is effected without cooking and therefore denaturing the meat proteins.

Lutetia describes their invention as follows:  “Defrosting is obtained by injecting expanded steam into the massager previously put under vacuum. At low pressure, the steam condenses on the surface of the food at low temperature. So, at 50mbar, the steam condenses at 33°C which is insufficient to lead to coagulation on the surface of the meat. The steam can come from a LUTETIA steam generator or from the factory boiler via the LUTETIA client kit. In order to reduce the humidity level, the massager drum may be fitted with a double envelope fed with a tepid mixture of mono-propyl glycol and water. In order to accelerate the heat transfer and to homogenise the defrosting, the blocks of meat may be passed through the block breaker before defrosting.”  (http://de.lutetia.fr/equipement.php?id=7)

(4)  In 1930 the Crosley system of refrigeration, based on Carre’s cycle was widely sold in the US.  (Kha, AR, 2006:  26)

(5)  In 1891 the Lions (the British Isles) became the first team to tour South Africa.  (Wikipedia. Currie Cup).  The team was entertained on the voyage to South Africa by Donald Currie himself.  It was the maiden voyage of his most recent steam boat.  In Currie’s luggage was a golden cup which he planned to present to the team who performed best against the touring Lions.  The tourists were to strong for the locals and the trophy went to Griqualand West who lost by the smallest margin, 0-3.  (Joffe, E, 2013: 99)

In 1892 the cup became known as the Currie Cup, presented to the winner of a fiercely contested local tournament.  The inaugural Currie Cup tournament was held in 1892 with Western Province earning the honour of holding it aloft as the official first winners. (Wikipedia.  Currie Cup)

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Tristan and Lauren with the Curry Cup, September 2014

WP_20140921_13_27_20_Pro__highres WP_20140921_13_28_47_Pro__highres WP_20140921_13_29_01_Pro__highres WP_20140921_13_29_12_Pro__highres

References

Brooke Simons, P, 2000, Ice Cold in Africa, Fernwood Press.

Brown, R.  Design Dissertation Report.  http://issuu.com/archirube/docs/designreportprint2/1#

Dellino, C.  1979.  Cold and Chilled Storage Technology.  Blackie Academic and Professional.

Joffe, E.  2013.  Before Mandela’s Rainbow.  Author House

Kha, AR.  2006.  Cryogenic Technology and Applications.  Elsevier, Inc.

Smith, Edwards. 1873. Foods. Henry S King and Co.

http://de.lutetia.fr/equipement.php?id=7

The Cape Town Guide 1897 Cover

http://madadpakjan-sunshine.blogspot.com/2012/05/traditional-denmark-food.html

http://mfo.me.uk/histories/harris.php

http://reference.sabinet.co.za/sa_epublication_article/cabo_2014_a5

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_of_Denmark

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fl%C3%A6skesteg

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Currie_Cup#History

 

Pictures

Figure 1:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/8270787@N07/sets/

Figure 2: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8270787@N07/sets/

Figure 3:  http://www.gavrilovic.hr/en/product/prague-ham/68/

Figure 4:  http://www.namibiana.de/namibia-information/who-is-who/autoren/infos-zur-person/phillida-brooke-simons.html

Figure 5:  Photo supplied by Andre van Tonder.  I think my dad took the pic.

Figure 6 – 11: Eben van Tonder of the Curry Cup at the Springbok museum in Cape Town

Bacon and the art of living: Prologue

 

 

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“Bacon, that magical delicacy!  Cured pork meat, mostly smoked, with a reddish, pinkish colour and a distinct taste.”  I have always loved it.

The Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) established a trading station at the Cape of Good Hope to supply water, fresh vegetables and meat to passing ships on their long voyage between the East and Europe (Heinrich 2010: 10).  Since this time bacon has been a prized commodity at the tip of the great African continent (Heinrich 2010: 32).

When the VOC’s Jan van Riebeek established the trading posit in 1652, pork meat was in short supply on account of the pigs that came with Van Riebeek found it hard to adapt.  They died within months of landing and piglets did not live longer than a few days. (Heinrich 2010: 31, 32)

Imported bacon has since those days been better than local, heavily salted pork.  As the local bacon from Van Riebeek’s day (Heinrich 2010: 32), the Combrinck bacon had to be soaked in water for 16 days before it could be eaten.

My dad was a local magistrate.  Together we would undertake a weekly trip to the Combrinck & Co butchery in Woodstock to buy bacon.  According to him Combrinck was taught how to make bacon by Othmar Scheitlin who started the butchery.  He knew and liked Scheitlin a great deal.

Scheitlin was born in Switzerland.  When he turned 18, he left home.  He traveled through France, Holland, England and Germany, got a job as a cabin-boy and worked his way to the Cape of Good Hope.  Here he set up the pork butchers shop in Woodstock where Jacobus Combrinck was a foreman and later took the business over when Sceitlin returned to Switzerland with his family (Linder 1997: 270; Simons 2000: 7).

My dad would make the hour long journey from our home to Papendorp, as Woodstock was known in those days, once a week to buy quality pork and this would always include bacon!  He would tell me that the only thing Scheitlin and Combrinck could not do well was curing bacon!

The good bacon was made in Holland, Germany, Poland, Denmark and England with sweet Wiltshire Cure and imported by Scheitlin.  I remember my dad buying it.  Every time he took his money out, he would tell Jacobus Combrinck or whoever manned the cash register in a “lecture like voice”, “Quality, quality, I don’t mind paying for quality, young man!”

I was 6 years old when Combrinck & Co moved to an area in Cape Town called the Shamble.  To shop number 4.  The move happened in the 1870’s.

The quality of the bacon did not improve and the stench of the Shamble where the cities animals were slaughtered, would make me intensely dislike the weekly trips with my dad.

They would slaughter the animals and bury the offal on the beach so that the tide would carry it away.  At night, one could hear what sounded like hundreds of homeless dogs fighting over scraps of food on the beach.  By day there was the unbearable stench and the flies.  Millions of flies. (Simons 2000: 13, 14).

My great grandfather on my fathers side fled to Holland from Denmark after the civil war between the Protestants and the Catholic’s.  In Holland he was trained as a miller and limiting opportunities in Holland motivated a petition to the VOC to be sent to the new colony as a baker.  On my mom’s side, my great grandfather came to the Cape as a soldier of fortune, trained in Waldeck, Germany, hired out to the VOC by the prince of Waldeck and sent to the Cape to protect it from the locals and enemy nations.

The family on my mom’s side were at this time living in the Orange Free State and the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, the ZAR.

The scene was set for the adventure of a lifetime.

Oscar Klynveld was farming with milies, cattle and pigs.  His farm was in the old Boer republic of the ZAR, in the Potchefstroom district.

I knew him from visiting friends in the Fredefort district, close to Parys.  We became friends when I helped him one year to get his chickens to the different kooperasie stores in the district in time for Christmas when his ossewa fell into a ditch during a terrible storm.  We distributed his chickens and bread flower and became friends for life.

I have always been irritated by the thought that the bacon produced in the Cape was of such inferior quality.  Bacon was still being imported from the Britain and Europe to the Cape and sold to the locals and passing ships who were prepared to pay high prices for it.

War and roomers of war were again in the air by the late 1800’s.  I was 26.  The Anglo Boer War of 1881 made me realise that Britain wanted to control the trade route to India at all costs.  They also wanted to control the recently discovered Diamonds from Kimberly and the gold from the Transvaal.  They would never relinquish them!

Unlike most of my countrymen, I did not see any possibility for victory against the might of the British Empire.  Instead, the thought started to develop that we must think past the war and strengthen ourselves economically.  No matter who’s flag was flying in the Cape!  “God only help those who help themselves!” was another one of my dad’s many sayings.

This was the point that Oscar and myself have been discussing at his farm when I told him about the bacon and he told me about his pigs.  How one sow produced many piglets compared to cows and sheep who had few babies in a year.  A picture started to form in our minds.

We made the decision that we would make and sell quality bacon.  Nothing else would do. Sold across our land and to passing ships, the best bacon on earth!

When it seemed imminent that war would break out sooner rather than later, we started to market our plan to carefully selected friends and family.  We needed support for the venture.

A meeting was held in Oscar’s voorkamer on the farm(1).  It was a bitterly cold night.  A hand full of burgers came.  Oscar’s wife, Trudie, expecting their 3rd daughter was there.  My Ava was there.  James and Willem, Oscars two brothers came and Anton his father-in-law.

Oscar’s dad was a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church.  He opened the meeting with scripture reading and prayer and said a few words.

We decided that since my kids were in primary school already in Cape Town, and Oscar’s kids were much smaller, that I have to go.  Travel to Europe and Britain and learn the art of curing bacon!  Oscar would stay behind, muster the support and prepare for our factory in Cape Town.

We decided not to go to England straight away.  On the one hand there was the fear that war could break out any day and this would jeopardize our quest.  On the other hand, since my ancestors came to the Cape of Good Hope from Denmark and since an old spice trader advised us to visit Copenhagen first, the decision was made to start there.

The next thing I knew, cold Free State wind was in my face and I raced back to the Cape through Bloemfontein.  I spend a last week-end with my Ava and the kids.

We hiked up our beloved Table Mountain.  It was the mountain that brought us together.  As kids we would spend hours and days exploring its majestic cliffs.  As teenagers we both acted as guides, taking European and American visitors to the top.

We climbed one of our favourite routes.  At the top we sat for a long time, looking down on a growing city.  A small mountain stream ran all the way from a crack in the mountain where a gorge has been formed by geological activity that non of us understood, through the city basin, past the VOC castle and into the sea.  I wished the moment would last forever!

Before I knew it I was off to a waiting steam ship in the Cape Town harbour and the adventure of a lifetime!

What follows is the collection of letters I sent to friends and family from Europe and later, from the Cape Colony.

We set out to discover the art of curing bacon.  In the process we all changed.  During the quest, we not only had to learn the art of curing meat, we came face to face with ourselves and who we are.  Our deepest fears and hopes.  We learned about love, family, great friendship, trust, comradery, courage and following an unlikely dream.

These letters tell both the story of bacon and the art of living.

Bacon and the art of living Home Page

 

Heinrich, Adam R.  2010.  A zooarcheaelogical investigation into the meat industry established at the Cape of Good Hope by the Dutch East Indian Company in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, The State University of New Jersey.

Linder, Adolphe. 1997.  The Swiss at the Cape of Good Hope. Creda Press (Pty) Ltd

Simons, Phillida Brooke. 2000. Ice Cold In Africa. Fernwood Press

Notes:

(1)  Woodys prepared for their own factory in 2011.  It was the culmination of a process that started on a flight between Johannesburg and Cape Town in January 2011 where Oscar and Eben decided to re-think the entire Woodys strategy and gear themselves for a much bigger company.  Oscar and Eben has been joined by Willem on the Woodys Executive by this time.  The first step of the plan was a transition from contract packers to an own factory.