Chapter 09.01: Lord Landsdown

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

Lord Landsdown

January 1892

Dear Kids,

All the Danish excitement and then I arrived in Calne, but first, we visited Bath at the insistence of my host.   Bath is a surreal place where Roman baths from the 3rd century are still in use today!  A newspaper I picked up on the train described it as follows, that “nowhere in England have so many great men and woman come and for a time lived and left behind them such clear and charming chronicles of their tarrying as in the interesting old Somersetshire city of Bath.”  (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1892)  Bath has a known antiquity of almost 2000 years and a claimed antiquity of at least another 1000 years beyond that.”  The hot baths possess a luxury not rivaled anywhere in Europe.  “As one is enjoying the thermal waters, it is striking that these, Roman Emperors and Generals of 1400 to 1800 years ago shared.  These waters banished the ills of St David, King Arthur and a vast line of old British princes and potentates for half a thousand years beyond.”  (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1892)

Postcard dated 1917 Calne railway station.jpg
Postcard dated 1917: Calne railway station

After a pleasant day at Bath, we returned East along the ancient Roman road linking Bristol and London by train to arrive in Calne in the late afternoon. As the train slowly made its way into a newly built station, two large and impressive buildings of the Harris Bacon operation flank the station.  It signals clearly to anyone arriving on the Great Western Express that this is bacon country!

Blackland Mill, Calne, c. 1903, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham (1)

Calne has a sleepy character, except, I am told, on market days. Houses are built with a coarser kind of Bath stone or Sarson stone.  It very quickly ages.  After only one year it looks older than a limestone house looks after five.  It has a creamish, grey tint which resembles the look of the stones that form the footpaths, build from broken Sarson stone.

It is very interesting what one learns on a train.  A gentleman sitting next to me saw that I was reading a copy of an American newspaper.  He was intrigued and asked if I am from that country.  When I told him that I am from South Africa, he was very much amazed and started to give me a rundown of the local politics.

The town is situated on the estate of the Marquis of Landsdown.  The Marquis was the  Governor-General of Canada from 1883 to 1888 and currently serve as Viceroy of India, a post he occupied since 1888.  His estate manor, Bowood, is situated a mile away from his Calne which is located on his estate for which he receives rental income.  The small farms and the houses are mostly held in tenantry and some have been on the estate for ages. The cottages of the labourers are said to be the best in Wiltshire (and the cheapest).  Most of these are three-bedrooms with a small garden.   In England, the Marquis is known as a reasonable and gentleman of high intelligence and a keen sportsman.

The Marquis of Landsdown, like the Marquis of Bath, are also large landowners in Ireland.  The one in Kerry and Kildare and the other in Monaghan.  In Ireland, they are referred to as “absent landowners”.  A third English nobleman, Lord Digby, from the next county of Dorset owns  31 000 acres in King’s County near Tullamore.  It is interesting that all three have the same agent, Mr. Trench.  These men, although they are quite forgiving about rental payments in England, instructed their Irish agent to collect as much rental as he can from the tenants on their Irish estates.  We have then three neighbors, all three owning large lands in Ireland with the same agent.

Something else is of interest.  The stranger on the train told me that Mr. Trent’s father occupied the same position as the Irish agent to the fathers of the three noblemen.  Mr. Trent, Senior even wrote a book about his experiences,  The Realities of Irish Life.

Map of cast 2.png
Map of the three manor houses of the wealthy landowners introduced to me on the train from Bath to Calne

The manor houses of the Marquis of Bath, the Marquis of Landsdown and Lord Digby are Longleat, Bowood next to Calne, and Minterne House respectively.  I did not tell the stranger on the train that my guest in Calne was none other than Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquis of Lansdowne!  My ultimate destination for that evening was Bowood!

I was almost just as excited to see Bowood as I was to see the Harris Bacon operation in Calne.  It was in this famous house where, on 1 August 1774, Joseph Priestly, acting as a tutor for the children, did his experiments and discovered oxygen.  When Kevin Pickton introduced me in Peterborough to an agent for Lord Lansdown I never dreamt that I would receive an invitation to stay over at Bowood!

Kevin is Welsh.  What more can I say!  We had many nights in the pub in Peterborough where we had intense conversations and on our third and fourth beer, I was no longer certain that we were conversing about the same subject on account of his strong Welsh accent.  Who cared! It was, in any event, a great evening!  We were having the time of our lives!

Kevin is of this unique, intelligent, perceptive and tough kind of man who is clear about his goal and he pursues them with singlemindedness that I have seldom come across in my many travels.  Kevin, his dad, and his son all three plaid rugby for the same team, at the same time!  This sums up the kind of family they are.  I very soon learned that Kevin conducts his business, which was in making knives, precisely to slice bacon, as he plaid his rugby and trained his body – with single-minded dedication and courage!  In my life, I have met some of the toughest men on earth in the bush in Africa, on the goldfields in Johannesburg and the diamond fields in Kimberly but I will venture to say that amongst them, there is no man as tough as Kevin!  I only recently met him by the introduction of Andreas and I already see that I will learn from him and that the proverb is true with Kevin and me that as iron sharpens iron, so two friends sharpen each other.

The Pub in Peterborough where Kevin and I spend many enjoyable hours, talking bacon! Later, Oscar accompanied me to England and again, the Bull was our home away from home!

Kevin’s wife, Julie met the agent of Lord Landsdown, a certain Mr. Petty, on account of the work she did for their local government.  She suggested that he visits the Bull and it was quite serendipitous that on that precise evening, Kevin and I were at the pub for a few beers before we intended heading home for supper.

Kevin, propelled by his Welsh nature, told Mr. Petty about my quest to discover how to produce the best bacon on earth and knowing that he is from Calne, he correctly surmised that I would probably need a place to stay while I visit the Harris bacon plants.  It was widely known around the world that Harris produces the best bacon anywhere.

Mr. Petty was very much intrigued by my story and invited me to stay at Bowood.  I exclaimed, “Calne, situated on the lands of which Bowood is the manor house is my ultimate destination,” upon which he extended a hand.  As he shook my hand he formally invited me to stay over at Bowood and said that Lord Landsdown would not want it any other way.  He told me about the room where Priestly did his experiments and how Lord Landsdown welcomed anybody to his house who has any interest in the sciences.  The Marquis was to remain in India for a few more months, but he said that his master would not forgive him if, upon his return, he would learn that we met and that his agent did not invite me to stay at his official residence so close to Calne.  With that, it was set – I would reside at Bowood!

I have been preoccupied with bacon for so long that an altogether different matter started to occupy my mind.  During my visit to Peterborough, Julie, Kevin’s wife, spoke to me about Minette’s visit to Denmark.  I am not the most perceptive person on earth and it never occurred to me that there may be more to Minette’s visit to Denmark than a friend supporting another friend.  My first wife, Julie and I had a brilliant relationship, but we had completely different interests.  I think I am a nomad and a wanderer; an explorer and an adventurer and my Julie (as opposed to Kevins Julie) is someone who is looking for white picket fences.  She wants to grow old with a man, a small house, the white picket fences, and a cat!  I, on the other hand, want to die as a man who lived a full life and explored everything!  From there the love for mountaineering and bacon!

I told her how I started to see Minette in a new light when we camped out at Penny’s cave the night before I left for Denmark.  Kevin’s Julie was quite intrigued about what I meant.  “You know,” I stuttered, “I saw that she was beautiful.  She is genuine as if she belongs here on the mountain and not in a city.  There is a connection that I can not explain.  As if something is drawing her to me.”  Julie laughed!  “And you think that when she came all the way to Denmark, she only came over to have a holiday?!”  She shook her head.  She then turned to Kevin and said, “I did not think I will meet another man as ignorant as you when it comes to matters of the heart!”  Kevin’s Julie made me think differently about Minette, our friendship and her visit to Denmark. Suddenly I felt very silly for not seeing this.  Suddenly I wanted to get on the next steamer bound for Cape Town to go to her and tell her how I feel about her.  That I think she is gorgeous and that I want to spend the rest of my life with her, exploring our world together! As much as this is what I wanted to do, sense and sensibility prevailed and with the encouragement from Kevin, I decided to first establish myself at Bowood and then look for an opportunity to go back to Cape Town for a short visit.

There was something else that I learned in Peterborough which Kevin and Mr. Petty explained to me.  The landowner was often very involved in the affairs of the villagers who resided around them.  Lord Landsdown, for example, supplies 30 Highland Bulls for use by the small tenants on the estate.  They explained to me that the same was true of pigs.  That the landowner would secure the best boars from China and make them available for the tenants on his farm to impregnate their sows which meant that the pigs raised in such a village all have similar characteristics.

I could not help to think back to the Kolbroek pigs of Oupa Eben.  Uncle Timo and Oupa Eben told me about the pigs that came to Cape Town with the Colebrook ship.  (Kolbroek)  I did not understand the importance of the boar in transmitting its characteristics to his offspring and how, if the pigs are bred in a closed unit like on the land of a landowner, that the kind of pigs raised will become typical of that village.   In this way, they explained to me, breeds started forming, typical to specific towns and counties across England.   I know that the origin of the Kolbroek breed is debated in South Africa but sitting in the Bull in Peterborough, and listening to these men, I have a feeling that they know a thing or two about pigs and that unless slaves or farmers kept the pigs that swam from the Colebrook together and farmed with them, that they would not have developed as a “breed” in the Cape Colony.

I was on my plenty-ith beer.  Still, I could think straight enough to wonder about C & T Harris.  Back home, Oscar and I did the calculations of how much it will cost to set up a commercial curing operation.  It requires an enormous amount of money and I wondered if Lord Landsdown and his ancestors somehow supported or funded the establishment of such a large business as C & T Harris.

These matters will be investigated carefully over the next few months.  That night, I must confess, as I fell asleep in Kevin’s son’s bed who very graciously agreed to sleep in the living room for me to have the use of his room, my thoughts were more with you and Minette than with the enigmas of pork farming and bacon curing.  To be honest, more with Minette!  🙂

Tomorrow I leave with Mr. Petty for Bowood and Calne!  I can hardly wait!




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(1) Blackland Mill, Calne, c. 1903 from the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham,

“It is likely that there was a mill on this site in the 13th century or earlier. The mill was rebuilt in three stages in c.1800 to incorporate the mill, a mill house, and a detached granary. This mill had a 19 ft. wheel, three pairs of stones, and a loft, which could accommodate 1,000 sacks of wheat. Milling ceased between 1915 and 1920 but then continued until 1982. The mill was restored between 1982 and 1983 and then produced wholewheat flour until 1993. When this photograph was taken the miller was Abraham Lock.”



St. Louis Post-Dispatch (St. Louis, Missouri), 9 October 1892


Blackland Mill, c. 1903, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham

Postcard dated 1917: Calne railway station:

Chapter 09.00: The UK letters

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

The UK Letters

River Thames, 1895
River Thames, 1895

My Danish experience came to an end when I boarded a steamer en route for London. Minette had left for South Africa a month earlier. Andreas, his mom and dad, and Uncle Jeppe all joined me at the harbour in Copenhagen for an emotional farewell. In the year I have been in Demark I made giant leaps towards understanding the art of curing the best bacon on earth.

Now it was off to England where an entirely different adventure awaited me. If Denmark was the lesson of nitrogen, England would be the revelation of salt, sugar, and refrigeration. I arrived in London in January 1892. (1) A friend of Andreas, Kevin Picton, met me at the harbour. Excitement about being in London flooded my mind. Romantic images from my mental world as a child, growing up in Cape Town now takes on real-life shape right in front of my eyes.

An overload of visual images; sights, sounds, and smells rush through millions of neural pathways. Climaxing in a feeling of excitement in my stomach caused by the sudden release of the enormous quantity of endorphins.

In the deep recesses of my mind, a faint plan still resided to make it to Calne as soon as possible. Calne was one of the centers of the bacon universe where the official bacon curers to the King of England were located. My hoast, Kevin, had other plans. I got to know him as someone who knows the art of living life and he freely shares this aptitude with every person who has the pleasure of acquainting him. It was lunchtime and the first order of business was the local pub.

That day I fell in love with Britain’s pub culture. Like the church back home, the English pub is central to life. It is where you go to after work to unwind and play pool with other locals. The rugby and cricket team meet there before a match and afterward, this is where triumphs are celebrated and defeats forgotten. It is the thread that keeps communities close and neighbors familiar with the comings and goings of all.

Over the next few months, my education in Bacon curing and in living life took on an entirely new dynamic! What follows is a series of letters I wrote from Calne, Peterborough, and Liverpool between 1892 and 1893. The revelations through these letters are explosive and offer a unique and intimate view of the development of the pork industry and curing bacon in particular.

Back home in South Africa, Willem and James, Oscar’s brothers joined our bacon curing venture. Will and James moved to Cape Town first to oversee the purchase of a small plot of land (2) in Woodstock where the first bacon curing plant in Cape Town would be erected.

Will met with David Graaff and arranged for the purchase of the land directly behind Combrinck & Co.’s New Market Street site, bought to erect refrigeration works in case they are forced to move from their site at the Shambles. James is our financial manager. He worked for the Bank of the Netherlands in Johannesburg when Oscar convinced him to join our small band of fools.

While I was learning the art of curing the best bacon on earth, together they would nit the commercial fabric of the company. Soon I found myself on a train from Peterborough where Kevin and his beautiful wife, Julie live with their two kids, on my way back to London where I boarded the Great Western Railway to Calne. It is the next major stop in my quest to discover how to cure the best bacon on earth. It is the single most exciting story on earth!


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1. We arrived in London on Saturday, 22 October 2011. We spend a day in London with Ivan Procter from Marel before we took a train to Peterborough where we met Kevin Picton.

2. The first Woodys site was at 7 Assegaai Road, Kraaifontein.


Figure 1: River Thames,


Chapter 08.09 David Graaff’s Armour – A Tale of Two Legends

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

David Graaff’s Armour – A Tale of Two Legends

November 1891

Dear Tristan and Lauren,

Copenhagen continues to enchant us!  Long afternoon walks.  The many coffee shops.  The friendly people.  Denmark is turning into quite an education!  Minette and I had the most unexpected suprise.A completely unexpected visit from our friend, David de Villiers-Graaff. It is a sad reunion as we still mourn the passing of Uncle Jacobus Combrinck last year.  David is on his way to the United States and decided to look in on us to see my progress.

He was regal in his appearance from the moment he stepped ashore off the streamliner. It is only fitting since he is not only in his second term as honourable mayor of Cape Town, but is now also a member of the Cape Colony’s legislative council in the place of Jacobus after his sad passing. (The Colonies and Indian, 10 October 1891, p11) David managed to accommodate a short visit to Denmark en route to Chicago for the World Exposition. (1) (2)

Drawing of David Graaff in his mayoral robes. The drawing appeared in a newspaper in Chicago on 11 April 1892 when he was interviewed at the World Exposition.

Our friend changed. He has always been serious and driven. There is, however, presently a confidence and focus in him – an intensity than I have never seen before. We are honoured for the few days we have in Copenhagen. (2)

The most fascinating tale is told by David about how it happened in the mid-1880s that he visited Chicago for the first time. On that trip, he met Phil (Philip) Armour. It had a profound impact on him. In many respects, I can see it working out in his ambitions. Drive is something we are born with. David always had a will to do things and energy. Mentors give direction to our drive. Phil Armour gave David a purpose and ambitions for Combrinck & Co. and for the City of Cape Town alike.

The Legendary Phil Armour

Phil is a self-made millionaire who is credited for pioneering the production-line processing by setting up a disassembly line in his enormous meatpacking plant in Chicago. He is the actual inventor of the production line and not Henry Ford as is widely reported. (9) David tells me that last year (1890) Phil slaughtered more pigs than the combined total of all Cincinnati packers. (Horowitz, R., 2006: 50)

This is interesting because Phil (an experienced commodity trader) and his business partner, John Plankinton (an experienced butcher), created the Armour Packing plant in Chicago in the tradition of the Cincinnati packing houses which dominated the pork packing industry until Chicago became the centre of pork processing universe in the USA and wash correctly described as “the hog butcher for the world.” (Horowitz, R., 2006: 49, 50)

It occurred to me that this was a special and important development. Phil, like many of the great packers in Cincinnati (Horowitz, R., 2006: 49, 50) was not a butcher but a trader and a businessman. This seemed to have afforded him the benefit of viewing the pork trade not as an art to be mastered by himself, but as a platform to trade in. Here he is able to anticipate supply and demand, price fluctuations, business structure, and processes in contrast with the German Master Butcher who is a tradesman, narrowly focused on his trade.

The structure of Jeppe’s bacon plant in Denmark is styled after the innovation of Phillip Armour. Phil is called the Napoleon of the Chicago capitalists, the baron of butchers, the king of pork packing and grain-shipping leader of the United States. It is reported that he has an establishment in every city in the USA and his agents are at work for him in every part of the globe. His daily updates come through telegraphs, telex, and telegram. (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2) His reach is global. Stretching from the “wheat fields of Russia to the grain bearing plains of North India and the markets of Australia and Europe.” Every morning he looks at the globe. Where his products will be in demand and where prices will rise and fall. (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2) It was no doubt this global view that brought his agents to South Africa where they met David de Villiers-Graaff. (2) (5)

Armour – the Applied of Refrigeration to Meatpacking

By now you should have a firm grasp of the role of nitrates and nitrites in meat curing.  I suspect that Phi was involved in testing nitrites in meat curing long before it was legal to do so in the USA.  This is, however, not his biggest contribution to the trade. Apart from pioneering the production line, Phil’s greatest contribution to meatpacking and processing is the incorporation of refrigeration into the meatpacking plant which allows for curing and packing of meat all year round.

In Britain, the Harris family was responsible for the construction of the first ice house for bacon curing in their High Street factory in Calne in 1856. Jeppe reckons that this is the first time in the world when ice was used to make year-round curing possible. It may or may not be true since ice houses or cellars were used in Cincinnati long before 1856. It is entirely possible that George Harris, who brought the idea back from the USA to England, may have seen ice-cooling in use precisely for bacon curing in the USA. It probably developed very informally as private landowners created ice houses to keep perishables from going bad. Phil may have had just such an ice house on his own property. However the inspiration came to him, he is credited for the incorporation of large scale refrigeration into meatpacking. (Encyclopedia. Chicago history and British History)

During the time when Phil brought refrigeration to meatpacking, Gustavus Swift came to Chicago to ship cattle and developed a way to send fresh-chilled beef in ice-cooled railroad cars all the way to the East Coast. The railroads could not keep up with the supply of refrigerated cars and Phil and other large packers build their own cars and leased them to the railroads. (Louise Carroll Wade. Encyclopedia Chicago History. Meat Packing)

Armour refrigeration car
Armour refrigeration car. Armour had at one point 12 000 refrigerated cars in use across the USA (

Three big meatpackers would become legendary. They were Philip Armour, Gustavus Swift, and Nelson Morris. (3)  David was inspired by this and did exactly the same in South Africa when he built his own refrigerated cars.

Armour’s Agents in South Africa

It was an agent of Phil Armour who visited Cape Town in the mid-1880s and called on the largest butchery in town, Combrinck & Co. This visit to South Africa was in response to the discovery of diamond in Kimberly and the goldfields in Johannesburg. (5)  Diamonds were discovered in 1867 by a 15-year-old boy, Erasmus Jacobs, near Hopetown on the Orange River. (6)

Gold was discovered in South Africa in 1884 by Jan Gerrit Bantjies on the farm Vogelstruisfontein. The main gold reef was discovered by George Harrison on the farm Langlaagte in July 1886. (5) (SA History. Discovery Gold)

Phil Armour knew exactly what would follow these discoveries. He made his money in the Californian gold rush as a young man, not from mining claims but by capitalizing on peripheral industries that developed. He started a business in California, employing out-of-work miners to construct sluices, which controlled the waters that flowed through the mined rivers. By the time he turned 24, he had a successful business that earned him enough money to move away from California and start his next venture.

Phil saw what opportunity would follow the discovery of gold and diamonds in South Africa and true to his nature, he investigated the opportunity. He also knew that as the states in South Africa develop, so would our importance as a grain and maize producer. He had many reasons to be very interested in the mid-1880s in developments in the sub-continent.

Mentor – Protégé

Phil D Armour, 1880s

Whatever the exact reason was behind the visit of Armour’s agents to the Cape Colony, at Combrinck & Co they met the man who has been in charge since 1881 (Dommisse, E, 2011: 31), the young David de Villiers-Graaff. A bright-eyed young man with black hair and a distinct black moustache.

David was born with a drive and loads of passion. He had the resources of a successful business behind him which gave him the means. What he now had was an opportunity to be exposed to the world and take Combrick & Co. further and create his own legacy. This was provided by Phil Armour and started with an invitation to Chicago! (2) (4)

David spoke at great lengths about this first trip to Chicago and the meeting with Mr. Armour in his cage-like office from where he manages his considerable international interests. (the cage-like office is described in The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)

Phil invests in young minds and even though David did not explicitly state this, I can glean from what he tells me that Phil was impressed with the young leader from Cape Town. Phil showed his packing plant to David and especially the refrigeration and refrigeration cars for the railroads. (2)

Phil employes young people of character and seldom fires them. He regularly re-deploys them in other departments in the business as young people often need some time to find their feet and where their true talents lay. He would most certainly have been impressed by David.

David implemented the concept of own refrigeration cars as soon as he got back to Cape Town. He had refrigeration chambers erected for Combrinck & Co. and soon invested in his own fleet of refrigerated cars for the railways.

In a quint coffee shop close to the Abattoir in Copenhagen, I pressed David to list the characteristics of Phil Armour that inspired him most.  I was interested, not only in the mechanics of his business model but also the qualities that the man cultivated.

David was thinking intently, stroking his mustache.  “Phil is an optimist who believes in his country and in the future. (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2) He saw the end of the civil war, despite the many negative voices to the contrary. He capitalized on low pork prices brought about by speculation that the war would continue, bought up every pig he could get hold off and made a fortune when prices rose on the realization that peace would prevail. (7)”

“He is not scared to take on large challenges. His plans are big and bold and global. (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2)”

“He invests frugally in education. Mr. Armour donated funds to establish the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago to give technical training for underprivileged boys. (8)” (Ansci. PD Armour)

A lesson that inspired David and that I take from Phil is that he believes in obtaining a thorough knowledge of any industry he gets involved in. This is why I am in Denmark and why I study as much as I can about bacon curing.

David then made an interesting observation. After supper, David started telling me about the start of Phil’s illustrious career.

Phil was brought up in Stockbridge, Madison County, in the state of New York with six brothers and two sisters. His formal schooling was not the best, but he learned far greater lessons. His mother taught him thrift, energy, the economy of time and speech, the benevolence of heart and a strong common sense. (The Inter Ocean, 7 January 1901, Page 2).

Gold was discovered in California in the spring of 1849. Phil had fallen in love with a girl and became obsessed with the idea of making a fortune on the newly discovered goldfields quickly so that he could return and claim his bride. Having secured the permission of his parents, he joined a small party and set off to the goldfields. None of the party had the means for a sea voyage and they set out on foot. A journey that lasted over six months and took them through rivers and deserts and over mountains with the usual dangers associated with such a long journey. (The Inter Ocean, 7 January 1901, Page 2) An amazing lesson I take personally from this bit of David’s story is that Phil had the respect and relationship with his parents to ask them and secondly, that his parents had the courage to allow him to go! It seems that bold parenting creates bold men!

In the goldfields, he made enough money to form the basis of his wealth. He moved away at age 24 from California to buy a grocery store and later got involved in a meatpacking venture which set him on the course of his life as we know it.

David commented that much in the life of Phil Armour resonated with him. He has never really spoken about his time as a boy on the farm in Villiersdorp to me. Last week in Denmark, he did.

David’s dad, who was a blacksmith on Villiersdorp, was not a wealthy man. There were no good roads to Villiersdorp which contributed to the general impoverished condition in the area. People were poor in possessions, but wealthy in children and in spirit. Kids were put to work from an early age on the farm. Every day’s work was undertaken with a cape made of grain bags to serve as protection against rain and cold. (Dommisse, E, 2011: 21)

As in the case of Phil’s school years, school education was not the best. What they lacked in formal education, they made up in life education. Respect was of great importance. People stood together and supported each other in times of tribulation. When an animal was butchered, people from the entire neighborhood got a meat packet. Trustworthiness in word and deed, industriousness and honesty were instilled from an early age. (Dommisse, E. 2011: 21, 22)

One afternoon Jacobus Combrinck, a respected family member and successful butcher from Cape Town, arrived on their farm Wolfhuiskloof. The custom was for the boys to help with the farm work after school and that afternoon was the 11-year old David’s turn to look after the pigs and stop them from going into the garden. “However, during the hot afternoon, he had fallen asleep under the fig tree. Next thing he knew he was being shaken awake violently while his father was shouting, “Dawie, Dawie, here you are sleeping and the pigs are in the garden!” Combrinck who had seen the whole commotion took pity on the young farm lad, … and immediately asked if he could take him to Cape Town to have him educated properly.” So it happened that the young David Graaff left their farm and moved to Cape Town where he would work during the day in Jacobus’ butchery and study at night. (Dommisse, E. 2011: 24)

David commented that Jacobus himself started to work in a butchery when he was only a teen to help his mom financially after the death of his father. David knew how to set the stage for a point he was about to make, the trait of a good communicator. He leaned back in his chair while all of us were on the edge of our seats. I have never heard him speak so candidly about his past.

“It occurred to me,” he started out, “that the best education revolves around values.” “I found great value in learning, but the values that my parents taught me have always stood me in good stead. It seems to have done the same in the life of Mr. Armour and Uncle Jacobus.”

He was ready to make his second point. He spoke thoughtfully. “A little bit of struggle never hurt anyone! Look at the journey of Mr. Armour. Jacobus and I working full days as children in butcheries. What some people see as a curse can be a blessing for others. It all depends on how you see it.” He then looked at me and said, “The fact that your dreams of a bacon factory are a difficult journey is a blessing!”

I will never forget that night. His point so eloquently made. As I have said, our friend has become a man!

Back to Chicago

David is on his way to Chicago again to meet with Phil Armour, but his focus will be on city business as he is traveling as mayor of Cape Town. He outlined what he intends to achieve at the World Fair. After hearing him talk, I can not wait to get back to see how his many plans unfold. (10)

Use Every Bit Except the Squeal

When I took David on a tour of Jeppes pork slaughtering house and abattoir the next day, David could not stop talking about the impact of Phil Armour and Gustavus Swift on pork slaughtering and how the animal is taken apart for use as primals or sides and the primals turned into bacon.

Mr Armour insisted that every part of the animal be used, contrary to the practice in many parts of the world, including in Cape Town, to dump so-called “undesirable parts of the carcass” in bodies of water, or as we do it in Cape Town, leave it on the beach in the hope that the tide will wash it away. “They devised better methods to cure pork and used lard components to make soap and candles.” (Encyclopedia Chicagohistory) Armour famously said that it is only the squeal of the pig that he does not use.

Armour’s Great Invention – the Production Line

Swift & Co. Packing House, Chicago, 1905. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress
Swift & Co. Packing House, Chicago, 1905. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

It was, however, the consolidation of the ideas around the re-organization of workers that was the true genius of Phil Armour. (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research) In a break from the concept of the German fleishmaster who process all meat, Mr. Armour’s ideas originated in a “crude form in the packinghouses of Cincinnati (when that city was known as “Porkopolis”).” “Mr. Armour organized his workers on a scale and in ways the world had never seen before. He “de-skilled” the work by dividing the processing of meat into steps that any unskilled laborer could follow.” (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research) This approach allowed “an animal to be killed, dismembered, cleaned and dressed at extraordinary speed. Tourists came from around the world to see Midwestern packinghouses in action.” (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research)

“The pivotal concepts of production: division of labor, mass production, standardized units of production, continuous flow, and efficiency were pioneered in these packinghouses.” (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research) (9)

The idea originated in the packing houses in Cincinnati where it was not new technology, but this greater division of labour that allowed greater output. The task of dismembering the pig’s carcass was divided into small tasks, performed by different men. (Horowitz, R., 2006: 50) When the American landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted visited Cincinnati in the 1850s, “he observed in a cutting plant “a human cutting machine” consisting of no more than a “plank table, two men to lift and turn, two to wield the cleavers.” The efficiency of these men was such that “no iron cog-wheels could work with more regular motion.” As butchers separated the pig carcass into parts “attendants, aided by trucks and dumbwaiters, dispatch each to its separate destiny,” the curing cellars below where the pork was preserved before shipment.” (Horowitz, R., 2006: 51) Olmsted timed the men dismembering the pig. One carcass every 35 seconds with several parallel stations in operation, packing 15 to 20 000 hogs during the winter. (Horowitz, R., 2006: 51)

Phil achieved his output through year-round packing made possible by refrigeration, incremental technology innovation and the consolidation of the continuous process production. His engineers improve the “disassembly” line by eliminating bottlenecks. Fragmenting the butcher’s tasks and introducing rotating wheels or conveyor tracks to bring the animal to workers performing specific cuts. This alone improved efficiency by 25%. (Horowitz, R., 2006: 52) (4)

These are concepts that must become part of the life of our proposed Woody’s factory in Cape Town. Each departments’ tasks must be broken up into its smallest components. It must be logically grouped. Self-regulatory systems theory that I have been learning from Andreas dictates that a continually improving, self-organising system must contain in its operation feedback loops for the system to respond to as well as “pressure release” or self-regulatory mechanisms. I will have to focus on conditions at home and the Woodys team must create its own production systems and not try and copy what is done in Denmark, England and in Chicago where different scale exist. The approach must be the same, but the application of the principles will differ.

Building a City Based on Civic Duty

Armour Institute of Technology,  1914
Armour Institute of Technology, 1914

Another interesting result of Armours’ work which inspired David and set a course for his life is how he translated his success into transforming his environment. David would be key in transforming Cape Town just as Phil was in transforming Chicago. The “business practices that Phil pioneered had a direct impact on the skylines, not just in Chicago, but in the USA. Besides the army of workers in the packinghouses, men like Armour needed armies of clerks and managers to run their business. These employees needed office space and many of the Chicago skyscrapers were developed to house these newly created “office workers”.

It was the disdain that Chicago industrialists like Armour felt toward needless ornamentation in the workplace that led to the development of the “First Chicago School of Architecture”, and a style of building that made structure and function its primary goal. Members of the first Chicago School included Louis Sullivan, Daniel H. Burnham, John W. Root, Dankmar Adler, and William Le Baron Jenney, the “father of the American skyscraper”. (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research)

This is a great example of the character and the spirit of Armour and Swift. The exact same direction that was given to the enthusiasm and drive of David de Villiers-Graaff. It will be wrong to credit Phil Armour entirely for David’s drive for urban development and beautifying his city. These are, after all, global movements – an almost universal drive to beautify the living environments in cities and the realisation of our collective civic responsibilities as fellow citizens on this great earth. What is certain is that David associates himself with people with this spirit and that these concepts were part of the ether that David breathed.

He no doubt was inspired by the work of the great industrialists in Chicago. This is clear from the fact that he now returns to Chicago, not as a butcher or a businessman, but as the leader of a city with grand plans to dramatically overhaul the face of Cape Town. (The Inter Ocean, Monday, 11 April 1892. Page 9 – 12) This is the protegee returning to his mentor to show him how he has grown.

Jeppe and Eben at the Meat Excellence awards in London. 3/6/2012
Jeppe and Eben at the Meat Excellence awards in London. 3/6/2012

David’s visit was concluded by a great banquette in the state hall in Denmark. Christian IX of Denmark was in attendance as were our Danish friends, Jeppe, Andreas, and Martin. I had a suit made by a tailor in the city that Jeppe manage to arrange for me. The dinner was a grand occasion. I will never forget it!  Minette looked absolutely gorgeous.  Andreas’ mom helped her to select a blue dress that suited her perfectly.

We had an amazing evening.  I could feel that my time in Denmark was coming to an end and as I started thinking back over everything that I learned it is interesting that the major theme was nitrogen.  Your December holidays are drawing close now.  Please remember to give my Oupa and Ouma all our love when you see them! I wich I can say that I am counting the days to my return, but there is still much more to learn and new countries to visit.  Off all these adventures, be assured that I will write to you often!

With lots of love!



(c) eben van tonder

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(1) David Graaff was 32 years old in 1892. He was interviewed at the World Exposition by a journalist standing at the foot of one of the main trusses of the Liberal Arts and Manufacturers building, featured in the picture below. (The Inter Ocean, Monday, 11 April 1892, p12)

1024px-Chicago_expo_Manufactures_bldg Wikipedia Worlds Columbian Exposition

The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building seen from the South West.

(2) This visit and meeting are purely fictional. There are no records that I am aware of that Sir David Graaff ever visited Denmark. The content of the discourse between Eben, Oscar, and David relates to David Graaff’s visit to Phillip D Armour’s company in Chicago. The visit to Armour’s company took place in the mid-1880s and was one of the first locations visited by David Graaff. This is a historical fact. (Dommisse, E, 2011: 32) Everything else is likely, but at best, informed speculation. There is no evidence at my disposal indicating that agents from Philip Armour ever visited Combrinck & Co or invited David to Chicago. It is of course completely possible that a visitor or a business associate told him about Philip Armours’ packing plant.

Option 1 is then that an agent from Philip Armour visited the Cape Colony and met David Graaff. Option 2 is that one of the many people who visited the pork packing plant of Armour reported it to David who then decided to visit it. A 3rd option is that David read about it in the newspapers. In June 1882 David Graaff took out membership to the reading room of the Cape Chamber of Commerce. The reading room gave him access to a variety of publications on financial and economic issues (Dommisse, E, 2011: 38)

(3) Morris & Company and Armour & Company merged in 1925. The grandson of Morris, also named Nelson, famously survived the final flight of the Hindenburg and the fire that destroyed the airship. (Faces of the Hindenburg. Nelson Morris)

(4) The labour economist John R Commons observed, related to the disassembly line in the pork packing houses of the late 1800’s that “skill has become specialized to fit the anatomy.” (Horowitz, R., 2006: 53)

(5) The discovery of diamonds would have been of great interest to Phillip Armour. Of even greater importance would have been the discovery of gold on the Rand and the subsequent creation of Johannesburg. I have no records of Armour sending agents to Cape Town, but from everything we know about Armour and the fact that David Graaff visited Armour in the mid-’80s to investigate refrigeration and meat processing technology the tantalizing possibility exists that my theory is at least plausible.

(6) The Eureka Diamond, the first diamond to be discovered in South Africa was found near Hopetown on the Orange river in 1867. Its weight was 21.25 carats (4.250g). (Wikipedia. Eureka Diamond)

(7) David Graaff would make his fortune in part on the realization that war with England was imminent and securing supply contracts for the British army during the second Anglo-Boer war. Both Graaff and Armour were optimists, even in the midst of dark days.

(8) The institute became the Illinois Institute of Technology. (Ansci. PD Armour)

(9) “Philip Armour and his colleague Gustavus Swift were true founders of some of the great modern business practices that remain in use today around the globe. (Henry Ford later used these same principles to develop an automobile industry “assembly” line and is wrongly credited for many of Armour’s ideas.)” (Thomas Petraitis. Preservation research)

(10) This trip to Chicago actually took place and was widely reported in newspapers in the USA. The Inter Ocean ran a detailed article on this visit on Monday, 11 April 1892. Page 9 – 12.


Dommisse, E. 2011. First baronet of De Grendel. Tafelberg.

The Colonies and Indian, 10 October 1891, under the heading “Colonial, Indian and American News Items,” p 11.

Horowitz, R. 2006. Putting Meat on the American Table: Taste, Technology, Transformation. The John Hopkins University Press

The Inter Ocean. 7 January 1901. Page 2

The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896

Armour Meat Processing Plant (Meat packing. Louise Carroll Wade)

East St. Louis, Illinois: “Hog Capital of the Nation”


Figure 1: The Inter Ocean, Monday, 11 April 1892

Figure 2: Armour refrigeration car. Wikipedia.

Figure 3: Philip D Armour.

Figure 4: Swift & Co packing line.

Figure 5:

Figure 6: The Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building’s_Columbian_Exposition


Chapter 08.08 Von Liebig and the Theory of Proteins of Gerard Mulder.

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

Von Liebig and the Theory of Proteins of Gerard Mulder

Copenhagen, September 1891

Dear kids,

It is the first day of autumn. Denmark is not home, but there is a beauty to this world. Copenhagen is an amazingly beautiful city. It is much smaller than I thought it would be, but it is very organised. The buildings are old and beautiful!

Andreas became a brother. He is an amazing soccer player. I can’t keep up with him, either when I play with or against him. I try to teach them to play cricket and rugby, but it is difficult. I have given up, to the great amusement of his dad (and the relief of Andreas).

Even autumn is colder than the coldest winters we have in Cape Town. As the cold sets in I miss you guys more every day. My only consolation is that Minette is here! Every week we make time to go on a long hike.  How I miss Table Mountain!  I miss my mom.  To sit at the kitchen table as she cooks one of her legendary lunches!  I miss my dad.  I miss Oscar and our crazy late-night dreaming. The fact that I learn on the one hand and do when I work in the bacon factory makes the learning more effective.

Copenhagen Harbour. The new Frihavns must impressive building was Silo warehouse on Midtermolen, built in 1892-94 by William Dahlerup
The Copenhagen harbour. The new Frihavns’ most impressive building was the Silo warehouse on Midtermolen, built in 1892-94 by William Dahlerup.

Copenhagen is not Africa!  It seems to me that all great dreams begin on horseback, on a farm, looking for stray cattle. The vlaktes of the Wes Transvaal seem so far. Like a dream.  I remember the day after we tasted the pork that we tried to cure on Oscar’s farm with the saltpeter that we bought from the Danish spice trader in Johannesburg and discovered that the pork was off. We tried to do it according to the Danish curing system as it was explained to us.  We were so disappointed!  Trudie told us that we must have done something wrong. We were sure that we did everything that the Danish guy told us.

The next day Ou Jantjie came to the house and told us that he saw some of Oscar’s cattle on Atties farm, close to the dam, nearest to Atties house. The off-tasting pork was out of our minds and we were on Poon and Lady, riding to look for the cattle.

Oscar said that Trudie is right. That we must have done something wrong and that we must learn much more.  I think he knew from the beginning how difficult it would be to take David de Villiers Graaff on when it comes to curing bacon. Oscar’s mind is fast.

I reminded him that the spice trader said that if we really want to learn how it’s done, that we must get on the next steamship leaving the Cape for Copenhagen. We decided to get everybody who will support the dream together for a meeting at his house one evening. Then we will decide.

The wind was in our faces and we had great dreams. I am learning how important those initial dreams are.  It is like building up steam pressure before the engine starts to turn the big pistons on a steamship.  If the pressure is not build up first, it will never be enough for the first “turn”. As soon as its turning, momentum takes over and the engine takes on a life of its own.  The initial dreams are the building up of pressure.

This art of curing meat has been developing over thousands of years. On the one hand, people wanted to prevent meat from spoiling and on the other hand, cured meat developed into a culinary delicacy. The key ingredient is saltpeter (1).

Jeppe and I have the best of times during lunchtime.  Since Minette arrived, it gave our lunchtime lessons a dynamic character. He would go through the relevant scientific discoveries of the previous few years, pointing out the direct application on the science and art of curing bacon.  The science and history lessons give both Minette and me enjoyment that is hard to communicate.  The Wednesday, following our visit to the University, the Chemistry Professor decided to visit us at the bacon factory.  It set the stage for another volcanic afternoon!

Justus von Liebig

He did not want to leave us “hanging in the air”, so to speak by not completing his private lecture about the development of protein metabolism events Germany and the invention of the theory of proteins.  We were ready with notebooks, pens, and inquiring minds!  The focus now shifted from the French to the German schools. Our attention shifts to the formidable scientist in the person of Justus von Liebig.  His father was a chemical manufacturer and had a small laboratory attached to his shop.  Here Justus loved performing experiments and an exceptional life was inspired.  After studying pharmacy, he received a doctorate from the University of Erlangen in Bavaria in 1822.  The Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt and his ministers noticed him and funded his further studies in chemistry under Joseph-Louis Gay-Lussac in Paris between 1822 and 1824.  Gay-Lussac himself found all plant seeds “contain a principle abounding in azote.”  It was, in Paris when a meeting with Alexander von Humboldt, according to Von Liebig, set his career on the path it took.  Up to that point, it was the French chemists who were responsible for the progression of protein metabolism, but with Von Liebig, this was about to change.

Humboldt is one of my heroes and as a child, I practically committed his books to memory.   Humboldt arranged an appointment for Von Liebig at the small University of Giessen in May 1824. Liebig wrote about this meeting  that “at a larger university, or in a larger place, my energies would have been divided and dissipated, and it would have been much more difficult, perhaps impossible, to reach the goal at which I aimed.”  Applying the techniques that he learned under Gay-Lussac he changed the face of organic chemistry and became the father of agricultural chemistry. The study of protein metabolism was now firmly in the hands of the Germans.

At the University of Giessen, Liebig created the most productive school of organic chemistry in existence at the time.  He perceived that his work could be logically extended to the chemistry of the living body. In 1840 his book, “Thierchemie in Ihrer Aufwendung auf Physio logie” appeared, and an English translation of the work entitled “Animal Chemistry, or Organic Chemistry in its Applications to Physiology and Pathology” appeared 1842.  Liebig believed that the basis of protein metabolism was chemical.  Some believe this is his most important contribution to the subject.

Von Liebig was well prepared to make such a contribution on account of his training in France and his own studies in organic chemistry. The Danish Chemistry professor brought Von Liebig’s work, Animal Chemistry (1842) along and quoted liberally from us to show the various aspects of Liebigs views on protein metabolism.  He wrote (p. 40):

“… If we hold that increase of mass in the animal body, that development of its organs, and the supply of waste,—that all this is dependent on the blood, that is, on the ingredients of the blood, then only those substances can properly be called nutritious and considered as food which are capable of conversion into blood. To determine, therefore, what substances are capable of affording nourishment, it is only necessary to ascertain the composition of the food, and to compare it with that of the ingredients of the blood. Two substances require special consideration as the chief ingredients of the blood: . . . fibrine, which is identical in all its properties with muscular fibre, when the latter is purified from all foreign matters. The second principal ingredient of the blood is contained in the serum, and gives to this liquid all the properties of the white of eggs, with which it is identical. When heated, it coagulates into a white elastic mass, and the coagulating substance is called albumen. Fibrine and albumen, the chief ingredients of blood, contain, in all, seven chemical constituents, among which nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur are found. . . . Chemical analysis has led to the remarkable result that fibrine and albumen contain the same organic elements united in the same proportion…. In these two ingredients of blood the particles are arranged in a different order, as shown by the difference of their external properties; but in chemical composition in the ultimate proportion of the organic elements, they are identical. . . . Both albumen and fibrine, in the process of nutrition, are capable of being converted into muscular fibre, and muscular fibre is capable of being reconverted into blood. . . . All part of the animal body which have a decided shape, which form parts of organs, contain nitrogen; all of them likewise contain carbon and the elements of water. . . The chief ingredients of the blood contain nearly 17% of nitrogen and no part of an organ contains less than 17% nitrogen.”

“The most convincing experiments and observations have proved that the animal body is absolutely incapable of producing an elementary body, such as carbon or nitrogen, out of substances which do not contain it; it obviously follows, that all kinds of food fit for the production either of blood, or of cellular tissue, membranes, skin, hair, muscular fibre, etc. must contain a certain amount of nitrogen, because that element is essential to the composition of the above-named organs; because the organs cannot create it from the other elements presented to them; and, finally, because no nitrogen is absorbed from the atmosphere in the vital process.”

“The nutritive process in the carnivora is seen in its simplest form. This class of animals lives on the blood and flesh of the graminivora; but this blood and flesh is, in all its properties, identical with their own. . . . In a chemical sense, therefore, it may be said that a carnivorous animal, in supporting the vital process, consumes itself. That which serves for its nutrition is identical with those parts of its organisation which are to be renewed. The process of nutrition in graminivorous animals appears at first sight altogether different. Their digestive organs are less simple, and their food constituents consist of vegetables, the great mass of which contains but little nitrogen. … Chemical researches have shown, that all such parts of vegetables as can afford nutriment to animals contain certain constituents which are rich in nitrogen; and the most ordinary experience proves that animals require for their support and nutrition less of these parts of plants in proportion as they abound in the nitrogenised constituents. Animals cannot be fed on matters destitute of these nitrogenised constituents. . . . These nitrogenised forms of nutriment in the vegetable kingdom may be reduced to three substances, which are easily distinguished by their external characters. Two of them are soluble in water. The third is insoluble.”

He then states that he recognises “a vegetable fibrin, vegetable albumin and vegetable casein” which is similar in characteristics to these animal products.  He continues (p. 48):  “How beautifully and admirably simple, with the aid of these discoveries, appears the process of nutrition in animals, the formation of their organs, in which vitality chiefly resides! Those vegetable principles, which in animals are used to form blood, contain the chief constituents of blood, fibrine and albumen, ready formed, as far as regards their composition. . . . From what has been said, it follows that the development of the animal organism and its growth are dependent on the reception of certain principles identical with the chief constituents of blood.”

Liebig’s view on nitrogen in nutrition is summarized by himself as follows (p. 95): . . . “According to what has been laid down in the preceding pages, the substances of which the food of man is composed may be divided into two classes; into nitrogenised and non-nitrogenised. The former are capable of conversion into blood; the latter incapable of this transformation. Out of those substances which are adapted to the formation of blood are formed all the organised tissues. The other class of substances, in the normal state of health, serve to support the process of respiration. The former may be called the plastic elements of nutrition; the latter, elements of respiration. Among the former, we reckon—vegetable fibrine, vegetable albumen, vegetable caseine, animal flesh, animal blood. Among the elements of respiration in our food are—fat, starch, gum, cane sugar, grape sugar, sugar of milk, pectine, bassorine, wine, beer, spirits.”

You will see that none of Von Liebig’s views were new.  These were concepts that originated with Magendie, 25 years earlier.  Note in particular that Von Liebig did not have an inkling of the possibility of digestion and reconstruction of proteins taken in the diet.  (Munro and Allison, 1964)

One of the many productive directions of the work of Von Liebig and his students was the application of oxidizing agents (example, manganese dioxide, and chromic acid) during acid hydrolysis of proteins and in the process identifying a series of acids and aldehydes. The concept of studying the degradation products of protein originated with Von Liebig and was to play a crucial role in the next generation  (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948) There is an interesting point of application of this work to the modern bacon curer.  It has emerged that there is a link between foaming and the length of the amino acids that remain after proteins have been “digested” with the aid of an acid.  This became clear when we tried to dissolve the result of our “digestion experiments” in water.  If for some reason, such “digested” proteins must be used in a bacon brine, if the foaming is excessive and interferes with the curing operation, it will be of great help to “digest” the proteins for longer before it is recovered and hydrated.

The atomic theory

At this point the Chemistry professor paused.  He asked how much we know about Dalton’s atomic theory.  Of course, I knew it well from high school in Cape Town.

I was very surprised when the professor said that Dalton’s work had an important application in the field of nutritional studies. John Dalton was by all accounts not the brightest of students.  Some said that his main characteristic was not being bright but rather, determination.   He was poor and largely self-taught.  He worked as a  schoolmaster in the north of England and developed a very important notion. The notion was that all of the elements are made up of indivisible particles, or “atoms,” and, importantly, that for each element, every atom is identical.  He came to the conclusion that in chemical combinations, two or more different atoms come together to form a firm union and this union, was, as far as the new substance is concerned, always in the same simple ratios by weight.   So, for example, the gas, carbon dioxide has exactly twice the weight of oxygen (by unit weight of carbon) compared to what is present in another gas called carbon monoxide.  So, the different elements in any compound are fixed.  When comparing two different compounds, the same two elements will always be in a simple ratio by weight.

He further concluded that when gasses combine, they always do so in the same simple relation by volume.  Let’s take the formation of ammonia as an example.  When it is formed, 3 volumes of hydrogen combine with 1 volume of nitrogen and they form exactly 2 volumes of ammonia gas.

A conclusion from these is that equal volumes of different gases contain the same numbers of molecules if one sees that many elements, such as hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen, have two atoms combined together to form a single molecule.

Early on there was uncertainty if carbon and oxygen each have one-half of the atomic weights that we now assign to them.  Prout in England used improved methods of analysis and arrived at the formula C2H4N2O2.  Double the atomic weights for C and O and you arrive at the modern formula of CH4N2O.

In the early 1800s, Friedrich Wöhler achieved what may believe to the start of organic chemistry when he obtained urea by heating silver cyanate with ammonium chloride. He wrote to his professor: “I can make urea without the use of kidneys.”  By doing this, he demonstrated that an organic compound produced in living systems could also be produced in the laboratory without the aid of any “vital force.”

Wöhler and Von Liebig’s Free Radical

Wöhler worked with Liebig and developed the idea of a common radical that would combine with other reagents, but still retain its own nature and be recoverable by further reactions.  In chemistry, a free radical  is a species that contain one occupied orbital.  A characteristic of a free radical is that they are neutral and they tend to be highly reactive.  The first such ree radical was “benzoyl”.

Starting with benzaldehyde (C6H5CHO), it can be oxidize to benzoic acid (C6H5CO2H).  Note the addition of an oxygen atom.  Alternatively, a chlorinated derivative can be formed.  The original benzaldehyde can be created by reducing or removing oxygen.”  (Carpenter, 2003)  It is easy to see the similarity in what we are doing with nitrate, nitrate, and ammonia and this, in turn, is build upon the logic of the atomic theory.

Gerard Mulder and the nature of animal substance

The Dutch chemist Gerard Mulder (1802–1880) published a paper in a Dutch journal in 1838 which was reprinted in 1839 in the Journal für praktische Chemie. Mulder examined a series of nitrogen-rich organic compounds, including fibrin, egg albumin, gluten, etc., and had concluded that they all contained a basic nitrogenous component (~16%)  to which he gave the name of “protein” (Munro and Allison, 1964) from a Greek term implying that it was the primary material of the animal kingdom.

The term protein was coined by Jöns Jacob Berzelius, and suggested it to Mulder who was the first one to use it in a published article. (Bulletin des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles en Néerlande (1838); Hartley, Harold (1951) “Ueber die Zusammensetzung einiger thierischen Substanzen” 1839)). Berzelius suggested the word to Mulder in a letter from Stockholm on 10 July 1838. (Vickery, H, B, 1950) Mulder suggested using the symbol “Pr” for the radical, that egg albumin could be expressed as “Pr10 · SP” and serum albumin as “Pr10 · S2P,” and that the radical itself had the molecular formula “C40H62N10O12.  (Carpenter, 2003)

This common nucleus was linked with phosphorus and sulfur to give the various compounds referred to above. “Die organische Substanz, welche in allen Bestandtheilen des thier ischen Körpers, so wie auch, wie wir bald sehen, im Pflanzenreiche Vorkommt, könnte Protein von Tporetos primarius, genannt werden. Der Faserstoff und Eiweissstoff der Eierhaben also die Formel Pr + SP, der Eiweissstoff des Serums Pr + SP.” (The organic substance which is found in all the constituents of the animal body, as well as, as we shall soon see, in the vegetable kingdom, might be called protein of Tporetos primarius. The fiber and protein of the eggs thus have the formula Pr + SP, the protein of the serum Pr + SP)  (Munro and Allison, 1964)

Liebig initially liked the concept.  He wrote, “… When animal albumen, fibrine, and caseine are dissolved in a moderately strong solution of caustic potash, and the solution is exposed for some time to a high temperature, these substances are decomposed. The addition of acetic acid to the solution causes, in all three, the separation of a gelatinous translucent precipitate, which has exactly the same characters and composition, from whichever of the three substances above mentioned it has been obtained. Mulder, to whom we owe the discovery of this compound, found, by exact and careful analysis, that it contains the same organic elements, and exactly the same proportion, as the animal matters from which it is prepared; insomuch, that if we deduct from the analysis of albumen, fibrine, and caseine, the ashes they yield, when incinerated, as well as the sulphur and phosphorus they contain, and then calculate the remainder for 100 parts, we obtain the same result as in the analysis of the precipitate above described, prepared by potash, which is free from inorganic matter.”  (Munro and Allison, 1964)

If we look at it in this way, the main ingredients of blood and caseine in milk can be regarded as a mixture of phosphates and other salts, and of sulphur and phosphorus, with a compound of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, in which the relative proportion of these elements is fixed.  This compound can then be regarded as the commencement and starting-point of all other animal tissues because these are all produced from the blood. Mulder had an insight that since the insoluble nitrogenised part of wheat flour (vegetable fibrine) when treated with potash, the exact same product is yielded namely protein.  He found that the true starting-point for all the tissues is albumen and that all nitrogenised articles of food, whether derived from the animal or from the vegetable kingdom, are converted into albumen before they can take part in the process of nutrition.  Liebig, like Mulder, ascribes the formula C4s H36N6O14 to protein, and albumen becomes C18H38N6014 + P + S, fibrine is C48E36. N6014 + P + 2 S, and so on.

– Liebig’s Opposition

Liebig eventually rejected Mulder’s concept of a nucleus protein based on work he continued to do on protein chemistry. He sets forth his arguments against Mulder at some length in his book “Researches on the Chemistry of Food,” published in an English edition in 1847. Here Liebig indicates that several chemists were unable to repeat some of Mulder’s basic experiments and that his formulas for fibrin, albumin, etc., as compounds of protein with sulfur and phosphorus in specific relations, do not agree with the results of more recent analyses of these substances. In this, he conveniently forgets his own earlier enthusiasm for Mulder’s view, and says (p. 18): “… A theoretical view in natural science is never absolutely true, it is only true for the period during which it prevails; it is the nearest and most exact expression of the knowledge and the observations of that period. It ceases to be true for a later period, inasmuch as a number of newly acquired facts can no longer be included in it. . . . But the case is very different with the so-called proteine theory, which cannot be regarded as one of the theoretical views just mentioned, since, being supported by observations both erroneous in themselves and misinterpreted as to their significance, it had no foundation in itself, and was never regarded, by those intimately acquainted with its chemical groundwork, as an expression of the knowledge of a given period.” (Munro and Allison, 1964). “Mulder was enraged by the tone of the criticism from Liebig, who was now denying what he himself had previously asserted.” (Carpenter, 2003)

Despite his criticism, Von Liebig suggests the direction which eventually led researchers to ultimately resolved the structure of the protein molecule.

He says (p. 27) : … The study of the products, which caseine yields when acted on by concentrated hydrochloric acid, of which, as Bopp had found, Tyrosine and Leucine constitute the chief part, and the accurate determination of the products which the blood constituents, caseine, and gelatine, yield when oxidised, among which the most remarkable are oil of bitter almonds, butyric acid, aldehyde, butyric aldehyde, valerianic acid, valeronitrile, and valeracetonitrile, have opened up a new and fertile field of research into numberless relations of the food to the digestive process, and into the action of remedies in morbid conditions.” (Munro and Allison, 1964)

It is an interesting thought that in the word “protein” we refer to the important class of body constituents, and we, at the same time, commemorate an erroneous oversimplification of protein structure.  We must also remember that we use the word in a meaning different from that originally intended. The German word for protein is “Eiweiss.” The reason may very well be because of Von Liebig’s eventual rejection of Mulder’s hypothesis.” (Munro and Allison, 1964). Dennis M Bier states that despite these nuances, Berzelius and Mulder were, in the most basic analysis, right: “Protein is the essential general principle of the constituents of the animal body. Thus, one might briefly summarize the physiological roles of protein in metabolism as “responsible for just about everything.” (Bier, D. M., 1999). “The notion of the protein radical disappeared from the literature and the term “protein” gradually began to be applied to all the materials previously described as “animal substance.”   (Carpenter, 2003)

Is Protein the only true nutrient?

Our good professor was on a roll.  Nitrogen, as the key nutrient was firmly established, but is this the only one?  While he is on the subject, he gave us a history lesson on the further development of thoughts around this matter.  As a food producer, this remains one of the overall biggest subjects.  Nutrition!  It is the original and main reason why we eat!

Von Liebig wrote the following in his book, Animal Chemistry or Organic Chemistry in its Application to Physiology and Pathology, that “because his analyses of muscles failed to show the presence of any fat or carbohydrate, the energy needed for their contraction must come from an explosive breakdown of the protein molecules themselves, resulting in the production and excretion of urea. Protein was, therefore, the only true nutrient, providing both the machinery of the body and the fuel for its work.

What is the reason then that we would need the other parts of the food that we consume?   Why is carbonic acid produced in much higher volumes during exercise? The explanation of Von Liebig was that increased respiration was needed to keep the heart and other tissues from overheating. This led to more oxygen finding a way into the tissues, which unfortunately potentially cause oxidative damage and a loss of protein tissue. Fats and carbohydrates then acted as mopping agents of this excess by being themselves preferentially oxidized.

Von Liebig’s book quickly gained a reputation as an important intellectual synthesis.  His ideas gained wide acceptance, the influence which was felt for many years. The Professor of Medicine at Edinburgh University was, for example, asked to investigate an unexpected and very serious outbreak of scurvy in a Scottish prison, he immediately concluded that it must be the result of an inadequate intake of protein. He calculated the average daily protein intake of a prisoner to be an ample 135g. Only 15g of this was from animal sources and 102g from gluten.

His conclusion was to raise the average daily intake of milk to increase the intake of animal protein because, he argued, the power of the body to convert gluten to animal protein was limited.  There were, however, a problem with this logic, as was spotted and pointed out by another Scottish physician who replied that the value of lemon juice in the prevention of scurvy was well established and could not possibly be attributed to its protein content, given that a curative dose contained only a negligible amount of nitrogen.

The theory that muscular work is required to break protein down was problematic.  The traditional diet of laborers was of lower protein content that of the less active rich. Now, remember the book, Foods, we are reading every night with Andreas and his family.  Edward Smith, the author, and a British physician, and physiologist is another scietist of the time who was interested in the welfare of prisoners.  He was worried about the stressfulness of them having to work on a treadmill.  He measured their urea excretion in the 24h during and after their 8 hours of work, and again on their subsequent rest days, and found no difference. His findings were in complete opposition to the position of Von Liebig who would have said that on the basis that the energy expended all came from the breakdown of protein that resulted in the production of urea.  (Carpenter, 2003)

Liebig and Urine

Von Liebig drew attention to urea as an end-product of protein breakdown in the body.  He did not get it right completely.  In his work, “Animal Chemistry” (1842), (p. 62) he wrote, “… We know that the urine of dogs, fed for three weeks exclusively on pure sugar, contains as much of the most highly nitrogenised constituent, urea, as in the normal condition. Differences in the quantity of urea secreted in these and similar experiments are explained by the condition of the animal in regard to the amount of the natural motions permitted. Every motion increases the amount of organised tissue that undergoes metamorphosis. Thus, after a walk, the secretion of urine in man is invariably increased.”

Later (p. 245), he wrote, “The amount of tissue metamorphosed in a given time may be measured by the quantity of nitrogen in the urine.” All this shows Von Liebig’s central thought that protein in muscle was the fuel for muscular exercise.  He believed that the nitrogenous components of the diet must first be converted to living tissue before being broken down to yield urea. “There can be no greater contradiction, with regard to the nutritive process, than to suppose that the nitrogen of the food can pass into the urine as urea, without having previously become part of an organized tissue.” (p. 144).” (Munro and Allison, 1964)

Liebig’s Contribution to Protein Metabolism and the work of Carl Voit

Why this attention to Von Liebig?  It appears from what we have seen that he did not contribute much of permanent value to our understanding of protein metabolism. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Von Liebig adhered to a vigorous application of organic analysis to compounds of biological interest, he undoubtedly laid the foundations of intermediary metabolism and much of the important work that followed Von Liebig was predicated on these findings. Besides these, Von Liebig identified many of the compounds of biological interest which subsequent researchers made their focus areas with great success.

Von Liebig’s ultimate genius was that he took on seemingly insurmountable problems and even though he did not come up with the ultimate solutions, he managed to break the issues down to such an extent that one can say he pointed the way to their ultimate solution. Look for example at his comments on intermediary metabolism.  He wrote (“Researches on the Chemistry of Food,” (1847) p. 10): “The intermediary members of the almost infinite series of compounds which must connect Urea and Uric acid with the constituents of the food, are, with the exception of a few products derived from the bile, almost entirely unknown to us; and yet each individual member of this series, considered by itself, inasmuch as it subserves certain vital purposes, must be of the utmost importance in regard to the explanation of the vital processes, or of the action of remedies.”

Another good example is the fact that he saw certain chemical reactions as only occurring in biological systems and suspected that these were dependent on the presence of proteins. Have a look at the following statement (p. 7) from his book on food chemistry where he came agonizingly close to our modern understanding of the concept of enzymes:  “… There is, probably, no fact more firmly established as to its chemical signification, than this, that the chief constituents of the animal body, albumen, fibrine, the gelatinous tissues, and caseous matter, when their elements are in a state of motion, that is, of separation, exert on all substances which serve as food for men and animals, a defined action, the visible sign of which is a chemical alteration of the substance brought in contact with them. That the elements of sugar, of sugar of milk, or starch, etc., in contact with the sulphurised and nitrogenised constituents of the body, or with analogous compounds which occur in plants, when these are in a state of decomposition, are subjected to a new arrangement and that new products are formed from them, most of which cannot be produced by chemical affinities, this is a fact, independent of all theory.”

Von Liebig’s greatest contribution to the development of protein metabolism is in the school of biochemical studies, founded by him.  This was done first in Giessen, and later in Munich, where he became professor of chemistry in 1852. From here emerged a number of very important proponents of metabolism, chief among them being Carl Voit, whose researches in protein metabolism placed the concept of nitrogen balance on a firm footing.

Voit was intensely interested in “animal chemistry.” He wrote that Dumas was wrong in his assertions since it was well known that pigs would fatten when fed on potatoes that were rich in starch, but had only a small amount of fat. Accordingly, it must be concluded that animals are able to convert carbohydrates to fat even though the conversion required “reduction” rather than oxidation.

French researchers who were regarded as the authorities on this subject challenged this view, and Boussingault put the matter to the test.   He performed another groundbreaking experiment with pigs.  He took a young pig and killed it and analysed its carcass.  He took a littermate of this pig, of the same weight, and fed it measured amounts of feed for another 3 months. The carcass analysis of the second pig indicated that this pig had an extra 13.6kg fat but the feed it consumed only had 6.8kg.

This very clearly showed the French school to be wrong on this point.  Both Boussingault and Dumas retired from working with animals.  Von Liebig became the new authority, even though he had never actually carried out a feeding trial. He continued to advocate his ideas on physiology and nutrition. Most of these were gradually shown to have been completely wrong, but at least they stimulated others to do research, putting them to the test.”  (Munro and Allison, 1964)

An Inspirational Message

Kids, take note that neither Mulder nor Von Liebig illuminated protein or its metabolism fully, but we gain a great appreciation for their work in the early to mid-1800s. I wonder how many of today’s researchers would do as much as these men did with the scant knowledge they had and it is a lesson to us all. Rigour in our work will yield results, no matter how tentative at first.  It reminds me of the old verse from Sunday school in the Groote Kerk in Cape Town that there is profit in all labour.

I think that there can be no doubt that nitrogen is absolutely key to the art of bacon curing and the most important macro molecule we are working with is protein.  I came to realise that bacon is nothing less than the art of manipulating it.  A question of whether the nitrogen that we add to the meat in the form of nitrate or nitrite is good for us or not is in the first instance the wrong question since when you are talking about protein you are talking about nitrogen and vice versa.

Thirdly to nitrogen and protein is the concept of nutrition.  Yes, we eat because we are social animals and there is nothing more sociable than a great meal.  We eat because we listen to bach and drink pilsner.  We enjoy it!  But most importantly, we eat because it keeps us healthy and it contains the fuel we need every day to live and breathe and have our being.  Nutrition is of the absolute greatest importance when we produce food.

The development of the art of meat curing and understanding its chemistry and processes is intimately connected to our most basic understanding of life itself.

I am downstairs in the living room.  Minette passed ut on the couch – she is exhausted.  I’m finishing up and then we will all go to bed.

I love you more than life itself!

Your Dad.

Practical Applications for the Modern Bacon Curer

In bacon production, one determines the total meat content as follows.  Assume you start with 100kg of meat and inject 20L brine.

Meat weight:  100kg
Brine added:  + 20L (100kg becomes 120kg; added through injection/ tumbling)
Loose 10% in cooking/ smoking: – 12kg (120kg becomes 108kg)
Freezing loss of -1%: – 1.08kg yields total bacon ready for slicing: 106.92kg.

Divide the meat weight you started with by the end weight after processing (100/106.92) = 93.52% total meat content.

According to SA regulations, bacon must be at least 95% total meat content.

One doesn’t lose proteins during steam cooking. Only during water cooking. In the older literature on the subject, when they talk about curing, they mean salt only curing as in dry-curing and in this process there is a loss of proteins (if done in the traditional way of turning the meat every day and allowing the extracted meat juices to run off). If one, however, cooks the bacon, as in Australia, during the cooking step, fat will melt and drip off. Exactly how much fat is lost is determined through analysis. I am sure the % is small, but surprising results are obtained through analysis.

It will impact the calculation since total meat is defined as lean meat plus fat. Meat weight after the actually visible fat has been trimmed off x 0.9 is a good approximation to determine actual lean meat content. All meat contains fat that can not be seen. Without it, meat will be completely un-edible. Two further ratios we want to become familiar with are the ratio of percentage protein nitrogen to lean meat % being N x 30 = lean meat % and the nitrogen to protein factor which is 6.25 meaning N x 6.25 = total protein.

These ratios are important for meat processors.   Let’s look at our calculation again which we used above.  Note that they only achieve total meat content of 93% in their bacon and they need to have it at 95% or above.  They can now do the following:

Meat weight:  100kg
Brine added:  + 20L (100kg becomes 120kg; added through injection)

In the tumbling stage, add 1kg of pork protein (80% actual protein – the other 20% will be a filler).  Of course, various levels of functionality are commercially available and one must inquire of what the actual protein percentage is to complete the calculation.  This means that the nitrogen added in our example of a product with an 80% functionality is 80% x 1kg = 0.800kg protein / 6.25 – the nitrogen-to-protein ratio to give us the weight of the protein nitrogen x 30 – the protein-to-lean-meat factor = 3.84kg lean meat. In other words, by adding 800g functional protein, they have effectively added 3.84kg to the starting meat weight as lean meat.  There is no fat since the added functional pork proteins do not contain fat.

They can then use their starting ratio as 100kg + 3.84kg = 103.84 which, after injection and tumbling will yield them 106.92.  Dividing the meat weight you started with by the end weight after processing is now 103.84/ 106.9 = 97.1% total meat content which, if this is in SA, places you well within the legal requirements for bacon.

For those interested in having this in a live spreadsheet I include this sheet, courtesy of Dr. Francois Mellett. ED2-8 Cost op Protein, LME, and TME.  Here he compares the cost of different protein sources and uses the conversion factor of 4.8 to move between % protein and TME/ LME.  He derives his conversion factor of 4.8 to move between % protein and LME eqw as follows:  The two equations he works with are:

Protein Nitrogen x 6.25 = Proteins

Percentage Lean Meat = (Percentage Protein Nitrogen × 30 )

Let’s take TVP Soy with a protein content of 50%.  Therefore:

Protein Nitrogen x 6.25 = 50%; Protein Nitrogen % = 50%/6.25 = 8

Percentage Lean Meat = (8 × 30 ) = 240/100 = 2.4.

The same can be achieved by the factor 30/6.25 = 4.8; 4.8 x 50% = 250/100 = 2.4

A very small added benefit for the producer will be that the protein added representing 3.84kg lean meat will be cheaper than the actual meat.  There is, therefore, no financial downside for the producer.  The producer is limited in how much of the protein can be added since it will start to affect the appearance and colour of the bacon.  My suspicion is that in countries like Australia, more can be added due to the fact that the bacon is sold fully cooked which yields a paler bacon as opposed to South African producers where the bacon is sold par-cooked and have a much brighter reddish-pinkish appearance.  Adding protein, I suspect,  will, therefore, have less of an impact in Australia compared to South Africa.  I will not be surprised if some Australian producers add a lot more non-meat and meat protein alike and therefore inject more brine.

The reality is that actual food legislation in Australia and New Zealand allows for a slightly different approach which we will look at in detail in the next article. For now, it is enough that we start interacting with some of the values we encounter as we learn how they were discovered.

We continue our fascinating journey by looking at the contribution of a formidable man, Justus von Liebig during whose time, protein was identified and named.  We also encounter our first ratio when Mulder estimated that meat proteins contain 16% nitrogen (N).  By multiplying the nitrogen content with 100/16, the protein content is
estimated. Therefore, nitrogen x 6.25 is the protein content.

Further Reading

Counting Nitrogen Atoms – The History of Determining Total Meat Content


(c) eben van tonder

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(1) Nitrate is the essential curing agent and in Salpeter is coupled with potassium or sodium or calcium.


Bier, D. M.; The Energy Costs of Protein Metabolism: Lean and Mean on Uncle Sam’s Team, Protein and Amino Acids, 1999, Pp. 109-119. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press

Bulletin des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles en Néerlande (1838). pg 104. SUR LA COMPOSITION DE QUELQUES SUBSTANCES ANIMALES.

Carpenter, K. J.; A Short History of Nutritional Science: Part 1 (1785–1885), The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 133, Issue 3, 1 March 2003, Pages 638–645,

Hartley, Harold (1951). “Origin of the Word ‘Protein. Nature 168(4267): 244–244. Bibcode 1951Natur.168..244Hdoi10.1038/168244a0.

Munro, H. N., and Allison, J. B..  1964.  Mammalian Protein Metabolism.   Academic Press.

Vickery, H, B; The origin of the word protein” Yale journal of biology and medicine vol. 22,5 (1950): 387-93.

“Ueber die Zusammensetzung einiger thierischen Substanzen”. Journal für Praktische Chemie (in German).16: 129–152. 1839.doi10.1002/prac.18390160137

Featured Image: Venison Sausage Catalan Style, Robert Goodrick.

Chapter 08.07 Lauren Learns the Nitrogen Cycle

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

Lauren Learns the Nitrogen Cycle

Copenhagen, August 1891

Dear Lauren,

A father’s relationship with his daughter is very special. It’s magical! This is your turn to get a letter, my precious La.  How I miss you guys!  This week I learned an important lesson, that life is about much more than science, technology, and business.

Jacobus Arnoldus Combrinck, kindsman of the Graaf brothers and founder of the Cape Town butchery that became the Imperial Cold Storage & Supply Company Ltd.

Tribute to Jacobus Combrinck

I got a telegraph on Thursday, 6 August 1891 from David de Villiers Graaff.  He told me the devastating news about the death of Uncle Cornelius Combrinck. (1)  I am immensely saddened.  He was a part of our lives for so long.  I practically grew up in his home.  He and your grandfather were friends since before I was born. I can almost not imagine going forward without him.  The knowledge of his passing left a gap in my heart.  When I read David’s message, I took a long walk and cried much.

In my mind, I see him with the two of you on his lap when you were still very small. When we visited him in his Woodstock home (2) he would put you on his knee and you would “ride horsie”.  I don’t know if you will remember this.  You were so small!

You loved going there and he loved having us over.  The large apricot trees in his back garden!  You and Tristan enjoyed climbing them.  He had the biggest garden and tended it with care. I will never forget the last time I saw him just before I left for Denmark.  He spoke to me privately and urgently.  He told me that he thinks I am finally making a good career choice.  He did not like the fact that I rode transport to Johannesburg because he believed that the railroads would soon have put me out of business.  The meat industry, he to him, is one of the iconic, almost eternal industries.  People would always need food. He told me that the chance to become proficient in one aspect of it is something I can build a future on.  Now he is gone.  Life is short.

Uncle Cornelius never had his own children, but he invested liberally in the lives of others, particularly children.  He spared no effort to mentor me, even in times when I made choices that he did not agree with.  He took the Graaff brothers into his house and cared for them as if his own.

I understand that he was buried from the Groote Kerk, in Cape Town and laid to rest in the Maitland Cemetary.  His life is an example to all of us, little La!  He was your age when he started to work in the butchery of Johannes Mechau.  His dad had passed away and his mother was desperate for extra income.  The fact that as a 10-year-old boy he had to earn his living could have been a sign that he was destined for a life of mediocrity and poverty.  The opposite was true!  By his own resolve and willpower.  Mechau found that he learned the trade quickly.

He was ambitious and left Mechau’s employment to join the leading pork butcher in town, the Swiss Ithmar Schietlin. When Schietlin returned to Switzerland, Combrinck went into business for himself.

He was very successful.  He speculated in the diamond industry in Kimberly.  He owned houses in Sea Point, Three Anchor Bay, and Wynberg.  He had sheep farms that supplied his own and other butcheries throughout the Colony.

Uncle Jakobus knew the value of a young apprentice from his own experience. He thought it best to select such an apprentice from his own people and in 1870 he visited the farm Wolfhuiskloof in the lovely Franschhoek mountains.  Like his own family situation, years earlier, the Graaff family fell on hard times and found it difficult to feed their children.  One of the children of Petrus and Anna Graaff impressed Jacobus.  The child was lively and intelligent and he suggested that David return to Cape Town with him where he would be taught the butchery trade.  The suggestion pleased everybody.  This is how it came about that David joined the butchery, Combrinck & Co. (Simons, 2000)

I am sorry that I missed his funeral but I managed to send a telex to the Graaff brothers.  It is a comfort to know that you, Tristan, and my parents attended. I wonder how Cecil Rhodes took the news of his passing? (3) (Simons, 2000)

The Best I Can Be

Lauren, I am here to learn the butcher’s trade and the art of curing bacon.  One of the best responses possible to honour the memory of Uncle Jacobus is to become the best I can be at these.

As a child on Stillehoogte, I learned that saltpeter is the magical salt that cures meat.  A friend of Uncle Jeppe, Dr. Eduard Polenski, discovered that nitrites form in bacon brine and suspects that it is the actual compound that changes pork into bacon and not saltpeter (potassium or sodium nitrate).  At the factory, I would walk behind Unkle Jeppe on the way to the curing room and he would ask me, “Eben, what changes pork into bacon?”  My answer always had to be, “Nitrite!” (4)  He would follow this up by asking, “Where does nitrite come from?” upon which I reply, “From the saltpeter, when bacteria change the nitrate into nitrite when it removes the one oxygen atom from the saltpeter molecule.”

To fully comprehend the different nitrogen compounds that play a rile in meat curing, there is another compound you must know besides nitrite (NO₂⁻) and nitrate (NO3-), namely ammonia.  In my last letter to you and Tristan, I already introduced you very briefly to it when I told you about ammonium chloride which was another great salt from antiquity that cured meat.

The three cousins of the chemical gas, nitrogen are ammonia, nitrite, and nitrates.  These three cousins are key to all life and exist almost everywhere.  It occurs naturally in sea salt, in the ground, in salt beds.  They are pervasive.  Without them, we won’t be able to shoot a gun, fertilize our fields or cure bacon.  Some people refer to it as the nitrogen cycle – the fact that nitrogen exists in the atmosphere as a stable gas, that the tight bonds are broken through the action of lightning which then frees the two nitrogen atoms so that one can react with oxygen to form nitric oxide (NO).  As it cools down, it reacts further with the oxygen molecules around it to form nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which is one nitrogen atom and two oxygen atoms.  Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) reacts with more oxygen and raindrops.  Water is H2O.  The two oxygen atoms of nitrogen dioxide combine with the one from water to form 3 oxygen atoms bound together.  There is still only one nitrogen atom giving us NO3 or nitrate.  There is now still one Hydrogen atom left and it combines with the nitrate to form nitric acid (HNO3).  Nitric acid falls to earth and enters the soil and serves as nutrients for plants.

There is now an interaction where oxygen is added to nitrogen-containing compounds (oxidation) and removed (reduction).  Bacteria change decomposing animal and plant matter from ammonia into nitrite and nitrates and eventually back into nitrogen gas which is released into the atmosphere.  Certain bacteria change atmospheric nitrogen directly into a form that can be digested by plants.  Uncle Jeppe organized a visit for Minette and me to the University of Copenhagen where a professor in biology and chemistry took an entire morning to describe to me the most recent discoveries in this field.

I wrote to Tristan about nitrate.  I told him about saltpeter and nitrite, when I reported on the work of Dr. Eduard Polenski and his insight and experiment showing that in bacon cures, nitrate is converted to nitrite.  It has recently been shown that there is a conversion of each of these compounds into the other through the action of small organisms, called bacteria in soil and water.  It was these discoveries that gave Dr. Polenski the insight that it may be bacteria in brine, changing the nitrate ( NO3-) to nitrite (NO₂⁻).  Our visit to the University was breathtaking.  I was glad that Minette accompanied me.  I needed someone there to simply help me take notes and to remember every bit of insight shared by the Professors.  It is thrilling to share my journey of discovery with all of you!

Discovery of the Microscopic

One of the pillars of understanding nitrogen is its chemical make up.  Another is to understand bacteria and their role in these processes.  Some of the reactions in meat are driven by chemistry and some by bacteria.  Like many of our greatest discoveries, the ancients had a very good idea that the microscopic world must exist.

Bacteria and micro-organisms were discovered between 1665 and roughly 1678. Two of the men responsible for their discovery were Robert Hooke and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. (Gest, H. 2004)  As one can imagine, the microscopic was discovered when the instruments were invented to see very small organisms.  It came about after the discovery of the microscope. The first illustrated book on microscopy was Micrographia,  published by Robert Hooke in 1665. (Gest, H. 2004)

On 23 April 1663, Hooke reported on two microscopic observations to the Royal Society, one of leaches in vinegar and another of mould on sheepskin. So opened up to humankind the magical world of the minute! The microscopic!

It was the astonishing Antoni van Leeuwenhoek from Holland who introduced us to many micro realities of our world. Here is an interesting list of some of the discoveries of this remarkable man:

In 1674, in a single vial of pond scum that he took from the Berkelse Mere, a small lake near Delft, he discovered and described the beautiful alga Spirogyra, and various ciliated and flagellated protozoa.  He found in 1674 that yeast consists of individual plant-like organisms. In 1675 he discovered and accurately described and differentiated red blood cells in humans, swine, fish, and birds. In 1677 he was the first to observe sperm cells in humans, dogs, swine, mollusks, amphibians, fish and birds. In 1679 and 1684 he described the needle-shaped microscopic crystals of sodium urate that form in the tissues of gout patients in stone-like deposits called “tophi”. In 1684, he correctly guessed that much of the pain of gout is caused by these sharp crystals poking into adjacent tissues. More than a century would pass before any further advance in the understanding of gout. He found and described in 1680 foraminifera (single-celled protists with shells) in the white cliffs of England’s Gravesend and nematodes in pond water.

Between 1680 and 1701 he carried out many microdissections, mainly on insects, making an enormous number of discoveries: He wrote extensive accounts of the mouthparts and stings of bees. He was the first to realize that “fleas have fleas”. His keen perception enabled him to correctly conclude that each of the hundreds of facets of a fly’s compound eye is, in fact, a separate eye with its own lens. This outlandish (but true) idea was met with derision by visiting scholars. The big breakthrough came in 1683. In his most celebrated attainment, he discovered the bacteria in dental tartar, including a motile bacillus, selenomonads, and amicrococcus.

16 October 1674, Antoni wrote a letter describing his study of the tongue of an ox and his observations of the taste buds. On 24 April 1676 Antoni studied pepper water that has been sitting for three weeks under his microscope. He observed small organisms that he called “little eels” (animalcules). What he was looking at were bacteria. He has discovered a world that we knew very little about!

Antoni was responsible, not just for discovering bacteria, but for discovering important classes of bacteria. He was among others responsible for identifying anaerobic bacteria. (5) (6) In a letter dated 14 June 1680 to the Royal Society, he described his discovery. This would become very important in considering the action of bacteria in meat systems since the environment is often devoid of oxygen.

The important point about bacteria that I want you to focus on is that it plays and pivotal role in the nitrogen cycle as described by Louis Pasteur. It continues the very same interaction with family members of nitrogen in the curing of meat. (Dikeman, M, Devine, C: 436) (6) (7)

Scientists in the late 1800s started to hone in on the particular bacteria responsible for converting nitrate to nitrite. This is becoming very important to us because generally, nitrate exists because of the action of bacteria, but particularly, as Dr. Eduard Polenski speculated in 1891, it is the action of bacteria that turns nitrate from saltpeter into nitrite in curing brines and meat that is being cured. The question we have been asking is if this was a fair assumption for him to make and the answer is an overwhelming “yes!”

From 1868 it has been known that bacteria in soil are responsible for the exact same reduction.  It was known for 23 years before Dr. Polenski’s 1891 experiments on curing brine and the meat being cured. The reduction of nitrate in soil to nitrite or ammonia was brought about by various forms of microorganisms. The person who demonstrated this in 1868 was the German scientist C F Schonbein. Our French friends, Gayon and Dupetit, confirmed this. (Waksman, SA, 1927 : 181)

Adding carbohydrates, glycerol, and organic acids, in addition to peptone (a soluble protein formed in the early stage of protein breakdown during digestion) to meat through its brine stimulate the reduction of nitrate to nitrite.  It was also discovered that an abundance of oxygen hindered it. (Waksman, SA, 1927 : 181)  This will prove to be of the greatest importance to meat curing and since we can achieve a brighter colour by adding organic acids, glycerol, carbohydrates and reducing sugars to the brine mix.

One researcher, Maassen, tested 109 different bacteria and found that 85 were capable of reducing nitrate to nitrite, especially Bact. Pyocyaneum. Similar results were found by others who studied this.  Not only did they find that many of the bacteria responsible for the reduction were anaerobic (functioning in the absence of oxygen) but that many strict aerobic bacteria were found to act anaerobically in the presence of nitrates. (Waksman, SA, 1927 : 181)  This was true of soil and certainly, it should be true in meat and brine systems also!

Ammonium Chloride (Sal Ammoniac)

We have seen that nitrite is formed by removing an oxygen atom from nitrogen.  There is another very important way that nitrate is formed namely when ammonia breaks down.   The Russian microbiologist Sergei Winogradsky discovered this.  Microorganisms, through a process called biological oxidation, change ammonia to nitrite and nitrite to nitrate.  Have a look at how oxygen is added at every step. Ammonia is NH3  and there is no oxygen.  Nitrite is formed NOwhich is the nitrogen and two oxygen atoms.  From nitrite, through bacterial action, nitrate is formed NO3.  So, from a form with no oxygen, the most oxygenated state is reached namely nitrate with its three oxygen atoms.

We have to understand a bit more about ammonia to see how this works.  This will be very important when we look at the decomposition of animal tissue and in animal urine and excrement since it contains copious amounts of ammonia.  The building blocks of ammonia is seen in its chemical formulation. Ammonia is a compound of nitrogen and hydrogen with the formula NH3.

In nature, ammonia exists as NH3 or its ammonium ion (NH4+). The ammonium ion, in nature, also combines with a metal such as chlorine to form a salt of ammonium.  Ammonium is therefore not only important in the nitrogen cycle, but also in meat curing in the form of a salt where a metal such as chloride combined with the ammonium ion to form ammonium chloride (NH4Cl).  It is the NHwhich makes it mildly acidic and the new molecule of sal ammoniac or ammonium chloride is highly reactive with water.  Ammonium chloride occurs naturally as a crystal and it is formed through the action of bacteria on decomposing organic material. As a salt, it is one of the iconic salts of antiquity.

Natural Sal Ammoniac

Ammonium chloride occurs naturally in the smoking mountains of Turfan and in Samarkand where volcanic fumes are released through vents. The crystals form directly from the gaseous state, skipping the liquid state.  The crystal that is formed tends to be short-lived, as they dissolve easily in water.  This is the basis for my guess that in Turfan, where ammonium chloride occurs in the mountains and nitrate in the depression but they have a similar effect on meat.  Once the crystalline form of ammonium chloride comes into contact with moisture it breaks down to a brownish salt which looks similar to the nitrate salts found on the top layer of soil in the depression between the mountains.  I suspect that these nitrate salts were sold as “fake” ammonium chloride because it has overlapping characteristics because of the nitrogen.

Turpan to Samarkand.png

Natural Sal Ammoniac occurs in places like the Turpan and Samarkand.  An important branch of the silk road runs from Turfan runs through Samarkand and into Europe.  Samarkand is a city in south-eastern Uzbekistan.  It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia.

In China, ancient names given for Sal Ammoniac are “red gravel” and “essence of the white sea.”  There were sal ammoniac mines in Soghd. Mohammadan traders passed it at Khorasan traveling towards China.  Kuča still yielded sal ammoniac at the beginning of the 1900s. There are ancient references to white and red varieties of sal ammoniac.  The mines in Setrušteh or سمرقند‎ (Samarkand in the Persian language) are described in classic literature as follows.  “The mines of sal ammoniac are in the mountains, where there is a certain cavern, fro wich a vapour issues, appearing by day like smoke, and by night like fire.  Over the spot whence the vapour issues, they have erected a house the doors and windows of which and plastered over by clay that none of the vapour can escape. On the upper part of this house the copperas rest.  When the doors are to be opened, a swiftly-running man is chosen, who, having his body covered over with clay, opens the door; takes as much as he can from the copperas and runs off; if he should delay he should be burnt.  This vapour comes forth in different places, from time to time; when it ceases to issue from one place, they dig in another until it appears, and then they erect that kind of house over it; if they did not erect this house, the vapour would burn, or evaporate away.”  (Laufer,1919)

Tibetans received this salt from India as can be seen from an ancient name they gave to it namely “Indian salt.”  There are records that it was harvested from certain volcanic springs from Tibet and Se-č’wan.  (Laufer,1919)  The same vapours are seen in the smokey mountains of Turfan.

Human-Made Ammonium Chloride

Just like saltpeter, sal ammoniac occurs naturally and is also generated through human endeavour.  The name, ammonia, came from the ancient Egyptian god,  Amun.  The Greek form of Amun is Ammon.  At the temple dedicated to Ammon and Zeus near the Siva Oasis in Lybia, priests and travelers would burn soil rich in ammonium chloride. The ammonium chloride is formed from the soil, being drenched with nitrogen waste from animal dung and urine.  The ammonia salts were called sal ammoniac or “salt of ammonia” by the Romans because the salt deposits were found in the area.  During the middle ages, ammonia was made through human endeavour through the distilling of animal dung, hooves, and horns.   (Myers, RL.  2007:  27)

The New-York Tribune of 31 January 1874 wrote the following.  “For centuries sal ammoniac was imported from Egypt where it is sublimed from camels dung.” An article, published in 1786 on Friday, 18 August in the Pennsylvania Packet, described the process of making sal ammoniac in Egypt as follows.  “Sal Ammoniac is made from soot arising from the burnet dung of four-footed animals that feed only on vegetables.  But the dung of these animals is fit to burn for sal ammoniac only during the four firsts months of the year when they feed on fresh spring grass, which, in Egypt is a kind of trefoil or clover; for when they feed only on dry meat, it will not do.  The dung of oxen, buffalos, sheep, goats, horses, and asses, are at the proper time as fit as the dung of camels for this purpose; it is said that even human dung is equal to any other.”

“The soot arising from the burnt dung is put into glass, vessels, and these vessels into an oven or kiln which is heated by degrees and at last urged with a very strong fire for three successive nights and days, the smoke first shews itself, and, in a short time after, the salt appears sticking to the glasses, and, by degrees, covers the whole opening.  The glasses are then broken, and the salt taken out in the same state and form in which it is sent to Europe.”  At this time, Egypt was one of the major suppliers of sal ammoniac to the European continent.

Discovery of gasses

– Joseph Black

At this point in the development of chemical technology, a much bigger development took place in which the discovery of nitrogen and ammonia is only a small part of.   In the 1770s scientists started to realise that the atmosphere is made up of various gasses.  This was the start of the chemical revolution and the discovery of gasses was, in a way, the major propellant.  Up to this time gasses were not regarded as a separate chemical entity and largely ignored in experimental work.  The drawback was major and real advances became only possible as this was being resolved.  One of its pioneers was Joseph Black (1728–1799).  Black is credited with the discovery of carbon dioxide (fixed air).

– Charl Wilhelm Scheele

The Swedish Chemist, Charl Wilhelm Scheele (1742 – 1786) prepared oxygen by heating saltpeter (potassium nitrate, KNO3) in 1770.  Somewhere between 1771 and 1772, he became the first scientist to realise that “air consists of two fluids different from each other, the one that does not manifest in the least the property of attracting phlogiston while the other … is peculiarly disposed to such attraction.” (Smil, 2001: 2)   Phlogiston was believed to be the substance present in all material that burns, responsible for combustion. The one substance is obviously oxygen and the other nitrogen.

– Daniel Rutherford

At the same time, Daniel Rutherford (1749–1819), a pupil of Black, obtained his doctorate in Medicine in 1772 from the University of Edinburgh.  In his “Dissertatio inauguralis de Aere Fixo Dicto, aut Mephitico” (Rutherford, 1772) he records the following experiment.  He placed mice in a closed-in environment.  Eventually, the mice will die and Rutherford expected to find was that the only air that is left will not be able to support life and a flame will not burn in it.  He removed the fixed or mephitic air (carbon dioxide) with a caustic potash solution (alkali).  He found a residual gas still incapable of supporting respiration or fire, similar to carbon dioxide, but unlike carbon dioxide, did not precipitate lime water and was not absorbed by the alkali.  He thus discovered a residue of his fixed or mephitic air.  He named it “aer malignus” or noxious air.”  (Munro and Allison, 1964)

– Joseph Priestley

Priestly, who is credited for the discovery of oxygen (1774 – 1775) presented experimental evidence similar to Rutherford’s before the Royal Society of London.  He, however, did not draw conclusions regarding the possible nature of the gas (Priestley, 1772).

– Isolation of Ammonia

The identification of nitrogen was “in the air”, so to speak and as we will see, never far removed from meat curing.  Sal Ammoniac (ammonium chloride, NH4Cl) was used since antiquity as a curing and preserving agent of meat and was investigated by none other than Joseph Black.  In 1756 he became the first to isolate gaseous ammonia by reacting sal ammoniac with calcined magnesia (Magnesium Oxide). (Black, 1893) (Maurice P. Crosland, 2004).  Scientists were now widely experimenting with gasses and along with air, gasses like ammonia received a great deal of attention.  It would later be discovered that nitrogen is its key constituent in ammonia along with hydrogen.

Following Black, ammonia was, for example, also isolated again by Peter Woulfe in 1767 (Woulfe), by Carl Wilhelm Scheele in 1770 ( and by Joseph Priestley in 1773 and was termed by him “alkaline air”. Eleven years later in 1785, Claude Louis Berthollet finally unraveled its composition. (Chisholm, 1911) (Berthollet, 1785)

Priestley, in Part II of his work, Experiments and Observations,  described work from between the years 1773 and the beginning of 1774.  In this document, he gives a reprint of an earlier publication on effluvia from putrid marshes.  Here he identifies ammonia and nitrous oxide.  (Schofield, RE.  2004:  98)

His discoveries on ammonia were the result of a consistent application of the English scientist, Stephen Hales’s (1677 – 1761) technique for distilling and fermenting every substance he could get his hands on or capture over mercury rather than over customary water so that the air would “release.”  He heated ammonia water and collected a vapour.  When it cooled down, it did not condense, proving it was air.  He called it alkaline air.  (Schofield, RE.  2004: 98, 103, 104)

More experiments showed him that alkaline air was heavier than common inflammable air but lighter than acid air.   It dissolved easily in water, producing heat and it was slightly inflammable in the sense that a candle burned in it with an enlarged colour flame before going out.  In the end, he not only described ammonia chemically, but also its mode of production, and its characteristics.   (Schofield, RE.  2004: 98, 103, 104)

– From Ammonia to Nitrogen

In 1781 the French Chemist, Claude Louis Bertholett became aware that something joined with hydrogen to form ammonia (NH3).  Three years later, Claude joined Lavoisier who was responsible for unraveling the composition of saltpeter along with de Morveau and de Fourcroy, in naming the substance azote.  (Smil, V.  2001:  61, 62)  Lavoisier named it from ancient Greek, ἀ- (without) and zoe (life).  He saw it as part of air that can not sustain life.  In 1790 Jean Antoine Claude Chaptal, in a French text on chemistry which was translated into English in 1791, gave it the name “nitrogen”.  He used the name ‘nitrogène’ and the idea behind the name was “the characteristic and exclusive property of this gas, which forms the radical of the nitric acid,” and thus be chemically more specific than “azote.””  (Munro and Allison, 1964)  As for ammonia, its modern name was given in 1782 by the Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman.  (Myers, RL.  2007:  27)  The discovery of hydrogen, the other component in ammonia, is credited to Cavendish in 1766.

A Hint of Nitrogen in Animals

The relation between nitrogen through ammonia and animal bodies was known from early on.  In 1785, Claude Berthollet reported to the French Academy of Sciences that he found that the vapor that came from decomposing animal matter was ammonia.  When he realised the gas, he found that it was composed of three volumes of hydrogen and one volume of nitrogen, or around 17% hydrogen and 83% nitrogen by weight.  He was very accurate in his measurements and the modern values of these are given as 17.75% and 82.25% respectively.  (Carpenter, 2003)

Techniques for Testing for Nitrogen

Key to the identification of nitrogen in animal substances was developing the tools to test for it.   One of the earliest tests was the oxidation of organic material in the presence of cupric oxide.  The gasses resulting from this reaction is then collected and measured.  It was extensively developed by none other than Gay-Lussac while he was professor at the Sorbonne, and later when he was a chemist at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.  (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948)

The method of Gay-Lussac was modified by Jean Dumas (1800-1884) and used by Dumas’ contemporary, Liebig. Despite the many alterations of the basic method of micro procedures, the Dumas method would continue to be the preferred one well into the 1900s.  In 1841, F. Varrentrapp and H. Will developed a total nitrogen method.  This method is based on the liberation of ammonia by heating protein with alkali, followed by gravimetric estimation of the ammonia as its chloroplatinate.  (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948)

A downside to this method was the fact that it is slow and tedious with fundamental inaccuracies.  It had, however, specific technical advantages over that of the Dumas-method when applied to metabolic observations and it was used in many early studies.  The famous method we are all familiar with today is the Kjeldahl method.   It was developed by the Danish chemist, J. Kjeldahl (1849-1900), of Carlsberg, who in 1883 presented a much-improved method for catalyzed digestion of nitrogenous materials in sulfuric acid which allowed for the production of ammonia quantitatively.  (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948)

Nitrogen in Respiration

Antoine Lavoisier was inspired by Joseph Black, something that Lavoisier was not shy to admit.  He wrote Balck a letter, dated 19 November 1790, where he describes experiments on the respiration of human subjects.  He showed that oxygen is consumed and carbon dioxide evolved during this process.  Interestingly he showed that oxygen consumption increases by some 50% above the basal level after a meal (the modern specific dynamic action of food) and that in severe exercise, oxygen consumption can increase by as much as three-and-a-half times.  The measurements were accurate, even by modern standards.   Part of the letter states: “Legaz azote ne sert absolument à rien dans l’acte de la res piration et il ressort du poumon en même quantité et qualité qu’il y est entré” which translates to Nitrogen is absolutely useless in the act of respiration, and it appears from the lung in the same quantity and quality that it has entered it.

They had their test subjects exercise in a closed container.  They measured for oxygen and carbon dioxide.  They also measured the amount of nitrogen ingested during a meal before the experiments started and then, after exercise, the urine and stools were tested to see how much nitrogen was retained in the body or “lost” through the urine and stools.

The experiment was undertaken 18 years after the discovery of nitrogen.  It is regarded by many as the first metabolic experiment with nitrogen.  The experiments appear (D. McKie, personal communication, 1962) to have been based on studies made by Fourcroy in the late 1780s, using gasometric methods that were published in 1791 by Séguin.  They did not find any correlation between nitrogen and respiration.  Some researchers of the time still claimed that some nitrogen is lost from the body during respiration.  Today, most will simply subscribe to Lavoisier’s view that gaseous nitrogen plays no part in the nitrogen metabolism of the mammalian organism.  (Munro and Allison, 1964)  They believed that the balance of nitrogen ingested and that which was not recovered in stools or urine was probably lost through what they called “insensible perspiration.”  (Carpenter, 2003)

Antoine Lavoisier and Armand Seguin’s experiment of human respiration showed that breathing had no influence on nitrogen levels.  It had other positive results.  An increase in the output of carbon dioxide (carbonic acid, as they called it) during exercise was demonstrated.  They measured this at rest and while lifting weights.  This was by itself a step forward.  At the time it was believed that the only purpose of respiration was to cool the heart.   (Carpenter, 2003)

Lavoisier, in collaboration with a mathematician and one of the greatest scientists of the time, Pierre-Simon Laplace, identified the slow combustion of organic compounds in animal tissue as the major source of body heat.  In their experiments, they compared the heat produced by the guinea pig and the production of carbon dioxide with the heat produced by a lighted candle or charcoal. They used an ice calorimeter to measure heat production.  The instrument itself is very interesting.  It measures the heat generated by relating it to the weight of water released from the melting of the ice surrounding the inner chamber where the animal or burning material is housed.  The measurements are crude and not very precise, but results were consistent and it allowed the researchers to draw the conclusion of the origin of body heat.  (Carpenter, 2003)

Momentous political movements in France of the time would put an end to one of the most brilliant scientific careers of any person to have lived on earth.  Lavoisier returned to further studies on respiration and was arrested in 1793 during the Reign of Terror and kept in prison.  He pleased with the for a short stay of execution on the day of his trial in 1794, to be allowed one more experiment, but the judge is believed to have replied that the Republic had no need of “savants” (scientists), and he was guillotined the same afternoon. (Carpenter, 2003)

Nitrogen in Animal Matter

Lavoisier introduced order into the study of the new chemistry. One of his great achievements was the vigorous school of chemists he left behind.  Some of his students took up the work on organic compounds and applied procedures in which gas was either evolved or removed. Gay-Lussac (a pupil of Lavoisier’s collaborator, Berthollet) and Thénard worked out a system of organic analysis in 1810.  Accordingly,  the organic material is treated with potassium chlorate and the amount of oxygen and nitrogen liberated is measured (Partington, 1951). The Dumas procedure, which we eluded to above, remained the standard gasometric method of nitrogen analysis.  It was developed in 1830. (Partington, 1951). The studies made by Magendie on the importance of nitrogenous components in the diet was one of the matters to be elucidated by the new technique. (Munro and Allison, 1964) Viewed in this way, the persona and influence of Lavoisier continued to directly affect the work he started long after his untimely death.

It was confirmed that animal matter contains nitrogen and it was shown to be absent from sugars, starch, and fats.  It was long suspected that wheat flour contained matter with characteristics closely associated with animal matter.  This was proved, that gluten (the plant matter) has properties of animal matter, including the development of alkaline vapor when it was allowed to rot.  When potatoes were introduced, there was a debate if it could provide an adequate substitution for wheat because it did not have anything resembling gluten.  Was it the gluten that made wheat flour good food?  (Munro and Allison, 1964)

Bartolomeo Baccari (1682 – 1766) was a professor at the University of Bologna for most of his life.  In 1734, one of his papers entitled “de Frumento,” appeared.  In this paper, he gives details on how to prepare gluten which was found and later it was found to be the protein portion of wheat flour.  The following is translated from Latin:

“This is a thing of little labor. Flour is taken of the best wheat, ground moderately lest the bran goes through the sieve, for it ought to be purified as far as possible in order that all suspicion of mixture should be removed.  Then it is mixed with the purest water and agitated. What remains after this process is set free by washing, for water carries off with itself whatever it is able to dissolve. The rest remains untouched.”

“Afterward that which the water leaves is taken in the hands and pressed together and is gradually converted into a soft mass and beyond what I could have believed tenacious, a remarkable kind of glue and suitable for many purposes, among which it is worth mentioning that it can no longer be mixed with water. Those other parts which the water carries away with itself for some time float and render the water milky. Afterward, they gradually settle to the bottom but do not adhere together; but like a powder return upward at the slightest agitation. Nothing is more nearly related to this than starch or better, it is indeed starch.”

He classified the starchy material as flour.  He described the following characteristics.  It ferments to give acid spirits, indicating its “vegetable nature.” On the other hand, it had a characteristic of “animal nature” for “within a few days it gets sour and rots and very stinkingly putrifies like a dead body.”

This was an old way to distinguishing what we call today proteins from carbohydrates. There was a theory at this time that vegetable protein which is consumed by herbivores changes into the flesh and blood of the animal.  This was still prevalent during the time of Mulder and Liebig’s. (Sahyun, M. (Editor). 1948)  Another question was the source of the nitrogen in animal bodies.  Since nitrogen is most prevalent in the air around us, some chemists suggested that animals get the nitrogen from the air through a kind of combination must occur during an animal’s digestion of plant foods “so as to give the ingesta the characteristics that would allow them to be incorporated into the animal’s own tissues either for growth or replacement of worn-out materials.”  (Carpenter, 2003)  The mechanisms of nutrition were in a developmental process.

François Magendie: Nitrogen as the basis for Nutrition

A major step came from the work of Magendie (1783–1855) who linked the nitrogen of inanimate substances with that of living systems.  He was the first to recognise that there is a major difference between the nutritional value of food containing nitrogen and those without it.  Magendie grew up in revolutionary Paris and practiced as a surgeon before changing to physiology.

In his first work on the subject, reported to the Academy of Sciences in 1816, Magendie addressed the question of whether animals could access atmospheric nitrogen to “animalize” ingested foods of low nitrogen content.  (Carpenter, 2003)

In his 1816 article, “Sur les propriétés nutritives des substances qui ne contiennent pas d’azote.” (On the nutritional properties of substances that do not contain nitrogen),  Magendie famously described experiments on dogs that were only fed carbohydrate (sugar) or fat (olive oil) until they all died in a few week’s time. The conclusion is obvious that a nitrogen source was an essential component of the diet.

As we look back at these early experiments we can see that the results were complicated by vitamin deficiencies, yet they were the first approximations to an ideal—the long-term feeding experiment with purified foodstuffs—which has only been attained in recent years. They can rightfully be seen as forerunners of the classical procedure for establishing whether a nutrient is essential to the body, namely by excluding it from the diet and then looking for symptoms attributable to its deficiency.

In his “Elementary Compendium of Physiology for the Use of Students,” Magendie draws and even clearer distinction between nitrogenous and nonnitrogenous foods. The first edition appeared in 1817 and the third edition was translated into English in 1829. Magendie’s compendium of work is very different from earlier writers like Haller’s “Elementa Physiologiae,” (1757–65).  Magendie did not write in Latin and he clearly departed from the primeval forests of mystery and speculation.  His work is done with the illumination of bright sunshine of scientific observation and deductive reasoning.

Again, we have to give credit to the monumental work of Lavoisier.  Magendie’s success in the physiology of nutrition directly stems from the influence of Lavoisier’s vigorous school of chemistry, which had grown up in the interval.  Megandie followed his 1816 work where he fed dogs only carbohydrates or fat with new experiments. In these, he fed them exclusively on cheese or eggs, both nitrogenous foods.  The dogs survived indefinitely, although they were weak. Magendie concluded that “these facts . . . make it very probable that the azote of the organs is produced by the food.”

Magendie’s inquiring mind also extended to views on how the diet was utilized by the tissues of the body. In his textbook (p. 18), he says: … The life of man and that of other organised bodies are founded upon this, that they habitually assimilate to themselves a certain quantity of matter, which we name aliment. The privation of that matter, during even a very limited period, brings with it necessarily the cessation of life. On the other side, daily observation teaches, that the organs of man, as well as those of all living beings, lose, at each instant, a certain quantity of that matter which composes them; nay, it is on the necessity of repairing these habitual losses that the want of aliment is founded. From these two data, and from others which we shall make known afterward, we justly conclude, that living bodies are by no means always composed of the same matter at every period of their existence. . . . It is extremely probable that all parts of the body of man experience an intestine movement, which has the double effect of expelling the molecules that can or ought no longer to compose the organs, and replacing them by new molecules. This internal, intimate motion, constitutes nutrition. And again (p. 468), … Nutrition is more or less rapid according to the tissues. The glands, the muscles, skin, etc. change their volume, colour, consistence, with great quickness; the tendons, fibrous membranes, the bones, the cartilages, appear to have a much slower nutrition, for their physical properties change but slowly by the effect of age and disease.” (Munro and Allison, 1964) (14)

When one looks back at history, one tries to bridge the linguistic and cultural divide.  An important assumption underpinning Magendie’s work is that an animal species could be used as a model for humans; that our bodies are essentially of the same general character.  A possible reason for this is the interest that existed in France for studies in comparative anatomy.   (Carpenter, 2003)

Jean Baptiste Boussingault

Another active investigator in France in the 1830s, with a quite different background from that of Magendie, was also studying the source of an animal’s nitrogen-rich tissues. This was Jean Baptiste Boussingault, the great “farmer of Bechelbrom,” who had learned his chemistry in a school for mining engineers. After a period of adventurous geological exploration in South America, he returned, married a farm owner’s daughter and put his mind to agricultural science. He obtained a position at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he collaborated with J. B. Dumas, one of the leading French chemists, and divided his year between Paris and the farm.  (Carpenter, 2003)

It was Boussingault who realised in 1836, over sixty centuries after it was noted and recorded that manure and legumes were beneficial to crop production, that it was the nitrogen content in the soil or fertiliser which is important for plant nutrition. In 1838, he performed a number of experiments where he grew legumes in sand with no nitrogen in it. The legumes continued to grow and the only conclusion he could come to was that they took their nitrogen from the air.  How they did it, he still had no idea.   (Galloway, J. N, et al., 2013)  He was able to show that this was not possible for cereal grain.

His next subjects were cows and horses, whose common feeds were believed to be exceptionally low in nitrogen. First, he wanted to determine the level of feeding that would ensure that his animals are kept at constant weight, and then for 3 days, he recorded the animal’s feed, what was excreted and, in the case of the cow, its milk.  All these were analised for its nitrogen content. The results for the horse was that he received 8.5kg hay and oats, every 24 hours.  The daily nitrogen intake was 139g, and the nitrogen recovered in urine and dung came to only 116g. When the cow was fed on hay and potatoes the figures were as follows.  The daily intake of nitrogen was 201g and the recovered output, including 46g from milk, was only 175g. This showed that the animals’ feed provided enough nitrogen to meet their needs.  There was no need to speculate about them getting their nitrogen from the atmosphere.

It is important to have some understanding of how these trails were carried out.  Many thousands of “balance” trials followed the Boussingault tests that continue to be carried out until today. A drawback was the method he used to test for nitrogen.  The system of analysis required the sample to first be dried.  There would have been a loss of ammonia when he was drying urine and dung. This probably gives the reason why there seems to have been an apparent “positive” balance in these animals that were assumed to be in a steady state.”  (Carpenter, 2003)

Nitrogen and the Nutritional Value of Plants

Boussingault had proposed that the nutritional values of plant food could be extrapolated from their contents of nitrogen.  These speculations came from before he did his balance experiments with herbivores.  His reasoning was more or less as follows.  “Magendie has shown that foods that do not contain nitrogen cannot continue to support life, therefore the nutritional value of a vegetable substance resides principally in the gluten and vegetable albumin that it contains.” Researchers of the time knew that animal bodies contained minerals which they got from the food they ate. Even earlier, two workers had written that: “Beans are so nourishing because they contain starch, an animal matter, phosphate, lime, magnesia, potash, and iron. They yield at once the aliments and the materials proper to form and color the blood and to nourish the bones”. Perhaps in response to such criticism, Boussingault explained, “I am far from regarding nitrogenous materials alone as sufficient for the nutrition of animals; but it is a fact that where nitrogenous materials are present at high levels in vegetables they are generally accompanied by the other organic and inorganic substances which are also needed for nutrition”. It is clear from the context that the “organic substances” to which he is referring are starches and not any hypothetical trace nutrients.  (Carpenter, 2003)

Synthesis by plants

Dumas, a colleague of Boussingault’s concluded in the early 1800s that the plant kingdom alone was capable of synthesizing the kinds of nitrogenous compounds abundant in animal tissues. Then, from the observation that the overall reactions of animals were characterized by oxidation, he made the further generalization that the animal kingdom was only capable of oxidizing the materials that are obtained from its plant food. (Carpenter, 2003)

Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate

Ammonia is changed into nitrites or nitrated through the action of what was called a “microscopic ferment.”  The next step would be the discovery of how nitrogen changes into its cousins and enters the earth and living plants and animals.

A science class uses microscopes in a lab in 1908. (University Archives Photo)

The afternoons with Jeppe became challenging as I tried to keep up with his lectures.  He seemed to remember the names and formulations off by heart and I was not always sure who or what we were talking about.  It was nevertheless engaging and I tried to keep up.

– How does nitrogen enter the plant kingdom?

The animal kingdom gets its nitrogen from the plant kingdom.  We now return to the matter of how nitrogen enters the plant world.  When we looked at the discovery of the microscopic world, we jumped to the discovery of nitrification and the reduction of oxygen in various nitrogen compounds.  With the background information on nitrogen and its role in nutrition, let’s look at the progression of thought on ways that nitrogen enters our world.

HB de Saussure (1740 – 1799) discovered that the nitrogen in plants does not come directly from the atmosphere.  (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981:  300)  He was born in Switzerland and became interested in biology and geography.  Most of his discoveries he made while scaling some of the highest mountain peaks and passes in the world.  He regarded the Alps as central to understand the geology of the world and spend much time there.

His idea was that nitrogen must be taken up through the roots of plants, through the decomposition of humus (9, 11).    (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981:  300)  Not everybody agreed with him and a debate developed that raged for almost 50 years.  The German chemist, Justice von Liebig (1803 – 1873), was the first to see nitrogen as an essential plant nutrient.  This discovery gave him the honour of being regarded as the father of the fertilizer industry.  Justice was also an important man in the meat processing industry.  He developed the manufacturing process for beef extract and founded a company, Liebig Extract of Meat Company, and later trademarked the Oxo brand beef bouillon cube. (10)

This question of how nitrogen was absorbed by plants remained very controversial (11).  Justice believed it is taken directly from ammonia gas in the air.  (Craine, JM,  2008:  70)  This was the state of affairs until a French chemist, Boussingault (1802 – 1887) demonstrated that plants are incapable of absorbing free nitrogen but were able to flourish even without humus as long as alternative sources of nitrates or ammoniacal salts are supplied.  (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981:  300)

Boussingault and his contemporaries saw the uptake of ammonia as purely chemical. (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981:  300)  What other way could there be?  The great German physiologist, Theodor Schwann, born in 1810, took a step closer to the solution.  He discovered that alcoholic fermentation and the fermentation that causes putrefaction was carried out by microbes. (12)  (Barnett, JA)

Louis Pasteur, born in 1822 grew up to become very important in the field of science.  He was the first one to suggest that microorganisms may be involved in the nitrogen absorption process of plant.  (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981:  300)  He studied the breakdown and reorganization of material that contained nitrogen by soil bacteria, fungi, and algae.  It seemed that nitrogen was not used up but was circulated.  Decaying humus gave ammonia, from which microorganisms constructed nitric acid and its compounds.  These were then absorbed by plants and turned into proteins and incorporated into living substance.  The cycle was completed by the death and natural decay of the plant and the animal. (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981:  300)  At the death of the animal, the process of nitrification was reversed and microbes were again responsible for breaking the molecules down until only gaseous nitrogen remained.

The German agricultural chemist, Hermann Hellriegel (1831-1895), discovered that certain plants (leguminous) take atmospheric nitrogen and “replenished the ammonium in the soil through the process now known as nitrogen fixation. He found that the nodules on the roots of legumes are the location where nitrogen fixation takes place.”  (Boundless, 2014)

Hermann did not discover how this is done. Martinus Willem Beijerinck (March 16, 1851 – January 1, 1931), a Dutch microbiologist and botanist, discovered that the small growth areas on the roots contained bacteria.  He called it rhizobia.  It is the rhizobia that are responsible for changing the nitrogen to ammonium.  Ammonia is NH3 and ammonium is NH4.  (Boundless, 2014)  Soon more ways were discovered that changed nitrogen in the air into a form that plants can absorb.

Berthelot described in 1885 how lightning was responsible for nitrogen fixation before he too turned his attention to microscopic organisms in the ground that is responsible for nitrogen fixation. (Elmerich, C, Newton, WE.  2007:  3)  The energy of a lightning strike disrupts the nitrogen (N2) and oxygen (O2) molecules in the air producing highly reactive nitrogen and oxygen atoms that attract other nitrogen (N2) and oxygen (O2) molecules that form nitrogen oxides that eventually become nitrates. (Zumbal, 2000:  924)  Alternatively, Beijerinck’s rhizobia bacteria fix the atmospheric nitrogen directly (Boundless, 2014)  in small growths on plant roots such as beans, peas and alfalfa (Zumbal, 2000: 924), or animal droppings and urea or dead animal or plants provide saprobiotic bacteria, nitrogen or nitrogen-family members that can be changed.

Nitrogen is turned directly into either ammonia (NH3) or ammonium (NH4) or into nitrate (NO3).  Nitrifying bacteria turns the ammonia into nitrite.  Nitrite is toxic and nitrifying bacteria change the nitrites into nitrates that either becomes plant food along with nitrate’s that are formed during lightning strikes or are changed back into nitrogen by denitrifying bacteria.

Chemical Engineering at MIT
Chemical Engineering at MIT

A friend of Jeppe, Dr. Polenski found in 1891, months before I arrived in Denmark, that when he mixed curing brine for bacon with Saltpeter and tested it, that he found nitrate to be present.  After a week, when he tested it again, there were only nitrites. The same with the meat that he cured.  At the beginning of the week, there was nitrate present in the meat and later he found only nitrites. (13)

The notion that bacteria are responsible for changing the nitrate to nitrite was well established by the time he did the experiment and so, his conclusion that what had happened in the brine was the result of bacteria was reasonable.  It would not surprise me if it would be shown that nitrite is responsible for curing and not nitrate. (8)

I realised that saltpeter was a key part of the world we live in.  The energy of the acid in the air, harnessed by an entire world of microorganisms that probably occur in every environment on earth and changed into a format that plants and then humans and animals can absorb.    An acid, coupled with a salt, helping us to preserve meat and change pork meat into bacon, grow plants, feed oceans and drive the processes of the earth.  By it we fight wars, we grow crops and we eat and live!

food 2

At night after supper we are reading Foods by Edward Smith.  He wrote on bacon and said, “bacon is the poor man’s food, having a value to the masses which is appreciated in proportion to their poverty, and it is a duty to offer every facility for its production in the homes of the poor.” (Smith, Edward, 1876:  65) The reason why it is good for the poor is that it can be cooked in water and the liquid part can be given to the children and the solid part consumed by the parents and “thus both be in a degree pleased, if not satisfied.” (Smith, Edward, 1876:  65)

He continues to say that “it is also the rich man’s food, for the flavour, which is naturally or artificially acquired by drying (and curing), is highly prized, and although it may be taken as a necessary by the rich, it is in universal request as a luxury”  (Smith, Edward, 1876:  65)

This is our business plan.  To produce the best bacon on earth.  Uncle Cornelius passed away after a full life and I can not help to see our current quest as a necessary evolution of time as young and new thoughts replace older methods.  The evolution must in the first place be predicated on sound science as well as common sense.

This is then your chance to discover the nitrogen cycle from the perspective of a meat scientist.  I miss you, my little girl.  There is not a single day that I don’t think off you!  It’s late.  I am sure that you are fast asleep by this time and that you are holding your bear and dream of the cumming summer.

I learn so much and still, you are my biggest lesson in life.  Your love and your spirit have taught me how to live myself!

I count the days till I see you guys again!  I miss you all so much and love you!

Your Dad.

Practical Applications for the Modern Bacon Curer

In this section, I highlight some of the points of application in the modern high throughput bacon plant.

A friend of mine from the bacon industry in Castlemaine, Australia recently interacted with me on the matter of total meat content in bacon.  Nitrogen is a constituent of the meat protein and important in its nutritional value.  This identification and the subsequent determination of a phenomenally stable nitrogen percentage in meat lead to a number of important applications and implications, among others, a way to determine lean meat content and total meat content in meat processing.

A good summary of the thinking early in the late 1800s and early 1900s on the subject exists in the old South African Food, Drugs and Disinfectants Act No. 13 of 1929 (See note 1).  It has subsequently been repealed, but the basis of the law is still very much applicable. As an important historical document, it sets out the determination of total meat content.  It essentially remained unchanged (apart from minor updates).

The calculations of total meat content are defined in subparagraph 4 (iv) which reads as follows: “In all cases where it is necessary to calculate total meat under regulations 14 (1), (2), (3) and (4), the formula used shall be:—

Percentage Lean Meat = (Percentage Protein Nitrogen × 30 ).
Percentage Total Meat = (Percentage Lean Meat + Percentage Fat).

The questions of interest are how did they arrive at this and how accurate an indication is it of total meat content?  What is the relationship between nitrogen and nutrition?  When decay takes place, what happens with the nitrogen in the protein?  How does the amount of nitrogen we consume determine the total nitrogen content of our bodies or any animal or plant for that matter?  What is the value of nitrogen to the body which makes it essential for nutrition?  How does nitrogen move from a plant or an animal into our bodies to provide nutrition?  What is the impact of processing on nutrition and the total nitrogen content?  Can the standard calculation for fresh meat be applied to processed products?  Lastly and equally fascinating, what are other sources of nitrogen that can increase the total nitrogen count and skew the nitrogen count in a product and its relationship and to meat content.

This short series of articles set out to deal with these fascinating issues.  In this first article, we will look at the time from the start of the chemical revolution to Boussingault.   Sincere thanks to my friend in Castlemaine, Australia for provoking a fascinating line of inquiry!

Further reading

From the start of the Chemical Revolution to Boussingault

Fathers of Meat Curing

Saltpeter:  A Concise History and the Discovery of Dr. Ed Polenske

The nitrogen cycle and meat curing

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(c) eben van tonder

Bacon & the art of living” in book form

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(1)  After a short service in the Woodstock house, the procession moved to the Groote Kerk where Jacobus has been an elder.  The coffin was carried into the church by the Cape premier, Cecil John Rhodes, Sir John Henry de Villiers (subsequent chief justice of the Union), JW Sauer, Onze Jan Hofmeyer, Sir Gordon Sprigg, Colonel F. Schermbrucker, ML Neetling and DC de Waal.

After the service the funeral procession moved to the Cape Town station, where a special train took the mourners to the Maitland Cemetery.  The coffin, of Cape teak, was lowered into the ground which Jacobus picked himself.

The grave was filled up and wreaths were laid on top.  One from David and Johanna Graaff, a second from John and Rosetta Graaff and a third from Jacobus and Susan Graaff. (Dommisse, E, 2011:  48, 49)

Jacobus Combrinck’s grave in the Maitland Cemetery.
The funeral procession would have walked along this path from the train tracks at the far top side of the picture to Jacobus’s grave on the right, under the tree, on the right.



The affection from the Graaff brothers who were responsible for erecting the gravestone is evident.  At the top, the words, “Ter Dierbare Herinnering aan Jacobus A. Combrinck,” “For affectionate remembrance of Jacobus A. Combrinck.”

Under Jacobus’s birth date and date of passing, the inscription in Dutch reads, “Ik weet op wien te vertrouen,” “I know in whom to trust.”

Underneath is written in Dutch,”Opgericht door zyne dankbare neven de broeders Graaff,” “Erected by your grateful nephews, the brothers Graaff.”

David took over Jacobus’s position in the Legislative Council of the Cape Colony soon after his passing.

The following notice appeared in a colonial newspaper.

A notice published on page 11 in The Colonies and Indian under the heading “Colonial, Indian and American News Items” on 10 Oct 1891.

(2) The Woodstock house was previously owned by a highly respected judge, Henry Cloete in the suburb of Papendorp (later to be renamed, Woodstock).  He enlarged it greatly.  The house was built on an estate where Jacobus planted trees, erected a water mill of his own design, cultivated a splendid flower garden.  (Simons, PB, 2000:  14)

(3)  Sir Gordon Sprigg, prime minister before Rhodes ousted him, was moved when he heard the news of Combrink’s death.  He said, “A good man has gone from among us.”  Rhodes apparently only slipped a posy of white and purple violets into his coffin and said nothing.  These two powerful men were never the best of friends. (Simons, PB, 2000:  27)

(4)  When doing trials at the then Vion Factory in Malton, Ken Pickles was the NPD (New Product Development) manager.  A young intern from Brazil would walk behind him and every time we went to the curing tanks, he would ask the young man this question.  It’s an image that I will never forget.

(5) An anaerobic organism or anaerobe is any organism that does not require oxygen for growth.

(6) Processed meats many times contain bacteria, many of which are responsible for changing nitrate to nitrite. “This conversion proceeds more rapidly in unpacked bacon than in the vacuum-packed variety, a difference which has been ascribed somewhat surprisingly to the low reducing activity of anaerobic bacteria. (Hill, MJ. 1991: 96)

(7) The nitrate and nitrite in salts are primarily responsible for the curing activity in meat. “The reduction of nitrate (NO3-) salts to nitrite (NO2-) and then to gaseous NO and its subsequent reaction with myoglobin to form the nitrosyl-myoglobin complex forms the basis for cured meat flavour and colour.

It was also later realized that it is bacteria that first converts nitrate into nitrite, which is the mechanism underlying in the preservation of food. Nitrite in meat is responsible for inhibiting the growth in aerobic bacteria (especially the spores of Clostridium botulinum), retard the development of rancidity during storage, develop and preserving the meat flavour and colour, stabilizing the oxidative state of lipids in meat products.” (Dikeman, M, Devine, C, 2014: 436)

(8)   The fact that nitrate is not the curing agent, but nitrite was in fact discovered soon asfter 1891.  One of the men at the forefront of these discoveries were Prof. D. R. Hoagland, professor of plant nutrition, University of California (  He suggested in 1908 that the “reduction of nitrate to nitritenitrous acid and nitric oxide was by either bacterial or enzymatic action or a combination of the two and was essential for NOHb formation. The scientific knowledge led to the direct use of nitrite instead of nitrate, mostly because lower addition levels were needed to achieve the same degree of cure.” (Pegg, RB, Shahidi, F. 2000)

In keeping with our interest in the person and his discovery, the following notice was published at the death of Prof. Hoagland by the University of California.

Dennis Robert Hoagland, Professor Emeritus of Plant Nutrition, died September 5, 1949. His life had been fruitful in achievement and stimulating in quality.

Professor Hoagland was born in Golden, Colorado, on April 2, 1884. He attended the Denver public schools and in 1903 entered Stanford University, graduating with an A.B. degree in the Chemistry major in 1907. After a fall semester of graduate work, he accepted a position at the University of California in January 1908 as Instructor in Animal Nutrition. From that time until his retirement June 30, 1949, with the exception of the period 1910 to 1913, his academic life was associated with the Berkeley campus.

About 1910 the U. S. Department of Agriculture became concerned with the alleged injurious effects of food preservatives on humans. A consulting board of scientific experts was set up and Professor Hoagland became a member of its staff. This assignment took him to the University of Pennsylvania where in addition to his research he found opportunity to continue his graduate studies in chemistry. It is evident that this early experience introduced him to the intriguing problems of biochemistry and this interest once developed became his major scientific concern the remainder of his career. In 1912 he accepted a graduate scholarship at the University of Wisconsin in the field of Animal Biochemistry, a field there cultivated with distinction by E. V. McCollum and E. B. Hart, and he was awarded the M.A. degree in 1913.

In the fall of 1913 he returned to California as Assistant Professor of Agricultural Chemistry. This area of knowledge, through the stimulating domination of Professor Hilgard, concerned itself with the soil and crop problems confronting California agriculture. Professor Hoagland found no difficulty in adapting himself to this new emphasis. It was probably his diversified early experience that made it possible for him later to develop on this campus a world center for the study of interrelated plant and soil problems. His broad interest did not lead him to scatter his efforts, however. He early demonstrated an ability to clearly outline a segment of the field and vigorously attack it, without restricting his vision of the entire complex problem. It was this quality which enabled him to achieve so significantly.

Professor Hoagland became head of the newly created Division of Plant Nutrition in 1922. Under his guidance and stimulation, this became more than a “Division” in the College of Agriculture: it was in effect what the Germans might have termed an “Institut für Pflanzen und Boden Wissenschaft.” It was a dynamic research center in which both basic and practical problems of plant oil interrelationships were studied with enthusiasm and insight; the laboratory was a magnet which drew students and mature investigators from all parts of the world. His own contributions to the research center’s activities were many and important. It was the early disclosure by himself and associates of the phenomenon of so-called “active absorption” of salts by living cells, both plant and animal, that compelled a complete reappraisal of salt absorption processes. His own research and that of his students led to new discoveries on the need and function of “trace” chemical elements–elements required by living cells in such minute amounts as to escape detection except by the use of the most refined techniques. These and other revelations constituted the leaven which activated investigations in many associated fields. His laboratory was a center with a radiating influence which reached out and touched other great scientific centers, and also the lone worker at an isolated post.

Professor Hoagland entered fully into the academic life of the University. He served as a member, then as chairman, of the Budget Committee and as a member of many other Senate and administrative committees. He was a member of numerous scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Science, and served on important national scientific boards. Many honors came to him. The American Society of Plant Physiologists presented him with the Stephen Hales Award in 1929; the annual $1,000 prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was given to him and an associate jointly in 1940. He was selected as Faculty Research Lecturer at Berkeley in 1942 and the same year delivered the John M. Prather Lectures at Harvard. In 1946 he was awarded the Barnes Life Membership in the American Society of Physiologists.

Professor Hoagland was married to Jessie A. Smiley in 1920. She died in 1933 leaving three sons, all of whom are graduates of this University. He did not possess a rugged constitution and the last few years of his life were marred by illness. But almost to the last he kept a faculty for keen appraisal of scientific and social situations and an interest in human events of the most diverse sort. He was a man of judgment, of tolerance, and of discernment, one who abhorred hypocrisy and admired honesty. He was the quality out of which great human structures are built.

W. P. Kelley D. I. Arnon A. R. Davis” (CDLIB)

(9)  Humus is decaying organic matter.  (Bynum, WF, et al, 1981:  300)

(10)  The trademark was granted in 1899 for Oxo.

(11)  The German chemist, Justice von Liebig (1803 – 73), continued to believe that plants got their nitrogen from the air (in the form of ammonia).  (Wikipedia, Justice_von_Liebig)  He has popularised a principle developed in agriculture science by Charl Sprengel (1828) and was called Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, often simply called Liebig’s law or the law of the minimum. It states that growth is controlled not by the total amount of resources available, but by the scarcest resource (limiting factor)  (Wikipedia, Law_of_the_Minimum)

(12)  He also attributed fermentation to microorganisms.

“Schwann is famous for developing a ‘cell theory’, namely, that living structures come from formation and differentiation of units (the cells), which then constitute the bodies of organisms (Schwann, 1839). His paper on fermentation (Schwann, 1837) was entitled ‘A preliminary communication concerning experiments on fermentation of wine and putrefaction’. Using a microscope, Schwann examined beer yeast and described it as resembling many articulated fungi and ‘without doubt a plant’. His conclusions from his observations and experiments were unequivocal, revolutionary and correct: The connection between wine fermentation and the development of the sugar fungus is not to be underestimated; it is very probable that, by means of the development of the fungus, fermentation is started. Since, however, in addition to sugar, a nitrogenous compound is necessary for fermentation, it seems that such a compound is also necessary for the life of this plant, as probably every fungus contains nitrogen. Wine fermentation must be a decomposition that occurs when the sugar-fungus uses sugar and nitrogenous substances for growth, during which, those elements not so used are preferentially converted to alcohol.

In one of his experiments, Schwann boiled some yeast in a solution of cane sugar in four stoppered flasks. After cooling, he admitted air into the flasks: for two flasks, the air was first passed through a thin red-hot glass tube (analysis showed this air still to contain 19·4 % oxygen); the other two flasks received unheated air. Fermentation occurred only in the latter two flasks. Schwann’s conclusion was important:Thus, in alcoholic fermentation as in putrefaction, it is not the oxygen of the air which causes this to occur, as previously suggested by Gay-Lussac, but something in the air which is destroyed by heat.

In this notable 1837 paper, Schwann anticipated observations made by Pasteur over twenty years later, writing:Alcoholic fermentation must be regarded as the decomposition effected by the sugar fungus, which extracts from the sugar and a nitrogenous substance the materials necessary for its own nutrition and growth; and substances not taken up by the plant form alcohol.

(Barnett, JA.   1998, 2000)

(13)  The chemist, Eduard Polenske (1849-1911) (Wikipedia. Pökeln), was born in Ratzebuhr, Neustettin, Pommern, Germany on 27 Aug 1849 to Samuel G Polenski and Rosina Schultz. Eduard Reinhold married Möller. He passed away in 1911 in Berlin, Germany. (Ancestry.  Polenske)  He was working for the German Imperial Health Office when he made the discovery about nitrite in curing brine. (Wikipedia.  Eduard_Polenske)

The Imperial Health Office was established on 16 July 1876 as a focal point for the medical and veterinary in Berlin. First, it was the division of the Reich Chancellery and since 1879 the Ministry of the Interior assumed. 1879, the “Law concerning the marketing of food, luxury foods and commodities” was adopted, including the Imperial Health Office was responsible for its monitoring.  Erected in 1900 Reichsgesundheitsrat supported the Imperial Health Office in its tasks.  (Original text:  “1879 wurde das „Gesetz betreffend den Verkehr mit Lebensmitteln, Genußmitteln und Gebrauchsgegenständen“ verabschiedet, für dessen Überwachung unter anderem das Kaiserliche Gesundheitsamt zuständig war.”) (Wikipedia.  Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt)

The spelling of his surname varies between Polenski and Polenske.

(14) “This prophetic insight into the continual renewal of body constituents, differing in rate in different tissues, succumbed to the theories of Liebig, Voit, Folin and others, and was not regained until more than a century later when Schoenheimer’s publication in 1942 of “The Dynamic State of Body Constituents” demonstrated the instability of tissue components by isotopic means.”  (Munro and Allison, 1964)


Barnett, JA.   1998, 2000.  Extract from lectures.  Beginnings of microbiology and biochemistry: the contribution of yeast research.

Bynum, WF, Browne, EJ, Porter, R.  1981.  Dictionary of the History of Science.  Princeton Legacy Library.  Macmillan Press.

Craine, JM.  2008.  Resource Strategies of Wild Plants.  Princeton University Press.

Danchin, A.  From Lamarck to Semmelweis, Transformation of chemical biology1800 – 1849:

Dommisse, E. 2011.  First baronet of De Grendel.  Tafelberg.

Associative and Endophytic Nitrogen-fixing Bacteria and Cyanobacterial …

Elmerich, C, Newton, WE.  2007.  Associative and Endophytic Nitrogen-fixing Bacteria and Cyanobacterial Associations.  Springer.

Laufer, B.,  1919, Sino-Iranica, Field Museum of Natural History, Publication 201, Anthropology Series Vol XV, No. 3

Myers, RL.  2007.  The 100 most important chemical compounds.  Greenwood Press, Westport.

Pennsylvania Packet, Friday, 18 August 1786

Schofield, RE.  2004.  The Enlightened Joseph Priestly.  The Pennsylvanian State University

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

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

Smil, V.  2001.  Enriching the Earth.  Massachusetts Institute of technology.

Waksman, S. A..  1927.  Principals of Soil Microbiology.  Waverly Press.

Zumbal. 2000. Chemistry, 5th edition.  Houghton Mifflin Company. (Early Discoveries Nitrogen Fixation)


Figure 1:  From Simons, Phillida Brooke. 2000. Ice Cold In Africa. Fernwood Press, page 9.

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figure 4:

Figure 5:  From

Figure 7 – 9:  Photos of Combrinck’s grave by Eben.

Figure 10:  The Colonies and Indian, 10 Oct 1891, p 11.


Chapter 08.05 The Polenski Letter

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

The Polenski Letter

June 1891

My dear Son,

This weekend we had plans to visit the geology museum at the University of Copenhagen.  It is summer in Denmark and the demand for our bacon is very good.  We all agreed that we would go next weekend and put in extra work on Saturday to get through our work.  Next weekend Uncle Jeppe will not be able to join us but we will all still go, capitalising on good weather we are having.  I am not disappointed at all.  The most unexpected set of facts became known to us.

The Noord Nieuwland in Table Bay 1762

There is much that we can learn from the Danish nation.  Their food, the strange shops, elevated above the streets, the beer and the warm people.   I realised that the culture of this amazing land is having just as big an impact on me as what I am learning about the curing of bacon.  These people set their mind to a task and then work to achieve the goals.  They not only learned from the Irish system of curing but took it to new heights by combining it with their powerful and unique cooperative model!  I am learning the mechanics of a bacon curing business and spend a lot of time on the topic of saltpeter.  Andreas gave me a word of caution that knowing the steps of a process and understanding the process are two different things.  My understanding of the steps in bacon production will flow from my understanding of saltpeter.

No sooner did I hear those words from Andreas when the ever-resourceful Jeppe presented me with the next gold nugget in my education.  How it happened that I came to Europe at this time, is remarkable.  It is exactly in this epoch when humans are discovering that, despite the fact that saltpeter has been used for thousands of years to cure and preserve meat, there is an even more fundamental principle behind it that stems from the composition and nature of saltpeter.  This fundamental principle is a relative of saltpeter or sodium nitrate, called sodium nitrite.  The “a” changes to an “i“.

FOODS by Edward Smith

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

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

Back home we are familiar with the value of meat that “last.”  In Europe and England with their growing populations and vast navies that have to be fed, it has been an obsession and a priority to solve the problem of conserving meat for future use.  Edward Smith says in his book that “the art of preserving meat for future use, with a view to increase the supply and lessen the cost of this necessary food (meat), is of very great importance to [England] and all the available resources of science are now engaged in it.” (Smith, 1876: 22)  This meant that the best scientists of the time devoted at least part of their work to unravel the secret of meat curing in order to develop mechanisms to manipulate the process.  The discovery that it is not actually saltpeter (nitrate) that cures meat but nitrite grows out of this focus.

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

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

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

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

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

What confused me much about saltpeter was that Trudie’s dad, Anton, also talks about the value of phosphates and saltpeter in fertilizing their fields in the Transvaal.  We know that it is the explosive power in gunpowder.   I know that the Dutch East Indian Company, as well as the English East Indian Company, were created, in large part, for the purpose of transporting saltpeter from India to Amsterdam, London and other European cities like Copenhagen for fertilizer and to make gunpowder. How can this one substance be useful for such diverse applications?

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

The nitrogen in saltpeter makes it very reactive, giving it an explosive power.  In saltpeter it has a particular effect on blood, explaining the fact that it gives cured meat its pinkish/ reddish colour.  Nitrogen exists in the first place as a gas in our atmosphere and comes into our world in different ways.  Remember the lecture I have Minette and the baboons on the Witels about how saltpeter is formed?  I said that there are other ways in which atmospheric nitrogen is converted into a salt that we can use.  The most important process is not through the action of lightning as I explained on the Witels but through microorganisms with the ability to take it from the air and convert it directly to plat food.

Dr. Eduard Polenski – Nitrate and Nitrite

Uncle Jeppe told Minette and me that he will return to the fascinating story of how this was discovered but must be patient to hear this another day.  The first very tentative step to identify the “real” curing agent came when a friend of Uncle Jeppe discovered something remarkable.  His friend’s name is Dr. Eduard Polenske (4), a chemist, working at the Imperial Health Office in Germany.  Jeppe tells me that 1891 will forever be remembered as a watershed year for Woody’s since it is the year I arrived in Denmark and started learning about bacon curing; for the curing industry in South Africa since it is the year when Woody’s took the first steps to excellent bacon in Africa; and for the curing industry around the world because of Dr. Polenskis’ discovery.

He tested and saw that curing brine (the curing salts) and cured meat contain nitrite. This is remarkable since we know that saltpeter or nitrate does not contain nitriteNitrate is codecogseqn-2.  The one oxygen atom in the nitrate composition is not as tightly bound as the other two and is easily stripped away.  The new compound is nitrite.  On the other hand, nitrite (codecogseqn-5) has the affinity to combine with an extra oxygen atom to again form nitrate (codecogseqn-2). It is a very volatile compound. Nitrite is then when one of the three oxygen atoms is removed from the molecule and we have codecogseqn-5.  It does not look like something important but it changes the nature of the compound. 

When meat is cured with saltpeter, nitrate (codecogseqn-2) is added.  If Dr. Polenski tested the brine and meat and found nitrite (codecogseqn-5) present, the only way this could occur is if somehow the one oxygen atom was stripped of the saltpeter molecule to form nitrite (codecogseqn-5).

The fact that he discovered nitrite in the curing brine is of concern because nitrite is toxic. I know nitrite very well! In Cape Town, as is done around the world, the local water is tested for nitrites every day and if the levels are too high, one can not drink the water.  It is so important that newspapers report the nitrite counts in the water on a weekly basis.  Farmers can suffer loss if their livestock drinks from this contaminated water.  For humans and animals, it can be fatal.

The Value of Speed

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

The question has been asked why mild curing cures meat faster than dry curing and various possible answers have been discussed.

The Wiesbaden Meetings

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

Both men attended the conference and struck up a friendship based on their shared passions.  Wiesbaden is famous for its hot springs since ancient Roman times and the second shared love between these men, besides meat technology and science, is their love for hot springs.

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

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

It was at their annual retreat at Wiesbaden, earlier this year, where Dr. Ed told Jeppe about a monumental discovery.  Dr. Ed is not a fan of cured meat since in the process of making it, nutrition is lost.  The entire matter of the relationship between nutrition and nitrogen is introduced by this statement.  Unfortunately, the subject is of such a nature that, again Jeppe said that we will deal with this over the next two weeks.  For the time being, we take Jeppe at his word of such a relationship (nitrogen and nutrition).

Without looking too much into the subject, my suspicion is that this has to do with the meat juices that are lost in dry curing.  I also suspect that in the loss of meat juices, nitrogen is lost which explains the loss of nutrition, if indeed the relationship between the two is linear.  The new Irish system largely overcomes the loss of meat juices by filling the tank with liquid brine and placing the meat inside it.

This means that pressure is created around the meat with brine wanting to draw into the meat instead of drawing the albumen (protein-rich protein) out of the meat.  If the meat is not placed in liquid brine, as is done in dry curing where the meat is only rubbed with salt, in the mild curing technique, brine seeps into the meat as opposed to albumen (meat juices) being drawn out of it. In mild curing, no albumen is lost.

For the most part, dry curing is practiced with an accompanying loss of nutrition. At a time when most families across the world can not afford to eat meat more than two days a week and where most children go to bed hungry, at least a couple of times a week any loss of nutrition is a problem in any food. In the current world context, Dr. Polenske believes the most important consideration in evaluating methods of preservation is its effect on the nutritional value of the preserved food. He is obviously not very familiar with the Irish mild cure and in his work, he mainly considered dry curing.  His observations about the formation of nitrites are, however, volcanic!

The Polenski Experiment

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

The Foundational work of Ulysse Gayon and Gabriel Dupetit

Dr. Polenske told Jeppe that he was not really surprised to find nitrite in the brine since he knew that saltpeter is a compound of potassium or sodium nitrate.  Nine years earlier a drama unfolded with a discovery by French scientists of bacteria that changes nitrate into nitrite and further into nitric oxide.  What this means is that certain bacteria, under certain conditions is able to remove one oxygen molecule from nitrate (codecogseqn-2) to form nitrite (codecogseqn-5).  It is further able to remove another oxygen atom from the nitrite (codecogseqn-5) to form Nitric Oxide (NO).  Thus, it is clear that the conditions that favours such a removal or “reduction” as it became known of nitrate to nitrite must exist in curing brines and must occur in the meat.

In 1882 a team of researchers, Ulysse Gayon from the French commune or town, as we call it, Bouëx in Charente and his 22-year-old collaborator, Gabriel Dupetit, from the town of Auch, Gers, coined the term denitrifying bacteria.  This formidable research team went on to make a number of very important discoveries about denitrifying bacteria. (7)

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

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

The Mentorship of Louis Pasteur

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

Based on their very thorough work, Dr. Polenske believes that nitrite is present through this process of denitrification of nitrate by bacteria.  He expects there to be much public concern following his discovery.  (9)

Jeppe and the Main Point

Jeppe was now becoming particularly excited. “Eben, Minette!” he said and put his hands around our shoulders. “In dry curing, we start with nitrate. Sodium or potassium or calcium or magnesium nitrate, depending on where you harvest the nitrate from. Nitrogen and THREE oxygen atoms.  We mix it into salt and rub it on the meat to cure in dry curing. What is happening?”

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

“Time!” Jeppe exclaimed, “It will take time!  Bacteria are living organisms and it will take time to achieve the reduction of the nitrate.  Think about fermentation – it takes time!”

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

A Bigger Point

Jeppe had something very important to share with Minette and I that flows the discovery of denitrifying bacteria.  Right at the start of this journey, I realised that what we are discovering is much more than simply learning how to cure bacon.  This journey back to the lands of my forefathers is a big deal! In a way, it was already an end in itself for me. History and context if of enormous importance. Our lives are never in isolation. We come from the soil of Denmark and the fact that it is here where we find the answers is hugely important to me!

Bacon is in the center of scientific research of Europe, America, and the United Kingdom, and the combined scientific focus of these countries are directed at unlocking its secrets which are bound up with that of agriculture and superior technology in warfare.  Besides these, there are many human stories that are part of the story of bacon.  Real people who each contribute small parts of a very large jigsaw puzzle that is coming together.  They teach us about life. We do not live in isolation, my son! What I am recounting is not fiction! I tell you real stories of real people! Jeppe taught us that life is more than bacon.  The journey of discovering its secrets are far more important than just the factory we will one day set up.

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

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

Maybe, I wonder, the biggest and most important act of his life was the drives he took through the countryside with his wife. His relationship with his sons and the evenings that Uncle Jeppe and Dr. Polenski spent with him.  Uncle Jeppe told me how much he enjoys it!

We see glimmers of the full mechanisms of curing brought about by microorganisms, nitrate, nitrite, salt, sugar, and spices.  I would love to know much more to take back to Cape Town a curing method where curing can be done in a shorter time than 19 days, yielding a product that tastes just as exquisite as Irish or Danish Mild Cured bacon.  I have many friends in the curing industry who would rather cut off their one hand than do anything quickly.  This is a discussion for another day.  There are those who believe that in order to cure bacon in the “right” way, one needs time, but my quest is centered around understanding a process that fits with a bacon curing plant that is capable of supplying bacon in large quantities.  We do not envisage setting up something small in Cape Town.

Even so, with all the excitement from our quest, never forget the priority of each sunset. Knowing that we are but small parts of a very big whole. That our highest achievements will be measured in whom we loved and how content we were with whatever life offers us. My heart goes out to that young man and his parents! Imagine his final moments – alone, in a foreign land!

With these, my dear son, it is time for me to go. Know that, no matter what, my love for you and your sister is eternal. You guys will be my last thought when I die. The vision of you and my dear Minette! You guys are my entire world and as certain as I write these words today, one day you will read it and I will be gone. Know that my life was not just about bacon, but like Gabriel Dupetit, it is also about the art of living! Imitate me, my son! Live!!

Be well, my boy!  Take care of Lauren!

Lots of love from Denmark,

Your Dad.

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(c) eben van tonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Payne, W. J..  1986)

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

(9)  Dr Ed Polenski’s findings has been published in “Arbeiten aus dem Kaiserlichen Gesundheitsamte , 7. Band, Springer, Berlin 1891, S. 471–474” (


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture References:

A cargo ship at the Cape:

Chapter 08.04 The Saltpeter Letter

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

The Saltpeter Letter

June 1891

Dear Children,

The days grow ever more light and joyful as summer approaches. The cornerstone of meat curing is Saltpeter and understanding its composition and function in meat is the starting point to unravel the mysteries of bacon.  Curing is a separate discipline to fermentation such as is used in making salamis and drying, such as is used in biltong.  Saltpeter is what cures meat.  It is the overarching and controlling mechanism in bacon production.  My mind drifts back to Cape Town when I see the Danes going about their business of being Danish! Similar to saltpeter in bacon there are principles that make this great nation who they are.  Traditionally, their work ethic, their view of the equality of all humans, their model of cooperation are not just good ideas.  It is fundamental to their existence as people.   We have similar beliefs that make us who we are as an emerging nation.  Certainly, religion shaped our society in South Africa.  I remember the last church service at the Groote Kerk in Cape Town before I left on my grand quest.

It is in the same church where my mom and dad were married and where I was christened as a baby. As staunch Calvinists, much of life revolved around church and the Groote Kerk was my second home.

1910 photograph – sent to Schalk LE ROUX from Marthinus van Bart Photographer: Unknown

It was the first Christian place of worship in South Africa. The oldest church structure on this piece of land dates back to 1678, 26 years after the Dutch landed to set up their refreshment station. The current building was built by the German architect Herman Schuette in 1841. Much of the old church, including the steeple, was retained in Schuette’s new design. It is situated right next to parliament. The last Sunday before I left for Europe, my kleinneef preached.

He is a gentle man with a large pastorly heart.  His theology is progressive and his faith sincere.  My mom and dad are close to Oom Giel and his Brother, Oom Sybrand. They are my mom’s cousins.

That particular morning his text was Ephesians 5. I remember hearing the horse carts rattling by in the street outside church down Adderly street. As always, there was energy in the air as people arrived. Oom Jacobus and the Graaff kids who lived with him sat in their own allocated seating. He hung his hat on the rack provided for every congregant.

Oom Giel’s thesis was  “Live as people of the light.”  Here, at the Groote Kerk, the people who started the Cape Colony worshiped and receives their spiritual direction.  Oom Giel stressed that we receive the light, but he was humble about what that means. As a theologian, he was ahead of his time.  “A day will come when we realise that the church does not have all the answers.  One day the church will no longer be able to scare non-believers into faith by the threat of hell.  The light we received is that we are in God’s hands. Its a way of life.”

Deep-seated Calvinism shaped the colony. From the straight roads and square corners on neat houses to straight orchards. They believed God was in the first place viewing life as a geometer and this shaped everything they did. The Groote Kerk is the spiritual spring of the Colony.

It was not only an obsession with geometry that bewitched those who drank from the well and a misplaced superiority complex over all of God’s world, but good was also distilled from these waters. A friend from further up in Africa pointed it out to me one day when he visited Cape Town and I took him around to see the beautiful city. A mindset prevails among its inhabitants that says, we are here and we can thrive! We can get many things from Europe, but by golly, we can do it ourselves! What we can do is any time as good as the best we can get from Europe! With discipline and diligence, inherent to the Christian gospel, we approach every task set before us! In straight lines!  This is exactly the reason why I am in Denmark.  An inherent belief that whatever the Europeans can do, we can do better!

Apart from this, people from southern Africa mind our own business and desire a quiet life. We want to live in light of our gospel.  That is how Oom Jacobus, another one of my mentors, approaches life. How he cut his meat and wrap it for customers; cure the bacon; grew his spices in his enormous garden at his home in Woodstock, these are all outworkings of his fundamental view of life.

As Oom Giel lead us in reciting the Apostolic Creed, I wondered, how many times through the years was it recited in this Church!  The settlers, for all their faults – many of them were bound by this confession and tried to live true to its articles.

Oom Giel broke the bread. It is communion with the body of Christ. And so is the wine, union with the blood of Christ.  Our rituals and confessions link us to countless generations. Past and present and from these deeply held beliefs we became. I am in Denmark to learn the art of meat curing, like Uncle Jacobus.  The last Sunday in Cape Town, I listened to Oom Giel with Uncle Jacobus and David de Villiers Graaff in attendance.  What a special day!

Now I am learning another gospel in Denmark. The art of curing bacon and the salt we use is saltpeter.  That day at the Groote Kerk Minette was also there.  We sat together and shared communion.  Today it is Sunday and again, Minette is here with me.  It is a surprise I never expected!  She arrived last weekend and Uncle Jeppe returned from Liverpool during the week.  This morning she joined me at his bacon factory.

Uncle Jeppe reminded me of Oom Giel when he leaned forward in his chair pressing down on his desk. Passion for the subject. Authoritative. Uncle Jeppe must have been quite a ladies man in his day!  He made Minette feel very welcome and gave her the grand tour of the factory.  At lunchtime, I was already sitting in his office waiting for them.

They walked in while Uncle Jeppe and Minette were laughing at a joke.  They do not share the joke with me.  “So, today we go back to a time when saltpeter was still a mysterious compound,” Uncle Jeppe said.  Minette took the seat beside me.  Uncle Jeppe walked to behind his desk where he took a notebook out of a drawer.  He does not sit in his cair but walks around the desk and sits on it facing us.  “The story of saltpeter goes back, ions of time!”

Minette interjected that she still remembers exactly how it is formed.  She looks at me when she recounts it.  “Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2), formed in the atmosphere when nitrogen reacts with ozone, reacts with raindrops which is water or H2O.  The two oxygen atoms of nitrogen dioxide combine with the one from water to form 3 oxygen atoms bound together.  There is now one nitrogen atom bound to three oxygen atoms to give us NO3 or nitrate.  There is still one hydrogen atom left and it combines with the nitrate to form nitric acid (HNO3).  Nitric acid falls to earth and enters the soil and serves as nutrients for plants.”

“In the ground,” I finish her thought, “it reacts with a salt such as potassium, calcium or sodium to form potassium nitrate, calcium nitrate or sodium nitrate which is taken up as plant food.”  I smiled at her.  “You remember well!”

Uncle Jeppe smiled.  He almost got lost in the moment.  He pulled himself back to reality and opened his notebook.  He balanced the open book in his one hand.  He is a meticulous note keeper,  something that I learned from him.  He keeps notes written in his neat cursive handwriting. One can see that he values every sentence he writes!  I now have my own notebook and on Sundays, I review the work e covered that week and I write what I learned or saw in my letters to you guys.

Saltpeter is one of the magical salts of antiquity. For most of human history, we did not know what saltpeter was,” Jeppe preached on. Saltpeter was used in ancient Asia and in Europe to cool beverages and to ice foods. There are reports dating back to the 1500s about it. Without any doubt, it has been known for millennia before it was reported on in writing. (Reasbeck, M:  4)

From antiquity the ancient cured their meat with it and enjoyed its reddening effect, it’s preserving power and the amazing taste that it gives.  The earliest references to it go back to people in Mesopotamia from the Bronze Age who used it in the same way as the Romans. The characteristic flavor it imparts to meat was reported on in 1835 (Drs. Keeton, et al;  2009) but there can be little doubt that it was noticed since many thousands of years before the 1800s.

The Chinese worked out how to make explosives, using the power of saltpeter. There is even a record of gunpowder being used in India as early as 1300 BCE, probably introduced by the Mongols. (Cressy, David, 2013:  12)  People started using it as a fertilizer when overuse of the land required us to replenish the nutrients in the soil.”

It was widely known traded in markets in China, India, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe, and England. It was its use by the military in gunpowder and its pharmaceutical use made it generally available in Europe from the 1700s. This meant its usage as curing agent with salt increased and by 1750 its use was universal in curing mixes in Europe and England. Most recipe books from that time prescribed it as a curing agent. (Drs Keeton, et al, 2009)

Despite its wide use by 1750, people still could not work out if saltpeter occurred naturally or was it something that had to be made by humans.   When they managed to get hold of it, they wondered how to take the impurities out of the salt which gave inconsistent curing results and was no good in gunpowder. People were baffled by its power.

“Some speculated that it contained the Spiritus Mundi, the ‘nitrous universal spirit’ that could unlock the nature of the universe!”

Jeppe quoted Peter Whitehorney, the Elizabethan theorist who wrote in the 1500s.  He said about saltpeter, “I cannot tell how to be resolved, to say what thing properly it is except it seemeth it hath the sovereignty and quality of every element”.

Paracelsus, the founder of toxicology who lived in the late 1400s and early 1500s said that “saltpeter is a mythical as well as chemical substance with occult as well as material connections.” The people of his day saw  “a vital generative principle in saltpeter, ‘a notable mystery the which, albeit it be taken from the earth, yet it may lift up our eyes to heaven’”   (Cressy, David, 2013:  12)

Jeppe got up and settled in on his large office chair.  He leaned back as he continued to read.  “From the 1400s to the late 1800s we have records of almost every scientist probing and testing it to determine its properties. No doubt, ancient scientists and stone age chemists did the same for many thousands of years and in a way, it is the fascination with enigmatic salts that precipitated the science of chemistry.”

“Saltpeter encompassed the “miraculum mundi”, the “material universalis” through which ‘our very lives and spirits were preserved.  Its threefold nature evoked ‘that incomprehensible mystery of … the divine trinity,’ quoting Thomas Timme who wrote in 1605, in his translation of the Paracelsian Joseph Duchesne.  “Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor and Privy Councillor under James I, described saltpeter as the energizing “spirit of the earth.””   (Cressy, David, 2013:  14)

“Robert Boyle who did experiments trying to understand saltpeter found it, ‘the most catholic of salts, a most puzzling concrete, vegetable, animal, and even mineral, both acid and alkaline, and partly fixed and partly volatile.  The knowledge of it may be very conducive to the discovery of several other bodies, and to the improvement of diverse parts of natural philosophy” (Cressy, David, 2013:  14)

I could tell that Minette loved it!  We were both riveted to every word!  When I saw her interest in the subject, I realised that in Minette I, not only have a friend and a beautiful friend at that, but I have a partner to explore life with me.  She not only laves nature and exploring our natural universe, but she also has an amazingly inquisitive mind in all matters technical.  “Cheepes, I thought, what a woman!”

Tristan, Lauren, I was completely dumbstruck!  On the one hand was the realisation that there are bonds between Minette and me that are stronger than simply a friendship.  On the other hand, there is the realisation that the salt that I have been using to cure pork for most of my life is one f the greatest salts from antiquity!  I used it with my Dad and Oupa Eben on the farm every time we cured Kolbroek meat.  Here in Denmark, I work with it every day!  I was overcome by a feeling of deep respect for this chemical compound that we readily use. Even now that we know saltpeter is a salt attached to an acid in the form of one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms (CaNO3), its history is remarkable! I stepped onto a stage where a Shakespearean drama has been acted out and I became part of a grand history.  I would never again hold it in my hand and think of it in the same way!  Saltpeter is far more than just its chemical composition!  Contained in its essence is the spirit of every man and woman who ever looked at it to unravel its secrets for thousands of years.

I recall Oom Giel’s sermon.”Live as people of the light. Be true to your most basic quality.” For millennia, saltpeter mesmerized us long before its essential nature could be explained. Oom Giel’s message was the same. Mesmerize others with your essential Christian character. There should be no need for debate or discussion.

It is late in the Østergaard family home. Andreas, his dad, mom, Minette and I were discussing Uncle Jeppe’s lessons from today after supper. They told us about a museum dedicated to geology in Copenhagen and they are planning to take us there next weekend where I intend exploring the question of the origins of saltpeter more closely. The question of who were the first people to change the use of saltpeter into an art? Who harnassed its use and who established what is now the collective knowledge of saltpeter into an art.  The art of curing meats.  Who were the custodians of its power for millions of human history?  I intend exploring this question with the good people from the University next weekend!

Both Minette and I are insanely excited. The house is now quiet with everybody asleep except me, wrapping the day up with my customary letter to you guys.  I love you more than life itself and cant wait to share what we learn from the University next weekend.

Lots of love,


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Cressy, D.  2013.  Saltpeter.  Oxford University Press.

Cressy, D.  Saltpetre, State Security, and Vexation in Early Modern England.  The Ohio State University

Crookes, W.  1868/ 69.The Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science, Volume 3.  W A Townsend & Adams.

Deacon, M;  Rice, T;  Summerhayes, C.  2001. Understanding the Oceans: A Century of Ocean Exploration,   UCL Press.

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

Frey, James W.   2009.  The Historian.  The Indian Saltpeter Trade, the Military Revolution and the Rise of Britain as a Global Superpower.   Blackwell Publishing.

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

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

Kocher, AnnMarie and Loscalzo,  Joseph. 2011.  Nitrite and Nitrate in Human Health and Disease. Springer Science and Business Media LLC.

Lady Avelyn Wexcombe of Great Bedwyn, Barony of Skraeling Althing
(Melanie Reasbeck), Reviving the Use of Saltpetre for Refrigeration: a Period Technique.

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

Newman, L. F.. 1954.  Folklore. Folklore Enterprises Ltd.

Pegg, BR and Shahidi, F. 2000. Nitrite curing of meat. Food and Nutrition Press, Inc.

Shenango Valley News (Greenville, Pensylvania), 26 January 1883

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

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

Photo credits:

The 1910 photo of the Groote Kerk, from

All other photos by Eben van Tonder

Chapter 08.03 Minette, the Cape Slaves, the Witels and Nitrogen

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

Minette, the Cape Slaves, the Witels and Nitrogen

Copenhagen, May 1891

Last week Andreas tells me that we will not be doing anything the following Saturday.  Uncle Jeppe visits Liverpool once a year.  He is returning to Copenhagen and Andreas and his dad asked me to welcome him to the harbour.  I am always delighted to spend time with the old man!  I was looking forward to the train ride into the city with him.  I was bright and early at the harbour and when the English steamer docked, I eagerly looked through the crowd to see him.


The crowd was milling around with people greeting and porters busily hauling luggage to waiting horse carts and some, off to board the train. I scanned the milling crowd and my eye caught sight of a beautiful young lady, a bit younger than me.  She looked a lost with no porter by her side, carrying two leather travel bags, too heavy for her.  My glance passed over her, looking for Uncle Jeppe.  My gaze almost immediately returned to her.  There were two reasons for this.   She was beautiful and there was something familiar about her!  She looked up and right at me and suddenly I recognized her.  “Minette!!”

My heart jumped with excitement!  At the same time as I recognised her, she saw me and a broad smile graced her beautiful face!  “Minette!” I blurted out!  The last person on earth I was expecting and the one person that I most dearly want to see!  “Minette!” I said again, this time a lot softer as I riched her after a few large strides to get to her.  “Minette, what on earth!?” I said again.  She dropped her bags and we embraced!  “I almost did not recognise you with your hat and your nice dress!

“What are you doing here?”  “Where are you staying?”  “Come,” I said and picked her bags up.  “I’m here to visit you,” she said and started walking with me towards the train. I was still baffled. “Two months ago Andreas wrote to me.  He invited me to visit and surprise you.”  I realised that it must have been after Andreas and my long drinking session in Copenhagen that I write to you in my last letter that he hatched his plans.  It appears that he took his lead from the many times I spoke about you in all my adventures.

Suddenly I remember that I was there to welcome Uncle Jeppe! She saw the panic in my eyes as I started looking around again.  “Uncle Jeppe is only arriving next week,” she helps me out of my misery.  “He is still in Liverpool.  The whole thing was a ruse to get you to the harbour!”

I have never been this excited to see anybody!  The last time I saw her we were sitting in Pennys Cave on Table Mountain with our friends.  Minette and I love exploring the mountains and valleys around Cape Town and we would do this as often as we get an opportunity.

Drosters Gat

It was on one of our hikes that we discovered the cave on Kogel Bay, Dappa se Gat, where I think the slaves lived who took in the pigs from the Colenbrook which became known as the Kolbroek pigs.  We discovered the Cave when we hiked from Hermanus to Cape Town, one year.  We started at Hangklip at Pringle Bay close to Hermanus where my younger brother, Elmar, Juanita and their two kids live.

I started reading Alexander Von Humboldt’s work when I was still a small boy and was captivated by the destruction brought about by European colonists.  In my imagination, I would accompany Von Humboldt on his travels across South America and the Russian Steppe.  I got intensely interested in the physiology of the human and animal body when I read about his work with Guthrie.  The sense of adventure and the need to explore partly come from stories such as his.

Across the decades that separate our lives, Von Humboldt mentored me.  If I had enough money to buy a book I wanted, but not enough for food for the day, I would buy the book.  Choices between using my savings from my Transport work to buy a house in Cape Town or to either travel to Europe to learn how to make bacon or go on an expedition to the Magaliesberg Mountains always ended up on whatever would teach me the most and be the greatest adventure.  Buying a house never was a priority!

During my time as a Transport Rider across the vast open spaces of Southern Africa, I witnessed the destruction that people bring to nature and each other first hand.  I visited old Tswanruins at the Vaal River between Paryd and Potchefstroom and at Hartebeespoort.  I hiked through these massive Tswana and Sotho cities at the Suikerbosrand and in Johannesburg on the farm of Sarel Marais. The cities of the Tswana and the Sotho were decimated by  Mzilikazi Khumalo, a Southern African king who founded the Mthwakazi Kingdom now known as Matabeleland.  It was precisely because Minette and I shared these priorities and values that I was drawn to her.  Well, apart from her good looks and inquisitive personality.

The existence of slavery and the wholesale destruction of our natural world went hand in hand.  A period followed where I had an intense interest in slavery and the knowledge I gained allowed me to understand our land better.   The Kolbroek pigs are an excellent example.

Minette and I knew there was another famous cave where a community of runaway slaves lived.  Between Pringle Bay and Rooiels, much closer to the water’s edge, legend has it that these poor people discovered a cave that can house them and hide them from the slave masters.  The entrance is very narrow and like Dappa se Gat, one can enter it only during low tide.  It is accessible from the sea.  It became known as Drostres gat (cave). From Rooi Els to Kogel Bay is a short distance.

We rode out to Pringle Bay at Cape Hangklip.  It is always good to rely on local knowledge when looking for these things.  Locals directed us to a restaurant and bar called Miems.  The owners are Morris and Kerneels.  Morris, a tall and well-built man, is a trained geologist who worked in Johannesburg mines for many years.  Kerneels, his partner and he traveled to Ireland a few years ago in a stunning reversal of where people go to find their fortunes.  Where most Europeans are hoping for the new world to provide a living, Morris and Kirneels went to Ireland where they worked till they saved enough to start Miems at Cape Hangklip.  He too read the account of Green about Drostersgate (Drosters cave) between Pringle Bay and Rooiels.

An old farmer wrote that the Gat (Cave) can only be accessed at low tide and climbing down down a precipice with a rope. A neighbor and he went in with candles for about eighty yards. He remembers that it was dark and damp and one could see bones of large game animals and cattle still scattered across the cave floor. They also found trunks of melkhout trees, used to make fire to roast the meat.  He wrote that there are graves of “strandlopers” (scavengers) around the general location of the cave.  Morris has been to the exact location more than once and says that he is not able to get into the cave.   The opening is too small for such a big man.  He tried to access it from the sea without any success.   It does not surprise me that the salves managed to get into areas where he could not. By all accounts, they were gaunt and small.

Minette and I looked for it and when we could not find it, we returned to Miems for another few pints.  Back at the bar that evening, it seemed as if everybody had a cave story where runaway slaves hid out.

It is immediately obvious that finding food would have been a massive challenge.  There are accounts of such slaves wandering around on Table Mountain only to eventually returned to Cape Town and hand themselves over to authorities to face the cruelest punishment rather than dying of starvation.  It is this reality that made the feat of young Joshua Penny even more remarkable who stayed for an extended time period on Table Mountain.

The only place on the mountain that was regularly inhabited by these most unfortunate people was an overhang up Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain.  There are accounts of slaves who lived up this gorge taking live cattle up.  Anyone who ever hiked up there will know that taking a cow or an ox up there must have been extremely arduous.  The cave can still be seen to this day up the oldest recorded route up Table Mountain.

The many accounts of the struggle for food of the slaves and the fact that keeping livestock was a strategy they used to sustain themselves lend tremendous credence to my theory about the fate of the Kolbroek pigs.  In the Hangklip area, there are a number of other well-known legends of runaway slaves-communities hiding away in caves.  The area is mysterious and to this day, sparsely populated.  An old man once told me, there are many ghosts in these mountains!

We hiked from Rooi Els to Kogel Bay when we first discovered Dappa se Gat.  We just passed Kogel bay and I got to the stretch of beach, strewn with round boulders, resembling cannon shot when I saw the cave.  Dappa se gat!  The cave is a couple of hundred meters deep and during high tide it is inaccessible.  I sat in front of the cave and tried to imagine what it must have been like for the runaway slaves.

My mind effortlessly wondered to the sinking of the Colebrook and the fate of the pigs that swam ashore.  So it happened that not even on Minette and my wildest adventures were we ever very far from bacon, hams, salamis, and pigs.

The Witels

Another favourate site of ours is the Witels River.  Between the Matroosberg and the Winterhoek Mountains is the town of Ceres that officially existed since 1854.  A pass was constructed called, Michells Pass which follows the route to Ceres next to the Bree River.  Where the Witels flows into the Bree River is an open “outspan” area which is clearly seen on the West bank of the river.  I am sure that the trekkers spent a couple of nights here, feeding and resting their cattle before taking on the pass.  

The first pass was built by Jan Mostert and was called Mostert’s Hoek Pass (1765).  Jan was one of the first settlers to settle on Ceres’ side of Tulbagh.  The pass was a very rugged 3kms.  The road was so bad that wagons had to be dismantled and sections crossed on foot, the cargo and the wagons strapped to the backs of oxen.

Charles Michell surveyed Mostert’s Hoek Pass in 1830 to improve it.  Andrew Geddes-Bain constructed the new pass in 1846, with the assistance of 240 convicts.  The Bree River runs all the way into the Warm Bokkeveld. The pass effectively reduced the travel time from Cape Town to Beaufort West from 20 to 12 days.  It was almost possible to do the route with a horse-drawn carriage.

dwars, bree and witels.png

On my way to Johannesburg through Kimberly, I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn.  It was the main road between the Cape and Kimberley. It was formerly known as Mill & Oaks Country Inn.  The restaurant is built on the foundations of an olf wheat-mill dating from the 1800s.  It was called the Ceres Meul (Mill).  It is not known exactly when the Mill was built.  Probably in the late-1700s by the first European settlers.  The Inn is the kind of place that I prefer.  Steeped in history, enough ghosts to chase, legends to unravel, exceptional food and great company!

One of Minette’s banking clients told her about the Witsels river; that it runs down towards the Bree River from the southern Peaks of the Hex River mountains.  The best approach is through the Waaihoek Kloof.  The man who first identified the route will forever remain nameless in accordance with his own wishes. The next time I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn, I asked the locals if they know the access route. They explained to me in great detail.  When I got back to Cape Town a few months later, I immediately looked Minette up at the Bank and the plan was set out for a legendary hike.


One ascends a mountain and through a very precarious route, access the river.  Once you are in the river, there are very few ways out.  The cliffs are for the most part right next to the river, forcing you to either swim or jump from boulder to boulder.  At certain places, the cliffs fold over the river creating long stretches that you swim through caves, following the flow of the river.  Next to the river, there are small stretches that resemble sea sand.  It created the most amazing places to sleep.  To go up the mountain, into the Witels River and out at the Bree River takes around 5 days.  Some young people are able to cover the distance in a day provided that they don’t take anything heavy in their backpacks.  The best Minette and I did was 2 days from start to finish, but the river was very full and progress painfully slow.  The Witels river has become a spiritual pilgrimage for us and ranks as one of our most favourate routes on this bountiful earth!

One of the Witels hikes it started raining.  Rain down the Witels can be life-threatening if it rains higher up in the catchment area and the river comes down.  The force of the river carries large boulders from higher up, downstream and the force is such that if one would be in the water when this happens, chances for survival are slim to zero.  We moved our backpacks higher up the sandbank and as close to the cliff as we could get a comfortable place to lay down.  I was trying to get Minette’s mind off the raging river!


I was laying under my sleeping bag.  Minette was getting her overnight spot comfortable for the night; painstakingly removing the rocks that would start to irritating her once the initial tiredness has worn off.  I asked her if she knew what air was made off.  “Oxigen and of course. . . ”  “Nitrogen!” she answered.

“Correct! It was discovered separately in 1772, by the Scottsman, Daniel Rutherford and in the early 1770s by a Swiss, Carl Scheele.  Rutherford called it “noxious air” and Scheele, “foul air.”” I replied.

I briefly explained for fear that I would bore her, “It exists as a gas and comprises of two nitrogen atoms, joined to form one gas molecule.  They are split apart by something of high energy such as a lightning strike.  This leaves the two atoms free to react with other matter floating around it.

Nitric Oxide

“One of these elements floating around in the atmosphere is oxygen.  Nitrogen reacts with oxygen and forms nitrogen monoxide (NO).  Nitrogen monoxide, a colourless gas, is an extremely important compound.  It is also called nitric oxide or nitrogen oxide.  The nitric oxide is heated from the energy from the lightning flash that created it.”

The drizzle was coming down softly.  Minette finished nesting and I got enough energy together to build a fine.  I cleared a small sandy patch at my feet and with a twig I wrote the simple chemical reaction in the sand.

N2 (g) + O2 (g)  lightning —> 2NO (g)

“There are different sources of Nitric Oxide.  Very important one which I will tell you about later.”

Nitrogen Dioxide

“As it cools down, it reacts further with the oxygen molecules around it to form nitrogen dioxide.  Nitric Oxide is one nitrogen atom attached to one oxygen atom.  It now combines with another oxygen atom and forms nitrogen dioxide, a poisonous, brown, acidic, pungent gas.  There is another important molecule that exists in our atmosphere as a gas namely ozone which is three oxygen atoms that combined into a molecule.  Nitrogen mostly reacts with ozone to form nitrogen dioxide.”

“Like nitrogen, oxygen occurs as two oxygen atoms, bound in one molecule.  Ultra-violet light and lightning cause the two tightly bound oxygen atoms to separate and react, either with other single-atom oxygen molecules or with more stable two-atom oxygen molecules.  In the latter case, three oxygen atoms are bound into one molecule (O3).  It is not very stable and quickly breaks down into one oxygen atom and or two oxygen atom molecules or it reacts with nitric oxide to form nitrogen dioxide.”

I wipe my previous simple formulation from the sand to write another very simple one.

NO (g) 1/2O2 (g) —> NO2 (g)

Nitric Acid

“Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) reacts with more oxygen and raindrops.  Water is H2O.  The two oxygen atoms of nitrogen dioxide combine with the one from water to form 3 oxygen atoms bound together.  There is still only one Nitrogen atom giving us NO3 or nitrate.  There is now still one Hydrogen atom left and it combines with the nitrate to form nitric acid (HNO3).  Nitric acid falls to earth and enters the soil and serves as nutrients for plants.  Old writers  called nitric acid (HNO3) aqua fortis or spirit of niter.”

I clear the sand at my feet for a third equation.

3NO2 (g) + H2O —> 2HNO3 (aq) + NO (g)

“Nitric acid is highly reactive and combines with salts in the soil.  The Hydrogen atom is replaced by a calcium, potassium or sodium atom, converting it to a nitrate salt.  This salt is called saltpeter. The extreme importance of this is that it is plant food.  Saltpeter is used today for gunpowder, fertiliser and to cure meat.”

“Fascinating,” Minette said a bit sarcastic.  I did not notice that she started cooking supper and I can help.  She hands me an onion to peel.  “Saltpeter!”, she said.  I thought its the sweat from a horse.  My dad always said that we ride the horses till the white saltpeter is running down his neck!

I smiled because she did not know how completely correct she was!  The few raindrops that fell stopped.  The sound of the rushing river and the peace of the mountains transcends everything.  I looked at her in the glow of the fire and was struck by her beauty!

The Witels became one of those important cathedrals in our life!  The first time I came down the Witels, it arrested my soul and I fell in love with it.  Unspoiled! If you are thirsty, you drop into the water and drink directly from the river.  The only company for almost the entire length if the baboons on the cliffs.  The place I gave my first lecture on nitrogen and the place where I first noticed how beautiful Minette is.  It was the start of the two great loves of my life.  Unraveling the technical reasons why saltpeter cures meat and Minette!

How much I would love to have you guys here with us.  Today, as they say in the Bible, “my joy is complete” with Minette here with me.  What I was feeling on the Witels and in Penny’s Cave is now undeniable.  I have very strong feelings for this amazing woman who traveled halfway around the world to see me.

When we got home, Andreas and his family provided Minette with her own room.  I was overjoyed that she is staying with us.  That evening around the supper table we told our stories, including my nitrogen lecture on the Witels.  Andreas slapped me on the shoulder when he walked past me.  Let Minette join you tomorrow for Uncle Jeppes’ lunchtime lecture.  He is going to start with “satltpeter” and if you and Minettes’ interest in it, you will both find it fascinating.”

We had the most amazing dinner!

Well, kids, its time to go to bed.  A great week is waiting for me with Minette here.  Next weekend I will write and tell you all about it!

Lots of love,


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Mechanisms of meat curing – the important nitrogen compounds

Chapter 08.02 – The Danish Cooperative and Saltpeter

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

The Danish Cooperatives and Saltpeter

Copenhagen, March 1891


My dear Minette,

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

I have been wondering about meat curing for as long as I can remember.  Even as a child I tried to imagine how people discovered that dry meat lasts longer.  Initially, I believe that people ate meat raw or fermented.  Animal carcasses that are left outside will start to ferment.  Fermentation breaks the tough muscles down and the first priority of humans must have been to find ways to get tough game meat soft.  Leaving the carcass then outside or in water to protect it from preditors would have been a natural way of softening the meat.  Later, boiling the meat and roasting it over fire became other ways to soften meat or pulverizing it with a stick or a rock.

I imagine that as people soon discovered that dry meat lasts long and the wonderful benefits of salt.  Food was initially only seen as something to consume in order to fuel our bodies.  As humans developed, we started changing food into an art form.  The king or leader and people with means could now demand the best meat.  We learned that meat, like any other food, can be prepared in many different ways to improve the taste and food changed into art.  These different techniques of “softening” meat were becoming art in themselves and Sharma, medicine men and women and housewives became the custodians of this new technology.

When we make bacon, we use a technique called curing.  Cured meat is identified by three things.  The salt and saltpeter change the colour of the meat.  When an animal is killed, the meat blooms a beautiful red colour.  If you do not rub it with saltpeter, it changes to a dull brown colour.  If you, however, rub it with a mixture of salt and saltpeter, it changes the colour to a pinkish-reddish colour.  Related to the science of making good bacon, colour is the first key.

The second thing that saltpeter does is to impart a unique cured flavour to the meat.  The third characteristic of cured meat is taste.  The last one is longevity.  Cured meat lasts long outside a refrigerator and in Europe is the staple food in many countries as far as meat is concerned.

I know saltpeter is important because it imparts all three characteristics to bacon.  Let me rather say it like this.  Using Saltpeter is not the only guarantee for good bacon, but leaving it out of the salt-rub, you will never get the right colour, taste or longevity.  You have the option of drying the meat without saltpeter in which case it will also last longer, but the meat will be dry and it will not have the characteristic taste of cured meat.

In South Africa, the old Dutch farmers fused their knowledge of drying meat in the chimnies in Holland and the North European practice of using vinegar in their hams with the indigenous practice of hanging meat out in the sun and wind to dry.  I have found this to be an ancient practice among all the peoples of southern Africa that I met in my travels.

The Dutch farmers add coriander and black pepper with salt to the vinegar to create what they call biltong.  The coriander and black pepper were initially added to mask any off-flavours in case the meat did not dry quick enough and some spoiling of meat has set in. This is a good example where drying works well to preserve meat with or without saltpeter.  Saltpeter can only be left out of the recipe if vinegar is used and lots of salt.

I have always known that the secret of bacon is in saltpeter, but saltpeter is not everything that goes into the making of the best bacon on earth.  So, my quest to understand bacon starts with saltpeter.  What is it and why does it have the power to give longevity to meat, change the colour back to the colour of freshly slaughtered meat why does it give this unique taste?  These are the questions I knew I had to answer first.

Besides understanding saltpeter, our goal in Cape Town is to set up a factory and not merely making bacon for home use.  Scale changes everything.  This is a lesson I learned from very early on.  On my grandfathers’ farm, I have seen how easy it is to make the best bacon on earth if we make it for our family only.  When my dad’s bacon became famous and Dawid de Villiers Graaff placed an order with us, we made five-time more we normally do.  It was a disaster!  Everything went wrong.  We had more workers to help, but they were not trained.  We could not keep the meat cool and in the end, we had to feed most of the meat to our dogs.  Scale is difficult and the importance of the right structure of a bacon factory is something that we can not under-estimate.  Right from the word go, I came face to face with lessons pertaining to structure and ingredients and the first ingredient to look at was saltpeter!

The Spirit of the Danes

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

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

Andreas’ dad told me about just such a man.  In many ways, he is the father of the agricultural miracle of Denmark.  It may sound like a boring report on men and women who lived very long ago, but the truth is that it is an inspirational story about men and women with their backs against the wall.  Who triumphed against the odds.  The man at the center of the story is N. F. S. Grundtvig.

Denmark was an impoverished nation.  They lost Schleswig-Holstein to Germany.  The soil of their lands was depleted and yielding fewer crops with every harvest.  In all of Europe, the Danish soil seemed to be the poorest.   The conditions in 1864 were dire and farmers had little hope competing with Russia and America with their crops.  They were not making money.  Apart from little diversified agriculture, there was very little money in the country.  Farmers identified dairy farming as a lucrative diversification of their economy, but they lacked the money to make their plans a reality.  The depleted soil on the farms offered little collateral for lenders to advance money against.

I wish so much that I would get every South African to hear their message.  We are a nation of faith and still, we complain as if we have no hope.  What we need in South Africa is a prophet, a visionary and a very good plan!  The plan will in all likelihood have to be built on very practical education!  It is exactly for this reason that I am here!  I need to be very clear on the plan!  To my great amazement, the bedrock of the structure of the Danish bacon factory is in the first place not on the mechanics of doing it one way as opposed to another way.  The basis of their entire system rests on an almost religious belief in the power of cooperation and education!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Skimmed Milk to Pork to Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

The farmer in Denmark also uses the state in another interesting way.  Commissions are sent abroad to study foreign methods.  It was most probably on one of these trips that the Danes came across the striking workers in Ireland whom they brought back to Denmark to teach them mild curing.  Mild curing technology that came from Ireland years earlier became the cornerstone of Danish bacon.  It was this industrialised model that allowed the Danes to become the undisputed leaders in the world bacon trade.  The Danes did exactly what we intend doing namely learning not only how the cooperative factory is set up, but also the inner workings of such a factory.  They learned this from the Irish and I intend learning it from them!  That will satisfy one of the cornerstone reasons why I am in Denmark.

Neat, Prepared, Ready

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

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

I can see how my quest to unravel good bacon curing is teaching me as much about life than it is teaching me about meat.  Andreas told me something this afternoon before I retired to my room which is very curious.  He told me that I am too quick to claim that this is the end of my quest.  That simply knowing the steps of bacon curing without understanding it is not to know the steps at all.  Brief exposure to the Danish attitude towards work and cooperation and the internal mechanics of a bacon curing operation is only the beginning of my education.

We were sitting in a small coffee shop one afternoon when Andreas and I were talking about all these matters.  Nothing about the pork trade is easy!  It is one of the most wonderfully complex trades on earth!  He asked me how long I think I will have to stay before I know enough to set up our Woodys bacon plant in Cape Town.  I knew enough by now not to simply venture a guess.  “As long as it takes”, I said.  He smiled.  “There is so much to learn!”  “Stay for at least a year!”.  He then produced a pouch with salt in.  He placed it in the middle of our table.  I dipped a finger in the salt and tasted it.    I recognised it as saltpeter.  “This, he said, is the next subject.  I discussed it with Jeppe and he agrees that after the structure of the factory, understanding Saltpeter is your next priority!”

That was where our business talk ended.  The rest of the afternoon we talked about life.  What it was like growing up in Cape Town and the many different cultures that co-exist in this great city.  I shared many of my experiences with him from my transport business.  I told him the story of Joshua Penny and how, after his ordeal on table Mountain, a Danish captain gave him a job on his ship sailing for Europe.  I invited Andreas to visit us when we set the Cape Town factory up.  The evening was pleasant and I became very fond of my Danish instructor.  A great friendship was struck that would last the rest of my life.

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

I miss you dearly!



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

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Bacon Curing, a Historical Review

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

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

The Mother Brine

Tank Curing came from Ireland

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

Chapter 07: Woodys Bacon

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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

Woodys Bacon

South Africa, August 1890


Upon my return from Johannesburg, I stopped over at Oscar’s farm. It is a well-run business. Every month he receives newsletters from the Cape and Holland about farming and he studies them in detail to learn about farming in the modern way.

Oscar’s father, Uncle James Klynveld, is a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church. His, like Oom Jan, Oom Giel and Oom Sybrand is a more sensible faith compared to many in the Transvaal Republic at this time. He sees all humans as equal before God, irrespective of language and skin colour. This was a view not widely held in the Transvaal. Even in England, there were those who questioned the equality of all races with a debate if black people have souls. Oscar and I shared his view and agreeing on such matters are important when starting a business together.

We also shared the view that England, the two Boer republics, the native tribes, the freed slaves and their descendants, how these groups treated and mistreated each other over the years and acted shamefully in taking what is not theirs and killing and enslaving one another; that, together with the influx of immigrants into the Transvaal in search of gold and the ambition of men like Rhodes – that all these ingredients cannot spell anything but war. Nation against nation and territory against the territory. We see the clouds of war gathering in almost every newspaper we pick up and conversations we have with other people. War is inevitable and we want to plot the most sensible road ahead for our young families.

We believe our future is, not connected to the land, as many of our fellow Boers do but connected to free enterprise. Farming, in Oscar’s mind, is not a God-given right to the Boer nation, but a business that has to make a profit. Security is not vested inland, but a positive bottom line. The idea of a bacon company appeals to us.  We have aspirations to supply every possible market across the land. The two Boer republics, the colonies in the Cape, Natal, passing ships and the British Navy and army and export our finest bacon to the old world of Europe and England.

Johannesburg, Market Square. Photo supplied by Dirk Marais.
Johannesburg Market Square. 1895. Photo supplied by Dirk Marais.

This is then how it came about that on one winter morning in August 1890, we had a formal meeting to establish a bacon curing company in Potchefstroom. (1) Potchefstroom was the former capital of the Transvaal, before the seat of government was moved to Pretoria. Like all Boer towns, it has big gardens surrounding large houses and trees lining the streets. It appears like an oasis on the road from Kimberly which is a monotonous part of the route traveling from Cape Town, through Kimberly to Johannesburg.

We met in Oscar’s voorkamer (living room). It was a bitterly cold night. A hand full of burgers came. Oscar’s wife, Trudie, expecting their 3rd daughter was there. James and Willem, Oscar’s two brothers and Anton, Oscar’s father-in-law. Some of the Boers came out of curiosity but a few other successful farmers were there, looking for an opportunity to invest in the venture. Oupa Eben Kok and his wife Susan were there. My dad and my brother, Elmar, came through for the occasion, taking the train to Bloemfontein and hiring a coach to Potchefstroom.

Oscar’s dad opened the meeting with scripture reading and prayer. His text was Ecclesiastes 9:11. “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (2) He is a man of wisdom and used the words of another wise man, Solomon, to set the course for the adventure ahead. “In the end,” he said, “it will not be our speed, strength, wisdom, understanding, skill or even the riches from investors that will give us success, as important as all these are. Without being at the right place, at the right time, nothing will come to fruition. Commit to the dream and exploit every opportunity with a bounty of enthusiasm and the dream will be turned into a reality.” With these words and in prayer, he commended our venture into the hands of the Almighty God.

woodys logo - Copy

After Uncle James’ words, it was my turn. I presented the outline of the plan and in the middle of my speech, Oscar jumped in when he saw I was using too many words and he summarized the plan nicely. Looking at the faces in the crowd, I could see that our words found favour among the listeners.

Despite much talk and plenty of enthusiasm, being thoroughly convinced that our plan will find widespread appeal, nobody was prepared to join our venture or invest in the business, except a young mining engineer from Kimberly, Dawie Hyman who made a small investment with me personally on account of our long-standing friendship and Anton, Trudie’s father and Oscar’s father-in-law. Initially, it would be up to Oscar and myself to prove that a quality curing operation is possible in our land.

My dad insisted that the standard we aim for in bacon production is nothing less than the legendary Wiltshire Bacon from C&T Harris in England and the bacon we cured on the farm. His reasoning was that even though he believed his own bacon recipe to be the best in the world, the Europeans and English figured out a way to do it faster at constantly good quality. It was one thing to produce one batch of good bacon per year from one pig, but doing it day in and day out, year in and year out was a completely different question. It was a widely held belief around the world that the Harris operation in Wiltshire produces the finest bacon on earth.

Everybody agreed to this, but it presented a problem, far more daunting than our lack of capital. Nobody knew how to cure Wiltshire style bacon. It was decided that since my kids were a bit older than Oscar’s, I had to travel to Europe and England and learn the art of curing large quantities of good bacon! Oscar would stay behind, muster the support and prepare our factory.

We decided not to go to England straight away despite the fact that the Harris family’s factory is there. 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.


Oscar and I met up in Johannesburg a few weeks prior to plan the founding meeting on his farm. The city, only two and a half years or three years old by 1890 was already an impressive place. The streets were broad with buildings on either side, built in a style and an architecture that rivals those of the biggest cities in England. (3)

The main business street is Commissioner street. Off it is the new club, the Bank of Africa, the new Exchange buildings, two large hotels, and several two stories buildings, set up with the sole purpose of conducting business and spanning entire blocks with offices for hundreds of brokers and speculators. There is a hustle and bustle about the city as bricklayers are furiously at work, filling every available space with new buildings. (3)

There are several open spaces provided in the city to act as recreation areas and market squares. In the middle of the city is the principal, large market square.

This square is my final destination when I travel to Johannesburg. The square is filled each morning with ox wagons loaded with produce from the Transvaal, the Cape Colony, Natal, and the Free State, sold to the highest bidder. In the center of the square is a large brick building, 100 feet wide and 200 feet long, the market house proper. It is surrounded completely by coffee stalls. (3)

We met in the stately Mounts Bay Hotel in Pritchard Street. (4) At the hotel’s bar, time and chance overtook ability, as Solomon would have it, and we met an old spice trader from Copenhagen. He drank a copious amount of beer, even at midday, while always smoking his pipe.

Two particular aspects of the meeting were very fortuitous. Firstly, he had an intimate knowledge of the spice industry and could tell us exactly where we can get the best curing salt for meat. Secondly, it turned out that he knew just the man who could teach us how to make good bacon on a very large scale. He was very insistent that if we were serious about learning this art, we should travel to Denmark first where he would introduce us to a young friend of his who did an apprenticeship in meat curing and cutting. (5)

At the time I could not understand why we would learn the art of Wiltshire bacon curing, from a man in Denmark. Was it even the same process? How did the Danes do it? That night in the Mount Bay Hotel on Prichard street I had too much good local witblits with Oscar and the trader from Denmark to be overly concerned with this question. This is how it came about that Oscar and I made the plan of inviting friends and family to a meeting at his farm where we would establish our bacon curing company. We were resolved to give practical manifestation to our vision without any delay.

Soon I was back in Cape Town, wrapping up my business and preparing for the trip to Denmark. I met Uncle Jakobus at his Papendorp home with David de Villiers Graaff. The plan excited David. (6) I was reluctant to ask either him or Uncle Jakobus to invest in our venture. They would be our biggest client in the Cape and I did not want to compromise future price negotiations by having one of our main clients as an investor. Oscar was concerned about how such a move would be viewed by other potential clients who are opposed to Combrinck & Co. So, I omitted the possibility of investing in our venture from our final moments together, being content to greet my old friends and share good Cape wine together. In later years I looked back with great fondness at this meeting. It was the last time I would see Uncle Jacobus.

David, on the other hand, I continued to see over the years, and our friendship grew even stronger. The next time would be in Copenhagen. That same month, on 14 August 1890, David was elected as mayor of Cape Town at the young age of 31.

John Woodhead, a much older friend from our mountain climbing circle of friends, owned a leather tanning business (7) in town. He was the current mayor of Cape Town. He and David also knew each other well. He bought almost all the hides from Combrinck & Co.. The young David grew up in front of him and after John’s second term in office as major (1886 and 1888), he proposed the young David as Major. (The Sheffield Daily Telegraph and Dommisse, page 43 -51)

John knew Table Mountain and having spent lots of time there on account of large civil projects which he initiated. There is the impressive Woodhead Reservoir and the Woodhead Tunnel. John who grew up in England came from a family of big civils people. There, one of his family members built the Woodhead Pass crossing the Pennine chain of hills.

I said farewell to my hiking buddies by trecking up Table Mountain with them one last time before I depart. The grout that came up was Achmat, Taahir, Mike, Uncle John, Minette and I. We went up with Platteklip Gorge, past the slave caves (8), down with Grott Ravine, across to Fountain Ravine where we scrambled to Penny’s Cave (9). This mysterious and secluded cave overlooks the Atlantic.   We spent the night here.

We laughed and told stories till long after midnight. We dreamed about the mountains that I would climb in Europe and celebrated our great friendship. I was, in particular, sad to say good buy to Minette.

A year earlier Julie and I decided to end our relationship, opting to rather stay the best of friends than living together as husband and wife. We married when we were children and as we grew up, realised that we are growing apart with vastly different views of life. This became a matter of bitter resentment from my larger family, but it was the right thing to do. It saddened my dad especially, but over the weeks and months and years, as he could see how we each individually were happier with our new circumstances, I think he made peace with it. Julie and I lived in very close proximity to each other on the slopes of Table Mountain and bringing kids up in two homes that close was a convenient arrangement for both of us in light of my many travels. It continued to baffle the Cape Town community, but we did not care for their opinions on the matter.

In the years following this, I became better friends than ever before with Minette who was now working for the Bank of the Netherlands in Cape Town. I started spending a lot of time with her seeking advice on financing our bacon company and we hiked up Table Mountain almost every weekend when I was home. I grew very fond of her and suddenly, sitting in Penny’s cave, watching the majestic sunset over the western ocean, I realised how much I would miss her.

Kerkplein 1930
Church Square, Pretoria, 1930. Courtesy of Nico Moolman

The Nederlandsche Bank en Credietvereeniging voor Zuid-Afrika was founded on Thursday, 1 March 1888 in Amsterdam as the Nederlandsche Bank en Credietvereeniging voor Zuid-Afrika (“Dutch Bank and Credit Union for South Africa”). The bank opened its first offices in Church Street in Pretoria on 1 August (12) and Minette worked for their branch in Stellenbosch.

I spend a few days with my Mom and Dad, helping around the house and riding to work with Dad in the mornings. He encouraged me to seek the best artisan and to be trained by him. He told me that he wished he was young again and could embark on such an adventure with me.

Almost every moment of my last days at home I spent with the kids. Tristan and Lauren are the light of my life and the only thing that made it possible to leave them was the knowledge that what I learn would enable our new company to prosper so that we could provide for our families.

One spring morning, late in 1890, I was on the deck of a Danish vessel, en route for Copenhagen. I waved goodbye to everybody who came to the harbour to see me off. My gran, Ouma Susan, my mom and dad, my Uncle Jan Kok and his family, David de Villiers Graaff, the kids, my hiking friends, and Minette. My brothers, Andre and Elmar were there. Oscar and Trudie came down from Potchefstroom to see me off and Oscar’s father in law, Anton. Dawie Hyman came down from Kimberley.

As the ship set sail and the crew was scrambling about, as Table Mountain and the view of my friends and family faded, my mind wandered back to Oscar’s voorkamer and the founding meeting of our company. The Harris family smoked their bacon if it was destined for one of the colonies on account of the added preserving power given by the smoke. (10) Since the clients would expect the same smokey flavour, we knew that our bacon would be wood smoked also. One of the Boer ladies who attended, a prolific artist, saw the connection of bacon, natural wood smoking and suggested the name Woody’s. (11) Oscar and I loved it and the name was adopted for our company.

With a sudden cold sea breeze in my face and open sea ahead, with the greatest sense of excitement and expectation, I softly whispered to myself, “and so starts the adventure of Woody’s Bacon!!”


(c) eben van tonder

Bacon & the art of living” in bookform
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(1) Eben created the Woodys bacon brand in August 2007. Oscar, who had a distributions business in Potchefstroom, Transwest Distributors, joined forces with Eben in December of that year and in January 2008 they created Woody’s Consumer Brands (Pty) Ltd. together with Anton. They initially outsourced their manufacturing.

They started to prepare 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.

(2) Quote from the KJV, would have been from the Dutch Statevertaling, the standard bible text used in 1890 among the Boers. In actuality, the text and its interpretation was suggested many years earlier to Eben by his friend Dawie Hyman who, apart from a qualified engineer, is also a graduate from the Masters Seminary and who was a pastor in Johannesburg before returning to the USA. It became one of Eben’s favourite Bible texts.

(3) Description of Johannesburg and the journey from Kimberley from The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont), 14 Feb 1890, page 7, Scenes in South Africa

(4) The Mounts Bay Hotel was built in 1889 in Pritchard Street and survived until 1909.

After Woody’s Consumer Brands was created, the first meeting was held at the Palazzo Hotel, at Montecasino, Johannesburg at the end of Jan 2011. It was attended by Eben and Oscar as well as Dawie Hyman who initially was part of the company and an investor who supported Eben while establishing the brand and a lifelong friend of Eben’s, Elmar, Eben’s brother who was initially involved in a scheme to procure pigs from small farmers in the Southern Cape and Sophia Krone, an old school friend if Eben, turned top-notch corporate consultant and executive coached who lead the inaugural meeting and who was very involved early on in direction and goal setting of the company. She did not like the out-sourced manufacturing model, predicting that the company would struggle until it had its own manufacturing plant.

(5) In 2011, Oscar and Eben met with the Danish owner of a spice company in Johannesburg. This paved the way for a visit to Denmark where they would start learning the art of bacon and be introduced to the spice industry by a skilled young man from Denmark who is both an expert in spices and a who did a deboning apprenticeship.

(6) In the 1890s, David visited Europe and the United States to investigate the use of refrigeration in meatpacking plants. In Chicago, he visited the Armour Meat Packing plant. In January 1890, back in South Africa, he exchanged letters with Pulsometer Engineering Company about the latest refrigeration technology. Soon afterward, refrigeration chambers were installed at Combrinck & Co. (Dommisse, page 31 – 33)

(7) J. Woodheads & Sons, a leather tannery business, was established by John Woodhead in 1867. The company exists to this day, still located in Cape Town, making it one of the oldest companies in South Africa.

(8) These are two shallow caves up Platteklip Gorge that were inhabited by runaway slaves. The caves are situated right next to the old footpath up the gorge just before one enters between two large vertical cliffs. This was still the route up by the late 1800’s and would have been the route that Eben, Minette, Achmat and Taahir took if they did the hike in 1890.

(9) Joshua Penny was an American, impressed into the British Navy, who visited the Cape, where he took part in the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795. He deserted and spent fourteen months in hiding on Table Mountain.

Jim Searle led an expedition of mountaineers in 1892 and 1894 to what is believed to be the main cave where Joshua Penny stayed (where he stayed the longest). The, very difficult to find and access, the cave is located on Fountain Ravine, Table Mountain and it overlooks the Atlantic, just as Penny described. The main clues of Penny’s use of this cave are items found in the cave that dates back to the time of Penny’s habitation and correlates to descriptions given by him about items of clothing and a knife he had with him. These items are beautifully displayed at the Cape Town offices of the Mountain Club of South Africa, courtesy of Mike Scott. Looking at all the evidence carefully, it is probable that the cave, identified as Panny’s Cave by the Mountain Club of South Africa, is indeed the right cave.

On 13 June 2019, Eben, Tristan, and Mike Wakeford hiked to Penny’s cave.  To do so was a lifelong dream of Eben.  Years earlier he mentioned this desire to Mike, a friend, and professional mountain guide.  Mike has himself spent years investigating various access routes to the very secluded cave.

Eben flew back to Cape Town from Johannesburg where he was working at Van Wyngaardt on 12 June.  On the morning of the 13th, on Minette’s birthday, the three set out to the cave.  After their hike, Eben posted the following on FB.

“Around 10 years ago a relationship started with the story of Joshua Penny, the American who was pressed into service by the British, partook in the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795, deserted, learned bushcraft from the Khoi and who lived for a considerable time on Table Mountain. He escaped to Table Mountain in 1799 after he was arrested and faked injury. He lived in caves in Table Mountain, making traditional Khoi dishes and brewed beer from honey and smoking his pipe.

A member of the mountain club of SA located the cave. Jim Searle led an expedition of mountaineers in 1892 and 1894 to what is believed to be the main cave where Joshua Penny stayed. Articles were recovered that fit the description by Penny of what he took with him. It became known as Penny’s cave. He lived in many caves on the mountain but was this one of them and his last one where he left his few possessions? I was skeptical about this being one of his caves because a piece of wood that Penny used to cut small notches in to keep time was presumably found, and lost in the way down. Having been to the cave I am, however, convinced it was his caves. Its location is obscure enough and fits his way that he hunted animals by chasing them over cliffs. He may have discovered it while doing just this. It is secluded enough and difficult to get to which fits the choice a man in hiding.

It was an ordeal for young Penny. When he eventually went down after, think it was 2 years, the Danish Captain that he met on the Muizenberg side did not recognise him as human. He was probably wearing animal skins and his condition must have been very bad.

The location of the cave is not widely publicised and it is extremely difficult and treacherous to get to. Mike Wakeford spent years looking for ways to get to the cave. This morning T and I fulfilled a life long ambition to hike to it when Mike took us on the adventure of a lifetime. MinetteLuani, and Luan celebrate their B Day today and we gave Minette a present of getting a route that she and her sister will be able to use to get to his cave.

Here is the clip of our arrival at the cave this afternoon.

So many years of planning and research. Mikes amazing efforts of exploring all possible routes. Tristan, wow, joining us on an epic epic epic epic adventure. Everything on the origin of meat dished being inspired by Joshua’s story. Minette, our motivation to search for an accessible route. I am speechless tonight!!! Wow!! Wow!! Wow!!! Life is beautiful!!!!”

Here we arrive at the cave.

Here are the first glimpses of the cave.

Inside Pennys Cave.



(10) This is true as a historical fact. Bacon, in those days, sent to the colonies, was not only cured but smoked also. Coating the bacon with smoke gave it added antimicrobial protection on the long journey. In England, cured, unsmoked bacon is sold as a product option to this day while in the previous colonies, the bacon is usually cured and smoked.

(11) The name was suggested by Carina Lochner from Somerset West who also designed to Woodys logo as well as the Woody’s packaging for the first few years. The name originates from the fact that Woody’s is produced using natural wood smoke.

(12) “In 1903 the company was renamed to Nederlandsche Bank voor Zuid-Afrika (“Dutch Bank for South Africa”). In 1906, the bank expanded and an office in London was opened. The bank split in 1951, renaming its South African part as Nederlandse Bank in Suid-Afrika Beperk/Netherlands Bank of South Africa Limited (“NBSA”). In 1969, the number of South African shareholders increased significantly and the company became 100% South African-owned after the Bank Mees en Hope sold 20 percent of its shares. The South African part was completely independent. The Dutch part of the bank no longer exists. Syfrets SA and Boland Bank listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1969. In 1971 NBSA changed its name to Nedbank. Nedbank Group formed from the merger of Syfrets SA, Union Acceptances and Nedbank in 1973. In 1986 Old Mutual Limited became the major shareholder (53%) of Nedbank.

In 1992, Syfrets, UAL Merchant Bank, and Nedbank Investment Bank Division merged to become Nedcor Investment Bank (NIB). Old Mutual, Nedcor’s holding company, was demutualised and listed on the London Stock Exchange in 1999. It became a constituent of the FTSE 100 Index. Nedcor and Old Mutual joined forces in an offshore private banking venture and acquired the Isle of Man and Jersey private banking business of Robert Fleming & Co. in 2001.

The new Nedcor Group was formed on 1 January 2003, combining Nedcor, BoE, Nedcor Investment Bank, and Cape of Good Hope Bank into one legal entity. The Nedcor Group was renamed the Nedbank Group on 6 May 2005. As part of the managed separation, on 15 October 2018, Old Mutual reduced its shareholding in Nedbank Group to 19,9%.” (Didi Basson,


Dommisse, E. Sir David de Villiers Graaff, First Baronet of De Grendel. 2011. Tafelberg.

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

The Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Wednesday, 20 April 1898, Obituary

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

Photo Credits:

New York Tribune, Sunday, 18 March 1900, Page 23, The War in South Africa