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
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.
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.
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!
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!
A Most Remarkable Tale: The Story of Eskort
By Eben van Tonder
19 February 2019
Important note: Information from previous work I did and what is readily available on the internet; this is not approved by the company, Eskort Ltd, nor do I write this on behalf of the company.
In the Natal Midlands, on the banks of the Boesmans river lays the largest bacon plant in South Africa, that of Eskort Ltd..
At my last visit I was 30 minutes early and instead of reporting to reception, I decided to drive a few hundred meters further and up the hill, right next to the bacon plant to Fort Dunford. The Fort is situated exactly 500m apart with the bacon plant nestled between the Boesmans River and the Fort.
It was built by Dunford in response to the Langalibalele Rebellion in 1873. The location of the old military site at Bushmans River drift, overlooked by Fort Dunford is where the Voortrekker leader Gert Maritz originally set up camp along the river.
The curator, Siphamandla, saw me driving up. I was the only visitor and he came running up to give me a proper welcome. I told him I will be at Eskort but when we are done, I’m coming back to see the Fort.
While waiting in reception at Eskort, I took a photo of a stone that was laid by J. W. Moor in 1918. He was the first chairman of “The First Farmers Co-Operative Bacon Factory Erected in South Africa”, the Eskort factory. I was intrigued!
I saw Wynand, visited the Fort briefly and was on my way back to Johannesburg.
At the airport, I started digging through piles of information online and a story emerged, so remarkable that despite being exhausted, during the flight back to Cape Town I frantically kept reading documents I downloaded onto my phone before departure. At home, I went straight to bed. I kept waking with every new connection made. Bits of information jolted me from deep sleep to a light slumber. Here is what I discovered.
The origins of the Eskort Bacon factory is tied up with the story of the development of the Natal Midlands in the mid-1800s to the early part of the 1900s. It is embedded in the broader context of the existence of a very strong English culture in Natal. The Natal colony was created on 4 May 1843 after the British government annexed the short-lived Boer Republic of Natalia. A unique English culture continued. This bacon factory became one of the cornerstones of the creation of a meat industry in South Africa and contributed materially to the establishment of a meat curing culture in the country. The historical importance is seen in the fact that the South African roots of large scale industrial meat curing are English and not German.
The broader international context of its establishment in a cooperative can be traced back to Peter Bojsen who created the first cooperative abattoir and bacon curing plant in the world in Horsens, the Horsens Andelssvineslagteri, in 1882 in Denmark. By 1911 the first such cooperative factories were built in England, namely the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory, modeled in turn after the factory at Horsens. The 1918 development in Estcourt, Natal would, no doubt, have been a continuation of the model.
In terms of curing technology, the bacon plant produced its bacon in the most sophisticated way available at the time, using the same techniques employed by the Harris Bacon operation of Calne in Wiltshire. Following WW1, its curing techniques progressed from the Wiltshire process of the Harris operation (and through Harris, to Horsens where the technique was developed) to the direct addition of sodium nitrite to curing brines through the work of the legendary Griffiths Laboratories.
The great benefit of the dominant English culture of the Natal Midlands was in the fact that they had access to the Harris operation in Calne and the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory more so than the fact that the English population of the Midlands could have provided a possible market for their bacon. The population in Natal at the time and even in South Africa remained relatively small and the goal of creating such a sophisticated operation was to export.
In terms of access to local markets, I have little doubt that they relied heavily on the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company Ltd. of Sir David de Villiers Graaff (1859 – 1931) who was a contemporary of JW Moor (1859 – 1933). They were born a mere 6 months apart with David in March 1859 and John (JW Moor) in September of the same year.
One can say that David with his Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company in Cape Town was a follower of Phillip Armour in Chicago with the establishment of refrigerated rail transport and cold storage warehouses throughout Southern Africa (just as Phil Armour did in the US). David probably met Phil in Chicago in the mid-1880’s and possibly again in the early 1890’s, who, in all likelihood, showed him his impressive packing plant and gave him the idea of refrigerating railway carts. John (JW) Moor, on the other hand, was in technical detail and broad philosophy, a follower of the Dane, Peter Bojsen in his creation of the first farmer’s coop for slaughtering and production of bacon and its marketing in England and the English operations of C & T Harris with their Wiltshire bacon curing techniques.
The location of the plant in Estcourt is in all likelihood closely linked to the existence of Fort Dunford and the close association with the military of the Moor family as is evident not only through the heritage of their grandfather but through their close involvement in the schooling system and the introduction of cadet training. The possible involvement of the Anglo Boer war hero, Louis Botha is fascinating.
The context of its creation is, more than anything, to be understood by two realities. One was the first World War. The second, the Moor family of Estcourt with a wider lens than a focus on JW Moor. To understand the Moor family, we must understand their heritage and how they came to South Africa.
Immigrating to South Africa
Immigration back then was done as it is today, through entrepreneurs who made money by facilitating movement to the new world and who sell their products through colourful displays and exciting tales of success and a new life. Between 1849 and 1852, almost 5000 immigrants arrived in Natal through the various schemes. One such an agent was Joseph Byrne who chartered 20 ships to ferry passengers to Natal between 1849 to 1851. One of the 20 ships was the Minerva which set sail on 26 April 1850 with 287 passengers from London. A festive atmosphere must have prevailed on the voyage to Natal and the promise of a new life. (Dhupelia, 1980)
On 4 July 1850, they arrived in Durban and the Minerva was wrecked on a reef below the Bluff. All occupants and cargo ended up overboard. Two of the passengers aboard was Sarah Annabella Ralfe who was traveling with her family and Frederick William Moor. (Dhupelia, 1980)
Romance and Settlement
F.W. Moor lifted the young Sarah Annabella Ralfe from the waters and carried her to the safety of the shore. It is not known if they were romantically involved before this event but romance bloomed afterward and the couple was married in June 1852. (Dhupelia, 1980) They settled in the Byrne valley which Byrne cleverly included in the total package he was selling back in England.
The Moors and the Ralfes were interested in sheep farming and the wet conditions at Byrne, close to Richmond were not favourable. In 1869 F.W. Moor moved to a farm Brakfontein, on the Bushman’s River at Frere close to Estcourt. Here the conditions were more suitable. “The farm was some five miles (8 km) south-west, of Estcourt and he obtained it from the Wheeler family in settlement of a debt. This farm has some historical interest. It was the site of the Battle of Vecht Laager in 1838 when Zulu impi of Dingaan clashed with the Voortrekkers who had settled there. It was on this farm that F.R. Moor and his wife settled on their return to Natal, his father having moved to Pietermaritzburg. Moor and his wife stayed for some years in a house built by the Wheelers until he built a larger house which he called Greystone. It was on this property that Moor’s seven children were born and it was here that he carried out his adventurous farming activities.” (Morrell, 1996)
Sara and FW, in turn, had 5 children. Two of these were F. R. Moor, born on 12 May 1853 in Pietermaritzburg and J. W. Moor born in September 1859 in Estcourt.
Strong Military Traditions
The Moor family had strong military connections going back to the father of F.W. Moor (FR and JW’s grandfather). FW was the youngest son of Colonel John Moor. Col Moor was an officer in the Bombay Artillery in the service of the British East India company. FW was born in Surat in 1830 and returned to England on the death of his father. “He and his mother settled first in Jersey and later in Hampstead while he trained to be a surveyor and, not entirely satisfied with his position in England, he decided to emigrate to Natal.” (Dhupelia, 1980) His mother followed him to Natal and passed away in 1878 on the farm of FW, Brakfontein, aged 85. (The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, Dublin, Ireland; 18 Oct 1878)
The military connection of the Moor family is highlighted when one considers that when FR Moor was in high school, he and other students considered it desirable that the school should have a cadet corps. FR attended the Hermannsburg School situated approximately 15 miles (24 km] from Greytown and founded in the early 1850’s by the Hanoverian Mission Society.
Moor, as a senior student at the school, was deputed to write to the Colonial secretary seeking permission for the school to initiate the movement. Permission was granted and in 1869 a cadet corps of 40 students, between the ages of 14 and 18 years, was formed with a teacher, Louis Schmidt, as the captain and 16 years old F. R. Moor and John Muirhead as the first lieutenants.
Moor thus played a role in the establishment of the cadet movement and in giving Hermannsburg School the distinction and honour of being the first school not only in Natal but in the British Empire to have a cadet corps. Though the Hermannsburg cadet corps lasted only until 1878 its example was followed by Hilton College and Maritzburg High School in 1872. Yet another pupil of this first boarding school in Natal who was to make a name for himself in politics and was to be later closely associated with Moor was Louis Botha.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
The Moor family became one of the large landowners in the Natal Midlands. Some of these families brought wealth from England and some, as was the case with the Moor family, made their money in other ways. The two most likely ways to make a fortune in those days were in Kimberley on the diamond fields or riding transport between Durban and Johannesburg.
After school, in 1872, the young FR Moor went to Kimberly to make his fortune. JW was still in school when FR left for the diggings where he remained for 7 years. The 19-year-old Moor made his first public speech on behalf of the diggers while in Kimberley “standing on a heap of rubble”. “Later he was twice elected to the Kimberley Mining Board which consisted of nine elected members representing the claim holders for the purpose of ensuring the smooth and effective running of the mines and diggings. This experience probably gave him confidence as well as experience in public affairs.” (Dhupelia, 1980) He later served as Minister of Native Affairs between 1893–1897 and 1899–1903. He became the last Prime Minister of the Colony of Natal between 1906 and 1910.
“While FR Moor was in Kimberley he met Cecil John Rhodes, another strong personality with outstanding qualities of leadership. There is some indication that the two men were closely associated during these years for the Moor and Rhodes brothers belonged to an elite group of 12 diggers who were teasingly named “the 12 apostles” and who associated with each other because of their common interests. Moor’s daughter, Shirley Moor, claims that her father would not have associated with Rhodes for he disliked him and in the 1890’s he abhorred Rhodes’ role in the Jameson Raid and held him responsible to a certain extent for the Anglo-Boer war of 1899.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
“After Moor got married, he felt that there was no security in remaining on the fields. He consequently sold his claims to his brother George, and returned to Natal in 1879 to take up farming having been very successful financially at the diamond fields.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
Dhupelia states that FR was “later joined (in Kimberley) by two of his three brothers.” As far as I have it, he had only two brothers with his siblings being George Charles Moor (whom we know took his diggings operation over); Annie May Chadwick; John William Moor and Kathleen Helen Sarah Druwitt, according to geni.com. If both brothers joined him, this would mean that JW also spent time on the diggings. (This needs to be corroborated.) It would explain why JW shared in the wealth that his brother obtained in Kimberley.
Success in Farming
FR’s success in farming related to JW, the main focus of our investigation, in that they conducted many of their farming activities as joint ventures. This is why I suspect that JW joined FR for a time on the diggings. Morrell (1996) states that “Moor displayed a considerable initiative and a pioneering spirit in his farming activities, making a name for himself as had his father who was one of the first in the colony to introduce imported Merinos from the valuable Rambouillet stock in France. Estcourt was one of the four villages in Weenen County and most farmers kept cattle, sheep, and horses. By 1894 Moor, in partnership with his brother J.W. Moor, was engaged in farming ventures over an area of 20 000 acres [8097,17 ha]. Their stock consisted of 6000 to 7000 sheep and they were among the largest breeders of goats in Natal possessing 1200 goats. Moor, in fact, acquired the first Angora goats in Natal where the interest in the mohair industry was considerable in the 19th century. In addition to the sheep and goats, Moor engaged in ostrich farming, for he believed there was a good market for the sale of ostrich feathers. He also kept horses and cattle and imported Pekin ducks.” (Morrell, 1996)
The British Market in Crisis
Walworth reported that by 1913 in the UK, “imported bacon had largely secured the market.” This was according to him one of the reasons for a rapid decline in the pig population with a 17% reduction in numbers from 1912 to 1913. (Walworth, 1940) Conditions in 1917 and 1918 were desperate in the UK with meat supply falling by as much as 30%. Stock availability, increased prices, and war rationing all played a role. Canada responded to the shortage of pork in 1917 and their export of bacon and ham increased from 24 000 tonnes to 88 000 tonnes in 1917. Corn was in short supply during the war, but it was in reaction to meat shortages that rationing was finally introduced in the UK in 1918. (Perren) The 1918 situation related to bacon in England was reported on by The Guardian (London, Greater London, England), 6 July 1918. The meat situation was generally better than it has been in a while. In the article, they report that Bacon is being imported into the country in large quantities and that the import “will be maintained at the same rate throughout the year.” It is interesting that the article also reports that “the intention is to build up a big reserve Bacon in cold storage for later use.” (The Guardian, 1918, p6) The entire article oozes with planning and deliberateness happening in the background.
It is clear that the two countries well positioned to respond were Canada and South Africa. New Zealand was focussing on exporting frozen meat, as was Australia. Walworth leaves the South African response to bacon shortages out (except one comment that South Africa was one of the countries that eventually responded) but it is clear from the Estcourt case that the response was there.
The immediate context of the establishment of the bacon company is the war but in the early 1900’s, the pork industry in the UK was in a bad state in terms of industrializing the process of bacon production. Producers were unable to compete in price or quality with imports. The reasons are interesting. Much of the curing in the UK was done by small curing operations or farmers who used dry curing. A large variety of pig breeds made it difficult. Small volumes or a large variety of bigs vs a large variety of a standard pig – the latter suits an industrial process. Fat was highly prized in many of the curing techniques, as it is to this day, but for lard to be cured takes a year. Again, it does not fit the industrial model. The main reason for high-fat content in bacon was due to imports from America who generally produced a much fatter pig on account of its diet. (Perren)
Market trends moved away from fat bacon and a leaner pig was required which the UK farmers were unable to deliver in the volumes required. The consumers also called for a milder bacon cure that we achieved with the tank curing method. The predominant way that bacon was cured in the UK was dry curing which resulted in heavily salted meat.
In April 1938, at the second reading of the Bacon Industry Bill before the British Parliament, the minister of Agriculture Mr. W. S. Morrison summarised the conditions in the bacon market in the UK pre-1933 as follows. “As far as the curers (in the UK) are concerned, lacking the proper pig as they did, and a regular supply, they could not achieve the efficiency in large-scale production and the economies which were within the power of their foreign competitors. Nor could they achieve adaptation to the changed taste of the public, and the change in taste was, indeed, largely the result of the foreign importation.” The change of taste he was talking about was a movement away from fatty bacon to lean bacon and a milder cure (less salty). The solution in terms of the fatty bacon was to breed less fatty pigs but the UK market failed to deliver such pigs. My suspicion is that this was not due to a technical inability or ignorance of the British farmers, but due to the deeply entrenched nature of the specialized, small scale dry curing operations. Having gotten to know butchers from the UK, now in their 70’s, who stem from such traditions, I understand that they hold their trade in such high esteem that they would rather amputate a limb than compromise the dry curing traditions they were schooled in.
The fact is that for whatever reason, the UK pork and bacon market pre-1933, was fragmented and Morrison stated that “the factories in this country worked to a little more than half of their capacity with consequent high costs. The cheaper and quicker process of curing bacon (i.e. tank curing) made little headway and the whole industry was in a very weak position to stand competition even of a normal character.”
In response to the enormous size of the UK bacon market and the inability of local curers to convert to tank curing, foreign curers moved aggressively to fill the void. This aversion of the British to convert from dry curing to tank curing did not disappear after the war and would continue to be the basis of bacon exports into the UK following 1918 when the war ended. Mr. Morrison continued that “what was in store for the industry was not competition of a normal character. In the years 1929 to 1932 there ensued a scramble for this bacon market.” “In 1932 the importation rose to 12,000,000 cwts. or more than twice as much as it had been in the five-year period preceding the War.”
The British market started to respond after major government programs to change the bacon production landscape in the UK and tank curing was adopted to a large extent.
Even though I have little doubt that the potential to export to England was a major driving factor in the creation of the company, as it was in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, and the USA, a further mention must be made of the very robust local bacon market. An interesting comment is made in an article published in The Gazette (Montreal, Canada) 24 January 1916. In an article entitled “Trade for Canada in South Africa” the comment is made about bacon that “good business can be worked up in Canadian bacon brands if attention is paid to the packaging.” The first interesting point to take from this comment is that the demand for bacon in South Africa by 1916 was sizable and, secondly, that the standard of packaging was very high, pointing to high technical competency.
Agricultural Operations and the Establishment of a Bacon Cooperative
Back in Natal, farmers saw the benefit of various forms of cooperation precisely due to their small numbers and the fact that cooperation gave them access to larger markets and more stable prices. The children growing up in the Natal Midlands were encouraged after completing their schooling, to join one of the many farmers’ associations (FA). “The “reason for being” of these agricultural societies was to hold stock sales. As Nottingham Road’s James King (founder member of the LRDAS in 1884) said. “The worst drawback was the lack of markets”. (Morrell, 1996). It was this exact issue that JW addressed with his bacon cooperative.
“Their function was thus primarily marketing and their fortunes were generally judged by the success or failure of sales. The sale of stock differs markedly from that of maize (the product which sparked the cooperative movement in the Transvaal). In Natal. the market was very localised with local butchers and auctioneers generally dealing with farmers in their area.” (Morrell, 1996)
“A variety of factors increased the importance of cattle sales particularly in the late and early twentieth century. Catastrophic cattle diseases, particularly Rinderpest (1897-1898) and East Coast Fever (1907-1910) reduced herds dramatically making it all the more important for farmers to realise the best prices available for surviving stock. The number of cattle in Natal was reduced from 280 000 in 1896 to 150000 in 1898. This amounted to a loss of £863 700 to farmers.” (Morrell, 1996)
“It was only in the area of stock sales (sheep, cattle and to a lesser extent, horses) that cooperative marketing operated. Foreign imports began to undercut local products, particularly once the railway system was developed. In 1905, on behalf of the Ixopo Farmer Association, Magistrate F E Foxon objected to the government allowing imported grain.” (Morrell, 1996)
In other domains (such as dairy and ham products), cooperative companies were formed. These were joint stock companies, generally headed by prominent and prosperous local farmers (JW Moor and George Richards of Estcourt, for example), who raised capital from farmer shareholders. The members of the Board were generally the major shareholders. Farmers who joined were then obliged to supply the factory/dairy with produce, in return for which they got a guaranteed price and, If available, a dividend.” (Morrell, 1996) This was the basis of the operation of the Farmers’ Cooperative Bacon Factory.
“The small size of the local market put pressure on farmers to export. The capacity of Natal’s manufacturing industries was minuscule. It began to expand around 1910 yet by 1914 there were no more than 500 enterprises in the whole colony.” “So it happened that many prominent farmers were also directors of agricultural processing factories.” (Morrell, 1996)
Generally, it seems that as FR’s political involvement increased, his attention to farming decreased and he relied increasingly more on JW to take care of their farming interests. JW himself was politically active, but never to the extent of FR. JW Moor became MP for Escort while he was director of Natal Creamery Limited and Farmers’ Cooperative Bacon Factory.”
It is interesting that, as was the case around the world, pork farming followed milk production. This was what spawned the enormous pork industry in Denmark and to a large extent, sustains the South African pork farming industry to this day.
“It was Joseph Baynes, a Byrne settler and dairy industry pioneer who established a milk processing plant in Estcourt under the name of the Natal Creamery Ltd. where JW was a director. “This factory was located adjacent to the railway station. Baynes died in 1925 and in 1927 the factory, which by this time was owned by South African Condensed Milk Ltd. was bought by Nestlés. Today the factory produces Coffee, MILO and NESQUIK.” (Revolvy)
In 1917 a group of farmers, including JW Moor, met in Estcourt to discuss the establishment of a cooperative bacon factory. The Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917 and the building of the factory started. When the plant opened its doors, it was done on 6 June 1918 by the Prime Minister General Louis Botha. We can not overstate the massive symbolic nature of the leader of a country in the midst of war opening a food production facility.
The products were marketed under the name Eskort. It takes about a year to get a factory up and running and it was no different in the plant in Natal. When they were ready to supply the UK, the war was over but not the shortages. In 1919 the factory started exports to the United Kingdom. The honour went to the SS Saxon who carried the first bacon from the Estcourt plant exported to the United Kingdom, in June 1919. The products were well received.
A fire in 1925 caused significant damage to the factory. Production was relocated to Nel’s Rust Dairy Limited in Braamfontein, Johannesburg while renovations were being done at the plant. Despite this, the company still won the top three prizes at the 1926 London Dairy Show. (openafrica.org)
They were ready with streamlined efficiency when the second World War broke out and supplied over one million tins of sausages to the Allied forces all over the world and over 12 tonnes of bacon weekly to convoys calling at Durban harbour. (Revolvy)
“Early in 1948 plans for a second factory in Heidelberg, Gauteng, were drawn up and the factory commenced production in September 1954.” (openafrica.org) In “1967 the Eskort brand was the largest processed meat brand in South Africa. In 1998 the company was converted from a cooperative to a limited liability company.” (Revolvy)
An interesting side note must be made here. A few years ago I started writing a story about the creation of the modern industrial bacon production methods. The basic plot of the story is that I chose to ride transport between Cape Town and Johannesburg as my means of raising the initial capital to set up a bacon curing plant. In the story, I then traveled to Denmark and then to England to learn from the Danes and in particular, the Harris family in Wiltshire, how to produce bacon. The purpose of the venture was to export the bacon and supply the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company. The similarity of my plotline and how the bacon plant in Estcourt came about is striking. Without any knowledge of JW Moor, by simply looking at the Southern African context of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, their course of action was logical.
Another interesting aspect is that I, in reality, did this. When I knew that I had to learn how to produce bacon, my first trip was to Denmark. From there I traveled to England where I spent almost a full year in a Tulip plant in Bristol to learn.
The interesting thing is that Tulip is a Danish company, wholly owned by Danish Crown and a direct outflow of the creation of the cooperative curing plant at Horsens. In the ’70 and ’80 the Danish abattoirs and large processing companies consolidated and formed Danish Crown. The Danes created Tulip in England to, in a way, set up their own distribution company in England for the vast quantities of bacon they produced in Denmark. Essentially, they created their own client. In later years Tulip became involved in every aspect of the pork industry in England and currently is the largest pork farmer in the UK. Exactly as it was logical for my path to lead to Tulip, so, it was logical for JW’s path to lead to the Harris operations and a cooperative bacon plant. Given the same set of variables, the best choices are obvious to all, no matter from how far in the future you look back at decisions of the past.
The technical aspects behind the curing technology employed at the new plant are of particular interest. The establishment of the operation in 1918 placed it right in the transition time when science was unlocking the mechanisms behind curing and an understanding developed (beginning in 1891) that it was not saltpeter (nitrate) that cured meat, but nitrite.
The second technical fact of interest was the form of cooperation that was chosen to house the bacon plant. From Denmark to England farmers saw the benefit of the cooperative model to solve the problem of “access to markets” and this was no different in South Africa.
Tank Curing or using Sodium Nitrite
In terms of curing brines, the scientific understanding that it was not saltpeter (nitrate) curing the meat, but somehow, nitrite was directly involved came to us in the work of Dr. Edward Polenski (1891) who, investigating the nutritional value of cured meat, found nitrite in the curing brine and meat he used for his nutritional trails, a few days after it was cured with saltpeter (nitrate) only. He correctly speculated that this was due to bacterial reduction of nitrate to nitrite. ( Saltpeter: A Concise History and the Discovery of Dr Ed Polenske).
What Polenski suspected was confirmed by the work of two prominent German scientists. Karl Bernhard Lehmann (1858 – 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. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
In the same year, another German hygienists, one of Lehmann’s assistants at the Institute of Hygiene in Würzburg, Karl Kißkalt (1875 – 1962), confirmed Lehmann’s observations and showed that the same red colour resulted if the meat was left in saltpeter (potassium nitrate) for several days before it was cooked. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
This laid the foundation of the realisation that it was nitrite responsible for curing of meat and not saltpeter (nitrate). It was up to the prolific British scientist, Haldane (1901) to show that nitrite is further reduced to nitric oxide (NO) in the presence of muscle myoglobin and forms iron-nitrosyl-myoglobin. It is nitrosylated myoglobin that gives cured meat, including bacon and hot dogs, their distinctive red colour and protects the meat from oxidation and spoiling. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
Identifying nitrite as the better (and faster) curing agent was one thing. How to get to nitrite and use it in meat curing was completely a different matter. Two opposing views developed around the globe. On the one hand, the Danish method favoured “seeding” new brine with old brine that already contained nitrites and thus cured the meat much faster. (For a detailed treatment of this matter, see The Naming of Prague Salt)
The concept of seeding the brine, however, did not develop from science around nitrite, but preservation technology that was a hot topic in Irelands scientific community at the beginning and middle of the 1800s. Denmark imported tank curing or mild curing technology in 1880 from Ireland where William Oake invented it some time shortly before 1837. Oake, a chemist by profession developed the system which allowed for the industrialisation of the bacon production system. (Tank Curing was invented in Ireland)
A major revolution took place in Denmark in 1887/ 1888 when their sale of live pigs to Germany and England were halted due to the outbreak of swine flu in Denmark. The Danes set out to accomplish one of the miracle turnarounds of history by converting their pork industry from the export of live animals to the production of bacon (there was no such restriction on the sale of bacon). This turnaround took place in 1887 and 1888. They used the cooperative model that worked so well for them in their abattoirs namely the cooperative.
They were amazingly successful. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.
One would expect that the Irish system of curing was imported to Denmark then. This is however incorrect. The first cooperative bacon curing company was started in Denmark in 1887. Seven years earlier, in 1880, the Danes visited Waterford and “taking advantage of a strike among the pork butchers of that city, used the opportunity to bring those experts to their own country to teach and give practical and technical lessons in the curing of bacon, and from that date begins the commencement of the downfall of the Irish bacon industry. . . ” (Tank Curing was invented in Ireland)
This is astounding. It means that they had the technology and when the impetus was there, they converted their economy. It also means that Ireland not only exported the mild cure or tank curing technology to Denmark but also to Australia, probably through Irish immigrants during the 1850s and 1860s gold rush, between 20 and 30 years before it came to Denmark. Many of these immigrants came from Limerick in Ireland where William Oake had a very successful bacon curing business. Many came from Waterford. A report from Australia sites one company who used the same brine for 16 years by 1897/ 1898 which takes tank curing in Australia to well before 1880 which correlates with the theory that immigrants brought the technology to Australia in the 1850s or 1860s.
Tank curing or mild curing was invented without the full understanding of nitrogen cycle and denitrifying and nitrifying bacteria and the chemistry of nitrite and nitric oxide.
Brine consisting of nitrate, salt and sugar were injected into the meat with a single needle attached to a hand pump (stitch pumping). Stitch pumping was either developed by Prof. Morgan, whom we looked at earlier or was a progression from his arterial injection method. (Bacon Curing – a historical review and Tank Curing Came from Ireland)
The meat was then placed in a mother brine mix consisting of old, used brine and new brine. The old brine contained the nitrate which was reduced through bacterial action into nitrite. It was the nitrite that was responsible for the quick curing of the meat.
Denmark was, as it is to this day, one of the largest exporters of pork and bacon to England. The wholesale involvement of the Danes in the English market made it inevitable that a bacon curer from Denmark must have found his way to Calne in Wiltshire and the Harris bacon factories. The tank-cured method was adopted by C & T Harris. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
A major advantage of this method is the speed with which curing is done compared with the dry salt process previously practiced. Wet tank-curing is more suited for the industrialisation of bacon curing with the added cost advantage of re-using some of the brine. It allows for the use of even less salt compared to older curing methods. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
Corroborating evidence for the 1880 date of the Danish adoption of the Irish method comes to us from newspaper reports about the only independent farmer-owned Pig Factory in Britain of that time, the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory Ltd. in Elmswell. The factory was set up in 1911. According to an article from the East Anglia Life, April 1964, they learned and practiced what at first was known as the Danish method of curing bacon and later became known as tank-curing or Wiltshire cure. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
A person was sent from the UK to Denmark in 1910 to learn the new Danish Method. (elmswell-history.org.uk) The Danish method involved the Danish cooperative method of pork production founded by Peter Bojsen on 14 July 1887 in Horsens. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri)
The East Anglia Life report from April 1964, talked about a “new Danish” method. The “new” aspect in 1910 and 1911 was undoubtedly the tank curing method. Another account from England puts the Danish system of tank curing early in the 1900’s. C. & T. Harris from Wiltshire, UK, switched from dry curing to the Danish method during this time. In a private communication between myself and the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, Susan Boddington, about John Bromham who started working in the Harris factory in 1920 and became assistant to the chief engineer, she writes: “John Bromham wrote his account around 1986, but as he started in the factory in 1920 his memory went back to a time not long after Harris had switched over to this wet cure.” So, early in the 1900s, probably between 1887 and 1888, the Danes acquired and practiced tank-curing which was brought to England around 1911. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
It only stands to reason that the power of “old brine” must have been known from early after wet curing and needle injection of brine into meat was invented around the 1850’s by Morgan. Before the bacterial mechanism behind the reduction was understood, butchers must have noted that the meat juices coming out of the meat during dry curing had special “curing power”. It was, however, the Irish who took this practical knowledge, undoubtedly combined it with the scientific knowledge of the time and created the commercial process of tank-curing which later became known as Wiltshire cure when the Harris operations became the gold standard in bacon curing. Their first factory was located in the English town of Calne, in Wiltshire from where the method came to be known as Wiltshire cure. Its direct ancestor was however Danish and they, in turn, capitalised on an Irish invention. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
It is of huge interest that the Eskort brand of bacon, to this day, bear the brand name of Wiltshire cure. Wiltshire is an English county where Calne is located which housed the Harris factory. (C & T Harris and their Wiltshire bacon cure – the blending of a legend) There is no doubt in my mind that the same curing was practiced in Estcourt in 1918, as was done in the Harris factories in Calne and that this is the historical basis for the continued reference on the Eskort bacon packages as Wiltshire Cure.
At a time before the direct addition on nitrite to curing brines, the only two ways to cure bacon was either dry curing or tank curing. Dry curing requires about 21 days as against 9 days for tank curing. The Bacon Marketing Scheme officially established tank curing in the UK. (Walworth, 1940)
It would not have been possible for the plant to use sodium nitrite in its brine in 1918. Where the Danes and the English favoured tank curing, the Germans and the Americans liked the concept of adding nitrite directly to the curing brines. This was however frowned upon due to the toxicity of sodium nitrite. In America, the matter was battled out politically, scientifically and in the courts. The Naming of Prague salt deals in great detail with this fascinating history. It became the standard ingredient in bacon cures only after WW1. The Germans used it during the war due to a lack of access to saltpeter (nitrate) which was reserved for the war effort and the need to produce bacon faster to supply to the front. The American packing houses in Chicago toyed with its use due to the speed of curing that it accomplishes.
The timeline, however, precludes its use in the Bacon factory in Estcourt in 1918. In fact, Ladislav Nachtmulner, the creator of the first legal commercial curing brine containing sodium nitrite, only invented his Prague Salt, in 1915. Prague Salt first appeared in 1925 in the USA as sodium nitrite became available through the Chicago based Griffith Laboratories in a curing mix for the meat industry. (The Naming of Prague Salt)
In Oct 1925 in a carefully choreographed display by Griffith, the American Bureau of Animal Industries legalised the use of sodium nitrite as a curing agent for meat. In December of the same year (1925) the Institute of American Meat Packers, created by the large packing plants in Chicago, published the document. The use of sodium Nitrite in Curing Meats. (The Naming of Prague Salt)
A key player suddenly emerges onto the scene in the Griffith Laboratories, based in Chicago and very closely associated with the powerful meatpacking industry. In that same year (1925) Hall was appointed as chief chemist by the Griffith Laboratories and Griffith started to import a mechanically mixed salt from Germany consisting of sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite and sodium chloride, which they called “Prague Salt.” (The Naming of Prague Salt)
Probably the biggest of the powerful meat packers was the company created by Phil Armour who gave David de Villiers Graaff the idea of refrigerated rail transport for meat. More than any other company at that time, Armour’s reach was global. It was said that Phil had an eye on developments in every part of the globe. (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2) He passed away in 1901 (The Weekly Gazette, 9 Jan 1901), but the business empire and network that he created must have endured long enough to have been aware of developments in Prague in the 1910’s and early 20’s. (The Naming of Prague Salt)
There is, therefore, no reasonable way that the bacon factory in Estcourt could have used sodium nitrite directly in 1918. If Armour’s relationship was with JW Moor, this could have been a possibility since I suspect that Armour was experimenting with the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines as early as 1905, but his relationship, if any, would have been with David de Villiers Graaff who was a meat trader at heart and did not have any direct interest in a large bacon curing company until ICS acquired Enterprise and Renown, long after the time of David de Villiers Graaff (the 1st). Besides this, where would they have found cheap nitrite salts in South Africa in 1918? This takes the 1918 establishment of the company back to the technology used by the Harris family in Calne which was mother brine tank curing, the classic Wiltshire curing method which was later exactly defined in UK law.
At the demise of the Harris operation, many of the staff were taken up into the current structures of Direct Table which is, according to my knowledge, one of the only remaining companies in the world who still use the traditional Wiltshire tank curing method for some of its bacons. It undoubtedly is the largest to do so. In the Eskort branding of its bacon, the reference to Wiltshire cure it is a beautiful reference back to the origins of the company which pre-dates the direct addition of sodium nitrite.
The Griffith Laboratories became the universal prophet of the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines. They appointed an agent in South Africa in Crown Mills. Crown Mills became Crown National and Prague Powder is still being sold by them to this day. It could very well have been Crown Mills who converted Eskort from traditional tank curing to the direct addition of sodium nitrite through Prague Powder.
It must be mentioned that the butchery trade was well established in South Africa long before the cooperative bacon factory was established in Estcourt. Bacon curing was one of the first responsibilities of the VOC when Van Riebeek set the refreshment station up in 1652. Swiss, Dutch, German and later, English butchers were scattered across South Africa. The largest and most successful of these companies in Cape Town was Combrink and Co., owned by Jakobus Combrink and later taken over by Dawid de Villiers Graaff who changed the name to the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company. I suspect that most of these operations used dry curing which was not suitable for mass production.
Peter Bojsen and cooperative Bacon Production
The second technical aspect is the form of cooperation that was established and a few words must be said about Peter Bojsen for those who are not familiar with him. Cooperative bacon production was the buzz word in the early 1900’s, but where did this originate?
It started in Denmark. The Danes were renowned dairy farmers and producers of the finest butter (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) They found the separated milk from the butter making process to be excellent food for pigs. The Danish farmers developed an immense pork industry around it. (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) The bacon industry was created in response to a ban from England on importing live Danish pigs to the island. The Danish farmers responded by organising themselves into cooperatives who build bacon factories which supplied bacon to the English market. (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) This established bacon curing as a major industry in Denmark.
“On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region joined forces to form Denmark’s first co-operative meat company. The first general meeting was held, land was purchased, building work commenced and the equipment installed.” (Danishcrown.com) “On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsen’s Share Abattoir), stood ready to receive the first pigs for slaughter.” (Danishcrown.com) The first cooperative bacon curing company was also established in 1887. (Tank Curing came from Ireland)
The dynamic Peter Bojsen (1838-1922) took center stage in the creation of the abattoir in Horsens. He served as its first chairman. He created the first shared ownership slaughtering house. In years to follow, this revolutionary concept of ownership by the farmers on a shared basis became a trend in Denmark. Before the creation of the abattoir, he was the chairman of the of Horsens Agriculture Association and had to deal with inadequate transport and slaughtering facilities around the market where the farmers sold their meat at. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri) Peter was a visionary and a creative economist. The genius of this man transformed a society.
In 1911, the St. Edmunds cooperative bacon factory was opened in England in Elmswell, with Danish help. It is clear that the concept of the Horsens plant crossed the English channel. It is plausible that its creation reached the ears of a group of farmers in a very “British” part of the empire, in Estcourt, Natal not just with the Whitshire Tank curing of the Harris operation, but the cooperative movement in bacon production from St. Edmunds in 1911.
Early Success for Eskort
An article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales), 2 June 1919, p7 entitled “On Land, Live stock in South Africa – Further Competition for Australia.” The article reports on pork production that “pig breeding has been taken up systematically and while in the year before the war imports of bacon and hams were valued at GBP368,112, last year they were reduced to GBP31,590, and there is good reason to think that soon these articles will be exported.” One may think that the reduction in import is due to the war and that in general South African producers were stepping up to the plate to fill the void, but the trend of the article is that something is happening “systematically” and there is a trend that projects that soon the GBP368,112 import figure will completely be supplied by South African producers and that surplus bacon will be exported.
The farmers cooperative were founded in 1917 in Estcourt. Moor laid the cornerstone in January 1918, the report in the Sydney Morning Herald appeared in June 1919, the same month when the first exports of Eskort bacon to the UK took place. Export may have taken place before the local market was completely saturated. Regardless of the actual circumstances, the export of bacon to the UK was not just a major achievement and competing nations took notice. I also suspect that Eskort managed to supply a sizable portion of the 1913 import figure of GBP368,112 in 1918 and that the article may elude to exactly this.
Pulling the Military Connections Together
The location of the Estcourt plant is of interest virtually right next to Fort Dunford, between the fort and the Bushmans river. My suspicion is that the land belonged to the army and that Moor, either JW or with the help of FR, secured rights to purchase it. This could have been done only by a family who had very cozy relationships with the military and had friends in high places in the persons of Louis Botha and FR Moor himself.
Just look at the defenses of the Fort. There were three defenses. The first would have been the Bushmans river. Secondly, there was a moat around the fort, 2 meters deep and 4 meters wide. Then, one part of the staircase could be pulled up in case two of the defenses were bridged. It is clear from the map that even the hospital was strategically located to be within the general protection of the Fort and the Boesmans River bend.
There is a second interesting contribution that the military post could have made to the establishment of the bacon plant. It is known that men from Elmswell and Wiltshire were drafted into service in South Africa. Could it have been that some of these men actually worked at the cooperative bacon plant in Elmswell? These records can quite easily be checked and will be worth the effort.
Strong circumstantial evidence, however, points to more than just a coincidental relationship between the location of the plant and the military establishment. Probably more important than the affinity of Moor family for the military was the fact that FR Moor was the political leader of the Natal colony until the Union of South Africa was created in 1910 and the fact that the old school friend of FR, General Louis Botha was in 1918, the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Whichever way you look at it, it is hard not to recognise the close proximity of the Eskort plant to the military installations. What could be the uniting thought that pulls all these facts together? (Of course, in part, predicated on the fact that the factory is in the original location)
Looking at the state of the British Empire and wartime circumstances in the UK, I believe offers the answer. The military context goes much deeper than schoolboy comradery, family nostalgia or friends in high places. 1918 was the beginning of the last year of the Great War. On the one hand, it is hard for us to imagine the unified approach that the Empire had towards the war and every citizen in every Empire country. The empathy and support that the war elicited in South Africa generally, but especially in Natal, so closely linked with the UK in spit and culture was enormous. One source reports that in Estcourt school staff subscribed a portion of their salary monthly to the Governor-General’s Fund in support of the war. (Thompson, 2011) It is outside the scope of this article to delve deeper into the unprecedented effort that was being expended by the South African population and the people in Natal in particular in support of the troops but reading the accounts of what was being done in Natal is quite emotional.
On the other hand, directly responding to wartime shortages in the UK was an international effort. Bacon, in those days, was not just a luxury. It was staple food. The production of bacon was a matter of national importance debated in parliament. It was a key food source sustaining the British navy. Many people only had bacon as food every day. They would boil the bacon before eating it. The parents who had to work the next day had the actual meat and the kids only had the water. Eduard Smith made the remark in his landmark work, Foods (1873), that in this way both the parents and the children went to bed “with a measure of satisfaction.” Bacon had strategic importance to the military and in the first world war, spoke to the general food situation in war-ravaged England.
The fact that the bacon company was established in Estcourt in 1917 shows clearly that South Africa was ready to step in to prop up meat and bacon supply in particular to the UK. Was there direct involvement from the South Africa leader, General Louis Botha who possibly passed on a request from London to all Empire states to assist in the supply of meat and bacon in particular? It is a matter of conjecture, but a tantalising possibility. These are speculations that can be corroborated by looking at the correspondence of Botha. FR Moor himself had direct communication with London and Botha may have simply opened the factory in support of the idea. FR’s letters along with that of JW have to be scrutinised for leads. The one reason that makes me suspects that there may have been a direct request from Botha or some early support for the venture is the location of the factory, right next to the Fort. In my mind, it swings the possibility for direct involvement from Botha from possible to probable. (Facts from correspondence should solve the matter)
Supplying the British market may have been done to build up South Africa, just as much as it was done in support of the Empire. I suspect that the former may even be more of a driving force than the latter. On 13 June 1917, an article appeared in the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), reporting from London that “Developments on an enormous scale are expected in South Africa after the war and plans in this connection are being made as regards the export of food. It is confidently predicted that so far as meat is concerned the Union will be in a position to compete very soon with any other part of the world and in order to assist the expansion of the industry all the steamship lines propose, it is understood, to increase their refrigerated space very considerably and to place more vessels in service.” This report came out in the year when the Cooperative bacon Company in Estcourt was formed. It oozes with deliberateness and purposefulness from the highest authorities.
One person who was clearly involved in the “deliberateness and purposefulness” becomes clear from a pamphlet that was published in that same year. In a document dated 12 Jan 1917 about the South African meat export trade, compiled by A. R. T. Woods to Sir Owen Phillips, chairman of the Union Castle Line who by this time was carrying meat from South America to Europe in their Nelson Line of Steamers, the following interesting quite is given by Gen. Louis Botha. The background is the delivery of what is described in the document as “by universal consent,. . . probably the best specimen of South African meat (beef) yet placed upon the London market” delivered by the R. M. S. “Walmer Castle” to the Smithfield market in London and inspected by a group from South Africa featured below in 1914. (I will give much to know the names of the men below. Will there be the name of one JW Moor?)
The party traveled to London by invitation from The Hon. W. P. Schreiner, High Commissioner of South Africa and Mr. Ciappini (the Trades Commissioner). The South African meat was deemed comparable to frozen meat produced in any part of the world. The letter was a motivation that the South African meat trade was mature enough to be taken seriously and some helpful advice was given based on experience in South America.
He quotes Gen. Louis Botha who advised farmers that “so far as mealies are concerned the export should not develop, but that the mealies should be used to feed stock in this country, and that the export should be in the form of stock fed in South Africa on South African Mealies.” There is, therefore, good evidence of Genl. Louis Botha involving himself in the details of the establishment of the meat trade from South Africa and, I believe that it is in part this general encouragement that JW Moor followed in creating the Cooperative Bacon Curing Company in 1917.
I located this pamphlet among documents in the Western Cape Archive of J. W. Moor and his farmers Cooperative where they apply for permission to erect an abattoir and a bacon curing company in East London on the harbour. It is interesting that one of the recommendations given in the pamphlet is that abattoirs and chilling factories be erected in Ports, “along the quays where the ocean going refrigerated steamers load” as it was done in Argentina. The influence of Botha’s encouragement on Moor can be well imagined.
The application for the abattoir was lodged in 1917, the same year when the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917. It is possible that members of the Natal Farmers Co-operative Meat Industries and the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited were the same people. Or that the one owned the other. Whichever way you look at it, John Moore was a key figure in both and the establishment of a bacon company in East London was directly in line with the proposals set out to boost meat exports. It is very interesting that both occurred in 1917 and that only the Eskort factory survived. As someone who established such a venture myself, my initial thoughts was that having a curing company at two such geographically distant sites as East London and Estcourt would have been impossible to manage, especially since both were new ventures. Further documents show that the factory was built on the proposed site and it is telling that only the Estcourt site survived.
The stone in Estcourt was unveiled by JW Moor on Jan 7, 1918, almost a full year before the Armistice. The Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917, 16 months before the end of the War. The factory was opened on 6 June 1918 by the Prime Minister General Louis Botha, 6 months before the Great War ended. This is remarkable.
The shortages in the UK in 1917 and 1918 were dire. The end of the war was not in sight and calls went out across the Empire to assist. Meat supply, at this time, diminished with 30% in the UK. In this context, it is easy to see how military land was either made available or that it would have been strategically prudent to locate such an installation close to a military site, but again, it would have required high-level support (involvement?).
For the South Africans, the call for help would have been close to home. Delville Woods took place in 1916, a year before the company was created. In the month when it was founded, August 1917, Lieutenant-General Sir Jacob Louis van Deventer had just taken over command of the mostly South African troops involved in the German East African campaign. His offensive started in July 1917. The entire East African region remained very active for the duration of the war.
When the fighting was all done almost 19 000 South Africans lost their lives. The madness of the time can best be described by the opening sentences of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… Such would have been the experience of the men and woman involved in the war while setting up the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory on the banks of the Boesmans River in Estcourt, Natal. (1)
The Eskort factory is a historical site where many interesting cross-currents meet. Its uninterrupted existence from a time before nitrite was directly added to brine makes it unique in the world! Apart from Danish Crown and Tulip, I know of very few other companies.
Besides this, tied up in the story of its creation is a romantic immigrant, a family, defining themselves through diamond digging and making powerful friends; re-investing its fortunes in farming and establishing a food company that exists till this day. We see the use of tank curing which predates the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines. The global influence of Griffiths who probably converted Eskort to an operation using the direct application of nitrite to curing brines following WW1. We see the influence of the Danish Cooperative system, probably through the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory. Besides any of these, we see hard work, imagination and high character and a particular response to a specific call for help.
What is the purpose of this study? Besides the fascinating context of the Eskort operation, is there anything we can learn from the past? I offer a few suggestions.
1. Stay on top of the game. Use the best and latest technology available to stay well ahead in the race. A 1914 US newspaper article, from the Deming Headlight, called the Danish cooperative bacon factory “the last word as to efficient scientific treatment of the dead porker.” The article was entitled A Cooperative Bacon factory. (The Deming Headlight (Deming, New Mexico), Friday 8 May 1914, Page 6.)
2. Use the best corporate structure, appropriate for the time.
3. This point probably dovetails into the previous one – ensure that the business is well funded.
4. Think big! No, think massive! By no account was any of the plans of JW Moor or any of his brothers or their father ever small!
5. The factory was built with a specific market in mind. “It was built for exports”, even though saying it like this may be too specific. Lets state it this way – “technology was chosen to attract the right clients.” A modern-day example may be investing in a tray ready packaging line for fresh meat for the retail trade or cooked bacon for the catering trade.
6. Things are not as bad today as they were during the world wars. If anything, we have more opportunities. No matter what is happing in our country, this can be our age of wisdom, our epoch of belief, season of light and our spring of hope!
A last comment must be made about the legacy of the bacon plant. There can be little doubt that it had a large impact on the meat processing landscape in South Africa over the years. It provides a fertile and productive training center for many men and woman to later either set up their own curing operations or work at other plants across the country, thus transferring the skills inherent in the Estcourt plant to the rest of the country. In this regard, the impact of the visionary work of the Moor family is volcanic. It is interesting to talk to executives in Eskort and to realise how many people in top positions in curing operations across the county started their careers at the Eskort plant in Estcourt in the Natal Midlands.
These are some of the obvious lessons I take away from the study. This is insanely exciting!
Arnold Prinsloo, the CEO of Eskort, sent me a whatsapp message. He has a present for me, a book commemorating the first 100 years of Eskort, Ltd..
It was a day when Paul Fickling, my partner in crime at Van Wyngaardt and I decided to follow Christo Niemand’s advice to stand back a bit and think about our strategy with the business. I was glad that Paul was with me so that I could introduce him to one of the legends in our industry.
What never had was an image of JW Moor. Arnold showed me his photo.
Finally, I am looking the legendary first chairman of the First Farmers Cooperative Bacon Factory to be established in SA in the eyes.
We spoke about history and the Moor family; the industry at large and then Arnold gave us a bit of information that is invaluable to our quest. “Build your company on quality! Nothing less than that will exist for 100 years.”
At home, I could hardly wait to page through the book. Here I saw so many of my friends.
Bob Ferguson (I know his son, Alex)
Wynand Nel who worked with me at Stocks Meat Market, Arnold Prinsloo, Melindi Wyma, Bob Ferguson – I know his son, Alex who is heading up Multivac.
This morning Paul was telling me about a small hotel they stayed over in Natal the previous week, Hartford House. It turns out that the house was owned by JW Moor. Arnold elucidated us and suggested we get in contact with Mickey Goss, the current owner of the estate for an in-depth discussion of the history of the region and the Moor family.
I will definitely send Mickey correspondence and arrange for a visit to his famed estate. I am thrilled to be part of this incredibly rich history, humbled by the gesture of Arnold and the coincidence of Paul and his family staying at the exact house a week ago, well, that is just strange!!
(1) 1917 and 18 were very interesting years besides for the creation of the bacon plant in Estcourt. On 8 June, two days after the start of production, the South African financial services group Sanlam was established in Cape Town. 1917/ 1918 was the year when the RAF was founded with another interesting South African connection. On 17 August 1917, General Jan Smuts released his report recommending that a military air service should be used as “an independent means of war operations” of the British Army and Royal Navy, leading to the creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918. (Hastings, Hastings, 1987)
Dhupelia, U. S.. 1980. Frederick Robert Moor and Native Affairs in the Colony of Natal 1893 to 1903. Submitted in part fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Durban-Westville. Supervisor: Dr. J.B. Brain; Date Submitted: December 1980. Download: Dhupelia-Uma-1980
Dommisse, E. 2011. First baronet of De Grendel. Tafelberg
The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, Dublin, Ireland; 18 Oct 1878, p1.
The Guardian (London, Greater London, England), 6 July 1918, p6.
Max, Bomber Command: Churchill’s Epic Campaign – The Inside Story of the RAF‘s Valiant Attempt to End the War, New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1987, ISBN0-671-68070-6, p. 38.
Morrell, R. G.. 1996. White Farmers, Social Institutions and Settler Masculinity in the Natal Midlands, 1880-1920. A Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Economic History. University of Natal. Durban, March 1996
Perren, R. Farmers, and consumers under strain: Allied meat
supplies in the First World War. The Agricultural Historical Review. PDF: Richard Perren
The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896
Thompson, P. S.. 2011. Historia Vol 56 no 1, The Natal home front in the Great War (1914-1918) On-line version ISSN 2309-8392; Print version ISSN 0018-229X. The Historical Association of South Africa c/o Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria.
Walworth, G.. 1940. Feeding the Nation in Peace and War. London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
The remarkable story of Wright Harris and Jan Kok’s participation in the second Anglo-Boer War. These stories begin much in the same way. Their faith played an equally important role in surviving the war and it established a legacy where hard work, faith and opportunity determined the actions of their children grandchildren and great grandchildren. Finally, both stories end with the creation of a bacon curing company!
Food science and the meat industry, in particular, have amazing untold stories. I was researching great bacon companies of ages past when I received a scanned copy of Bringing Home the Bacon, A History of the Harris Family’s Castlemaine Bacon Company, by Leigh Edmonds.
I discovered a remarkable link with South Africa in the participation of one of the founders, Wright Harris, in the Second Anglo-Boer War on the side of the British Empire. This peaked my interest since my own great grandfather, Jan (Johannes) Kok fought in the same war, but on the side of the Boers. Despite being adversaries in war, their stories are very much alike. Deep religious beliefs were their compass and following its direction ultimately brought us to bacon curing. In the Harris story, this happened in one generation and in the case of Johannes Kok, it would take 4 generations before his great-grandson would complete the process and become one of the founders of a bacon company. This is the story.
The story of Wright Harris, the Australian protagonist, begins in England where his parents were married in January 1864 and migrated to Victoria, Australia. Wright was the 7th of 11 children. His father was a farm labourer and wood cutter. Wright remarked in later life that he left school at age 12 when hard work was the lot of most boys and added that “it didn’t hurt us.” Wright was a devout Christian. A heritage he got from his mother. By 1900 he was a regular lay preacher at many churches in the area.
Johannes W Kok was born in Winburg in the independent Boer republic of the Orange Free State on 4 April 1880. The Orange Free State got its independence from Brittain on 23 February 1854. Winburg itself was a self-proclaimed independent Boer territory since 1837 and was incorporated into the Free State in 1854. Jan Kok was christened in Winburg on 02 Mei 1880. He grew up right in the heart of Boer-self determination.
THE SECOND ANGLO-BOER WAR
In October 1899 the second Anglo-Boer war broke out in South Africa. In the first few months, the Boers had the upper hand, but the British government responded by massing its forces from across the empire. Wright enlisted in February 1900 in the Victorian Bushmen Contingent.
P. L. Murray writes about the Third Bushmen Contingent in his work, Official records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa, “This corps was largely subscribed for by the public. It was resolved that, in lieu of drawing the men exclusively from the local forces, a class of Australian yeomen and bushmen should be obtained; hardy riders straight shots, accustomed to find their way about in difficult country, and likely to make an expert figure in the vicissitudes of such a campaign as was being conducted.”
An enormous number of candidates volunteered for enlistment. The men selected were largely untrained in military matters; 230 were farmers or with some connection to farming. The selection criteria were based on their ability to ride and shoot. The men were allowed to bring their own horses. Many brought two.
They left Melbourne for South Africa on 10 March 1900 aboard the Euryalis and arrived in Cape Town on 3 April 1900. Wright suffered from severe seasickness on the voyage to South Africa and wrote only two words in his diary, “sea sick.” Of the 261 men and NCO’s and 15 officers, 17 would loose their lives in the South African campaign.”
In South-Africa, thirty-seven days later, on 5 May 1900, on an autumn evening, the 20-year-old Jan Kok greeted his mum and dad, took his rifle and mounted his horse. At 20:00 he rode off with the kommando from their farm Kransdrif. From there they rode to the farm of A. Nel, Kafferskop. In all, they were 11 people riding together; 6 from Winburg, 1 from Kroonstad, 2 from Thabanchu and two black people. They travel to Ficksburg, where they join this Kommando and on 18 May, they set off from Ficksburg to join larger Boer forces.
From Jan’s diary, there was considerable disagreement where they should go and which Boer forces they should join.
The Australians, on the other hand, had none of the indecisiveness associated with a more informal military organisation of the Boer’s. As soon as they landed at Cape Town, they travelled to Beira and to Marondera (known as Marandellas until 1982), a town in Mashonaland East, Zimbabwe, located about 72 km east of Harare. Here, all the colonial Bushmen were formed into regiments known as the Rhodesian Field Force; “the Victorians and West Australians forming the 3rd, under Major Vialls. They marched in squadrons across the then Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) to Bulawayo. From there to Mafikeng where they were again mobilised and equipped and took part in one of the major battles of the war, the siege of Mafikeng.
Wright noted the following entries in his journal at Mafikeng.
23 July, Monday. “Left Bulawayo for Mafikeng at 3 o’clock. Twenty-five in a truck, packed in like pigs.”
24 July, Tuesday. “Ostrich running alongside the train. A halt for two hours at Palepwe to feed and water horses.” (I am not sure where Palepwe is. The name is probably misspelt)
25 July, Wednesday “Met by an armoured train. Reached Mafikeng at about 6 o’clock, and slept out in the rain.”
26 July, Thursday. “A look around the trenches and around Mafikeng. Saw the Boer prisoners, two sentenced to death.”
27 July, Friday. “Got our saddles. The ponies captured from the Boers allotted to us. Saw the guns that saved Mafikeng.”
28 July, Saturday. “Sent out to hold the river against the enemy with four guns. Got orders to go away and take three months provisions. Order countermanded (rescinded/ cancelled).”
29 July, Sunday. “Church parade. Went to the Wesleyan church in town, had a grand service. Text Timoty 21 and 22. On picket, got a piece of shell which had come through the roof. (This must be a mistake because there is no such reference. My best guess is that it is 2 Tim 2: 21 and 22 which reads: “If a man, therefore, purges himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. Flee also youthful lusts: but follow righteousness, faith, charity, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.”
On 28 July, Jan notes in his own diary that the kommando, under the leadership of General Marthinus Prinsloo, decide that it is not worth fighting any further since the Boers are heavily demoralised. They ask the British to negotiate a surrender. At this time they are still in Fouriesburg, in the Brandwater Basin.
The formal surrender was on 30 July 1900, but Jan and his fellow Boers lay down arms on 31 July. They are assured by the British that they would be allowed to return to their homes and farms, but in the end, this does not materialise.
Jan writes in his diary on Monday, 31 July 1900, “we have our weapons deposited on the surrender of General Prinsloo to General Hunter. On this day he notes, “a time of new experiences and disappointment, for sure.” On August 11 they sent us by train to Cape Town (Green Point).” He writes that “the Malaaihers (Malays?) and bastards (colourds?) were standing both sides of the street and mocked us all the way.”
They board the ship Dilwara on 15 August. On 18 August they leave Cape Town and stop over in Simonsbaai (probably Simons Town). On 21 August they arrived in Durban. Aboard they are tortured by an infestation of fleas. They leave Durban on 22 August. On 30 August, they anchor at the “Chysellen.” Here they are allowed for the first time to buy some fruit, “12 bananas for 6 “pence.”
On 8 September they arrive in Colombo Bay. From here they travel 160 miles by train and arrive eventually in Diyatalawa.
On 16 September a fellow inmate and an ordained minister, Ds C Ferreira, preach from Matt. 8:12, “But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” That afternoon Ds Postma preach from Luke 18:10 (probably up to : 14). On that day they were very upset that the “koelies” (a derogatory but common term for people of Indian descent) worked on that day, a Sunday as if it was any other day. Ds Postma’s reading dealt with that judgemental attitude towards others who do not observe and worship in the same way as you do.
He writes on 22 September that he and Gert van de Venter from hut 48 started a “Zingkoor” (a choir). He attended bible study at hut 63 where a certain Ds Roux spoke.
This was obviously a time of great reflection and soul searching. On 1 October, he writes that “as I reflect on the past year and what happened to me, I can not say anything else but that the Lord helped me through it all and that he can not but to thank Him for all that He has done for me.” It is interesting that he named his son, years later, Ebenhaezer, God helped me all the way and brought me to this place. He never told my grandfather why he named him Eben. It was not a family name and must have been done deliberately in a time when conservative farmers gave their children the names of their parents or grandparents. From this entry in his diary, I can see how important this thought was to him and, especially in Afrikaans, the wording is similar to the words used in the bible from where we get the meaning of the name, Ebenhaezer. I suspect that in naming his son Eben, Jan was celebrating Gods faithfulness in by allowing him to return and have his own family.
There was also ministers in the camp who used Sunday school for a time to criticise the fact that they laid down arms. Ds Roux accused them of being selfish when they surrendered and say that they were only feeling sorry for their horses and were homesick. He spends lots of time attending bible study and Sunday school. On 3 January when a school was started, he attended. On 7 January he mentions that there was a missions prayer meeting and he starts to attend a missions class.
His grandson, Ds Jan Kok (my uncle), writes a dissertation when he completes his studies as a Dutch Reformed minister, about the development of a missionary zeal in the POW camps and indeed, many of the POW’s returned home to become missionaries. This was later published under the title “Sonderlinge Vrug” (special or unusual fruit).
Jan became one of the founders of the “Zuid-Afrikaansche Pennie Vereniging” on 1 June 1902. The goal of the organisation was to promote the missionary course and through this, to expand the Kingdom of God.
On 31 July, as Jan surrenders and is taken POW, Wright Harris is still very much part of the siege of Mafikeng and writes in his own diary, “Called out to wait for the Boers at daylight. Ordered not to start.” 1 August, Wright notes, “Starting out for Mafikeng. Passed Boer trenches.”
He survives the campaign, but his health deteriorates. He suffers horrible bouts of severe illness. His Christian faith sustains him through everything, like Jan Kok in the Diyatalawa camp. Wright also continues to attend church parades, tent meetings, bible readings and prayer meetings. I wonder if he could have imagined that on the Boer side there were men with much the same commitment and a common experience of faith with him.
In early October, as Jan is getting used to life as a prisoner of war, Wright Harris contracts deadly typhoid fever. He is taken to hospital where he lay for weeks, delirious and close to death. He is so severely sick that later becomes convinced that his eventual recovery is a miracle. As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he is sent back to Australia and arrived in Melbourne in early Feb 1901.
Wright, deeply committed to his faith, undertakes a year of church work in New Zealand, following the war. Jan is eventually released on 5 December 1902 and returns to South Africa on 27 December 1902.
FOLLOWING THE WAR
There is a deep belief among the young men at these camps that a reason for the war was that they did not do everything in their power to spread Christianity among the native African tribes. It was in a way, Gods judgement upon them for their inaction. It is therefore not surprising that after their homecoming, Jan enrols in the Missionary Seminary of the Dutch Reformed Church in Wellington. The collective Boer nations had matters to resolve that, in their interpretation of events, brought about such devastation on their land and it is completely understandable and commendable that this became the passion of Jan’s life. Jan is confirmed in March 1906 in a missions church in Heilbron.
Wright did not have a nation to save and without the spiritual issues that plagued the young Boer-men, focussed on building his own life. He was ready to do whatever his hands find to do. Events in his life would steer him, not to full-time church ministry as was the case with Jan, but to a life of business and bacon curing.
Probably through the Methodist church at Scoresby, he met John and his daughter, Janet Weetman. William Haine ran a butter factory in Kennedy Street, Castlemaine. He also ran a bacon company part time as the Castlemaine Mild Cured Bacon Company, to earn additional income. Haine and Weetman agreed for John and Janet to take over the running of the bacon side of things and Weetman roped Wright Harris in to assist them. The three arrived in Castlemaine in 1905 and started the Castlemaine Bacon Company in a room in the butter factory. Together with John Kernihan they processed five pigs per week. John Kernihan and John Weetman were the experienced craftsmen. Kernihan had employed Weetman years earlier in his own bacon company in Northcote but lost his business during the depression of the 1850’s.
Wright and Janet eventually marry on 18 April 1906. John Weetman passed away on 28 March 1922 at which time Wright and Janet acquired the company and the land the factory was built on. So started a long and prolific history of the Castlemaine Bacon Company under Wright Harris’s name.
Back in South Africa, Jan remains faithfully at the congregation in Heilbron for 39 years until his retirement in 1945. My uncle, Oom Jan Kok, who was named after his grandfather, follows in his footsteps and become a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church. He faithfully serves in the Moedergemeente, Warmbad for most of his life. He tells an interesting story that when he was christened, this was done in the “black church” where his grandfather and the man who’s name he received, was the pastor, in Heilbron. In those years this was of course not permitted under the Apartheid Laws. My uncle, Jan, needed a “doopseël” (baptismal seal) for some reason and it was eventually found at the “white church” (Heilbron-South) where his grandfather must have registered it.
I, in turn, am named after my grandfather, Oupa Eben Kok and was destined to follow in the footsteps of my great granddad and uncle to become a pastor. During a year I spent in the USA after my own time in the South African Army (1988 to 1990), I returned to South Africa with a commitment to pursue a career in business. Bacon curing became my life.
I fell in love with Chemistry and in my mid 30’s decided to enter the world of food manufacturing. In 2008, Oscar Klynveld and I created Woody’s Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd. with the ambitious goal of selling the best bacon on earth. Oscar himself is the son of a Dutch Reformed minister with deep religious convictions. I always loved writing and storytelling and when I discovered that the field of meat science is replete with amazing untold stories, I start a blog where I feature some of these amazing stories.
It was in researching an article for this site on famous bacon curing companies from around the world and a book I am writing on our setting up of Woody’s Consumer Brands that I came across the story of the Castlemaine Bacon Company and the link they have with South Africa. Since the founding of the company, our growth has been meteoric, much like Wright Harris’ Castlemaine Bacon Company. The Harris family now stand and look back at a company which they eventually sold and they have in a sense completed the full circle, a road that we are still excited to be travelling and in a sense, continue to follow in their footsteps.
On Saturday morning I was standing in our own dispatch area, telling Oscar about this article and my attempts to make contact with the Harris family. The commitments, disciplines and great lessons from the words of John Harris and the inspiration we can draw from them.
The great story of bacon curing is, from the beginning to the end, a human story. It took the best of humankind, over thousands of years to create a dish that mimics natural processes that are part of human metabolism, every moment. The story of bacon curing is our own story in a very personal way. It is a science and an art – human culture at its best. Telling the story of curing is telling our own personal stories. They are inseparable.
As humans, we identify patterns, we learn, evolve and we connect. Looking at our own experience in Woody’s Consumer Brands fill Oscar and me with a deep gratitude and we take courage from the men and woman of the Harris family with their remarkable heritage which is so close to our own. Bacon curing brings together some of the greatest stories on earth!
I liberally quote and use information from Bringing home the bacon: a history of the Harris family’s Castlemaine Bacon Company 1905-2005 / Leigh Edmonds. Monash University. The photo of Wright Harris, this source.
Murray, P. L.. 1911. Official records of the Australian military contingents to the war in South Africa. Albert J. Mullett, Government Printers.
All information and photos of JW Kok supplied by Jan Kok in private correspondence.
This historical review spans many millennia. From the dawn of humanity as we know it to our current time where we touch on modern developments in meat curing technology. It started out as a way of managing food scarcity by providing a means of fortifying meat against spoilage and over time became a culinary craft. Here I review some of the developments in brine technology as well as the technology of administering the brine to the meat and accomplish curing in the shortest possible time. This review is done from the perspective of a commercial mainstream high throughput bacon plant and not from the viewpoint of artisan curing operations, some of which are large and service a large client base. It is a work in progress as my own understanding evolves of this great art, the art of curing. This historical review of the curing process yields interesting perspectives.
Curing is a fascinating process. A modern understanding of the benefits of curing is that it fixes a pinkish-reddish cured meat colour. It endows the meat with unique longevity, even if left outside a refrigerator, many times longer than that of fresh meat. It is powerful enough to prevent the deadly toxin formation by Clostridium botulinum. It prevents rancidity of fat. It lastly gives meat a unique cured taste.
Discovering the mechanics behind meat curing was a slow process that took hundreds of years. (For an overview of some of the people behind the most important discoveries, see Fathers of Meat Curing) A survey of farm curing methods conducted in 1951 by the US Department of Agriculture among farmers in the US revealed the following brining methods used:
Salt Only (Dry cure – no pumping – salt only – using dry salt or brine)
Exactly where salt curing of meat started is an interesting question. There is ample evidence that salt preservation of meat was done from the earliest of times.
Despite that fact that there are records of fish being salt cured in China going back to 2000 BCE and from Egypt and Mesopotamia, the practice is much older.
For years I believed that a piece of dry-cured meat was discovered dating back to 5300 years ago (3300 BCE). In September 1991, two German hikers from Nuremberg, Helmut and Erika Simon, stumble across the naturally mummified remains of a Copper Age man while wandering through an Alpine glacier at the border between Austria and Italy, on the Austrian-Italian region, in the Ötztal Alps. What they thought was a hiker who perished recently turned out to be the oldest mummified frozen mummy known today. He is estimated to have lived in 3,300 BCE and more specifically between 3359 and 3105 BCE. It is calculated that there is a 66 percent chance that he died between 3239 and 3105 BCE.
It was widely reported that his last meat was cured meat. I quote from the article where this was reported. “Researchers thawed his body and have been able to test the contents of his stomach. Mummy specialist Albert Zink from the European Academy of Bolzano said he was able to analyse the nanostructure of meat fibers from a mountain goat found in Ötzi’s stomach – indicating that the meat was raw and had been dry-cured, and not cooked or grilled, which would have weakened the fibers. He added that Ötzi did not have a proper hunting bow with him, and probably carried the dried meat with him from his home, as raw meat would have quickly gone bad. Further analysis of his stomach contents showed that he had not eaten cheese or dairy products, just meat. “It seems probable that his last meal was very fatty, dried meat – perhaps a type of Stone Age speck or bacon,” Zink said. As Ötzi had hiked down from the South Tyrolean side of the Alps, it’s likely his provisions came from there.” (The Local)
I liked Ötzi-man even more since there is good evidence linking him with China, also established by the content of his stomach. When researches tested the contents of his stomach, “they found a bacterium called Helicobacter pylori, an age-old pathogen that has evolved into different strains according to the region of the world in which it is found. About half the people on the planet harbour the bacterium in their stomachs. It can cause ulcers or gastrointestinal distress and is typically spread among children when they play in the dirt. While researchers cannot be sure if the Iceman was sick due to the infection, they were intrigued by their analysis of the geographic history of the bacterium. “Surprisingly, a strain of bacterium in his gut shares ancestry with an Asian strain,” said the study in the US journal Science. “In contrast to the fact that most modern Europeans harbour a strain ancestral to North African strains.”” (The Local/AFP) This was interesting to me since this would be a link relating dry curing with salt and China.
I have, however, serious doubts if this actually tells us anything about dry curing of meat and if his Asian wonderings shed any light on the link between dry curing and China. Ancients consumed their food raw before it was discovered how to make fire. (How did Ancient Humans Preserve Food?) Even after fire making was invented and the technology became universally part of human culture, humans only cooked their food intermittently for a very long time. There are cultures to this day who eat raw meat in one form or the other. Besides this, hanging meat to dry in the sun, the wind or over a fireplace without adding any curing agent like salt was practiced in Southern Africa, North America, and Nepal, to mention just a few places that I am personally aware of. It was likely universally practiced at some point in the past. We simply do not know exactly how Ötzi-man preserved his meat.
After a careful investigation of the use of salt for meat preservation in Southern Africa, the evidence points to the fact that the power of salt to preserve meat was known by for example the Khoe and the San people, but they preferred to simply hang meat in the sun and the wind to dry if this was ever necessary. (Salt and the Ancient People of Southern Africa)
What we know for sure is that salt curing of meat occurred in China from very early on. Flad, et al. (2005) showed that salt production was taking place in China on an industrial scale as early as the first millennium BCE at Zhongba. “Zhongba is located in the Zhong Xian County, Chongqing Municipality, approximately 200 km down-river along the Yangzi from Chongqing City in central China. Researchers concluded that “the homogeneity of the ceramic assemblage” found at this site “suggests that salt production may already have been significant in this area throughout the second millennium B.C..” Significantly, “the Zhongba data represent the oldest confirmed example of pottery-based salt production yet found in China.” (Flad, et al.; 2005)
Salt-cured Chinese hams have been in production since the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD). First records appeared in the book Supplement toChinese Materia Medica by Tang Dynasty doctor Chen Zangqi, who claimed ham from Jinhua was the best. Pork legs were commonly salted by soldiers in Jinhua to take on long journeys during wartime, and it was imperial scholar Zong Ze who introduced it to Song Dynasty Emperor Gaozong. Gaozong was so enamored with the ham’s intense flavour and red colour he named it huo tui, or ‘fire leg’. (SBS) An earlier record of ham than Jinhua-ham is Anfu ham from the Qin dynasty (221 to 206 BCE).
In the middle ages, Marco Polo is said to have encountered salt curing of hams in China on his presumed 13th-century trip. Impressed with the culture and customs he saw on his travels, he claims that he returned to Venice with Chinese porcelain, paper money, spices, and silks to introduce to his home country. He claims that it was from his time in Jinhua, a city in eastern Zheijiang province, where he found salt-cured ham. Whether one can accept these claims from Marco Polo is, however, a different question.
The reach of Chinese technology of salt production was nevertheless impressive. I recently visited New Zealand where I learned that the Māori never developed salt extraction in any form. I did a short review of the colonization of Indonesia and salt extraction technology in an article, “Concerning the lack of salt industry in pre-European New Zealand and other tales from Polynesia and the region” A brief survey of the history of salt extraction from Fiji, Samoa, New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Taiwan shows the large influence of China on regional salt production technology.
This study also revealed a possible forerunner of more formal salt production around the world, including China. One of the earliest ways that salt found itself in food preparations was undoubtedly through the fact that seafood was consumed that naturally had added salt which came from the water. Immersing carcasses of animals and fish in water would have been one of the earliest forms of preservation and since earliest communities gravitated to coastal regions, salt water would have been often used and in addition to seafood which is rich in salt, it would have entered early human culture in this way. It is likely that carcasses were stored in water at first to hide them from predators and its preserving power would soon have been discovered. Migrating groups would have noticed how seawater preserved meat better and changed (improved) the taste of the meat.
The study of salt in Polynesia shows that as groups migrated inland, away from the sea, saltwater was boiled to evaporate the water and leave the salt as a very basic salt extraction technique. The salt was then traded with the inland communities. This was widely practiced in Taiwan until fairly recently. The references of it in Polynesia and Asia offers a suggested progression of the extraction of salt from seawater. Studies from Fiji identified population size, even of coastal communities to be a key driver development of salt extraction technology. Inland communities had the added problem by its removal from seawater.
It would be my guess that migrants from Taiwan spread their technology throughout the lands of Polynesia. Every evaluation of salt on the islands I looked at supports this. China would undoubtedly have been a key driver in the region in progressing salt extraction technology with Pappa New Guinea playing a large role where a multitude of techniques to extract salt was (and still is) in use. Solar evaporation of seawater, extracting salt through plant material and burning plants, naturally high in salt are a few of the developments from the region, which all presumably have their roots in the practice of simply boiling seawater; in turn, this was probably a progression of the practice of cooking food in seawater; which, in turn had its roots in storing meat in saline solutions; which had its roots in simply immersing carcasses in bodies of water for storage. When we are at this point, we are clearly at the very early age of the existence of cognitive modern humans who were cognitively similar to modern humans.
In a discussion with a curator from the Canterbury Museum about the matter of salt production and trade in salt being absent from New Zealand ancient history, he drew my attention to the interesting practice of the Maori to slow boil large quantities of shellfish. Had they not done so, it would not have been possible to consume large quantities at a time. There seems to be evidence that they did, in fact, consume large quantities of this at a time. It supports the notion that they knew about salt and the possibility exists that this was true across the world from very early. People probably knew at least some of the techniques for extracting it, but some local populations, as was the case in New Zealand, may never have used the technology simply because it was not necessary. In the case of the Maori’s, they definitely knew to remove some of the salt from shellfish before consuming it. (They have a word for salt which shows that they definitely knew about its taste).
Salt as a condiment
One can not talk about salt curing and not at least make mention of its use as a condiment. Even though too much salt alters the taste negatively, preservation through salt and altering (enhancing) the taste go hand in hand. Evidence is emerging about the use of condiments in food, the earliest discovery to date in Europe going back 6000 years ago in Germany and Denmark. ARCHEOLOGY magazine Nov/ Dec 2013 reports that “a team of researchers has found phytoliths, small bits of silica that form in the tissues of some plants, from garlic mustard seeds, which carry strong, peppery flavor but little nutritional value. Because they were found alongside residues of meat and fish, the seed remnants represent the earliest known direct evidence of spicing in European cuisine. According to researcher Hayley Saul of the University of York, “It certainly contributes important information about the prehistoric roots of this practice, which eventually culminated in globally significant processes and events.”” (Archeology) Salt would undoubtedly have been part of their arsenal of taste enhancers.
It seems that our relationship with salt has never been static and to this day, it continues to evolve. More importantly, the discoveries in Denmark and Germany brings into focus innovations in the European lands of Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, Spain, France, and Poland. Besides these, there is Irland. What was happening in these regions while cities and kingdoms covering Mesopotamia, India, Pakistan, Nepal were developing salt industries and very sophisticated meat curing technologies based on salt, nitrate, and sal ammoniac? I am filling in the gaps over the years to come.
Origins of Nitrate/ Nitrite curing?
This study of salt also brings me back to my work on nitrite/ nitrate curing which has been a major focus for me over many years. While people living in desert areas would have discovered that certain salts have the ability to change the colour of meat from brown, back to pinkish/ reddish, along with increased preservation power and a slightly distinct taste, it is certainly true that coastal dwellers would have observed the same. They would have noticed that seasalt or bay salt have the same ability.
Dr. Francois Mellett, a renown South African food scientist, sent me the following very interesting theory about the earliest discovery of the curing process in private communication between us on the matter. He wrote, “I have a theory that curing started even earlier by early seafarers: when a protein is placed in seawater, the surface amino acids are de-aminated to form nitrite for a period of 4 to 6 weeks. Nitrite is then converted to nitrate over the next 4 weeks. Finally, ammonia and ammoniac are formed from nitrate. It is possible that they preserved meat in seawater barrels and that the whole process of curing was discovered accidentally.”
I think he is on the right track. I suspect that people discovered this even long before barrels were invented. The use of seawater for meat storage and further preparation was so widespread that it would have been impossible not to have noticed meat curing taking place. If it is generally true that earliest humans first settled around coastal locations before migrating inland, it could push the discovery of curing many thousands of years earlier than we ever imagined, to a time when modern humans started spreading around the globe. When did it develop into an art or a trade is another question altogether, but I think we can safely push the time when it was noticed back to the earliest cognitive and cultured humans whom we would have recognized as thinking “like us” if we could travel back in time and meet them. I think the question of recognition in different regions we can safely put at the time when these areas were populated.
We know that dry-curing of pork takes around 5 to 6 weeks under the right conditions and if the meat is not cut too thick. It must be cool enough that the meat doesn’t spoil before it is cured. Even though I now suspect that curing was first noticed by communities living by the sea as I just explained, I suspect that curing salts in deserts were discovered since natural salts always appear as a mix of various salts and under certain conditions, these salt deposits contain small amounts of nitrate salts and ammonium chloride.
The ancients would have noticed this. I deal with these salts below under separate headings, but the most important two curing salts that appear to us from antiquity are saltpeter (sodium nitrate) and sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride). Both salts were well known in Mesopotamia and references to them appear alongside references to salt curing of fish mentioned earlier and both salts were used in meat curing.
The ancients developed basic techniques of separating out the different salts. In particular, sal ammoniac was by far the more important salt of the bronze age (2000 BCE). It was produced in Egypt and mined in Asia. There are features of sal ammoniac that favours it as a salt for people who had a motivation to exploit new lands due to population pressure and climate changes. When the horse was domesticated around 5000 BCE, a food source was needed to sustain them on long expeditions and I believe sal ammoniac fits the requirement perfectly.
Both salts cure the meat in a week which obviously had huge advantages over salt-only curing. This, I speculate, was the first incentive to change to a dedicated curing salt. Secondly, sal ammoniac, as far as I can find, was globally traded from much earlier on than saltpeter. Ancient Macedonian records indicate that even 2000 BCE saltpeter was preferred in food over sal ammoniac on account of the better taste of saltpeter.
There is a modern era example of a curing technique that was good for a time and was then replaced with more agreeable methods as soon as supply lines were established. This technique, I believe actually existed from very early after the horse was domesticated and was re-introduced by various cultures, at various times. One such culture was the Boers who left the Cape Colony and moved into the interior of South Africa. The technique they used to cure their meat disappeared as soon as conventional supply lines were established.
The technique is curing of meat by hanging it over the neck of the horse or placing it under your saddle so that the sweat of the horse cure the meat. (For a discussion on this, see my article, Saltpeter, Horse Sweat and Biltong) My point is that this is a good example of a curing technique that was used for a time only and then disappeared, only to be re-appear when conditions required it. Such was the case, I suspect when sal ammoniac was used for a time in curing until the requirement subsided, salt curing became popular again and much later economic factors re-introduced saltpeter curing.
German and Austrian cookbooks pre-1600’s reveal that vegetable dyes were used to bolster colour in this time and speak of curing with salt only. It is well known that the Germans and Austrians were familiar with nitrate curing and, I will argue, they would have been acquainted with sal ammoniac as a curing salt also, but for whatever reason, these fell out of common practice. When the requirements disappeared for nitrate and sal ammoniac curing of the ancient world, the nations of Europe and China reverted to salt curing.
The many references to salt curing are therefore not surprising in the context of a mature and stable society. A record exists from Cato the Elder who described in 160 BCE. how a ham should be cured. In his Latin work, De Agricultura (On Farming), this Roman statesman and farmer, gives an ancient recipe for curing pork with salt.
“After buying legs of pork, cut off the `feet. One-half peck ground Roman salt per ham. Spread the salt in the base of a vat or jar, then place a ham with the skin facing downwards. Cover completely with salt. After standing in salt for five days, take all hams out with the salt. Put those that were above below, and so rearrange and replace. After a total of 12 days take out the hams, clean off the salt and hang in the fresh air for two days. On the third day take down, rub all over with oil, hang in smoke for two days…take down, rub all over with a mixture of oil and vinegar and hang in the meat store. Neither moths nor worms will attack it.” (economist.com)
Cato may have imitated a process whereby hams are smoked over juniper and beech wood. The process was probably imported by the Roman gourmets from Germania. (economist.com) It is possible that the process of curing itself was brought to Rome by the military stationed in Germany.
Salt curing remains an important technique for high-end hams and certain bacons. Like nitrite curing, it yields a particular cured colour, but one that is more deep purple than pink. For the mechanism behind this, refer to a section in my article on the mechanisms of nitrite curing, BACTERIAL/ ENZYMATIC CREATION OF CURED COLOUR.
In 2017 I did an article where I speculated that nitrate curing originated from either the Turpan area in western China or from the Atacama desert in Chile and Peru. In this article, I suggest that nitrate curing of meat is thousands of years old. (Salt – 7000 years of meat-curing) I was working on the assumption that nitrate salts are the only salts that will yield nitrite and nitric oxide, required for meat curing. Between the Atacama desert and Turpan in Western China, Turpan is by far the best candidate for the birthplace of meat curing as it is practiced around the world. I recently review further evidence from this area in an article, Nitrate Salts Epic Journey and And then the mummies spoke!
In the course of researching the article, I discovered that sal ammoniac was far more vigorously traded than saltpeter in the early Christian era and possibly for thousands of years before that. Fascinatingly enough, I realised that ammonium chloride will, like nitrates, undergo bacterial transformation into nitrites which will, then, in the meat matrix yield nitric oxide which will cure the meat. I further discovered that it is an excellent meat preservative. Turpan is also probably the only place on earth where sal ammoniac and nitrate salts in the form of sodium nitrate occur in massive quantities side by side.
Chinese authors of antiquity are unanimous that sal ammoniac came into China from Turpan, Tibet, and Samarkand and through Samarkand, it was traded into the Mediterranian along the silk road. There are similar records that it was traded from Turpan along the silk road through the city of Samarkand who had strong trading ties with the Mediterranean. It all makes for an appealing case for sal ammoniac as the actual curing salt from antiquity that was used in meat curing when the practice spread around the world. There is even a tantalizing link between Turfan and the ancient city of Salzburg and the salt mines which leads me to speculate that the trade of sal ammoniac was done into the heart of Western Europe, into what became known as Austria. This leads me to believe that the actual technological progressions may have come from Austria. Whether it was Salzburg or Turfan is not clear.
We are not familiar with this salt in the context of meat curing and more information is in order. I reviewed modern references dating back to the 1700s, 1800s, and 1900s where it continued to be used in meat preservation in Nitrate Salts Epic Journey. Several minerals exist composed of ammonium (NH4). Ammonium is formed by the protonation of ammonia (NH3). Sal ammoniac is the most well known and was named by the ancient Romans. They collected this salt which was found around the temple of Jupiter Ammon in Egypt and called it salt (sal) of Ammon (ammonocius). The name ammonia was subsequently derived from it. It forms in volcanic vents and after volcanic eruptions before it has rained which dissolves it. It is highly soluble. It is unique in that the crystals are formed directly from the gas fumes and bypass the liquid phase, a process known as sublimation.
Ammonium readily combines with an acid thus forming a salt such as hydrochloric acid to form ammonium chloride (sal-ammoniac) and with nitric acid to form ammonium nitrate. Recent studies have shown that volcanos release a “previously unconsidered flux of nitric acid vapour to the atmosphere. (Mather, T. A., et al, 2004) It is a fact is that the Turfan area, both the basin and the mountains are replete with different salts containing nitrogen (nitrate salts and ammonium) any one of which could be used effectively in meat curing.
The sal ammonia was mined from openings in the sides of volcanic mountains where steam from underground lava flows created the ammonium chloride crystals. These were traded across Asia, Europe and into India. Massive sodium nitrate deposits occur in the Tarim basin, the second lowest point on earth. I then speculate that traders used some of these deposits to forge ammonium chloride since the ammonium chloride crystals did not survive in crystal form on long voyages due to its affinity for water that breaks the crystal structure down. Once this happened, the sodium nitrate and the ammonium chloride look similar in appearance. Due to the fact that it is known that almost all the sal ammonia produced in Samarkand was exported, I deduce that demand outstripped supply and this provided the incentive for such forgery. I find support for the likelihood of such a forgery, not just in the limited supply of sal ammoniac compared to nitrate salts, but also in the fact that mining then sal ammoniac was a seasonal affair and extremely dangerous and a difficult undertaking.
It seems likely that sal ammonia wasthe forerunner of saltpeter as the curing agent of choice. It is composed of two ions, ammonium, and chloride. The ammonium would be oxidized by ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) into nitrites and the well-known reaction sequence would result. Reaction Sequence
Not only would it result in the reddish-pinkish cured colour, but it was an excellent preservative. An 1833 book on French cooking, The Cook and Housewife’s Manual by Christian Isobel Johnstone states that “crude sal ammonia is an article of which a little goes far in preserving meat, without making it salt.” (Johnstone, C. I.; 1833: 412) It is, of course, the sodium which tastes salty in sodium chloride and ammonium chloride will have an astringent, salty taste. I know exactly what ammonium chloride taste like since it was added to my favourite Dutch candy “Zoute Drop” with licorice. I believe it was none other than my old friend, Jan Bernardo who first gave me Zoute Drop. As a boy, I used to ride my bicycle once a month to the only Greek Caffe in Vanderbijlpark which sold it for my monthly fix. My favourite was the double strength version called “Dubbel Zoute Drop.”
Subsequent to these discoveries, I did two small tests with sal ammoniac. Refer to the Sal Ammoniac Project. Here I show that sal ammoniac stands up to its reputation as an excellent preservative and definitely cures meat in two weeks at a 5 deg C temperature.
Saltpeter is the curing salt that most of us are familiar with that preceded sodium nitrite as curing agent. By far the largest natural known natural deposits of saltpeter to the Western world of the 1600s were found in India and the East Indian Companies of England and Holland plaid pivotal roles in facilitating its acquisition and transport. The massive nitrate fields of the Atacama desert and those of the Tarim Bason were still largely unknown. In 1300, 1400 and 1500 saltpeter had, however, become the interest of all governments in India and there was a huge development in local saltpeter production.
In Europe, references to natron emerged from the middle of the 1500’s and were used by scholars who traveled to the East where they encountered both the substance and the terminology. Natron was originally the word which referred to saltpeter. Later, the word natron was changed and nitron was used.
At first, the saltpeter fields of Bihar were the focus of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) and the British East Indian Company (EIC). The VOC dominated the saltpeter trade at this point. In the 1750s, the English East Indian Company (EIC) was militarised. Events soon took place that allowed for the monopolization of the saltpeter trade. In 1757 the British took over Subah of Bengal; a VOC expeditionary force was defeated in 1759 at Bedara; and finally, the British defeated the Mughals at Buxar in 1764 which secured the EIC’s control over Bihar. The British seized Bengal and took possession of 70% of the worlds saltpeter production during the latter part of the 1700s. (Frey, J. W.; 2009: 508 – 509)
The application of nitrate in meat curing in Europe rose as it became more generally available. Later, massive deposits of sodium nitrite were discovered in the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru and became known as Chilean Saltpeter. This was, as I have said before, only a re-introduction of technology which existed since 2000 BCE.
The pivotal area where I believe saltpeter technology spread from across Asia, India and into Europe, is the Turpan-Hami Basin in the Taklimakan Desert in China. Here, nitrate deposits are so substantial, that an estimated 2.5 billion tons exist, comparable in scale to the Atacama Desert super-scale nitrate deposit in Chile. (Qin, Y., et al; 2012) (THE TARIM MUMMIES OF CHINA) Its strategic location on the silk road, the evidence of advanced medical uses of nitrates from very early on and the ethnic link with Europe of people who lived here, all support this hypothesis.
Large saltpeter industries sprang to the South in India and to the South East in western China. In India, a large saltpeter industry developed in the north on the border with Nepal – in the state of Bihar, in particular, around the capital, Patna; in West Bengal and in Uttar Pradesh (Salkind, N. J. (edit), 2006: 519). Here, it was probably the monsoon rains which drench arid ground and as the soil dries during the dry season, capillary action pulls nitrate salts from deep underground to the surface where they are collected and refined. It is speculated that the source of the nitrates may be human and animal urine. Technology to refine saltpeter probably only arrived on Indian soil in the 1300s. Both the technology to process it and a robust trade in sal ammoniac in China, particularly in western China, predates the development of the Indian industry. It is therefore unlikely that India was the birthplace of curing. Saltpeter technology probably came from China, however, India, through the Dutch East Indian Company and later, the English East Indian Company became the major source of saltpeter in the west.
To the South East, in China, the largest production base of saltpeter was discovered dating back to a thousand years ago. Here, a network of caves was discovered in 2003 in the Laojun Mountains in Sichuan Province. Meat curing, interestingly enough, is also centered around the west and southern part of China. Probably a similar development to the Indian progression.
In China, in particular, a very strong tradition of meat curing developed after it was possibly first introduced to the Chinese well before 2000 BCE. Its use in meat curing only became popular in Europe gain between 1600 and 1750 and it became universally used in these regions towards the end of 1700. Its usage most certainly coincided with its availability and price. I have not compared price and availability in Europe with the findings on its use in meat curing which is based upon an examination of German and Austrian kook books by Lauder (1991), but I am confident that when I get to it one day, the facts will prove the same.
The Dutch and English arrived in India after 1600 with the first shipment of saltpeter from this region to Europe in 1618. Availability in Europe was, generally speaking, restricted to governments who, in this time, increasingly used it in warfare. (Frey, J. W.; 2009) This correlates well with the proposed time when it became generally available to the European population as the 1700s from Lauder. I believe that a strong case is emerging that the link between Western Europe and the desert regions of Western China was the place where nitrate curing developed into an art. The exact place, I believe, in Western China is the Tarim depression.
Dry curing of meat changed from salt only to a mixture of salt and saltpeter, liberally rubbed over the meat. As it migrates into the meat, water and blood are extracted and drained off. The meat is usually laid skin down and all exposed meat are plastered with a mixture of salt and saltpeter. Pork bellies would cure in approximately 14 days. (3) (Hui, Y. H., 2012: 540)
The addition of sugar which favours the reduction of nitrate to the active agent nitrite became common practice during the 19th century.” (Lauer K. 1991.) At first, it was added to reduce the saltiness of the meat and make it generally more palatable. Curers soon discovered that when sugar is added, the meat cures faster and the colour development is better.
Science later revealed that the sugars contribute to “maintaining acid and reducing conditions favourable” for the formation of nitric oxide.” (Kraybill, H. R.. 2009) “Under certain conditions reducing sugars are more effective than nonreducing sugars, but this difference is not due to the reducing sugar itself. The exact mechanism of the action of the sugars is not known. It may be dependent upon their utilisation by microorganisms or the enzymatic systems of the meat tissues.” (Kraybill, H. R.. 2009)
Ralph Hoagland, Senior Biochemist, Biochemie Division, Bureau of Animal Industry, United States Department of Agriculture, discovered that saltpeter functional value upon the colour of meat is its reduction to nitrites and the nitrites to nitric oxide, with the consequent production of NO-hemoglobin. He showed that the reactant is nitrous acid () or one of its metabolites such as nitric oxide ().
He wrote an important article in 1921, Substitutes for Sucrose in Cured Meats. Writing at this time, this formidable meat scientist is ideally placed to comment on the use of sugar in meat curing in the 1800s since the basis of its use would have been rooted in history.
He writes about the use of sugar in meat curing in the USA and says that it is used “extensively.” He reveals that according to government records, 15,924,009 pounds of sugar and 1,712,008 pounds of syrup, totaling 17,636,017 was used in curing meats in pickle in establishments that were inspected by the US Government, in 1917. If one would add the estimated use of sugar in dry cures in the same year, he placed the usage at an estimated total of 20,000,000 pounds. This estimate excludes the use of sugar in meat curing on farms. (Hoagland, R. 1921.)
Hoagland says that the functional value of sugar in meat curing at this time (and probably reaching back into the 1800’s) was entirely related to product quality and not preservation. “Sugar-cured” hams and bacon were viewed as being of superior quality. He states that a very large portion of bacon and hams produced in the USA are cured with sugar or syrup added to the cure. The quantity of sugar used in the curing mix is so small that it does not contribute to meat preservation at all. “Meat can be cured in entire safety without the use of sugar, and large quantities are so cured.” (Hoagland, R. 1921.)
The contribution to quality that he speaks about is probably related to both colour and flavour development. The colour development would have been related to the formation of the cured colour of the meat (The Naming of Prague Salt) as well as the browning during frying.
The role of sugar in bacon curing of the 1800’s when saltpeter was used was elucidated in 1882 by Gayon and Dupetit, studying and coining the term “denitrification” by bacteria. The process whereby nitrate in changed to nitrite is through the process of bacterial denitrification. They demonstrated the effect of heat and oxygen on this process and more importantly for our present discussion, “they also showed that individual organic compounds such as sugars, oils, and alcohols could supplant complex organic materials and serve as reductants for nitrate.” (Payne, 1986)
Denitrifying bacteria are facultative anaerobes, that is, they will only use nitrate () if oxygen () is unavailable as the terminal electron acceptor in respiration.” “The is sequentially reduced to more reduced forms although not all bacteria forms gas. ” “Many bacteria can only carry out the reduction of to , and this process is referred to as dissimilatory nitrate reduction. There is also evidence emerging that certain bacteria can denitrify, even if is present. (Seviour, R. J., et al.. 1999: 31)
(Seviour, R. J., et al.. 1999: 31)
“The rate of denitrification is affected by several parameters including temperature, dissolved oxygen levels and the concentration and biodegradability of carbon sources available to these cells” (Seviour, R. J., et al.. 1999: 223) Examples of such carbon sources are sugar, oxygen and plant oils.
In the 1800’s when the use of saltpeter was at its pinnacle, the use of sugar with saltpeter had then a much more prominent role in that it energizes denitrification bacteria which results in an increased rate of nitrate reduction to nitrite and therefore would speed up curing with saltpeter and result in a better overall curing process. Today, with the widespread use of sodium nitrite in curing brines, certain denitrifying bacteria is one mechanism for NO formation which directly leads to better curing.
The use of sugar or dextrose in bacon production in the modern era has more to do with the browning effect through by the well-known Millard reaction to give fried bacon a nice dark caramel colour when fried.
Dry-salt-curing in combination with injection (dry cure – with pumping)
It seems that the basic definition distinguishing between dry and wet curing is not based on whether injection is applied or not, but the state of the salts that the meat is left in, even after it has been injected with a brine (mixture of salt and water). So, if it is packed in a dry mix, it is dry curing and if it is soaked in a brine, it is wet-curing.
One of the prominent inventors of the technology to inject brine directly into meat to speed up the brine absorption was a certain Mr. Morgan, in England. The motivation was to increase the rate of curing in order to reduce the time required for processing. In temperatures above 20 deg C, pork spoils in three days.
It was important for farmers to cure the meat before a warm snap could allow spoilage organisms to work before the cure was properly diffused through the meat. Later, in industrial plants, the drive for a faster curing time would be cost factors. Increased output with limited and expensive equipment and people.
By injecting a liquid brine into the meat at evenly spaced intervals, the brine would diffuse quicker through the meat. It is also important to state that his interest was the preserving of meat generally for example for long sea voyages and not the curing of meat by farmers. The application of his method of injection, however, found its way into many homes and factories around the world.
Edward Smith writes in his book, Foods, in 1873 and accounts the events of “Mr. Morgan [who] devised an ingenious process by which the preserving material, composed of water, saltpeter, and salt, with or without flavouring matter, was distributed throughout the animal, and the tissue permeated and charged. His method was exemplified by him at a meeting of the Society of Arts, on April 13, 1854, when I [Edward] presided.” (Smith, E, 1873: 35)
He describes how an animal is killed in the usual way, the chest opened and a metal pipe connected to the arterial system. Brine was pumped through gravity feed throughout the animal. Approximately 6 gallons were flushed through the system. Pressure was created to ensure that it was flushed into the small capillaries. Smith reported overall good results from the process with a few exceptions. He himself seemed unconvinced.
An article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald that mentions Dr. Morgan and his arterial injection method. An important observation from the article is the date of 1870. By this date, he is referred to as “Dr. Morgan”, cluing us in about the timeline of Morgan’s life.
A second observation is a drawback of the system. The article states that “salting is the most common and best-known process of preservation (of meat), the principal modern novelty being Dr. Morgan’s plan of injecting the saline solution into the arterial system – the principal objection to which has been that the meat so treated has been over-salted.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 1 March 1870, p4)
The brine mix that Mr. Morgan suggested was 1 gallon of brine, ¼ to ½ lb. of sugar, ½ oz. of monophosphoric acid, a little spice and sauce to each cwt of meat. (Smith, E, 1873: 36)
Seventeen years later after Smith met Mr. Morgan at the Society of Arts meeting, in 1871, Yeats reports on a certain “Professor Morgan in Dublin, who has proposed a method of preservation by injecting into the animal as soon as it is killed, a fluid preparation, consisting, to every hundredweight of meat, of one gallon of brine, half a pound of saltpetre, two pounds of sugar, half an ounce of monophosphoric acid, and a small quantity of spice.” (Yeats, J, 1871: 225)
The plan was widely tested at several factories in South America and by the Admiralty, who had reported that they had good results from the technique. (Yeats, J, 1871: 225, 226)
It was in all likelihood the same Morgan that Smith reports on who, by 1871, became a professor in Dublin. One interpretation of the Yeats report is that Morgan, by this time, abandoned his arterial injection method for a more general injection into the muscle. It is also possible that Yeats simply is not concerned with a detailed process description.
Notice, as a matter of interest that he used the same basic brine mix of salt, water, saltpeter, sugar, monophosphoric acid and spices. This, together with the similarity in surname makes it quite certain that Mr Morgan and Prof. Morgan is the same person. In itself, this is an example of perseverance! In 1854 his arterial injection was met with scepticism where Yeats reports in 1871 that the Admiralty viewed his improved method with great interest.
The concept of arterial injection was not new. By the time Morgan demonstrated it to the Society of Arts, on April 13, 1854, it may have been as old as 150 years, used for embalming corpses for the purpose of medical studies. This invention is credited by some to the Dutch physician, Frederik Ruysch. (1638 – 1730). He injected a preservative chemical solution, liquor balsamicum, into the blood vessels, but his technique was unknown for a long time. (Bremmer, E.; 2014)
British scientists who used arterial injection and from whom Morgan could have learned the system were the Hunter brothers William (1718–1783) and John (1728–1793) and their nephew, Matthew Baillie (1761–1823). The injection was into the femoral arteries. They all injected different oils, mainly oil of turpentine, to which they added Venice turpentine, oil of chamomile, and oil of lavender. Vermillion was used as a dye to create a more life-like skin colour, but would also have added preservation to the final solution. (Bremmer, E.; 2014)
There is a reference from 1837, on an essay delivered on the operation of poisonous agents on the living body by Mr. John Morgan, F.L.S Surgeon to Guy’s Hospital. (1837; Works on Medicine) The same publication contains an article by Dr. Baillie, M.D. on the morbid anatomy of some of the most important parts of the human body. John Morgan was definitely well familiar with arterial injection. Not only due to the fact that he was a contemporary of Baillie, but demonstrator of anatomy at the private school near Guy’s Hospital. (http://livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/biogs/E000398b.htm)
Despite the fact that I can not locate a single reference, it is not unlikely that he was the father of Dr. John Morgan (Circa 1863), a professor of anatomy at the University of Dublin. A process of arterial injection is described that was used by Dr. John Morgan from the University of Dublin. ” John Morgan, a professor of anatomy at the University of Dublin in Ireland, formally established two principles for producing the best embalming results: injection of the solution into the largest artery possible and use of pressure to push the solution through the blood vessels. He also was among the first to make use of a preinjection solution as well as a controlled drainage technique. Morgan’s method required that the body is opened so the heart was visible, then an 8-inch pipe was inserted into the left ventricle or aorta. The pipe was connected to yards of tubing ending in a fluid container hung above the corpse. The force of gravity acting on the liquid above the body would exert about 5 pounds of pressure, adequate to the purpose of permeating the body.” (Wohl, V.) This process described here is applied, not to the preservation of animal carcass, but for embalming a human body! It is, however, the exact same process that he demonstrated years earlier in London to Smith at the Society of the Arts meeting on 13 April related to carcass preservation.
From the process description, it is clear that we have finally identified the Morgan, father of the arterial injection method in meat curing as Dr. John, professor of anatomy at the University of Dublin, son of Dr. John Morgan, Surgeon to Guy’s Hospital. The original inventor of the system was the Dutch physician, Frederik Ruysch and the application was embalming.
An 1866 article in the Launceston Examiner reports that Mr. Davis, from Adelaide, bought the patent from Dr. Morgan. Mr. Davis took up “premises at Town Marie, on the Bremer River, about six miles from Ipswich” and the operation of curing commenced.
The 1963 Griffith marketing publication they say that they did not invent arterial injection, but developed in further and I assume they are referring to the fact that they did not apply it to carcass preservation, but to injection and curing of hams and shoulders. They also list stitch pumping or bone pumping as it was also called and spray pumping of hams. Spray pumping was also done along the bone in the ham and I assume they are talking about the needle having small spray opening on the side, as is the case with most modern injector needles.
Dr. John Morgan from the University of Dublin must rightfully be credited as one of the pioneers of meat injection, as a progression of an original development from the world of mummification, invented by the Dutch physician, Frederik Ruysch. The concept was “in the air,” so to speak and in an 1868 publication, On Food, Letherby says that “saline substances such as saltpeter, acetate of ammonia, sulfite of potash, or soda, muriate of ammonia (sal ammoniac or ammonium chloride) etc, were being injected into fresh meat for the purpose of preservation with several patents pending by Long (1834), Horsley (1847), Murdock (1851) and others. (Letheby, H., 1870)
It is reported today by some bacon curers that they use the dry-curing in conjunction with injection. In this case, the meat is injected with approximately 10% saturated brine solution and the injected meat is then treated the usual way in the application of dry-salt-cure. There is a record showing that the famous Harris from Calne in the United Kingdom used injection with their dry cured bacon from 1843.
After it has been dry-cured, the meat is smoked at a temperature of not higher than 38 deg C (100 deg F) in order to prevent nitrate burn which presents itself as green spots that appear on the meat. Care should also be taken if these products are stored to prevent damage from insects such as cheese skippers, mites, red-legged ham beetles, and larder beetles. (Hui, Y. H., 2012: 540)
Brine-soaking followed dry-salt-curing. Again, note that dry or wet curing is defined by what the meat if left in to cure and not what is injected into the meat. The process is also relatively slow and meat pieces are placed in a mixture of salt, saltpeter, and water. It is important to take temperature into account since spoilage may occur before the brine had a chance to penetrate the meat. (Hui, Y. H., 2012: 540)
An 1830 description of a “wet cure” survived where a farmer describes the dry cure method as “tedious.” He credits Europe as the birthplace of the wet-cure method. One of the benefits of this simple system is that it can be used for mutton and beef also. The down-side is that it is more expensive than dry-cure, but the wet cure could be re-used and taking everything into account, would work out cheaper in the long run than dry-cure. (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)
This re-using of the brine would turn out to become the cornerstone of the industrial revolution for bacon curing and the country credited for this development is Ireland. Before we get to that, we have to first look at barrel pork.
Barrel pork was an easy way to cure pork that involved liquid brine. It had the benefit that it could be put in barrels, loaded onto a wagon or a ship for transport and cure in transit. It also had the benefit of being stored in the cure and being safe from flies and other insects.
In the 1800s, this was the main way that the packing plants in the USA exported pork to England as bacon. There are many accounts in newspapers of the time where advice is given to the bacon producers on how to make sure that the meat arrives in England unspoiled. One of the main points was the importance of using good, new wood for the barrels.
A 1776 description is given on how barrel pork was produced.
“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.” (Holland, LZ, 2003: 9, 10)
Again, notice the brine make-up of salt, saltpeter, sugar mixed with water. The role of the sugar was to break the hard salt taste.
Barrel pork would remain an important curing method throughout the 1700’s and would make a spectacular return almost a 100 years later when 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.
We can now return to the 1830 account of wet-curing where we identify important developments in brining technique. The farmer who wrote down the brining technique suggests 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. (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)
When it is cooled down, the brine is poured over the meat so that the meat is completely submerged. Meat from small pigs is kept in the brine for three to four days and longer. An older pig may require one, two, or three days longer. (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)
If the meat is intended for hams, it must be left in the brine for two days. At the end of the curing time, rub with pollard (a by-product from the milling of wheat, like bran) and cover with a paper bag to keep flies away. In warm weather, make sure that the blood is all drained from the meat and the meat is rubbed with fine salt before the brine is poured over. (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)
Remember that wet-cure is more expensive than dry cure unless the brine is re-used. Our farmer states that 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. (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)
It is this old brine or re-used brine that became the cornerstone of the industrial bacon curing plants in Denmark and which they call the “mother brine”. Needle injection of meat along with the faster curing action of the mother brine would become the key feature of curing plants in Denmark and would later be adopted by factories around the world. It was the fastest way of producing bacon and was remarkably effective. The invention of what became known as tank curing or mild cure was, however, not Danish, but Irish!
Oake’s invention: The Industrialization of Bacon Curing
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!
Let us return to the 1930 reference in the Complete Grazier which we looked at above. 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.
Lets also again look at the description of barrel pork from 1776. “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.
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. I believe 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.
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.
Wet-curing in combination with injection (brine cure – with pumping)
In Ireland, just sometime, probably between 1830 and 1837, a wet curing method was invented by William Oake. (Tank Curing was invented in Ireland) A major revolution took place in Denmark in 1887/ 1888 when their sale of live pigs to Germany and England were halted due to the outbreak of swine flu in Denmark. The Danes set out to accomplish one of the miracle turnarounds of history by converting their pork industry from the export of live animals to the production of bacon (there was no such restriction on the sale of bacon). This turnaround took place in 1887 and 1888. They used the cooperative model that worked so well for them in their abattoirs namely the cooperative.
They were amazingly successful. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.
One would expect that the Irish system of curing was imported to Denmark then. This is however incorrect. The first cooperative bacon curing company was started in Denmark in 1887. Seven years earlier, in 1880, the Danes visited Waterford and “taking advantage of a strike among the pork butchers of that city, used the opportunity to bring those experts to their own country to teach and give practical and technical lessons in the curing of bacon, and from that date begins the commencement of the downfall of the Irish bacon industry. . . ” (Tank Curing was invented in Ireland)
This is astounding. It means that they had the technology and when the impetus was there, they converted their economy. It also means that Ireland not only exported the mild cure or tank curing technology to Denmark but also to Australia, probably through Irish immigrants during the 1850s and 1860s gold rush, between 20 and 30 years before it came to Denmark. Many of these immigrants came from Limerick in Ireland where William Oake had a very successful bacon curing business. Many came from Waterford. A report from Australia sites one company who used the same brine for 16 years by 1897/ 1898 which takes tank curing in Australia to well before 1880 which correlates with the theory that immigrants brought the technology to Australia in the 1850s or 1860s.
One further note about the invention of tank curing by Oake from Ireland. He apparently was a chemist and his invention had as much to do with the brine makeup as it had to do with the fact that tanks were used and the brine re-used. Morgans work shows clearly that curing brine was a priority in Ireland in the mid-1800s. The possibility that Oake and Morgan interacted and possibly influenced each other is a tantalizing likelihood that emerges from the data.
It was Denmark, however, who continued to expand on the tank curing system or mild cured system, as it was called, using a combination of stitch pumping and curing the meat in curing tanks with a cover brine. (Wilson, W, 2005: 219) Brine consisting of nitrate, salt and sugar were injected into the meat with a single needle attached to a hand pump (stitch pumping). Stitch pumping was either developed by Prof. Morgan, whom we looked at earlier or was a progression from his arterial injection method.
The meat was then placed in a mother brine mix consisting of old, used brine and new brine. The old brine contained the nitrate which was reduced through bacterial action into nitrite. It was the nitrite that was responsible for the quick curing of the meat.
Denmark was, as it is to this day, one of the largest exporters of pork and bacon to England. The wholesale involvement of the Danes in the English market made it inevitable that a bacon curer from Denmark must have found his way to Calne in Wiltshire and the Harris bacon factories. The tank-cured method, as it became known, was adopted by C & T Harris.
A major advantage of this method is the speed with which curing is done compared with the dry salt process previously practiced. Wet tank-curing is more suited for the industrialisation of bacon curing with the added cost advantage of re-using some of the brine. It allows for the use of even less salt compared to older curing methods.
The question comes up if we have corroborating evidence that Denmark imported the Irish technology in 1880? Clues to the date of the Danish adaption come to us from newspaper reports about the only independent farmer-owned Pig Factory in Britain of that time, the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory Ltd. in Elmswell. The factory was set up in 1911. According to an article from the East Anglia Life, April 1964, they learned and practiced what at first was known as the Danish method of curing bacon and later became known as tank-curing or Wiltshire cure.
A person was sent from the UK to Denmark in 1910 to learn the new Danish Method. (elmswell-history.org.uk) The Danish method involved the Danish cooperative method of pork production founded by Peter Bojsen on 14 July 1887 in Horsens. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri)
The East Anglia Life report from April 1964, talked about a “new Danish” method. The “new” aspect in 1910 and 1911 was undoubtedly the tank curing method. Another account from England puts the Danish invention of tank curing early in the 1900s. C. & T. Harris from Wiltshire, UK, switched from dry curing to the Danish method during this time. In a private communication between myself and the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, Susan Boddington, about John Bromham who started working in the Harris factory in 1920 and became assistant to the chief engineer, she writes: “John Bromham wrote his account around 1986, but as he started in the factory in 1920 his memory went back to a time not long after Harris had switched over to this wet cure.” So, late in the 1800s or early in the 1900’s the Danes imported the Irish system and practiced tank-curing which was brought to England around 1911. The 1880 date fits this picture well.
It only stands to reason that the power of “old brine” must have been known from early after wet curing and needle injection of brine into meat was invented around the 1850s by Morgan. Before the bacterial mechanism behind the reduction was understood, butchers must have noted that the meat juices coming out of the meat during dry curing had special “curing power”. It was, however, the Irish who took this practical knowledge, undoubtedly combined it with the scientific knowledge of the time and created the commercial process of tank-curing which later became known as Wiltshire cure.
The composition of the brine changed around 1915 by the direct addition of sodium nitrite. Multi-needle injectors and vacuum tumblers are commonly used in combination in modern meat curing plants around the world.
It is generally accepted that these developments took place in the mid to late 1900’s, but an interesting US patent (number 23,141) was awarded to L. M. Schlarb from Allegheny, Pennsylvania on 3 June 1901 directly related to injection and vacuum machines for meat curing. (Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry; 1902: 269)
The process is described as “injecting brine and carbon dioxide under pressure into the meat by means of suitable needles connected to a tank containing the brine and carbon dioxide, the pressure in the tank being about 2 atmospheres.” The nozzles it talks about maybe the three needle injectors that were used until the middle of the 1900’s and the unique aspect of the patent was the use of brine in conjunction with carbon dioxide. (Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry; 1902: 269)
The next bit is fascinating as it is possibly the earliest recorded date of the use of a vacuum machine in meat processing. The patent is described in a journal article that “the meat is now placed in a vessel from which the air is exhausted, and brine is then allowed to flow in. The meat is allowed to remain in the brine for about 10 hours, and may then be subjected to the action of carbon dioxide under pressure.” If one removes the presence of carbon dioxide, it is then reasonable to assume that a vacuum machine has been in use in one shape or another to facilitate the diffusion of brine into meat, as early as 1901 and probably earlier. (Journal of the Society of Chemical Industry; 1902: 269)
Over the next 60 years, the multi-needle injector became bigger, with more needles until the present machines were being produced from the mid-1900’s. Tumbling machines, as we know it today has been in use from the early 1970’s.
The biggest development in commercial curing plants of the last decade is undoubtedly the introduction of what we call the grid system. According to this method, grids or bacon moulds are used to give the bacon a regular shape. The meat is normally wrapped in banking paper before it is placed in the moulds and in one form or the other, an enzyme, Transglutaminase, is incorporated added to the product. The main purpose of this is to achieve higher slicing yields, but in reality, it also accounts for lower smoking losses. A detailed treatment of this method can be found at The Best Bacon System on Earth. I am inviting producers to who are interested to interact with me on the process as long as developments will be used for our mutual benefit.
As far as brine technology is concerned, a host of brines has seen the light which claims to be natural and nitrite-free. I remain very skeptical about these and refer you to Mechanisms of Meat Curing. The only compound that I have ever tested that accomplish nitrite or nitrate free is sal ammoniac and tests are still underway to develop this into a commercially viable proposition that will be accepted by the public who have demonstrated an aversion against the use of ammonia in curing, more so than against nitrite.
This review is done from the perspective of a commercial mainstream high throughput bacon plant. It, however, paints a rich picture and most of what is regarded as “artisan” today has been the way that large throughput factories of yesteryear have done it. In years to come, how bacon was cured even when we embarked on our current bacon project in 2008 will be regarded as “artisan curing” as we have seen the transition to moulds or grid curing over the last 10 years.
Consumer demands, perceptions and technology will remain the driving force behind this fascinating industry. Many aspects will have to be added to this review article such as change to health concerns and this changed the methods and ingredients over the years. As time allows, I will add these.
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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.
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 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)
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 postWWI era (1918 and beyond)
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.
One ofthe 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)
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.
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.
(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.”
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
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