The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
On Innovation and Creativity
I count myself among the most fortunate humans on earth. The things I discovered about life transcend all disciplines. In my research, over the years I came across some of the greatest stories but few are as great as the stories from your own family. Before I write the last chapter on the best bacon company on earth, I want to talk a bit about innovation. It is the hallmark of what I tried to do during my career. Barend from Dayavu Farming taught me a saying which I will never forget. He would say. . . “Well, we have come too far to now f..ing give up!” Any person who is committed to a new and innovative approach at some point comes to that realisation. Marius Kok, my cousin whose brainchild Dayavu Farming is, passed that point long ago and Barend keeps telling him that. Before one gets that confident, one must know what you are talking about! I want to tell you the story of Oupa Eben Kok, Marius and my grandfather and your great-grandfather. For what follows, Ouma is the Afrikaans for grandmom, Oupa is grandfather and Oom is uncle.
Oupa Eben Kok: Innovation and Creativity
Oupa Eben matriculated at the local school in Heilbron in 1929 and after school, he joined Standard Bank. He completed several bank exams and worked in places like Vrede, Vredefort and Koppies. In 1934 he bought a Kings English Dictionary that is still in Oom Jan’s possession to this day to help him with his studies. While he was working in Vredefort he met Ouma Susan and they got married on 07 Augustus 1939. Oupa had a bicycle to ride to work and when he wanted to visit Susan, he would ride with his bicycle to her parent’s farm, Leeuspruit. It was 7 miles out of town. A story is told that he left for home one evening very late when it was already dark. There was no moon that night. He did not see a cow sleeping on the road and bicycle-and-all rode over the poor sleeping animal. Ouma Susan had to take care of her grandfather, Piet Rademan. Oupa Eben at that time lived with Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie and they could only get married after Oupa Piet’s death at the age of 99 in 1937. Eben and Susan were both 28 when they got married.
From Vredefort Eben was trasferred to Koppies. In his heart, he was a farmer and they lived on a smallholding in the Weltevrede area just outside town. My mom, Santjie, Oom Jan and Oom Uysie were all three born while they lived on the smallholding. They had cows, donkeys, sheep, chickens and turkeys. Even though Oom Jan was only 3 years old when they moved from the smallholding to the farm Stillehoogte, he still remembers the smell of the living room (voorkamer) where the cattle and other feeds were stored.
While working in Koppies, Oupa Eben got transferred to Natal. Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie were very disappointed that their child had to move so far away and Oupa Giel invited Oupa Eben to join him in his own farming business. This big move to the farm Leeuspruit happens in 1945 just after the birth of Oom Uysie.
Up to this point, it is just a story of your great grandparents and what they did to create a life for themselves. The next bit of the story hones in on the point I am trying to make about creativity.
The first prerequisite for innovation and creativity is hard work and commitment. It is the caveat to all stories of success in any sphere of life. Oupa Eben was committed to making a success of farming. The farm was self-sufficient. Once a year, in the winter, an ox was slaughtered with a pig and sausages and biltong was made and meat was cured. In those years there were no fridges or freezers and cooling was accomplished through evaporation. Meat was hung in a cabinet, covered with a fine sieve.
Marius built exactly such a cabinet to cure biltong at his place in Kitwe, Zambia. It stands in his garage. A perfect place to dry biltong! 🙂
This cabinet was called “the safe,” constructed to keep out vlies and other insects. Every second or third week a sheep was slaughtered, and chickens, ducks and turkeys provided eggs. Butter was made from the cream from the few milk cows. Leather reams or straps were made from beef hides and used to span the oxen. The chickens, eggs, cream and butter provided the income to pay for groceries when they went to town.
They ploughed and planted using oxen. Fertiliser was a luxury and unnecessary expense because before any planting was done, animal dung was removed from the cow and sheep sheds and worked into the fields to fertilise the soil.
Oupa Eben was not scared of hard work. He had three farms: Leeuspruit, Stillehoogte and Christina. The last two farms were approximately 25 km from Leeuspruit where they lived. Whenever they worked those two farms he stayed over on the farms from Sunday evening to Saturday afternoon. There were no buildings on the farms. He would join plastic fertiliser bags and hung them around the trailer as protection from the wind and some insulation and he slept under the trailer on a camping bed. He cooked his food on an open fire. When a shed was later constructed on the farm Stillehoogte, this became his home while that farm was worked. Any great breakthrough goes hand in hand with great personal sacrifice which goes hand in hand with complete dedication.
The third characteristic of innovation is study and a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. Oupa Eben used every opportunity to study farming and to become acquainted with the latest farming techniques. He eventually managed to convince Oupa Giel that they should buy tractors. Oupa Giel was not very agreeable but eventually, they bought a blue Fordson tractor. As it happened, the first year they used the tractor they had a complete crop failure. Oupa Eben and the tractor were blamed for it. At some point, the vision of an innovator becomes crystal clear and he or she pushes through despite temporary setbacks. Every innovator at some point says: “Well, we have come too far to now f..ing give up!”
Oupa Eben’s tractor made unexpected world news. In my research on bacon, I came across a very short mention of him in newspapers in 1953 and 1954 across America. What probably happened was that these papers either belonged to the same owner or had some agreement about sharing content and so it happened that the story of Oupa Eben and his tractor was reported on across America. By itself, it is not a headline-grabbing article, but the fact that Oupa Eben and his tractor made newspapers across America is in itself remarkable and fits the discussion on creativity. The exact article that appeared across so many newspapers is given below.
From The La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wisconsin) 27 May 1953
The newspapers that carried the exact same story of Eben Kok were:
The La Crosse Tribune, La Crosse, Wisconsin, Wednesday, May 27, 1953 (quoted above);
The York Dispatch, York, Pennsylvania, Thursday, March 04, 1954;
The Times, Shreveport, Louisiana, Sunday, May 03, 1953;
The Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Tuesday, July 27, 1954
The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colorado, Sunday, May 03, 1953
Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Lubbock, Texas, Friday, May 01, 1953
The Morning Call, Paterson, New Jersey, Monday, August 17, 1953
Fort Lauderdale News, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Friday, May 15, 1953
Wausau Daily Herald, Wausau, Wisconsin, Tuesday, May 19, 1953
The Tampa Tribune, Tampa, Florida, Friday, May 08, 1953
Sioux City Journal, Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, May 07, 1953
The Knoxville Journal, Knoxville, Tennessee, Sunday, May 03, 1953
Hartford Courant, Hartford, Connecticut, Tuesday, May 12, 1953
Dayton Daily News, Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday, May 12, 1953
Oupa Eben is my role model for creativity and innovation and has been for my entire life.
Oupa Eben on his farm Stillehoogte on one of his later acquired tractors.
Ouma Susan on Stillehoogte, bringing coffee and refreshments to her husband.
Oom Jan Kok (my uncle), eldest son of Eben Kok writes, “I remember the incident like yesterday. Japie’s dad, Uncle Freek phoned to say that the shed was on fire. Oupa Eben immediately jumped in his jeep and hastened to Stillehoogte (his farm). In the corner was a few 44-gallon drums with power paraffine used for the tractor. Fortunately, the fire was put out before they exploded. The parts of the tractor that could burn or melt were all gone. Oupa Eben and Uncle Rademan Marx, who had a garage on Reitzburg, re-did the wiring and everything that had to be replaced was bought. Eventually, the tractor could be used again. It was a blue Fordson.”
Oom Jan continues that “the thing that made a huge impression on me was Ouma (grandmom) who sat on the bed with her head in her hands, crying.” Oom Jan again tells about the disagreement brought about by the use of the tractor. “There was a serious argument between Oupa Eben and his father in law and mother in law over the tractor. The first year they used the tractor there was a complete harvest failure and Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie staunchly believed that this was the tractors fault that the harvest was so bad.”
Such is the course of events of all great innovations and creative moments. What is innovative today, real proper innovation becomes the normal and generally accepted of tomorrow.
The Woodys Example
In Woodys we did many things that speak to a culture of innovation and creativity. One of the first things we had to do was to project an image “bigger than ourselves.” Dawie Hyman was instrumental in helping us achieve this by creating four memorable adverts for Woodys which instantaneously got us appointments with the right buyers. I remember how one of these adverts was featured at a national conference of the largest retailer in Africa. Oscar, myself and Ehrhardt were there to represent the company. We were nobody in everybody’s eyes, but the advert made an impression and got us appointments with the right people.
As the company grew we continued to meet challenges with creativity based upon a thorough understanding of the principles of curing and meat technology.
It is very cold again tonight. I can hear the waves crash on the rocks below our apartment. I am looking forward to an early night!
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
Over the years I have written letters to my kids telling them what I learn and about my experiences. They followed my quest to produce the best bacon on earth through these monthly communications. When I returned home I found that they kept every letter. When they were here last December, they gave me the draft of a book where they are including every letter. They even contacted Dawie and Oscar who both sent them my letters. They asked me to write the introduction to every county and the “Union Letters” as they called the letters I sent them from Cape Town.
I asked them if I can add three accounts of companies who achieved perfection in the large-scale production of bacon. This is the second of the three good examples of people who achieved what I sought. I think that for a time at Woody’s we achieved the same and when Duncan and Koos took over, things took a dip, but they are recovering beautifully. What makes this an insanely exciting story is the fact that Wynand Nel, the legendary production manager of Eskort is a good friend!
These stories begin much in the same way. A very close tie with England. A young nation that is trying to find its place in the global village; visionary farmers and politicians and one man who made all the difference!
In the Natal Midlands, on the banks of the Boesmans river lays the largest bacon plant in South Africa, that of Eskort Ltd.. A few months ago I visited Wynand at the factory. 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 away from the bacon plant which is 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. As soon as I got home I started digging through piles of information on the subject of Eskort and an amazing story emerged. All the information was firing through my mind as connections started to form between the new facts I learned and old history. When I finally fell asleep, 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 origin 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, modelled 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-1880s and possibly again in the early 1890s, 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 sold 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 various schemes. One such 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 were Sarah Annabella Ralfe who was travelling 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 afterwards 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) southwest 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 after 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, 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 1850s 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 leadership qualities. There is some indication that the two men were closely associated during these years for the Moor and Rhode’s 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 in the fields. He consequently sold his claims to his brother George, and returned to Natal in 1879 to take up farming has 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. (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 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 of bacon in cold storage for later use.” (The Guardian, 1918, p6) The 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 1900s, 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 pigs 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 the 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 was achieved with the tank curing method. The predominant way that bacon was cured in the UK was still 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 fatty bacon was to breed fewer 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 consequently 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 imports 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 was made in an article published in The Gazette (Montreal, Canada) on 24 January 1916. In the 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, sustaines 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 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. This is the story of my travels to Denmark and the UK to learn how to make the best bacon on earth. The purpose of the venture was to export the bacon and supply the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company. The similarity of what we did to prepare for our own bacon production in Woodys and how the bacon plant in Estcourt came about is striking. To raise capital for the venture we relied on investors while I rode transport between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Without any knowledge of JW Moor, by simply looking at the Southern African context of the late 1800s and early 1900s, their course of action was logical. (2)
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 saltpetre (nitrate) that cured meat, but nitrite through nitric oxide.
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 saltpetre (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 saltpetre (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. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
In the same year, another German hygienist, 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 saltpetre (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 the curing of meat and not saltpetre (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 Irish or 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 Irish and the Danes took an existing concept at that time of the power of used brine and instead of a highly technical method of injecting the meat and curing it inside a vacuum chamber, a simple system using tanks or baths to hold the bacon and regularly turning it was developed which became known as tank curing.
The concept of seeding the brine did not develop from science around nitrite, but preservation technology that was a hot topic in Ireland’s 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 sometime 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 was 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.
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.
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 that used the same brine for 16 years by 1897/ 1898 which takes tank curing in Australia too 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 the 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 already 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 and I am the one who told John Harris about the new Danish system and implemented it at their Calne operation. (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 practised. 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 practised 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 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, early in the 1900s, probably between 1887 and 1888, the Danes acquired and practised tank-curing which was brought to England around somewhere around 1911 if not a bit earlier. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
The power of “old brine” was known from early after wet curing and needle injection of brine into meat was invented around the 1850s by Morgan and others. 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, bears 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 practised 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. A facinating subject for further inquiry is if Eskort used Auto Curing.
At a time before the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines, the only two ways to cure bacon was either dry curing or tank curing with auto curing being a progression of 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. 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 saltpetre (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 the chief chemist of 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 1910s and early ’20s. (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 bacon curers in Witshire 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 few remaining companies in the world that still use the traditional Wiltshire tank curing method for some of its bacons. It undoubtedly is one of the largest to do so. In the Eskort branding of its bacon, the reference to Wiltshire cure 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 evangelist 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 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 buzzword in the early 1900s, 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 an 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 that build bacon factories that 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 cooperative meat company. The first general meeting was held, the 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 centre 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 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 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 Wiltshire 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, Livestock 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 farmer’s cooperatives 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 Bushman’s 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 cosy relationships with the military and had friends in high places in the persons of Louis Botha and FR Moor himself.
Just look at the defences of the Fort. There were three defences. The first would have been the Bushman’s 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 defences 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 contributed their knowledge to 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 a 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 travelled 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 feedstock 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 of 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 Moor 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 were 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 January 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 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 by 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 women 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 Best Bacon on Earth
The Farmers Cooperative Bacon Factory at Estcourt has been producing the finest bacon on earth since its inception. The first international endorsement for the quality of the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory in Estcourt, Natal came in 1920 at the British Dairy Farmers’ Association Show in London.
Almost right from the start, the show became the platform where the best produce from around the world was exhibited alongside the best from England. The British colonies used this as a platform to sell into the lucrative English market. The first British Dairy Show was held in Islington in London in 1876. It was initially called the Metropolitan Dairy Show. “At this show, the British Dairy Farmers’ Association was formed and in the following year the first Dairy Show was held at the Agricultural Hall, Islington.”(Pasfield, 1961)
It was never only about dairy. The 1876 show included competitions for Jersey, Guernsey, Shorthorn, Ayrshire, Kerry, Brittany, and any other breed of dairy cow, based on inspection. These were however banned “by order of the Privy Council owing to an outbreak of cattle plague in the country. However other livestock such as goats, donkeys, mules and poultry were exhibited at the first show, together with dairy produce, roots, grain and hops.” (Pasfield, 1961) Bacon soon became a standard feature at the show where they catered for the farming trade as well as the consumers. By 1893, there were 43 bacon and ham exhibits.
The Morning Post (London) of 19 October 1897 reported on the influence of foreign producers. “So much is heard nowadays of the versatility and ability of the foreign producer that attention has been largely diverted from home production and opinion educated to regard as of secondary merit butter, cheese, and other articles emanating from British dairies.” The report stated that “the prominence attained by the imported article is due mainly to the moderate price at which it can be produced, together with admitted uniformity in quality.” The journalist was writing about butter, but for sure, it applied to other produce, including bacon.
The Union of South Africa, which was created in 1910, was represented at the show and was particularly successful in 1920. An advertisement in The Times newspaper from October 1920 indicated that South African bacon was part of the Union Exhibit at stand 121, Gilbey Hall, at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington.
The Age, October 20, 1920, reporting on the poor Australian representation, calls the South African exhibit “magnificent” in all classes of produce. It states that the Union’s exhibition is the “finest of its kind ever seen at the dairy show.“
A report from The Age, the next day, on 21 October, reported that South Africa won all prizes for cheese and bacon produced in British colonies.
British newspapers did not directly report on which South African bacon producers were so successful in 1920, but E. G. Hardy, Assistant Superintendent of Dairying, Pretoria, writing for the Journal of the Department of Agriculture, gave us the detail when he reported on the South African exhibit at this show in 1921. In the category of bacon from a British colony, four sides of bacon had to be entered per participant. “There were nine entries, all from South Africa except one from New South Wales. The Farmers’ Co-operative Bacon Factory, Ltd., Estcourt, Natal, secured the gold medal, scoring 92 points.” This, by itself, is a stunning achievement, but he then compares it with even greater success from the previous year. “This company (The Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory from Estcourt, Natal) therefore repeated their success in the previous two years. Before we look at the 1920 results, he mentions that in 1921 “Messrs. Sparks and Young, Durban, was placed second and awarded the silver medal, their exhibit scoring 90 points, and the Estcourt Factory were third with another exhibit scoring 87 points.” (Hardy)
Above is the gold medal awarded to them in 1921 by the Royal Agricultural Society of Natal.
The results from 1920 in this same category received his attention. He wrote that “he was given to understand that the quality of the South African (our) exhibits was hardly up to the high standard of last year (1920), when the Estcourt factory’s winning exhibit scored 100 points.” Part of the blame for the poorer showing in 1921 was “to some extent at least, due to faulty smoking of the bacon in London.” (Hardy)
The scorecard of 1920, when the Farmers’ Co-operative Bacon Factory, Ltd., of Estcourt, Natal, achieved 100%, proudly hangs in their Irene Head Office boardroom.
This is the earliest and clearest endorsement of the superior quality of the bacon that was produced at the Estcourt Factory. It is a tradition that was repeated at subsequent shows stretching well into the 1950s and which is still part of the ethos of this remarkable company. I am planning a separate page where all the achievements from these shows will be detailed.
The Dairy Show in Islington, London, remained the primary showcase of agricultural products in the British Empire. The company continued to win first prizes at this prestigious show. In 1926 they again won the category of bacon produced in British colonies and were awarded this beautiful rose bowl cup with lion masks and rings.
On 21 October 1926, The Age, London, reported on this win.
A trophy won at the Royal Agricultural Show in Natal for the best exhibit of Hams and Bacon.
The London show remained important for the emerging South African economy for many years and the Co-operative Bacon Factory in Estcourt (Eskort Ltd), remained one of the pillars that the South African drive for international recognition was being built on.
In 1950, the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory achieved second prize at the show.
As happened many times before, they not only won first prize, but also a second prize.
In 1953 they again won first prize at the British Dairy Farmers’ Association Coronation Dairy Show. The fact that it was called the “Coronation Dairy Show” refers to the ascension of Princess Elizabeth to the throne, upon the death of her father in 1952. She was formally crowned Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953.
The Eskort factory is a historic 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 to this day. We see the use of tank curing which predates the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines. The global influence of Griffiths 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 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 of 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. Let’s 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 happening in our country, this can be our age of wisdom, our epoch of belief, the season of light and our spring of hope!
The 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 centre for many men and women 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 country 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!
Gen. Louis Botha was the man who pushed for the development of the meat industry in SA. Of course, he found a great ally in David de Villiers Graaff who created ICS. At the end of 1934, the company was in serious financial trouble following the Great Depression. Anglo-American corporation was the largest investor and as it invested more money in the company, while the company worked ever closer with Tiger Oats, which was another Anglo subsidiary. In March 1982 Barlow bought a large share of Tiger Oats and the controlling share in ICS. In October 1998 Tiger Brands (Tiger Oats Limited) bought Imperial Cold Storage and it was taken up in the portfolio of this company’s brands.
Look at this old photo I found. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was created uniting the Transvaal, Free State, Natal and the Cape. Botha was asked to become Prime Minister. Here is a photo of his first cabinet. David was a member of this cabinet. He is in the back row on the right.
FR Moor is 3rd from the left, back row, looking to his right. His younger brother, JW Moor, was the chairman of the farmers cooperative that became Eskort. Botha opened the Eskort factory in Estcourt, Natal shortly before he passed away. The complete list of men on the photo and members of the first Union cabinet is: Back row, left to right: Gen JBM Hertzog, H Burton, FR Moor, Col. G Leuchars, Gen JC Smuts, HC Hull, FS Malan and David de Villiers Graaff. Front: JW Sauer, Gen Botha, and A Fischer.
In a way, both Eskort and Enterprise (at least Tiger Brands) were represented. The individual photos are of De Villiers Graaff and Moor.
The history and impact of bacon, men and women, run deep! What a story!
Arnold Prinsloo, the CEO of Eskort, sent me a 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 I never had was an image of JW Moor. Arnold showed me his photo.
Finally, I am looking for the legendary first chairman of the First Farmers Cooperative Bacon Factory to be established in SA in the eyes. We spoke about the 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.
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 Fickling 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!!
I received a mail this morning (14 June 2020) from Bruce, Sally and Phyllis. Bruce writes that “having spent time growing up playing along the Bushman’s river at the back of the bacon factory, your story would not be complete without the mention of Harry Lambert.” He attached an old newspaper clip which reads:
“H. W. Lambert is a man who has watched Estcourt grow from “half-a-dozen” andone house and a handful of wood and iron shops and homes.” It was in 1920 when H. W. Lambert immigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland to take up an appointment with the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory.
“Only a small part of the town today resembles the Estcourt of 1920. Mind you, what was then used as the farmers’ hall is still in use as the civic offices.” When Mr Lambert joined the bacon factory, the killing of 300 pigs a week was considered “quite something.”
He was responsible for starting the manufacture of sausages at the factory and, by the time of his retirement a few years ago, he had overseen its growth to a point where 2500 pigs were being processed each week. “
Estcourt has plenty of “local legends,” says Mr Lambert. “One that intrigues me is the belief that the author Rider Haggard used to sit in the saddle between two hills just outside the town, working on his stories. He is said to have written his book “King Solomon’s Mines” at this spot, and the two hillocks have been aptly named ‘Sheba’s Breasts’.”
In 1920, he recalls, Estcourt had no regular street lamps and only the roughest of footpaths.
“Those were the days of horses and traps and wagons. The chief social function of the townspeople was to watch the mail train pass through once a night.”
When sausages were first made at the factory, Mr Lambert remembers how school children would irk the employees by sticking their heads in when they passed and shouted “sausage town” in derogatory tones.
He has given a lifetime of devoted service to Estcourt and spent nine years on the Town Council – two as mayor. One of his chief pleasures was a game of snooker at the club.”
(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)
(2) In reality, I did go to Denmark to learn bacon curing. 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 how far in the future you look back at decisions of the past.
Dhupelia, U. S.. 1980. Frederick Robert Moor and Native Affairs in the Colony of Natal 1893 to 1903. Submitted in partial fulfillment 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, 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
The Morning Post (London, Greater London, England) · 19 Oct 1897, Tue · Page 2
Pasfield, J. The Royal Dairy Show. Brit. vet. J. (1961), 117, 373, Horsham.
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 story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The Best Bacon on Earth Cape Town, October 1960
The kids visited last December. Is it almost a year ago? Where did the time go! Where does one begin to wrap up an epic adventure? As in Homers Odyssey, you quickly learn that it is all about the journey. The destination is a bonus. What we discover, however, is enriching and life-changing! Still, not even wisdom comes to anything! Our heavenly Jerusalem or Nordic Valhalla is precisely in the fact that we are conscious and in the moment of consciousness, the universe is conscious through us. I am saving a full explanation to the end of the book, yet, I can not progress if I don’t give you this glimpse into the art of living that bacon steered me to. My quest has always been more than bacon, yet, it was never less than. Within this simple culinary marvel, I started to discern the secret of life itself. Bacon curing is the instrument that the universe used to lead me to the answer to life, death and everything there is. Is it not fitting for such a simple thing to hold such rich wisdom!
The secret processes of the creation of bacon have been discovered by humans, yet it was not invented by humans. It mimics natural physiological processes yet in the incorrect understanding of those processes and their limitations we endanger ourselves because we do not appreciate the powers we unleash! Still, the truth is that its processes are natural! Its discovery a fait accompli. Its wonder is both in its taste and the beauty of its processes. Discovering the laws governing its creation is complex and requires the utmost diligence and complete dedication to the quest. Yet, it exists not for this purpose. Its reason for being is the sustenance it gives at the right time. It provides nutrition in the time of want. So is life. Life is simple and the one who never gives a thought as to the purpose of our existence or our ultimate end can enjoy every good gift on this earth, bear all the grief and ends his or her days completely satisfied. Yet, for those, wholly absorbed in understanding the meaning of it all, there are answers – great, profound and satisfying. Still, this quest has the potential of taking the very enjoyment of life away from the investigator in which case it would have been better not to have started the journey!
Dawie Hyaman’s Widsdom
Dawie wrote to me from America. We were discussing the fact that for all our reasoning ability, humans are not very intelligent. He writes, “that is a fascinating thing.. thought of it many times myself. I look at the intelligence in a tree, to take manure and sunshine and turn it into a juicy fruit, or a fragrant flower. Or the intelligence in my body that takes all the food I throw at it and converts it into a human. I can eat all the bananas I want but I won’t become a monkey! Then this other thing, we call intelligence, which is reasoning, and logic, and seeing patterns and following insights over instincts.. and there .. there is NO intelligence there .. or very very little. Seems to me the intelligence in the universe is everywhere except in the reasoning capacity!!” Is this not precisely the point! The reason why we are alive is completely apart from our logic. The very search for the eternal is itself a mirage. It is getting lost in the complexity of the processes of bacon curing without ever curing bacon and enjoying it yourself! Still, there is great value in a pursuit of its secrets. The end must always be to enhance its enjoyment when consumed. Life is exactly the same. We can ask for the eternal and the fixed but if this becomes the end in itself, we are completely missing the point.
To the point, Dawie writes that “there’s nothing wrong with the world as it is. I think it’s heaven. Look at the exquisite beauty, the endless complexity, colour, flavour, possibility. Sure we suffer biological pain because the protection mechanism of the body is not intelligent enough to turn itself off when its no longer doing much (or maybe it is, we just don’t like the settings hahaha) .. and of course we only appreciate pleasure because we know pain.. but my point is .. most of what we suffer is in the constructs of our mind… we suffer our memory and our imagination!! WE suffer our experience. And that seems to me because we think we are our mind, we think we are our body.. when we are not that.. because when we sleep we still exist, and when we lose our legs we still exist… so the whole thing of freedom to me is to stop suffering the thinking mind, and then just “be” .. and when we are present like that.. we are in bliss .. every single time.” Do you get his point? What he is saying is that the quest is not the goal. When it all gets so frantic, stop and quiet your spirit and just be. Think less!
He concluded by writing: “Seems to me .. we are always Here, Now. We always have been. Our thoughts, feelings and perceptions come and go, and are experienced in time .. it has to.. it has conceptual start and end, and a conceptual space.. so it is not always here.. so in that sense, we die. But beyond perceptions… the Nothing beyond Thinking .. the no-Thing … its nothing to the constructs and perceptions of the mind.. but it is the source of everything. Where else did forms come from, but from the formless?”
Living in the Real World
Just like the incorrect application or understanding of some of the complex processes in bacon can get us in trouble on many fronts including health and wellbeing, so the incorrect view of reality can create endless misery for ourselves and others. Politics in our beautiful country did not turn out as I would have liked, but it did happen exactly as I predicted! I see us steering the course of conflict as I saw it all these years ago while riding transport. Still, I continue to learn about life and had many years where I could put everything I learned about bacon to good use.
Daily News New York, 7 October 1960
The country voted for independence from Britain! It breaks my heart because it was done for all the wrong reasons! I am in full support of independence from Britain, but not for the reason that the referendum was fought over. It ended up as a fight between the white English and Afrikaans speaking people which was merely a rehash of the Anglo-Boer war, contrary to the efforts of Smuts and Botha to unite the groups after the war.
It would have been far better if the discussion included the non-white population of the country and was focused on doing what is right for everybody instead of the selfish ambitions of a few. All South Africans should have been allowed a say in their future as equals. The end result will be untold hardship for many millions of people.
Still, there is an important lesson for me. No matter our circumstances, we can find in ourselves and in things around us reasons to be thankful. This is a tremendous human ability. Amidst the greatest injustice, we can hope! When all hope is lost, we can persevere, and we can hope, against hope! The strange thing that I learned over my life is that this kind of hope never disappoints! This too is part of the art of living! I have no doubt that the Afrikaner and every other race in the country will rise up to take their rightful place as co-heirs of this land as equals. Anything less will be an injustice!
When I left Cape Town for the first time as a young man many years ago, I set out with a single-minded objective to learn the mechanisms underlying the art of curing. We desired to create the best bacon on earth. Did I achieve this? I would like to think that for a time, just before I left Woody’s, that we did just that. We created amazing bacon. Now Koos and Duncan have the company and are facing new challenges. They went through a time of great hardship themselves in the company, but from what I can see on the shelves, the quality is returning to the brand. It makes me incredibly proud of what they have achieved since Oscar, Will, James, Roy, Stanford, Adrian, myself and so many others left. I keep on learning! That making the best bacon on earth, consistently, year in and year out is a very difficult thing and an art in itself.
Many great bacon companies exist around the world. There are three examples of companies that I got to know very well who manage to achieve amazing quality bacon. Two of the companies have been doing it now for over 100 years! I salute them both by concluding the most amazing journey imaginable by focussing not on what Oscar and I manage to achieve, but on others. Others can judge our success or failure in this regard. Three companies who also learned how to make the best bacon on earth stand out! The last few chapters deal with them.
Best Bacon on Earth
Below are photos of some of the best bacon produced on earth by a Master Butcher from Germany whom I have the honour to work with. The best bacon on earth is being created. No compromise! Just quality! Some are cooked fully and some not, depending on where it is made and for what market. The pale bacon is cooked. These are all created in large, high throughput factories in Europe.
Note that all the commercial bacon was produced using a grid system. At Woody’s, we designed, what I believe to be, the best grid system. This can be seen under The Best Bacon System on Earth.
Bacon & the Art of Living focuses mostly on commercial bacon. There is an entirely different discipline around dry-cured, artisan bacon. This is the subject of Chapter 02: Dry Cured Bacon. My mentor here is an Englishman living in Canada, Robert Goodrich.
The photos below are not all “bacon” but it showcases some of the work of the master!
To prove my point about Robert’s bacon, here are some other examples of his work.
I give Vladimir’s recipe to illustrate the difference between artisan bacon and those produced in large high-throughput factories. You can see that time is not an enemy or a factor to overcome in the example below, but an ally to be embraced.
Vladimir’s recipe is given as:
Ingredients – Nitrite salt – 2.2% – Brown sugar – 1% – White vinegar (100 ml) and spice (Black pepper, several peas of juniper, bay leaves)
Procedures. People say that real bacon from Ayrshire should be marinated in a liquid with vinegar. I did not do this. – 4 weeks in a vacuum with salt, wine, vinegar and spices. – Rinse, dry and tie bacon into a roll. – Smoking – 8 hours. – 4 weeks of maturation in the chamber at + 10С and humidity 80%
The white vinegar was a surprise!
Companies who Achieve This
Of all the amazing bacon companies out there I have opted for three examples. There can be many as there are amazing companies out there! I close the three because they have unique ties to South Africa.
The amazing thing about these companies, as with so many others, is that they possess real soul. In their DNA are locked up unique qualities which made them and still make them stand out head and shoulder above the rest. One element of this DNA is a pursuit for quality. Another one is that at some point in their history they were led by a group of people who understood the secret of life. That we are here today and gone tomorrow and our greatest joy (purpose) is in being! These companies have the most fascinating stories to tell and the amazing thing is that I bet you it is the same with every good bacon company out there. They all have great stories to tell becasue bacon people, I mean REAL bacon people, understand humility, comradery and friendship. They are what we refer to as salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They know how to make great bacon and the art of living! These stories form the closing chapters of this epic journey!
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The Quilliam Family and Pig Breeding in South Africa Cape Town, January 1970
It has been many years now since I boarded the steamer from Cape Town to Denmark. I learned about bacon from industry legends. Yes, through all my experiences I unlocked for myself the mystery of the eternal. I found it in bacon. Before I elaborate, there is a South African pig farming story that I have to tell you about. Lauren and I hiked across the old Quilliam farm today and it brought back amazing memories. Meeting Joe Quilliam years ago and hearing his story made me realise that the pig industry in our new country came of age. This farm played a pivotal role in its development.
As a boy, my dad told me about the farmers who left the Colony and moved north, into the interior. This great trek or Groot trek as it is known in Afrikaans is the background to one of the most remarkable families I got to know in the Transvaal after South Africa became a Union, the Quilliam family. They were one of the pioneers of the formal pig industry of the Union, located just south of Johannesburg.
How the farm was established is itself a fascinating story and I begin right at the beginning. In the early part of the 1800s, about 10 000 farmers who settled along the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony asked Piet Retief to compile a “trekkers manifesto” as a kind of a mission and vision statement of the disgruntled farmers. It started out as a discussion document with the colonial rulers and in the end, was left behind as the reasons for the settles immigrating north to a land where they could govern themselves.
In late 1836, Retief led the main party of ‘trekkers’ out of Grahamstown and on to the Beaufort West from where they joined the main trekker group at Colesburg. One of the families who were part of the trek party was the Marais family, led by their father G.S. Marais, and his two sons Sarel and Jan. Sarel was 22 years old at the time. Another family in the group was the Schmidt family and their two daughters, one of whom was named Hermien.
Sarel and Jan Marais move to the Transvaal in mid 1800s
“As far as can be established, the family stayed with the main trekker group until Retief decided to settle in Natal. By this time Sarel married Hermien Schmidt and Jan had married the other Schmidt daughter. The brothers and their families decided to trek into the Transvaal arriving there in the mid-1800s. After spending some time in the Potchefstroom area they eventually moved to the Witwatersrand. Jan bought the farm Doornkloof, the site of the present-day Suikerboschrand Nature Reserve and Sarel bought the western portion of the farm Rietvlei.”
It is interesting that both farms were established on the sites where two of the largest Tswana settlements around the Johannesburg area were located. Is it possible that they chose these sites for their close proximity to possible farm labourers? Was the deal for the purchase of the farms brokered by someone with close ties to the two settlements? Was it done with the permission of a powerful chief? These questions beg further investigation!
The hills around the Rietvlei farmhouse are covered with impressive old stone ruins. The original settlement area is gigantic! Right behind the old farmhouse are stone ruins built in a rectangular pattern, indicating western influence in architecture. Further away are older stone ruins, built in the much older round and semi-circular patterns. They are far less preserved, indicating a much older construction. The impression one gets, at least from the proximity of the buildings, is a “friendly” relationship between the new western immigrants and the original owners of the land. Could it point to a mutually symbiotic relationship after the devastation caused by Mzilikazi who settled along the Vaal River until Korana cattle raiders became a threat and in the winter of 1827, he started his march northwards towards the Magaliesburg mountains? Mzilikazi decimated the two cities where the Marais brothers settled and those left behind lived a pitiful existence of scraping out a meagre existence amidst the widespread destruction of the once mightly settlements. I believe that the indigenous population welcomed the opportunity for employment by the new arrivals on their ancestral lands.
The earliest Tswana inhabitants build stone walls to surround their inner kraals and living areas, shaped rather like a sunflower. Their most precious possessions, their cattle, were housed in the inner circle, safe from predators. The petal of the sunflower housed different households, and between these enclosures were smaller enclosures housing smaller animals like calves, goats and chickens. The outer walls reached around 1.5 metres in height. Excavations of nearby sites provided great insight into the lives of these early inhabitants. They grew sorghum, raised cattle, sheep and goats, and hunted wild animals. They, no doubt cured meat – a matter of huge personal interest to me.
There were many initial housing sites in the koppies. Two sites were large – 150 metres by 50 metres – and would have housed up to 100 people in a single settlement, made up of 10 households. The earliest settlement was deserted due to changes in climate, and the population decreased till it was no longer a viable place to live. In the 1700s groups re-established themselves in the area. They were pastoralists who traded with settlements at Melville Koppies, 25 kilometres to the north, who mined iron, not found down south.
A remarkable feature of these people was their light footprint on the environment. They lived harmoniously with the natural world and other tribes till their peaceful existence was shattered by the imperial aspirations of Mzilikazi who incorporated the area into his Kingdon which stretched from the Vaal to the Magaliesburg Mountains.
Garden of Eden
Like the Tswana who had previously lived in the area, Sarel Marais had acquired a veritable Garden of Eden. Ample grazing, fertile soil, plenty of water and an abundance of game. The site that Sarel and his wife selected for their homestead, faced west and had an unobstructed view of the Bloubosspruit. The back of the homestead snuggled into the base of a ‘koppie.’ The ground to the south, being lush grassland, was ideal for cultivation and grazing.
Sarel constructed the farmhouse, ruins of which can still be seen in the southern part of the reserve, from bricks made from clay that was found locally.
The roof was thatched and supported by yellow wood timbers and the ceiling was also constructed of wood. The floors were made of the traditional mixture of mud and cow dung. After finishing the house, Sarel started building a wagon shed. The construction of the shed differed from that used on the house, in that the walls were built from rocks to a level of about a metre, with large clay blocks being laid on the rocks, to roof height. The roof of the wagon shed was also thatched and supported by yellow wood beams. The remains of the wagon shed can also be seen in the south of the reserve.
Near the wagon shed are two large rocks that have been placed vertically into the ground. They indicate the entrance to the walled orchard. Most of the trees in the orchard were peach trees. Apart from the fruit that was either dried or preserved a large portion was used to produce Sarels’ excellent peach brandy. The orchard was irrigated from a weir that was erected across the spruit. Water was channelled to an earth dam and then into the orchard.
Sarel and Hermien had 13 children and as they prospered they were able to employ a teacher, who lived on the farm. Other children from the area also attended classes at the Marais farm. Hermien Marais died in the early 1800s. Sarel passed away in 1893 at age 79 (one reference says that he died in 1897, aged 83). About 500 metres north of the farmhouse is the Marais family cemetery. Seventeen members of the Marais family are buried in the stone-walled area. There are a further 56 unmarked graves, on the northern side of the cemetery, outside the wall. These graves are thought to be those of farm labourers.
Jakob sells to Quilliam
“When Sarel died, Jacob (Jakob) Marais, his son, inherited the farm. He had 10 daughters from two marriages and since he had no son, he sold the farm to the late father of Joe Quilliam in 1917 who told me the rest of the story himself. It was 2 000 acres which were sold for £6 OOO! Quilliam built a large milking and a cooling shed. On the farm, he grew lucerne, barley and mielies.
Quilliam was an accomplished farmer and his inclusion into my recollections of the pork trade in South Africa comes into its own at this point. It is reported that he farmed with as many as 10 000 pigs at one point. He ran an extensive dairy operation and as is the case around the world, the pork industry follows dairy due to the fact that it takes care of the by-products from milk production. This was true in Wiltshire in the UK and in Johannesburg. The fact of the 10 000 pigs raises a small controversy. Some descendants claim that this was never the case, but I traced the person down who first reported on it and she insisted that her sources are sound and this was indeed the case.
When Lauren and I hiked the farm we could not find any evidence of pig housing that would be required to keep such a large herd. I assume that they roamed freely in the hills as was the custom in the 1700s and 1800s at the Cape Colony. We paid a visit to a hill in the area that was called “Butchers Hill” where the animals were slaughtered. There were no buildings remaining on the hill, but we found ample evidence that there was extensive buildings on the site previously and a rubbish dump which still exists and is consistent with a slaughtering operation. I have no tales of meat ever being processed at the site into bacon and assume that either carcasses or meat cuts were sold to the developing city of Johannesburg and undoubtedly to its extensive gold mining operations.
Jacob died in the early ’30s and was about 100 years old which meant that he was born around 1830 and that he too must have participated in the Great Trek. Grandpa Jacob, as Joe knew him, lived on the farm as a “bywoner,” and was almost penniless as well as illiterate. He used to visit the family every Friday, have tea and cake and borrowed a ten-shilling note which was promptly repaid on the following Monday. This happened over a long period of time and Joe’s father, becoming suspicious, marked a note and received the same note back. On querying this, Jacob said, “I just want to have some money in my pocket over the weekend.”
Joe recalled that if you held a plate of cake for him to take one, he always accepted the whole plate and ate the lot! One Xmas, Jacob was given a large piece of Xmas pudding in which trinkets and “Tickeys” were placed. In case the old man missed some, additional items were placed in the cake. As a young boy, Joe anxiously waited for Jacob to find them and say “Look what I have found. ” However, the whole piece of pudding was eaten, to Joe’s dismay without a single trinket being produced. The possible explanation was that the old man was toothless. In reminiscing, the old man often referred to the wildlife which abounded in the early years.
Joe recalled that the following events which he recounted to me with great precision.
Many varieties of snakes, as well as grey duiker, caracal lynx, porcupine, jackal, aardwolf (a degenerated hyaena) which used to eat the Quilliam’s chickens, were found on the farm. There were also leguaans, rock and other rabbits. Birdlife abounded.
In 1967, when workmen were putting sewerage pipes in Mondeor, North of the farm, 2 pythons were killed on what is now the corner of Bellefield and Daleham Avenues.
The old farmhouse originally had a thatched roof. During the Second World War, the house was gutted by fire and the roof was replaced by corrugated iron.
The Old Farmhouse burned down after grandfather Quilliam’s wife moved from the farm in the mid-1980s when it was no longer safe for her to stay there on her own.
The house, because of its originality, and as no others of its age could be found, was the site of many films. At some time after World War I a film entitled “Die Voortrekkers” was made by the late I. W. Schlesinger. During the making of this film, an actress taking a part, Mabel May, was married to the producer.
In 1939 a film entitled “Die Bou van ’n Nasie” was made in which Joe took the part of Dirkie Uys at ten shillings a day. This was never finalised because of the outbreak of World War II.
After the war there followed “The Scavengers”, “Stroopers in die Laeveld”, ”The Battle of Majuba” and “The Battle of Blood River.” Before the filming of “Die Bou van ’n Nasie,” the Quilliam family received a handsome, sun-bronzed, gentleman visitor. He wished to look over the farm and turned out to be the Afrikaans director, A. A. Pienaar, the famous author of “Op Safari”. At that time Joe was in Matric at school and the Afrikaans set book was “Op Safari.” Joe was very proud to have met the author and boasted of the fact at school.
On the banks of the Bloubos River, there are a number of stone horse jumps of unknown origin. They were used at weekends by members of the Rand Hunt Club. When the then Prince of Wales, later to become Duke of Windsor, visited South Africa in about 1926, he was driven one Saturday morning in procession through the streets of Johannesburg. The Quilliam family left the farm early to gain a good vantage point on the route. Before entering the suburbs they noted members of the Rand Hunt Club, all mounted and assembling. One of them rode up to them and said “That gentleman,” pointing out a particular horseman, “is the Prince of Wales and we are going to do the jumps on your farm”. They immediately retired to the farm to see the prince enter one of six Humber cars and drive past the farmhouse back to town. A member of the Rand Hunt Club, noting their disappointment, said not to worry as the Prince was going to follow the same route the next morning.
The next morning they were ready for him. The road past the farmhouse was filled with cattle, sheep, pigs, etc. completely blocking the route. It confirms the notion I had that the pigs were not penned up, but roamed the farm free. The six Humber cars duly appeared and were blocked by the animals. One aide-de-camp asked my father to kindly clear the way. Joe and his dad moved from car to car until the one containing the prince was approached. Joe’s father doffed his hat, bade the prince good morning and apologised for blocking the way. The prince praised my father for the variety and condition of his stock and the cavalcade of cars passed on.
On the boundary between the farm and what is now Mondeor, where the Bloubos River enters the Klipriviersberg, there is a foundation of rock and a cutting into the hillside. This is still visible today and the area is known as the “Silent Pool”. It was an early attempt (sometime before 1914) to block the river and turn what is now Mondeor into a water reservoir. History states that Dutch engineers (Dyke experts) were called in and condemned the plan. Because of the geological formation viz. Ventersdorp Larva overlying the Witwatersrand System, the plan could not work as the water would drain away and the work was abandoned.
At the time when Joe told me the story, his mother of 88 years old was living at Dale Lace House having spent 63 years on the farm. Finally, Joe made mention of the fact that the producers of the various films referred to above, all stated that they chose the site because of the farmhouse, it being the only one of its type in the vicinity of Johannesburg.
Joe expressed the wish to me that since the Klipriviersberg was to be declared a nature reserve, he was hoping that the house would be restored to its original and be declared a national monument. He hoped that this suggestion be brought to the attention of the National Monuments Commission, but sadly it never happened. The farm remained in the Quilliam family until 1939 when it was sold to the Johannesburg City Council.
I love this story of the Quilliam family! I’ve spent so many happy days on their farm and met the most interesting people there. One of the men I bumped into and did a number of hikes with is a fascinating man whose son in law is one of the most notorious gangsters in Johannesburg. Gert Koen who worked with me for many years at Woody’s and who became a very good friend and confidant grew up in the area and he and his brothers used to roam the farm after school and during holidays. There are so many amazing stories in Johannesburg! Most of all, I include the story because it traces the development of the pork industry in South Africa. There were smaller farms around Johannesburg and Pretoria such as the Littleton Farm in Pretoria who boasted with the latest and best English pork breeds but none that I could find that rivals the Quilliam families operation.
I smile because the history of bacon is now teaching you about your own country! Well, my son, that is enough of my recollections for today. All that is left is for me to say how much I miss you and your sister. I can’t wait to receive news from you!
Lots of Love,
Your Dad and Minette
PLEASE HELP WITH MORE INFORMATION
This is where my information about the farm and the Quilliam-family ends. Obviously, my interest is mainly in their pig farming. I reached out to the family, now mostly living abroad, but without success. I am eager to find any information on the massive pig herd. What pig breed was it? I assume it was either Large White, Berkshire or Landrace. I would love to get photos of the family, including Joe Quilliam and of the old house and farm. Any information will be of huge interest.
Apart from the Quilliam family, I am looking for any information on the early days of the pork industry in South Africa.
Whatsapp: +27 71 545 3029
I liberally quoted from Joe Quilliam's piece which he wrote for the Southern Courier Vol. 12, No. 40, 26 October 1982. I chaged the first person to the 3rd person, but retained the original almost in its entirety. Once I have much more information, I will re-write the entire chapter.
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
Meat Curing – A Review Cape Town, November 1959
Over the years I covered the progression of both curing techniques and the understanding of how curing takes place in great detail. There is a need with so much information given, to summarise everything to enable you to have a birds-eye view of the progressions. If you have a good grasp of both the process and the development of the various curing systems you will be well on your way to become a good meat curer yourself.
I, therefore, set out to give a historical overview of the development of meat curing. This review spans many millennia. From the dawn of humanity to our current time where we touch on modern developments in meat curing technology. Curing 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. This review is done from the perspective of a commercial high throughput bacon plant and not from the viewpoint of artisan curing operations, some of which is itself large and service an expansive client base. These operations are, however, almost exclusively restricted to developed countries. It must also be said that what was yesterdays most advanced and quickest way of producing bacon became today’s artisan curing techniques.
The Curing 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 the formation of rancidity in fat. It lastly gives meat a unique cured taste.
What is completely mesmerising in meat curing is that the basic process follows physiological processes, essential for human life. The fact that humans stuck, as it were, to the evolutionary playbook in its practice of curing in that it mimics these physiological processes to the smallest details is completely astounding! I will write to you separately about how the basic processes in curing are exactly the processes essential for life that happens every moment in our bodies! Far from a villain that causes health trouble, nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide are indispensable molecules to life on earth. Of course, its overuse, in proportions greater than what nature dictates, is extremely unhealthy, as we discussed in Chapter 12.06: Regulations of Nitrate and Nitrite post-1920’s: the problem of residual nitrite. By and large, meat curing is a safe and essential technique of preserving meat.
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:
Dry cure – no pumping,
Brine cure – no pumping (the use of cover brine),
Brine cure – pumped, and
Dry cure – pumped. (Dunker and Hankins; 1951: 4)
We can add the following to this list from 1951:
Sweet Curing (Stitch Pumping with dry curing and with hot smoking)
Mild Curing (the re-use of cover brine with or without stitch pumping, with or without dry salting)
Pale Dry Bacon (Sweet curing with no smoking, only drying)
Salt Only (Dry cure – no pumping – salt only – using a dry rub 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 the 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.
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 this technology became universally part of human culture, humans only cooked their food intermittently for a very long time. There are cultures to this day that 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 such as salt was practised in southern Africa, North America, and Nepal, to mention just a few places that I am personally aware of. It was likely universally practised at some point in the past.
Salt was without question the first curing agent and in all likelihood, salt in the form of seawater. It seems that as people migrated from coastal regions, inland, they developed solar evaporation to extract the salt from seawater along with techniques such as boiling the water off when it became more difficult to access seawater when communities started to settle further away from the coast. It is often claimed that salt did not play a significant role in southern Africa. Nothing could be further from the truth! 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. Still, salt played a significant role in the diets of ordinary people. They understood it and used it! (Salt and the Ancient People of Southern Africa) A direct link can be made to every great civilisation that existed in antiquity in the fact that they all knew the value and uses of salt.
One of the greatest and oldest civilisations that ever existed (and still exist) is the Chinese! 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 200km 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 enamoured 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, he claims that he returned to Venice with Chinese porcelain, paper money, spices, and silks to introduce to his home country. Polo alleges that it was from his time in Jinhua, a city in eastern Zheijiang province, where he found salt-cured ham. Marco Polo is a controversial figure in that there is great uncertainty if he ever actually undertook the voyages he wrote about. Still, these stories, either first hand from Polo or from someone else who compiled it, the reports certainly had a basis in reality.
The reach of Chinese technology of salt production was impressive. On a trip to New Zealand, 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 in 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. Another way would have been if meat was stored in seawater. 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 used and in addition to seafood which is rich in salt, it would have entered early human culture when food was cooked in seawater. 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 practised in Taiwan until fairly recently. The references of it in Polynesia and Asia offer 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 of salt extraction technology.
It seems 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’s ancient history, he drew my attention to the interesting practice of the Maori to slow boil large quantities of shellfish in freshwater. 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. Like the people of southern Africa, people probably knew at least some of the techniques for extracting it, but some local populations, as was the case in New Zealand and many of the southern African populations, may have opted not to use the technology simply because it was not necessary. In the case of the Maori, 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. In southern Africa, most would have gotten their salt from meat or milk and when they could only eat plant material, they knew that a bit of salt would cure the ailments which resulted from a lack of salt.
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 so far which dates in Europe going back 6000 years ago in Germany and Denmark. Archaeology 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 flavour 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, coastal dwellers would have observed the same. They would have noticed that seasalt or bay salt have the same ability.
Dr Francois Mellett, the renowned 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 the earliest humans first settled around coastal locations before migrating inland, and if the seaside communities first noticed curing, it would 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 this 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.
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. This would have aided its development into an art by the much larger availability of nitrate and related salts.
I deal with these salts below under separate headings, but the most important two curing salts that appear to us from antiquity are saltpetre (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 where it occurs naturally. There are features of sal ammoniac that favour it as a salt for people who had a motivation to exploit new lands due to population pressure and climate changes or just curiosity. When the horse was domesticated around 5000 BCE, a food source was needed to sustain humans 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 saltpetre. Ancient Macedonian records indicate that even 2000BCE saltpetre was preferred in food over sal ammoniac on account of the better taste of saltpetre.
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 an improved curing salt which by this time was saltpetre. The inclusion of saltpetre into curing salt mixes goes hand in hand with its increased availability.
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 bacon. Like nitrite curing, it yields a particular cured colour, but one that is a deeper 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. This is entirely restricted to long term curing which was the norm at a certain time.
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 practised 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 saltpetre 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, even better than nitrates. 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 that 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 in that a very particular stitch was found in jerseys on mummies in Turfan and in salt mines in Salzburg. This 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. More work remains to be done to gain greater insight.
We are not familiar with this salt in the context of meat curing and it will be in order for me to dwell on the topic a bit. 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 fascinating and insightful fact 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.
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 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 their 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 mined 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 saltpetre 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. In my personal experience, it is a better preservative than salt and nitrites alone but more work is needed to confirm this. There is, however some evidence of this fact from history. 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 tastes like since it was added to my favourite Dutch candy “Zoute Drop” with liquorice. 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.
Salt with a little bit of saltpetre
Saltpetre is the curing salt that most of us are familiar with that preceded sodium nitrite as curing agent. By far the largest natural known deposits of saltpetre 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 saltpetre had, however, become the interest of all governments in India and there was a huge development in local saltpetre production.
In Europe, references to natron emerged from the middle of the 1500s and were used by scholars who travelled to the East where they encountered both the substance and the terminology. Natron was originally the word that referred to saltpetre. Later, the word natron was changed and nitron was used.
At first, the saltpetre fields of Bihar were the focus of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) and the British East Indian Company (EIC). The VOC dominated the saltpetre 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 saltpetre 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 world’s saltpetre 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 nitrate were discovered in the Atacama Desert of Chile and Peru and became known as Chilean Saltpeter. Curing with this was, as I have said before, only a re-introduction of technology that existed since well before 2000 BCE.
The pivotal area where I believe saltpetre 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 saltpetre industries sprang to the South in India and to the South East in western China. In India, a large saltpetre 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 saltpetre 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. Saltpetre 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 saltpetre in the west.
To the South East, in China, the largest production base of saltpetre 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 – possibly the largest production base of saltpetre in China from 1000 years ago. Meat curing interestingly enough is also centred 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 saltpetre was possibly first introduced to the Chinese well before 2000 BCE. Its use in meat curing only became popular in Europe 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 saltpetre 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 saltpetre, 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 saltpetre. Pork bellies would cure in approximately 14 days. (3) (Hui, Y. H., 2012: 540)
Salt, Saltpeter, and Sugar
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 saltpetre’s 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, totalling 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 1800s) 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 1800s when saltpetre was used was elucidated in 1882 by Gayon and Dupetit, studying and coining the term “denitrification” by bacteria. The process whereby nitrate is 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 form 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 1800s when the use of saltpetre was at its pinnacle, the use of sugar with saltpetre 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 saltpetre 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 the well-known Millard reaction to give fried bacon a nice dark caramel colour when fried.
In order to dry the meat quicker, a practice developed to salt it multiple times. During the first salting, meat juices are pulled from the meat. This was cleared away and a second “salting” was administered. Later on, several “saltings” were administered. Right here from the southernmost point of the African continent comes a great illustration of this from the early 1700s which then, easily extends back several hundred years.
Remember that the settlement which became Cape Town was in the first place set up as a refreshment station for the Dutch East Indian ships that rounded the African continent en route to India from Amsterdam. It became a stop-over for any friendly ship and Cape Town soon got the name of Tavern of the Sea. Here the summers are extremely hot from December to March or mid-April. Winter starts when the first Arctic cold fronts arrive in April and lasts till at least September. From September to December, it’s technically summer, but it’s often very cold and rainy with intermitted very hot spells. This means that April to August would be the only four months to properly cure meat which was very important for the Cape economy as it would be sold to passing ships. The pressure would have been relentless to find ways to cure meat in the other months also. This is then the background to the account of multiple saltings.
Upham reports on the following course of events from 1709. A detailed treatment of the reference can be seen at Saltpeter, Horse Sweat and Biltong. What was happening in the sweltering heat of March in Cape Town was that meat that was salted for sale to ships were off. A certain Michiel Ley then suggested that the meat should be salted in a two-step process. In other words, salt it and let it lay for a couple of days, giving time for blood and meat juices to be drawn out. Then, give it a second salting. Lay originally came to the Cape as a soldier employed by the Dutch East Indian Company but he changed his occupation to that of a master butcher. Certainly, this was his trade which he received in Europe.
An extract from 28 March 1709 from a Broad Council Meeting at the Cape of Good Hope gives us the rest of the story. It is clear from the entry that they were under pressure to supply due to both supply and increased demand. They noted, “Not one hardly offered himself for the supply of dried or smoked meat. Only 2,500 or 3,000 Ibs. were offered – a quantity very little among so many vessels. The necessity of supplying the ships properly is re-iterated.” The reason for the short supply was the prices offered by the Company which was too low and consequently the farmers were reluctant to sell.
The small quantity of meat that they received was itself unsuited for sale. They minuted that the “Governor and flag officers inspect some meat salted 8 days ago by the contractor Husing. The lean parts were found good, but the thick parts already spoiling“.
Michiel Ley came up with a plan that was accepted. “Decided that the treat should first lie some days in the brine to draw out the blood, and after that placed in new salt. That was not the idea of Husing but of his fellow contract or Michiel Ley. The former believed that the meat should be left in its first salt and not pickled beforehand; And was prepared to guarantee supply remaining good.” This dispute clearly shows that double salting was by no means an accepted technique in the 1600s and early 1700s.
The decision was made. “Decided, however, to adopt the plan of double salting, recommended by Ley; Husing ordered to supply in that manner; “Meervliet” having brought sufficient casks for the purpose. Ley to supply his share according to his plan. Company to supply the pepper.” The meat which was previously salted by Husing was also given over to Ley. “Decided to take over for the Company, the meat already salted by Husing. The good portions to be distributed among the crews, & the tainted ones among the slaves …”
So it happened that Lay was contracted to supply all the meat required by the Company together with Willem Basson, Jan Oberholster, and Anthony Abrahamsz. The issue of the supply of meat was major and shaped the immediate political landscape of the colony. Remember that we said that the prices offered by the Company for meat was too low and the farmers refused to sell. South Africans are well familiar with the fact that Van der Stell was recalled and that Adam Tas was involved in the saga. Adam Tas was one of these farmers and he took it upon himself to collect signatures for a petition against the governor at the Cape. Governor Van der Stel was eventually recalled to Holland. Van der Stel’s reply to the petition against him was a document drafted by him in his defence and signed by among other Ley and Oberholster. The four partners requested that their meat contract be cancelled which was granted and it was taken over by Claas Henderiksz Diepenaar. Adam Tas was locked up in the Castle’s notorious dungeon and finally, Van der Stel was recalled to Holland in 1708. The meat contract was the issue at the heart of Van der Stel’s recall. (Linder) Ley acted as one of Van der Stel’s representatives to finalize the sale of his assets. (Stamouers)
Notice the black pepper which was added. The reason for this was probably to keep flies and other insects away.
Brine-soaking (brine cure – no pumping)
Brine-soaking followed dry-salt-curing. Note that dry or wet curing is defined by what the meat is left in to cure and not what is applied to the meat. Wet brine curing is still relatively slow and meat pieces are placed in a mixture of salt, saltpetre, 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) Here the temperature is very important and is the reason why curing was only done in the winter months.
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 downside 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) It seems then that wet-curing was invented in the late 1700s or early 1800s.
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 could also be stored in the cure which would render it safe from flies and other insects. References to it show that it was practised already by the second half of the 1700s and well into the 1800s.
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. Afterwards, the pieces are shaken to remove the surplus salt, [and] packed rather tightly in a barrel, which when full is closed. A hole is then drilled into the upper end and brine allowed to fill the barrel at the top, the brine being made of 4 lb. of salt (1.8kg or 10%), 2 lb. of brown sugar (0.9kg or 5%), and 4 gallons of water (15L or 84%) with a touch of saltpetre. When no more brine can enter, the hole is closed. The method of preserving meat not only assures that it keeps longer but also gives it a rather good taste.” (Holland, LZ, 2003: 9, 10)
Again, notice the brine make-up of salt, saltpetre, 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 1700s and would make a spectacular return almost 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.
The invention of Mild Cured Bacon by William Oake
Ham press from the 1910s
Sometime before 1837 William Oake, a chemist from Ireland invented Mild Cured Bacon. (Chapter 09.01 – Mild Cured Bacon) This was the first major development in curing technology following barrel curing. The essence of mild curing is the continued re-use of the old brine. Oake was investigating what was responsible for the preservation power in the salt/saltpetre mix. He correctly concluded that salt plays a very limited role in preservation and today we know that its main function in old dry curing systems was to reduce the moisture in the meat and thus lowering the water activity. He also found no great preserving power in saltpetre but he knew that “nature” provided somehow a preserving power to the meat. It was known that the re-use of old brine had a large benefit and we know that this probably came to England from the German region of Westphalia. (Mild Cured Bacon) So, at this time, there was a practice in England to re-use brine twice. One would cure the meat with the liquid brine, boil it to “clean it”, and re-use it a second time. (For a full discussion on this, see William and William Horwood Oake)
After a careful and detailed investigation of the curing techniques used in Westphalia, I came to the realisation that this, the key feature of William Oake’s Mild Cures system was a progression of a system developed years earlier, not in Westphalia but in the Russia of Catherina the Great! She (or someone in Russia or even possibly in her court) happened upon the idea that since salt is a scarce and very expensive commodity, as was the case in Russia at that time, a way to re-use, not the brine but the salt would be to boil the brine down after it was used, add sugar, saltpetre and salt to it with fresh spring water. The brine was called the Empress of Russia’s Brine and for a comprehensive discussion on the link between this brine and Westphalia, see Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon. The clue to the close connection between a knowledge of this brine, possibly through Westphalia and Northern Ireland where William Oake invented mild cured bacon is discussed in great detail in Mild Cured Bacon.
William Oake, a trained chemist must have worked out that boiling the brine was not necessary which is the only substantive change he made to the method of Catherina the Great! This is the key feature of his brilliance. Yes, a second and vital contribution is to look at the full process and reorganise it in a way that makes sense in a factory environment. He industrialised bacon production. This made great bacon affordable and available to the general public. His system incorporated the following elements.
Lightly salting the meat to draw out the blood on the concrete factory floor
Tanking or brining (stacking and pickling) for 7 days which involved sprinkling the bottom of the tank where the meat would be cured with salt. Stack the flitches on the bottom. Lightly sprinkle saltpetre over it with sugar and salt. The next layer of flitches is stacked on top of the first but done crosswise. This is again sprinkled exactly as was done with the first and so it is repeated till the tank is full. A lid is now placed inside the tank with an upright on top and pickle is poured into the tank. The lid and upright serve the purpose of keeping the bacon sides submerged. The pickle is made as follows: To every 10lbs. of salt we add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar; 1 lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella.” Sal prunella a mixture of refined nitre and soda. Nitre is refined saltpetre used in the manufacturing of explosives. Saltpetre plays a very important role as does the grade of saltpetre used. It is important to turn the meat over after forty-eight hours into another tank. The meat that was on top is placed at the bottom of the next tank. Salt, sugar, and saltpetre are again used exactly as it was done during the first salting. Now the real trick comes in. The same pickle is used!”
Maturing/ Resting and Drying for 21 days. After seven days the flitches are removed and stacked on the floor putting some salt between each layer. Be careful not to stack it higher than four sides deep, until it has been on the floor for some days when it should be turned over, and stacked higher each time until the fourth week from the day it went into the tanks; the bacon will then be cured.”
Washing, drying, trimming and smoking. Place the bacon in tanks of cold water. Here it is soaked overnight. The next morning we wash them well with a brush. Whether smoking is done or not after tank curing the meat should be rinsed off and dried before aging or maturation. The reason for this is that the meat pores should be closed leading to a hardening of the surface and a considerable reduction in the drying rate. The meat is trimmed and hung till it is properly dried. It is then smoked.
Two aspects should be noted. One is the rigid stepwise process which addressed efficiency, speed and hygiene and the second is the re-use of the old brine. Oakes genius was combining existing curing steps in a new way and the quality of his brine. His lasting contribution is, however, without any doubt, the creation of the live brine system which became the cornerstone of tank curing.
The system was next adopted by the Danes. The year was 1880. Denmark is a tiny nation. To remain competitive, they realised years earlier to learn as much as they can from other nations and peoples and adapt. Every industry in Denmark was constantly looking where new discoveries were being made and how they can adopt and adapt it.
Denmark had large dairy farmers and a sizable pork industry developed from the by-products of dairy farming. It was very simple and profitable. Raise pigs on the byproducts from milk and sell it to England and Germany. Someone from the pork industry learned about the new mild cured bacon produced in Ireland. They tried many times to sent people to learn the techniques, but the Irish were careful not to employ the young Danish men who were sent over for employment in the large bacon plants in Ireland. They needed an opening in the Irish market to learn their techniques. Such an opening was presented through industrial action by the Irish workers. The thing about Ireland is that the workers often go on strike and how they are treated by the companies they work for is often very harsh. Those on strike do not get paid and stand a large chance to be laid off.
In 1880 there was a strike among butchers in the Irish town of Waterford. Some shrewd members of the Danish pork processing guild happened to be in Ireland at that time, in Waterford and at the promise of lucrative employment in Denmark managed to persuade a number of the striking men to return with them to Denmark. In Denmark, they quickly arranged for them to train the Danish butchers. Mild Cured Bacon became the new Danish bacon.
Sweet Cured Bacon by C & T Harris (Dry-salt-curing in combination with injection)
In Calne, a small settlement in Wiltshire, England, the firm C & T Harris was becoming the world leader in producing exceptional mass-produced bacon. For a complete discussion, please read Chapter 10.02 – Sweet Cured Harris Bacon.
Their invention was very similar to the general method of William Oake’s Mild Cured Bacon with the notable exception of the re-use of the old brine. Very importantly, they hot smoked their bacon after curing. Even more importantly was the fact that this invention in the 1840s used stitch pumping. Stitch pumping itself was invented around this time and it allowed for much quicker curing of the meat which together with hot smoking cut the curing time down and was a major improvement on the taste. It was not a had salted taste, but a mild cure taste and from there the name.
It seems that the basic 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.
It was reported by some bacon curers that they used 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 C & T Harris (Calne) used injection with their bacon from 1843. After it was dry-cured, the meat was 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. In the report, mention is also made that care should 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) The result was sweet cured bacon!
The Injection of Meat
A short review of the invention of the practice of brine injection with needles is appropriate at this time. The practise started as a way to preserve cadavers. I remember an account I read of how Von Hombult and Guthrie went from house to house after a particularly heavy thunderstorm buying up the copses of the deceased for their own medical studies. Before the age of refrigeration, preserving human remains to study the make-up of the human body would have received considerable attention and this was the first area where injection of meat was done for the purpose of preservation.
The link between meat preservation for sustenance and meat preservation for the study of anatomy is, as the link between meat injection and the medical establishment, one that is abundantly obvious if you just think about it for a minute, but not necessarily the first connection you make when you look at the different disciplines separately. The man who took front and centre stage in the development and progressed the practice of injecting preserving fluids into dead animal muscles for the purpose of preservation was Morgan.
It was a certain Mr Morgan, in England, who had a significant impact on popularising the technique of injecting a liquid brine into the meat in the first place. The motivation was to increase the rate of curing by getting the brine faster into the meat in order to reduce the time required for processing which became the basis of sweet cured bacon.
In temperatures above 20 deg C, pork spoils in three days. By injecting a liquid brine into the meat at evenly spaced intervals, the brine diffuse quicker through the meat. Morgan’s interest was the preserving of meat generally but included meat preservation for long sea voyages before the advent of refrigeration and not the curing of meat by farmers.
We encountered Mr Morgan in the work of Edward Smith, Foods, (1873). Smith wrote that “Mr Morgan devised an ingenious process by which the preserving material, composed of water, saltpetre, 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 Smit was] presided.” (Smith, 1873)
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 time, 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, p 4) 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 after Smith met Morgan at the Society of Arts meeting, in 1871, Yeats reported that a certain “Professor Morgan in Dublin, 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 saltpeter, 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. Notice, as a matter of interest that he used the same basic brine mix of salt, water, saltpetre, sugar, monophosphoric acid and spices. This, together with the similarity in surname makes it quite certain that Mr Morgan, Dr 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.
Was this Morgan’s Invention?
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 remained largely unknown for some 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 upon the living body by Mr John Morgan (1797 – 1847), 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 undoubtedly well familiar with arterial injection. Not only due to the fact that he was a contemporary of Baillie, but he was also a demonstrator of anatomy at the private school near Guy’s Hospital. (livesonline.rcseng.ac.uk/) The late 1830 article that is referenced means that it fits the timeline perfectly for a late 1830 or early 1840 technology transfer for the use of the same general technique of injecting preserving fluids into the meat of a pigs carcass which presumably became stitch pumping, a precursor for Morgans invention.
John Morgan is in all likelihood the father of Dr John Morgan (Circa 1863), who was 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 be 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 identified Morgan, father of the arterial injection method in meat curing as Dr John Morgan, professor of anatomy at the University of Dublin, son of John Morgan, Surgeon to Guy’s Hospital. The original inventor of the system was the Dutch physician, Frederik Ruysch and the application was embalming.
Henry Denny and the claim of a Return to Dry Salting
No review of curing history will be complete without mentioning the legendary Henry Denny and the equally legendary company founded by him.
Ireland in the first half of the 1800s was a fertile field for innovation. An excellent example is found in the person of Henry Denny. Part of his remarkable legacy is a firm that once was the largest bacon producer in Europe, Henry Denny & Sons. Henry was born in Waterford, Ireland in 1790.
Denny started out as a provisioner merchant in Waterford. The first reference to him as a bacon merchant comes to us from 1846. In 1854 he started using ice in bacon curing which allowed him to cure meat all year round like his colleagues in Calne. The bacon he cured was also referred to as mild cured bacon and a patent was granted in 1857 on his process. Like the process invented by C & T Harris, which they called Sweet Cured Bacon, Henry’s process used much less salt. The priority for inventing the first mild cured system, however, goes to William Oake from Ulster whom we know invented this at around the time when Denny had his merchant business or shortly after this and well before Denny entered the pork processing trade.
Henry’s curing system is described in Geocaching where the post seems to be a copy from another work that is unfortunately not referenced and all my attempts to locate the original publication has been in vain. The author describes it as follows: “Until the early 19th century, pork was cured by soaking large chunks of the meat in barrels of brine for weeks. Shelf life was poor, as often as the inside of the chunks did not cure properly, and meat rotted from the inside out. Henry Denny and his youngest son Edward Denny introduced a number of new innovations – he used long flat pieces of meat instead of chunks; and they dispensed with brine in favour of a dry or ‘hard’ cure, sandwiching the meat in layers of dry salt. This produced well cured bacon with a good shelf life and revolutionised Ireland’s meat industry. Irish bacon and hams were soon exported to Britain, Paris, the Americas and India“.
Reference is made to the fact that Denny invented several curing techniques and if the description given is correct, it would be one of several inventions. Taken at face value I doubt the superiority of his system over Oakes invention. It also comes so late in terms of dates that I seriously doubt if this could be the patent that was awarded in 1957. By this time meat injection was already well established which solved the shortcomings of William Oakes invention in his mild cured system of simply filling the curing tanks with brine to diffuse into the meat “naturally.” If this was in fact the patent that was granted in 1857, it would represent a serious step backwards.
The greatest contribution to this review article of Denny is the fact that he acquired a meat curing company in Denmark in 1894. The reference is Lets-Look-Again who also seems to quote an uncredited source. They make a statement that this purchase “introduced Irish meat curing techniques to Denmark.” I have over the years come across several authors who made the same claim that the Irish meat curing system was introduced to Denmark in the late 1800s after an Irish firm acquired a Danish processing company. They never gave the name of the Irish firm in question. The end of the 1800s is, however, the wrong time for the introduction of the Irish system to Denmark. By this time it was already well established in Denmark and the likely transfer of the technology to C & T Harris took place from Denmark either at this time (closing years of the 1800s) or in the opening few years of the 1900s. For this reason, I never used the reference but I was always curious who the Irish firm was, wrongly credited for the transfer of the technology to Denmark. Now I know and for this reason, as well as the widespread nature of the erroneous claim, I include it here.
Denny was undoubtedly a creative man. He is credited with the invention of the pork rasher. Geocaching quotes an unnamed source that “the rasher (a piece of bacon to be cooked quickly or rashed) was reportedly invented in 1820 by Henry Denny, a Waterford butcher who patented several bacon curing techniques still used to this day.” It must be mentioned that Denny’s career only started in 1820 but that was not as a butcher. It was as a merchant and he entered the pork processing business only in 1854. There could still be credibility to the claim which I base on the widespread nature of the story in Ireland. Maybe he was a young man with unusual interest and creativity in selling pork at his trading business. The claim may however be apocryphal.
Related to the inventions of Henry Denny in bacon curing in particular, is there any clue as to what this may have been exactly? It was when I studied the life of another man who claimed to have invented a unique curing system, the Dutch Orthodox Jewish bacon curer Aron Vecht, that I discovered the great contribution to the art of curing made by Denny. One aspect of pork curing that I overlooked for years was the importance of singeing. It is exactly in this area where Henry Denny made his greatest contribution to curing.
Singeing pork was nothing new. Removing the hair off the carcass and retaining the “rind” was done with straws for centuries. The old method is beautifully illustrated by Тихомир Давчев in their set of photos featured below.
Henry Denny automated this process. He re-looked at the process in light of the latest industrialised equipment available. One publication from 1866 describes it as follows. “Each pig is hoisted by the hind leg, it is hooked on to a lever, which suspends the animal head downwards, and its throat is slit with a sharp knife; the blood caught in a receiver flows into an external tank, from whence it is carted away. The leg is then fixed to a hook, which slides on a round iron bar placed overhead on an incline. A push of the hand sends the dead pig with railway speed to the singeing furnace, a distance of 30 to 50 feet. Here it is taken by a crane, placed on a tramway, and run into the furnace, where the flame impinges on it, and in a moment all the hair is removed. The carcass is re-hooked by the leg, passes into another room, where it is disembowelled, the entrails being transferred to an underground region or be dealt with. The head is next removed, and then the backbone is cut out, thus dividing the carcass into two flitches, which pass, suspended on the round bars and without handling, into the cooling room, where it hangs until the meat is firm.” (Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country, Vol. LXXIV July to December 1866)
His fame was in the first place due to his invention of the automated process of pork singeing. He may have, of course, also called his process “mild cured” as with the aid of refrigeration he would have obtained the same result as did William Oake who actually invented the original mild cured process.
Was this disingenuous for him to also have called it “mild cured”? I think not. It illustrates the inherent problem in using the result of the process (i.e. milder bacon) as the name of your product. If the result is the same but a different process was used to arrive at it, how would the consumer know (or care)! From a trademark perspective, it makes it tricky since the words seem to be difficult to protect as it would be the general way people would refer to the bacon, not heavily salted. It is like trying to trademark the phrase “well cooked.”
The Dutch Orthodox Jew, Aron Vecht and His Secret Curing System
If we have spoken about Henry Denny, we most certainly have to stop for a minute and look at Aron Vecht who essentially copied the system of Denny and passed it on as his own invention.
Dr James Anderson told me in New Zealand that Vecht claims that worldwide “only five firms possessed the right to use [his secret]’ one of which was his own, the London based Inter-Marine Supply Company. This means that William Oake’s company, Oake-Woods in Dorset was by far the most widely used curing system under a patent of the time. Still, what Vecht created was impressive.
Vecht took out patents in 1894 in New Zealand related to the singeing of pigs and the preservation of meat. His method of preservation was called the “Vecht Mild Cure Process.” He masterfully tied the patent was tied to his own bacon brand, York Castle. The patents were presumably owned by his business in New Zealand which he had with William Stokes called the Christ Church Meat Company, Ltd.
From a lawsuit following his death related to the York Castle trademark in New South Wales, Australia, we get insight into how he managed his intellectual property. The trademark and his secret method of curing went hand-in-hand. Only the Vecht Mild Cure Process could be used to produce the York Castle brand of bacon. Vecht would receive monetary compensation for every pig so cured in a territory.
When refrigeration was introduced into international trade, its impact on meat quality was an unknown. People opted for the less harsh conditions of chilling temperatures and tried to avoid freezing the meat. A drawback of mild cured bacon is that it did not last on long sea voyages under chilled conditions. The English market has, by the time Aron Vecht arrived on the scene, became used to mild cured bacon as opposed to heavy salted which was the kind of meat produced under the Rapid Cure process of Robert Davison. An attempt was made to use the sea voyage for the curing to take place and to pack the pork on ice. Famously the Harris brothers of Calne was involved in exactly this scheme. The Waikato Argus who reported on this in 1901 said that the lowering of the temperature below 32o Fahrenheit (0o C) has ‘invariably faded the flash into a pale, unpleasant colour and alienated the affections of the British matron.” What I think they meant was that lowering it to 0o C was ineffective in securing a good product that would arrive in London. At chilling schilling temperatures, when the meat has not been heated through hot smoking, the curing colour, resulting from the effect of nitric oxide on the meat proteins, giving it a bright pinkish/ reddish appearance would be reversed. If, however, the meat is frozen, such reversal would not take place. The meat would then be smoked when it arrived at its destination and the colour would be ̶