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

by Eben van Tonder

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

ebenvt bacon belly ebenvt Prague Powder

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Overview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early humans to Polenski (1891)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

world war 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fear of nitrites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post WWI era (1918 and beyond)

US troops marching

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

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

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

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

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

The Griffith Laboratories, Inc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World War One link

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atmospheric Nitrogen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sodium nitrite and the coal-tar dye industry

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

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

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

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

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

The economic imperative

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

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

The advantage of scale and technology

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

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

Supporting evidence from the USA

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Bacon and the art of living Home Page

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

Griffith Laboratories Worldwide, Inc. official company documents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nitrogen.  University Science Books, ©2011

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

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

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

Process for curing meats.  US 1259376 A

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

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

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

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

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

The Food Packer.  Vance Publishing Corporation. 1954

The Indiana Gazette, 28 March 1924

The Indiana Gazette.  28 March 1924.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitroglycerin

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

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

Images:

Picture 1:  Smoker trolly with pork belly taken by Eben

Picture 2:  Curing salt taken by Eben

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

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

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

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

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Bacon and the art of living 5. The salt of the earth

October 1891

Dear Tristan and Lauren,

It is autumn. It mirrors my mood as I am writing to you today. As much as I am excited every Monday morning about what is on the menu that week, I am also frustrated because I know that I must get done here so that I can get home. The value in knowledge is not in the knowing, but in the doing.

Everything that I know and learn must translate into products that are sold to consumers who are willing to pay for the goods. If this does not happen, I am no more than a man engaged in mind games. What I learn and the skills I acquire must change into profit for a business.

On the other hand I also know, as another good friend that I met in Denmark has told me, if I have 5 years left on earth and I have to do something new, it will be best if I spend the first four years preparing for it.

Working through the complexities of the matters at hand will have a reward in my life, but also in yours if you would choose to follow on this exciting path. It really seems like the most complicated industry in the world.

Every day is spent on solving a giant mathematical equation.

Lithograph of Livingstone and his party going down the Zambesi rapids Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Lithograph of Livingstone and his party going down the Zambesi rapids
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The friends name is Martin Sauer. His dad has been in the pork business all his life and has travelled extensively through Africa. I was telling Martin one day all that Jeppe and Andreas has been teaching me. Martin laughed and said that I will spend a lifetime on these matters and must not try and remember everything. When I get back home I will have ample time to go over my notes. More than this, I may learn many new things that may seem to contradict some of the things that I’ve learned. I am looking forward to meet his father because I heard that he met Livingston.

It was a strange thing that Martin told me.  The thing about learning things that may seem contrary to what I was taught at first.   What was even stranger was that the following Monday, Jeppe told me that this was true when it comes to saltpetre and nitrite. Remember that I told you that it is the key ingredient in curing bacon?

This statement is not entirely accurate. The real magical ingredient in bacon is salt!

So opened up to me another vast world. The world of salt.

At night, after supper, we still read Foods by Edward Smith, written in 1867. He writes, “the oldest and best known preserving agent is salt, with or without saltpetre.” (Smith, E, 1867: 34) (1)

Remember the quote from the American Encyclopedia of 1858. It said that “Very excellent bacon may be made with common salt alone, provided it is well rubbed in, and changed sufficiently often. Six weeks in moderate weather, will be sufficient for the curing of a hog of 12 score.” (Governor Emerson . 1858: 1031) (1)

So Jeppe started last Monday, during my lunch time lessons to discuss the matter of salt. As was the case with saltpetre, a world started to open up for me that I did not know existed.

That white substance that I used so many times back in Cape Town and now, here in Denmark, without giving a second thought as to the nature and the power inherent in it.

As I could have guessed, the story of the use of salt goes back much further even than the story of humanity.

Archaeologists in Bulgaria have discovered the oldest prehistoric town ever found in Europe, dating back to the fifth millennium BC.  The area is home to huge rock-salt deposits, some of the largest in southeast Europe and the only ones to be exploited as early as the sixth millennium BC.
Archaeologists in Bulgaria have discovered the oldest prehistoric town ever found in Europe, dating back to the fifth millennium BC. The area is home to huge rock-salt deposits, some of the largest in southeast Europe and the only ones to be exploited as early as the sixth millennium BC.

It is likely that the Neanderthals (2), some 125 000 years ago, that ancient and extinct subspecies of homo sapiens (Wikipedia, Neanderthal) were the first to use salt to preserve meat. They probably prepared and stored food “at locations near readily available salt and may well have learned to preserve food with it.” (Bitterman, M, 2010: 16).

There is evidence that using salt to preserve has been practiced since before the last ice age, some 12 000 years ago. Salt deposits in the hills of Austria and Poland, the shores of the Mediterranean and Dead Sea, the salt springs and sea marches across Europe and Asia would have provided salt to cultures across the world. (Bitterman, M, 2010: 16) To this list I can add the great salt pans and salt springs across our great African land.

It is doubtful that the use of the salt was very sophisticated.

The next step in the development of the technique of preserving meat was curing (2). Adding salt to meat evolved into an art.

A Dutch legend says that the curing of herring was invented by Willem Beukelsz around the early 1300’s. Whether this is entirely true or not, we know for a fact that the Cossacks produced cured caviar. The Romans used a sauce called garum on their food. Garum was made among other with brine (salt solution). (Laszlo, P, 1998: 5, 7, 11)

Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BCE – 149 BCE) or Cato the Elder was a Roman statesman, who devoted himself to agriculture when he was not engaged in military service. (Wikipedia, Cato_the_Elder) He recorded careful instructions in dry curing of hams. (Hui, YH, et al, 2001: 505)

Curing took meat which we culled from nature and brought it into culture. (Laszlo, P, 1998: 14) It turned the art of preserving into an expression of community and “togetherness” by transforming “preservation of food” into culinary delights of great enjoyment.

As our way of life evolved, we domesticated our food sources. We started with the fig, probably many years before we did the same to grain. Archaeologists found domesticated figs dating back to 9400 BCE. Sheep were domesticated around 8000BCE, cattle and pigs around 7000 BCE. (Bitterman, M, 2010: 17)

In the time period 15 000 to 5000 BCE, we developed a need for salt for ourselves and our domesticated livestock. The livestock had to supplement their diet with salt and we needed it for curing and preserving foods, tanning hides, producing dyes and other chemicals and for medicine. “We evolved with a physiological requirement for salt; our culture was born from it. Access to salt became essential to survive. Salt localized groups of people.” (Bitterman, M, 2010: 17)

The Danes are great traders and Copenhagen is a key centre for trading Saltpeter.

The salt mines of Trapani and Pacco, flamingoes with an Arab windmill (WWF Italy Archivi, photo credit: Gerardo Cortellaro)
The salt mines of Trapani and Pacco, flamingoes with an Arab windmill (WWF Italy Archivi, photo credit: Gerardo Cortellaro)

There is evidence that by 1,200 BCE, another great traders civilization of ages past, the Phoenicians, were trading salted fish in the Eastern Mediterranean region. (Binkerd, E. F.; Kolari, O. E. 1975: 655–661) Saltworks were one of the main features of their settlements in Labanon, Tuniaia, Egypt, Turkey, Cyprus, Crete and Sicily.

By 900 BCE, salt was being produced in ‘salt gardens’ in Greece and dry salt curing and smoking of meat were practiced and documented. (Binkerd, E. F.; Kolari, O. E. 1975: 655–661)

Ancient records of 200 BCE tell us that the Romans learned how to cure meat from the Greeks and further developed methods to “pickle” various kinds of meats in a brine marinade. Salting had the effect of reddening the meat and the report of this observation became the first recorded record of the colour effect of saltpeter. (Binkerd, E. F.; Kolari, O. E. 1975: 655–661)

Phoenician ships spread the technology of salt making across the Atlantic, to Spain and as far north as England. India, China, Japan and Africa developed their own salt industries.

Hardly a region on earth or a civilisation could be found who did not produce salt. Salt was taxed, traded, used as currency and consumed on a global scale. (Bitterman, M, 2010: 17 – 25)

The domestication of our food sources, the need for preservation and the technology to produce salt developed hand in hand as features of the spread of culture and civilisation with humans.

What was the mechanism that made salt such an effective preservative?

In order to understand the mechanism of salts preservative power, we must first understand salts composition.

Before the 1700’s, scientist could not distinguish between the different alkali metals. Sodium and potassium were often confused. Potassium was produced artificially by slowly pouring water over wood ashes and then drying the crystal deposits. Some of these metals were also found naturally on the edges of dried lake beds and mines and sometimes at the surface of the ground.

Henri-Louis Duhamel (1700 – 1782) realised that certain metals had similar characteristics. He studied samples of salts found in nature and produced by people artificially. This included the study of saltpetre (potassium nitrite), table salt, Glauber’s salt, sea salt and borax. (Krebs, RE, 2006: 51) He discovered sodium carbonate and hydrochloric acid, a solution with a salty taste, in 1736. (Brian Clegg, rsc, chemistryworld)

In 1802  Humphry Davy was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution and soon after Director of the Laboratory.
In 1802 Humphry Davy was appointed Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution and soon after Director of the Laboratory.

Humphry Davy, an English Chemist, was the uniquely talented young man who changed history when he isolated sodium and potassium in 1807.

He had the first direct electric current generator at his disposal, the electric battery that Alessandro Volta had invented in Paris in 1800. Davy ran an electric current through caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) and was able to isolate sodium from it. He did the same for potassium, isolating it from potash.

Chlorine was already being produced through electrolysis by the decomposition of sea salt by the electric current. Caustic Soda and chlorine had many applications by the end of the 1700’s.

Fats were processed with caustic soda to produce soap. Fabrics were being bleached with chlorine, a process discovered by Berthollet. (Laszlo, P, 1998: 50)

In 1807, Humphry Davy found that the “muriate of soda” produced by burning sodium in a vessel full of chlorine was chemically identical to salt. (Brian Clegg, rsc, chemistryworld)

Humphry wrote in 1840, “Sodium has a much stronger attraction for chlorine than oxygen; and soda or hydrate of soda is decomposed by chlorine, oxygen being expelled from the first, and oxygen and water from the second.”

“Potassium has a stronger attraction for chlorine than sodium has; and one mode of procuring sodium easily, is by heating together to redness common salt and potassium. The compound of sodium and chloride has been called muriate of soda, in the French nomenclature; for it was falsely supposed to be composed of muriatic acid and soda; and it is a curious circumstance that the progress of discovery should have shewn that it is a less compounded body than hydrate of soda, which 6 years ago was considered as a simple substance, and one of its elements. According to the nomenclature which I have ventured to propose, the chemical name for common salt will be sodane.”

“Common salt consists of one proportion of sodium, 88, and two of chlorine 134; and the number representing it is 222” (Davy, H. 1840: 247)

The importance of this is that the knowledge that the salt used for preserving food is mainly sodium chloride, existed from the early 1800’s.

It was now possible to analyse the nature of sodium chloride and the other kind of salts that exist. The nature of the composition of salt that has been dissolved in water and the interaction between salt and meat and between salt and microorganisms such as bacteria that are present in meat.

It is possible to look at everything that make up sea salt and salt from inland springs and dry salt beds and we can begin to understand and appreciate the effect of salting meat and how it happens that it preserves the meat.

It was found that salt had other metals and compounds of a diverse, but consistent nature.  These other elements present in salt that we find naturally on earth, do they impact on the curing process at all?  And if so, how? (4)

As I have learned, answering these questions would be very important in order to improve the consistency and the quality of the bacon we cure.

It has been a very busy week-end. Martin took me around the old city.  I am excited to learn more about Livingston from his dad since I have heard that Livingston has seen many of the great salt beds and natural salt springs in Africa.  So much work has been done by scientists in Europe and America, in India and China.  Has there been any discovery in Africa that can help enhance our understanding of the effect of salt on curing in order to improve our processes and procedures and ultimately our products?

I am excited for the new week. Martin agreed to take me along when he is meeting with ship owners who buy their bacon. I hope to learn much from him. He has been trading with many of the Europeans who have moved into the north and central parts of Africa.

I continue to miss you guys. Keep my letters.  Read them often.  Work hard in school.  Help Ava around the house.

Warm greetings, with love!

Your Dad.

Bacon and the art of living Home Page

Notes

(1)  We have seen how pervasive the occurrence of nitrate is on earth.  One expect to find it in every natural salt spring, salt marsh, dry salt lake and in sea water.  “Some curing” will take place with almost any natural salt.  However, it has been shown that bacon that was produced with either no nitrites or nitrite levels of 15 ppm, “off-flavours were high and increase rapidly.  A significant reduction in off-flavours in pork during storage was observed when nitrites were added > 50 ppm.”  (Rahman, SM,  2007:  307)

Salt springs, analysed in South Africa contained as little as < 1 mg/ L of Nitrate (H)

This does not correlate with the statement by Smith and the American Encyclopedia about the fact that normal salt was equally successful in curing meat.

Adding salt enhance the flavour, but it also accelerate lipid oxidation, even at low levels of addition.  Lipid oxidation leads to off flavour development in meat that does not contain any nitrites.  Even a 0.5% addition of sodium chloride significantly increase lipid oxidation when added to restructured pork chops and pork sausage patties following freezer storage.  (Pearson, AM, et al, 1997:  269)

(2) ‘The binomial name Homo neanderthalensis – extending the name “Neanderthal man” from the individual type specimen to the entire species – was first proposed by the Anglo-Irish geologist William King in 1864 and this had priority over the proposal put forward in 1866 by Ernst Haeckel, Homo stupidus. The practice of referring to “the Neanderthals” and “a Neanderthal” emerged in the popular literature of the 1920.” (Wikipedia. Neanderthal)

(3). Meat curing can be defined as the addition of salt to meat for the purpose of preservation. (Hui, YH, et al, 2001: 505)

(4)  It turns out that “food-grade salt of the highest purity should be used in meat curing practices.  Impurities such as metals (copper, iron, and chromium) found in natural salt beds, salt produced from salt springs or sea salt accelerate the development of lipid oxidation and concomitant rancidity in cured meats.  Although salt may be of very high purity, it nonetheless contributes to meat lipid oxidation.  Nitrite and phosphates, help retard this effect.” (Hui, YH, Wai-Kit Nip, Rogers, R.  2001:  492)

 

References

Davy, H. 1840. The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy …: Elements of chemical philosophy. Smith, Elder & Co.

Gouverneur Emerson . 1858. The American Farmer’s Encyclopedia. A O Moore.

Hui, YH, Wai-Kit Nip, Rogers, R. 2001. Meat Science and Applications. Marcel Dekker, Inc.

Krebs, RE. 2006. The History and Use of Earths Chemical Elements. Greenwood Press.

Laszlo, P. 1998. Salt, Grain of Life. Columbia University Press.

Pearson, AM, et al.  1997.  Healthy Production and Processing of Meat, Poultry and Fish Products, Volume 11.  Chapman & Hall

Rahman, SM.  2007.  Handbook of Food Preservation.  Second edition.  CRC Press.

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

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

http://www.rsc.org/chemistryworld/podcast/CIIEcompounds/transcripts/salt.asp

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

 

Pictures

Figure 1:  http://www.livingstoneonline.ucl.ac.uk/biog/dl/bio.html

Figure 2:  http://www.france24.com/en/20121031-bulgaria-oldest-prehistoric-town-discovered-europe-provadia-solnitsata-ancient-salt-site-archaeology/

Figure 3:  http://www.culturaitalia.it/opencms/museid/article.jsp?language=en&article=/en/contenuti/percorsi/percorso197/capitolo_0004.html&tematica=&selected=

Figure 4:  http://www.engineerswalk.co.uk/hd_walk.html

Bacon and the art of living 1. A letter from Denmark

April, 1891

Dear Ava, Copenhagen is an amazing city(1)!

You should be by my side and experience it yourself.  They harness the wind to generate electricity for their cities. The technological advancement and the speed with which they adapt to new inventions are remarkable (Pedersen 2010: 3)

I miss you terribly!  During the voyage my mind effortlessly wondered to you, my love!  The uncertainty became like the changing waves with the only certainty in my thoughts being you.

I did much thinking on the voyage.  I have been less certain about our quest than in the weeks before I left Cape Town. I wondered if we are completely crazy!

I would pace the deck and tell myself that the plan is simple and good. We want to cure bacon.

I have been questioning everything and reflected on the road and influences that got us to this point.

David Graaff had a huge impact on me.  He may be short but has a “big” personality.  (Simons 2000:  143)  I was 6 when I met him at their butchers shop at the Shamble (4).  and he must have been 16.  I went with my dad for his weekly meat purchase as I continued to do every week after that.

I liked Dave immediately, as much as my dad liked his uncle, Jacobus Combrinck, his boss at that point.  It was Combrinck who taught David how to be a butcher (Simons 2000: 8 – 41) (2) and the fact that they could never get bacon curing right is our future.

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A newspaper advertisement for Combrinck & Ross which appeared in 1870, the year when David joined the business. (Simons 2000: 11)

It was you and me who took him on a hike up Table Mountain when my dad suggested it.  Since that first hike up Platteklig Gorge, we must have been up with him more times than with anybody else.

It dawned on me during the voyage why he did it so often.  We were kids, looking for pocket money.  Taking foreigners and wealthy locals up on a mountain where there are no established footpaths, were fun to us.  We did what we love and got money for it.

For David it must have been a way to escape the squalor of the Shamble.  The stench and disorderliness.  Its difficult to imagine how things can get so out of hand and how the city’s slaughter area can become such a disgrace.  They are making a small fortune at their number 4 shop, but the conditions are hideous.

The sensation as you make your way up the mountain is something that is hard to explain to people who have not done it.  It is as if you ascend to another plain.  The air becomes fresh and sweet.  Even gale force winds that sometimes blow invigorates the body and mind.  The dramatic movement of the coulds.  The exquisite plant life. The intoxication beautiful shape of the rocks. As you climb, you get distance between you and the world you live in and it is as if you soar above all difficulty and stress of every day life. You forget about everything except the splendour of the surroundings you find yourself in. If it was true for us as kids, growing up in Cape Town, how much more must this have been for David Graaff!

I realised that everybody needs a Table Mountain to escape to. Who would have guessed the close friendships that developed.

Remember our hikes up Kasteelpoort to the Valley of the Red Gods.  David always went on about how he would build a reservoir for drinking water to Cape Town at the top of Kasteelpoort (Slingsby) one day.  Now that he is major, I wonder if he will build it.  (Simons 2000:  25, 26). (3) I really wish him the best!  He is a remarkable man. Jacobus Combrinck has left the business to David’s running while he pursue public office at a time when David was barely 30!

Jacobus Combrinck and my dad introduced us to David Graaff.  His uncle introduced him to being a good butcher.  We introduced him to Table Mountain.  I hope we will now show him that its possible to make good bacon in Cape Town.

The disappointment of Oscar and my first attempt to make bacon still haunts me.  The pig we slaughtered on his farm was healthy.  We cured it with the curing salt we bought in Johannesburg, the meat turned reddish/ pinkish, as it should. We smoked it.  When we ate the meat two weeks later, it was off.  Why?  I know I have asked this question all the way from Potchefstroom, back to Cape Town on the train.

Uncertainty entered my mind. Why not just leave curing bacon to the people from Calne in the UK with their extra smoked Wiltshire Cure?  I am sure this is where David and Cornelius buy the bacon they import.   Was my mom not right when she told us that Oscar and me are trying to be too clever again.

from:  http://www.mareud.com/
Port of Copenhagen, from: http://www.mareud.com/

I was glad when we arrived in Copenhagen.  New places take my mind off nagging doubt.

Denmark is much better than I expected. The people are as friendly as the people at home. I thought they would be off-ish, but they are not.

Andreas met me at the harbour. He is a very intelligent guy.  Friendly and he did not mind that I know nothing about curing bacon. When I put my bags down in my room, he immediately called me into the kitchen.  He poured us two glasses of home brewed beer.  He sat down and before I even had a sip of the beer, he bluntly asked me:  “So, you want to do what with the pork meat?” This was the last time I doubted our quest.  Since then everything has changed.

I am eternally thankful to the old Danish spice trader in Johannesburg who gave Oscar and me his name and said that if we want to learn how the English cure bacon, that I must visit his friend in Copenhagen.

From Suffolk heritage direct
From Suffolk heritage direct

Andreas is a young man and I am very much impressed with him.  After we had his home made beer, Andreas showed me a textbook from the time when he did his apprenticeship at the pork abattoir in Copenhagen.  Edward Smith from Great Britain wrote it in 1873 (Smith, Edwards. 1873).  Three years after David joined Combrinck’s butchery. (2)  He showed me the book but since it was Sunday we did not talk about bacon any more.

Instead he took me on a tour of the city. It is smaller than I expected.  Everybody knows everybody.  The way they organise their meat districts are impressive.  Sheep, cattle, pork and chicken are all handled in separate areas.  The Shamble (4) in Cape Town is a disgrace.  I am very happy that David is talking as much about cleaning this up as he is about electricity and water supply to the city.  I hope he becomes major! (3, 4) My ancestors have much to teach us about decent living.  Life is worth living well!  This includes taking care where we live.  Life must reflect what nature teach us.  It must be simple, clean and orderly.

For starters, they dont let chaos and filth prevail.  They get architects to demarcate and design buildings for specific purposes. He took me to the Meat District of Kødbyen.  Special pens have been build to hold the animals.  Not like it Cape Town where the frightened animals often break out of poorly constructed camps and rampage through the streets (Simons 2000:  11).

The next day was Monday and work started.  We got up early and I went with Andreas to work.  This has been the routine every day. In the afternoon we have the last meal at around 9:00 p.m.  After supper, Andrea’s dad  read for us (Borgen, Wilhelmine and David:  50).  He reads from different books the kind of thing that men should know while his wife and Andreas’s sisters do their sowing and needle work.  I feel it is to “humor me” that they are reading from Foods by Edward Smith, but I dont mind.  It leads to the most fascinating discussions.

I dont want to boar you with the details of what I am learning.  I know you are very interested, but I dont want my letters to you to become lectures.  I miss you too much and besides, I dont want to write Oscar about nice buildings and the how clean everything is.   This is the kind of thing you and I have complained much about in Cape Town and I think you find it interesting.

I will write in great detail to Oscar and this kids about what I am learning.  You can read the letters to the kids and when I am home, I will tell you the rest. What we are learning is both an art and a science. Curing pork, like breeding good pigs, is an art.  The farmer is not a farmer.  He is an artist, nurturing his pigs for months in exactly the right way to produce good, healthy, firm meat.  Delivering it to the market with pride.  Interestingly enough, not to the meat district.  Pork and chicken are slaughtered and sold at the old and new market areas. (Gammeltorv, Nytorv, Wikipedia)

Likewise, the deboner is an artisan.  He knows exactly how to remove the meat from the bones so that the meat are presented in a way close to how it will be sold.  This is what David has been doing since he started with at Combrinck & Co.  I now wish that I also started to work with him when I was 11.

There is the curer.  He enters the curing room early and only leaves for lunch and when the days work is done.  He specialises in salts and making sure the meat doesn’t spoil.  This is after all the point behind curing.  Changing fresh pork to cured pork that families can eat it for weeks instead of having to consume it all after slaughter as is the case with lamb, beef and chicken.

There is another artisan.  The spice specialist.  The world of aromas and flavours.  He change the taste by giving the meat different tones.  Subtle tastes that excite the senses.

These artisans work together to produce extraordinary results.  Each different step in the process being handled by a tradesman. What David Graaff and Jacobus Combrinck do with the meat in Cape Town is crude salting.  Anybody can do this.  What I am seeing here is Denmark is an art!  The results are the same as the bacon Combrinck & Co imports from Great Britain.

I am completely overwhelmed by the practical training.  Besides all of this, there is the readings every night about the science behind each process.  An application of the scientific method to the butchery trade.  Discovering the science behind each process is like a fever that took hold of Europe.The realisation that cause and effect govern.  The mechanical reasons behind everything.

Since  Friedrich Wöhler made urea in a laboratory in 1828, everything has changed.  Let me explain to you why this was an important discovery.  The owner of the butchery explained it to me yesterday. Urea is part of human urine.  It is made by our bodies.  For the first time, when Friedrich Wöhler made it himself, we realised that something that came from “life” could be produced in a laboratory.  Synthesized. Copied exactly.  (Urea, Wikipedia) Before Wöhler laboratory urea we thought that there is some kind of a vital life force creating these things.  A divine energy.

The entire Europe is struct by some kind of Gold Fever.  Not physical gold.  The gold of discovering of minerals, elements and processes.  Taking what was previously only possible for nature to produce and making it in a laboratory with chemicals, compounds, liquids and gasses.  Understanding the “how” and the “why”  (Vitalism, Wikipedia).  Everybody dream about a great discovery that will bear his or her name and bring untold riches.

The peculiar reddish/ pinkish colour of cured pork.  The fact that pork spoil so easily during the summer.  Why smoking the meat makes it possible to send the bacon on long sea voyages to South Africa, Australia and the Americas. It is this scientific aspect that I enjoy most.

I love the apprenticeship part, but in the evenings I cant wait for us to read about the science.  The chemical processes.  It is like figuring out a gigantic jigsaw puzzle. During the day, the slaughter house, the deboning hall, curing room, the spice room – for me, they change into laboratories where we perform experiments. I cant wait to start writing home about the things that I learn.

Today was a cultural festival in Copenhagen.  I missed you tremendously.  It is strange that when I was at home, I wanted nothing more than to be here.  Now that I am here, despite all that I learn, I would love nothing more than to be at home.  Hold you tight at night and hiking our beloved mountains on the week-ends and after work.  Smelling your coffee on the anthracite stove in the mornings.  Taking our dogs for a hike.  Helping the kids with their homework and visiting David and his brother. I miss you so much that tears come in my eyes when I see the sun setting over the sea and I think of you, my beloved!

Tell the kids that I love them!  I will write them next.  I promise. Please send word to Oscar that you heard from me.  I cant wait to be back soon! David Graaff will know that we can make good bacon when I get back.  I am convinced of this.

Lots of love from Denmark,

Your Beloved!

Bacon and the art of living Home Page

Borgen, Wilhelmine and David, The Life and Times of David Borgen, A Citizen of Copenhagen, Dedicated to the memory of Kirsten Sivertsen nee Borgen. http://itu.dk/people/jovt/TheLifeandTimesofDavidBorgen.pdf

Pedersen, Jorgen Lindgaard.  2010.   SCIENCE, ENGINEERING AND PEOPLE WITH A MISSION, Danish Wind Energy in Context 1891-2010.  Technical University of Denmark.

Simons, Phillida Brooke. 2000. Ice Cold In Africa. Fernwood Press Slingsby Map, Table Mountain XI Smith, Edwards. 1873.  Foods.  Henry S King and Co.

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

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kødbyen

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

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

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

Notes:

(1)  Eben and Chris arrived in Copenhagen on Sunday, 9 October 2011.  It was the first destination on an extensive European and UK trip to investigate bacon production methods, ingredients and equipment.

(2)  Jacobus Combrinck took David Graaff, a small dutch speaking boy, from his home in Franschoek at age 11, to come and live with him in Cape Town and to join him in working in his pork butchery.   Combrinck visited the Graaff family in 1870.  He was a distant relative.  He was looking for someone to whom he could teach his trade and was impressed by David.  David’s own family fell on hard times and the arrangement was practical for  everybody. (Simons 2000: 8, 9)

(3)  David Graaff became major of Cape Town at age 31 in 1890.  He was responsible for building a new drainage system for the city, the construction of a reservoir at the summit of Table Mountain, excavating a tunnel crying pipes to the city and the introduction of electricity to the city with the construction of the first power station in 1892. (Simons 2000: 25, 26)

(4)  A quote from Ice Cold in Africa, p 12 about the Shamble:  “Cape Town’s slaughterhouses took their name from the original Shambles at Smithfield Market which was situated outside London’s northwest walls.  In the twelfth century, Smithfield had been the fashionable scene of jousts and tournaments but, over the centuries, it deteriorated into one of public executions and witch-burnings.

By mid-nineteenth century, the district had become a filthy and stinking slum, a sink of vice inhabited by criminals.  It was only in 1868, after the opening of London’s new Central Market at Deptford, that the slaughterhouses moved to more salubrious premises which consisted of 162 shops under a vaulted ceiling covering over three acres.

It was to the refrigeration section, added in the 1880’s, that frozen meat from overseas countries, such as Australia and South Africa, was first consigned. In general disorder and unpleasantness, Cape Town’s Shambles must have resembled those at Smithfield.  Writing in 1894, the journalist, Richard William Murray, gave a vivid description of them as he remembered them half a century earlier.  ‘Slaughtering shambles were attached to the butchers’ sales stores,’ he wrote, ‘ and the drainage from the shambles – blood and offal – coursed along the margin of the Bay, and a good deal of it was left in a state of putrefaction, and on hot days the smell was nauseating to every living thing but blue-bottle flies who regaled themselves without stint and who buzzed away in delight as musically as the drone of the doodlesack.’   (Simons 2000: 12)

Bacon and the art of living: Prologue

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The scene was set for the adventure of a lifetime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bacon and the art of living Home Page

 

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

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

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

Notes:

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