Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia's Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon Eben van Tonder 18 December 2021
-: Dedicated to my Son, Tristan van Tonder who is 24 today and Shanonnon Hounsell who share his life and his birthday! You have been part of so many quests and discoveries! What an amazing world we live in! :-
The study of Westphalia Bacon and Ham smoking techniques and the Empress of Russia’s Brine leads us to one of the most astonishing discoveries about the history of curing since I uncovered the role of the First World War and the direct addition of nitrites to curing brines. (The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – the Master Butcher from Prague and The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War) Whether fermentation or through adding nitrites directly, curing is dependent upon nitric oxide formation from nitrite salts. How nitrite salts are accessed brought about two roads that run parallel and have been for hundreds of years. The direct and most recent development in curing where nitrite salts are used instead of nitrates. The first curing salt where this was included was Praganda from the city of Prague. Griffiths Laboratories brought out Prague Salt and soon afterwards Prague Powder and became the international evangelists of this new curing system. Before this, nitrite salts were accessed through deliberate fermentation in the system that was invented by William Oake in Northern Ireland (Mild Cured Bacon), was exported to Denmark through disgruntled striking bacon workers (The Danish Cooperative and Saltpeter) and became Wiltshire cure or tank curing or the live brine system which was so typical of English bacon (Wiltshire Cured or Tank Cured Bacon). The power of the old brine is in the fact that nitrate salts have been reduced to nitrite salts through bacterial fermentation. By re-using the old brine, one now has a brine with nitrites in it already and curing speed is vastly improved. I never dreamt that I would be able to discover how this was brought about? Why did people start to re-use the old brine? What forces caused people to start using it? A study of Westphalian bacon and ham and the Empress of Russia’s Brine leads me to the discovery of the origins of what later was progressed and composed into a complete system by the Northern Ireland chemist, William Oake. (Mild Cured Bacon) Unravelling the mechanism of moving from an immersion brine with dry salting to start re-using the brine was completely unexpected and, in the end, became one of the most thrilling discoveries of my career!
The Primitive Descriptions of Dr Cogan
It started with a study of Westphalian ham and bacon. A description of the process is given by Dr Cogan who toured the region of Westphalia. His description comes to us from a 1796 newspaper article. His language could be a bit clearer, and considering it carefully, he seems to be speaking about the application of stove technology in the houses in Westphalia in the 1700s.
He describes the Scheuren or Barns where the people lived as housing a small family and their livestock. Hogs and poultry occupied the middle section with horses, milk cows and oxen on the one extremity. The family lived mostly on the gable end of the building. The hearth or fireplace was far from the door. The fire was normally made of oak wood and smoke, with no chimney or vent, collected in the middle of the roof and was distributed through the entire structure and finally escaped through the barn door. A reflecting board was placed perpendicular above the fireplace at such a height that it prevented the collecting of the smoke among the beams and rafters by diffusing each column as it rises over the middle region. Dr Cogan compared it to the sounding board on a pulpit.
Some of the Scheuren or Barns had a second small apartment called a stove room. This room was warmed by a stove, or a furnace placed against the wall and generally heated from without through an opening in the partition wall so that the air in the apartment has no access to the fuel but received a close, hot, humid, and unwholesome heat from an accumulation of ignited particles which have no proper vent.
He referred to these machines as ovens. It is a generic term used referring to a particular furnace which is most generally used in Germany at the time. It looks like a furnace! The ovens of the rich were elaborately constructed with an elegantly crafted iron with ornaments and figures in relief with crafted Saxon china. It is useful in large and spacious apartments but in these small spaces, they yield suffocating heat.
To Dr Cogan, this seemed to be the cause for frequent pulmonary complaints in Germany and in England. He mentioned that this is not the case in Holland where rooms are more spacious and fires not so violent and the inhabitants are better dressed for the cold.
The success of the Westphalian hams and bacon was in large part ascribed to the construction of these barns and to the fact that they do not have chimneys. The ham and bacon were hung in the thick stream of smoke, a few yards away from the board by which it was repelled. The fact that it hung in the smoke and not in the heat meant that the fat did not turn rancid as is the case with chimney smoked ham.
Another report points out that if hams are left in a warm and moist environment “they have acquired that degree of softness which precedes purification. Then they are duly salted and exposed to the current [of smoke]. (The Ipswich Journal, 1796) This refers to the curing process but once it has been cured, the meat is hung in the smoke. Curing and smoking are always dealt with in combination and, as we will see later, most often in the context of a very particular brine from Russia called the Impress of Russia’s Brine.
A newspaper report from Northern Ireland in 1841 fills out the picture more fully. It seems that Dr Cogan’s report speaks about small villages. A description comes to us from much earlier, in 1841 and it describes a more “formal” or bigger Westphalia smoking operation. Smoking Westphalia hams was done at this time in “extensive chambers in the upper stories” as Dr Cogan describes, but then seems to be speaking about a structure in a city, either an apartment or large factory because it says that the buildings are “high. . . , some of four or five stories.”
The fire was made in the cellar which also speaks of a bigger building and “the smoke was directed to the meat through pipes in which the heat was absorbed, and the moisture removed.” I would love to know how this was achieved! (Belfast News-Letter, 1841) “The smoke was dry and cool when it came into contact with the meat. The meat is, in this way, perfectly dried and had a flavour and a colour far superior to meat smoked in the “common method.” (Belfast News-Letter, 1841)
The strict aversion to heat of any kind in the smokehouse was not shared universally. Some favoured meat in the drying stage due to the removal of moisture through heat. The Westphalia method of smoking was called “cold smoking” as early as 1864 but there was also a method of smoking called “wet smoke” or “moist smoke” as opposed to “dry smoking”. The complete quote related to Westphalia hams is: “Westphalia Hams. —These usually come by way of Hamburg, and owe their fine flavour to their being “cold smoked.” The hams are hung in the upper part of tin building; the smoke is generated in the cellar and carried up to the smoking-room through tubes. During its ascent, it deposits all moisture, and when it comes in contact with the hams it is both dry and cold so that no undue change occurs in the meat while being smoked. —Newspaper paragraph.” (The English and Australian Cookery Book, 1864)
Revelations by Richard Bradley
Our earliest reference to Westphalia hams and bacon comes through the English botanist, Richard Bradley who sent a letter to James Petiver seeking information on the secret of salting, drying, and blackening bacon, gammon, or ham in the west German way as early as 1714.
The 17th- and early 18th-century methods of preparing these, delicacy eluded him until his great friend John Warner of Rotherhithe went to Germany and wrote him a letter on the subject in about 1721. I quote the entire letter published in 1726.
“Friend Bradley, Thy favour of the 30th ult. I receiv’d; in answer to which, I send thee the method used to cure bacon in and about Hamburgh and Westphalia, which is after this manner: Families that kill one, two, or three hogs a year, have a closet in the garret joining to their chimney, made very right and close, to contain Smoke, in which they hang their Bacon to dry out of the reach of the heat of the fire, that it may be gradually dried by the smoke only, and not by heat; the smoke is conveyed into the closet by a hole in the chimney near the floor, and a place made for an iron stopper to be thrust into the funnel of the chimney about one Foot above the hole, to stop the smoke from ascending up the chimney, and force it through the hole into the closet. The smoke is carried off again by another hole in the funnel of the chimney above the said stopper, almost at the ceiling, where it vents itself. The upper hole must not be too big, because the closet must be always full of smoke, and that from wood fires; for coal, or turf, or peat smoke, I apprehend will not do so well.” (Richard Bradley, 1726)
In terms of curing the meat, the process does not mention the reuse of the old brine which shows that it was not always used in Westphalia. So, even in Westphalia, there were two basic curing methods. One with saltpetre and one where only salt is used. In this instance, the latter is described. John Warner of Rotherhithe writes, “the manner of salting is no other than as we salt meat in common; sometimes they use our Newcastle salt, or St. Ubes, or Lisbon Salt, and a Salt that’s made at Nuremberg (not so good as Newcastle) made from salt springs; in those parts they do not salt their bacon or beef so much as we do in England . . .” (Richard Bradley, 1726)
He quickly returns to the subject and the importance of salt and smoke and shows that in this curing method, no saltpetre is used. In the salt-smoke combination, he focuses again on the smoke. He writes, “the smoke helps to cure, as well as the salt; for I have seen when dry’d flesh hath not hang’d long enough in the smoke, it would be green within, when if it had hung its time, it would have been red quite through; for as the smoke penetrates, it cures the flesh, and colours it red without any salt-petre, or any other Art.” (Richard Bradley, 1726)
The last purported special ingredient in Westphalia ham and bacon is the feed. Some authors try and make a case that they feed their swine differently before they are slaughtered by letting them roam the woods and feed on acorns, but this was also the practice in many parts of England. John Warner of Rotherhithe therefore correctly observes “as to the feed of their swine, I saw no difference between their feed and ours here if any have the preference, I believe the English, and our bacon would be full as good, if not better than the Westphalia if cured alike.” (Richard Bradley, 1726)
He concludes, “I have here above answered thy desire, and wish it may be approved by our Bacon Makers; for the bacon will not only be not so salt, but relish better every way, Thy Friend, John Warner.” (Richard Bradley, 1726)
Transferring the Technology to England
Back to the topic of smoking meat, Bradley gives the most satisfying news that someone in England took him up on his description of the Westphalia smokehouse. First, he thanks his collaborator, Mr Warner for providing him with the information which he was quick to disseminate to interested parties in England. He writes, “I am obliged to Mr John Warner, a very ingenious gentleman of Rotberbith, for the first just account of preparing bacon in the Westphalia manner, and from whose letter to me, I have already communicated to the public the principles of the art.” (Bradley, 1732)
The most satisfying part of the exchange is the report that some took the method up in England. “Since which [the communication to the English public], my learned and curious friend, Dr Corbet of Bourn-Place near Canterbury, has built a bacon-house capable of drying (as I am informed) sixty large hogs at one time, and has even improved upon the Westphalia method, viz. by drying so large a quantity by one fire, when the drying-rooms or closets abroad do not cure, perhaps, above five or fix hogs at a time.” (Bradley, 1732)
The construction in Westphalia smokehouse is the same as we have seen repeatedly, namely a closet that was installed in the attic for ham or bacon smoking. Dr Corbet of Bourn-Place constructed the largest dedicated smokehouse that we are so far aware of in the early 1700s, capable of accommodating 60 large pigs. I assume the Dr Corbett who is referred to and is associated with Bourne-Park, is Dr John Colbert who married the eldest sister of Sir Hewitt, Elisabeth. (Godfrey, 1929) He was not a very savoury character but the fact that he embraces this new method of smoking reveals a positive angle on his character. It may, however, have more to do with him being desperate to fund the large estate than anything else.
Reusing Old Brine
An 1852 report by Youatt makes it clear that the method of reusing old brine and boiling it in between was practised in Westphalia. One cannot take the earlier accounts we looked at as exhaustive and a summary of all the various techniques used in Westphalia. They represent what the reporters saw and none of them set out to do a complete survey of curing and smoking techniques in Westphalia. The account we will look at next is later and may point to a progression in curing techniques of the early 1700s to the early 1800s. On the other hand, it may simply include a method that may have been in use in the early 1700s at certain places and one that the reporters of earlier simply did not see.
It relates to the re-use of the old brine. He writes, “The annexed system is the one usually pursued in Westphalia: — ” Six pounds of rock salt, two pounds of powdered loaf sugar, three ounces of saltpetre, and three gallons of spring or pure water, are boiled together. This should be skimmed when boiling, and when quite cold poured over the meat, every part of which must be covered with this brine. Small pork will be sufficiently cured in four or five days; hams, intended for drying, will be cured in four or five weeks, unless they are very large. This pickle may be used again and again, if it is fresh boiled up each time with a small addition to the ingredients. Before, however, putting the meat into the brine, it must be washed in water, the blood pressed out, and the whole wiped clean.” (Youatt, 1852) This cure was called the Empress of Russia’s Brine.
The Magazine of Domestic Economy, and Family Review, Volume 1, Jan 1843, W.S. Orr & Company gives the same description as Youatt in 1852. The 1843 account begins as follows. “In Europe, the Russian pork is much esteemed, and bears a high price; its quality is supposed to be owin to the pickle in which it is preserved.” The rest of the quote which Youatt omits in his 1852 work reads as follows from 1843: “Pickling tubs should be larger at the bottom than at the top; by which means, when well packed, the pork will retain its place until the last layer is exhausted. When the pork is cool, it may be cut up, the hams and shoulders for bacon, and the remainder salted. Cover the bottom of the tub or barrel with rock-salt, and on it place a layer of meat, and so on till the tub is filled. Use the salt liberally, and fill the barrel with strong brine, boiled and skimmed, and then cooled. The following method of preparing hams and shoulders is a good one, as many who have tried it in substance can testify. To ascertain the probable weight of the meat to be prepared, weigh a number of the hams and shoulders. Then pack them with rock-salt in a suitable tub or cask, being careful not to lay the flat sides of the large pieces upon each other, and filling the intervals with hocks, jowls, & c. To every 300lbs. of meat, then take 20lbs . of rock-salt or Onondaga coarse salt, 1lb. of saltpetre, and 14lbs. of brown sugar, or half a gallon of molasses, and as much water ( pure spring water is the best ) as will cover the meat: put the whole in a clean vessel, boil and scum, then set it aside to cool, and pour it on the meat till the whole is covered some three or four inches. Hams weighing from 12 to 15lbs. must lay in the pickle about five weeks; from 15 to 25lbs. , six weeks; from 25 to 45lbs., seven weeks. On taking them out, soak them in cold water two or three hours to remove the surface salt, then wipe and dry them. It is a good plan in cutting up to take off feet and hocks with a saw instead of an axe, as it leaves a smooth surface and no fractures for the lodgment of the fly. Some make only six pieces of a trimmed hog for salting; but it is more convenient when intended for domestic use, to have the side pork, as it is called, cut in small pieces. The goodness of hams and shoulders, and their preservation, depend greatly on their smoking, as well as salting.”
The Empress of Russia’s Brine
This 1843 report we just looked at and where the brine is described in detail links the Empress of Russia’s brine with Westphalia’s method of smoking. It is not called that specifically, but other sources name the brine. The rest of the quote reads as follows, “The goodness of hams and shoulders, and their preservation, depend greatly on their smoking, as well as salting. Owing to some misconstruction of the smoke house, or to the surface of the meat not being properly freed from the saline matter, or other causes, it not infrequently happens that during the process of smoking, the meat is constantly moist, and imbibes a pyroligneous acid taste and smell, destructive of its good qualities. The requisites of a smoke-house are, that it should be perfectly dry; not warmed by the fire that makes the smoke; so far from the fire, that any vapour thrown off in the smoke may be condensed before reaching the meat; so close as to exclude all flies, mice, & c., and yet capable of ventilation and escape of smoke. The Westphalian hams are the most celebrated in Europe, principally cured at, and exported from, Hamburg. The smoking of these is performed in extensive chambers in the upper stories of high buildings some of four or five stories; and the smoke is conveyed to these rooms from fires in the cellar, through tubes on which the vapour is condensed and heat absorbed, so that the smoke is both dry and cool when it comes in contact with the meat. They are thus perfectly dry and acquire a colour and flavour unknown to those smoked in the common method. Hams after being smoked may be kept any length of time, by being packed in dry ashes, powdered charcoal, or being kept in the smoke-house, if that is secure against the fly, or a smoke is made under them once a week. When meat is fully smoked and dried, it may be kept hung up in a dry room, by slipping over it a cotton bag, the neck of which is closely tied around the string which supports the meat, and thus excludes the bacon bug, & c. The small part of a ham, shoulder, & c., should always be hung downwards in the process of smoking, or when suspended for preservation.”
The main point of this quote above is the date, 1843 where the Empress of Russia’s brine is linked with Westphalia smoking. The brine is also given in the Pictorial Times: Volume 2, Jan 1843. In 1841 in New England Farmer, and Horticultural Register – Volume 19 Joseph Breck and Co. the entire quote is given as I have just given it. Several publications featured the brine in 1839. The Farmers’ Cabinet, Volume 3, 1838 gives the same recipe but says that it was copied from an English publication.
The long version of the recipe also appeared in a number of newspapers at that time. New England Farmer, 1841 is one example. Several more carried it between 1842 and 1844. Of great interest is the same report that appeared in the Belfast News-Letter, 1841. The name of the brine is given as the Empress of Russia’s Brine.
Who was the Empress?
– Alexandra Feodorovna?
So, the origin of the cure is Russian, but who will the Empress be that is referring to. I asked the question on a Russian site and Maria Didurenko responded almost immediately. “At that time, the Empress was Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Nicholay the First. She was of Prussian origin and according to my information, which, perhaps, colleagues will correct, she was not fond of gastronomy at all. Salt was relatively expensive at that time, the cost of a pood of salt (16 kg) was about 300 silver rubles (source General I. F. Blaramberg). I can assume that it was the high cost that made it necessary to look for options for the most efficient use of expensive raw materials.”
The first option I have is then Alexandra Feodorovna, born Princess Charlotte of Prussia, the wife of Nicholay the First. Without any reason to doubt the veracity of the information given me I wondered if there was another Empress of Russia who was closely associated with salt. From the references we looked at so far, it seems unlikely that she is the empress referred to since she passed away in 1860 and the 1810 reference to the brine which we will look at momentarily, refers to her as already “late” by 1810. It, therefore, ruled out Alexandra Feodorovna.
More importantly than the actual name that Maria Didurenko gave me “what to look for!” She started a twofold quest. On the one hand, to see if I can find a name associated with the reference in any of the many references to this brine and on the other hand, can I identify an Empress of Russia who was deeply involved in salt?
– A clue – Catherine?
Baylor (1889) offers a further clue when he writes, about an “Incomparable Method of Salting Meat as Adopted by the late Empress of Russia,” “more expensive than common brine,” as imperial brine has a right to be, “but promising advantages that most people would be glad to purchase at a much higher price.” It seemed as if the phrase, “Incomparable Method of Salting Meat as Adopted by the late Empress of Russia,” was a heading for the discussion on the brine and the reference to it as the “Empress of Russia’s Brine” to be a change that was later made. So, when I searched for the more likely original title, I happened upon the 1810 publication, The Family Receipt-book, Or, Universal Repository of Useful Knowledge and Experience in All the Various Branches of Domestic Economy, Oddy and Company. This publication gives the same Empress of Russia’s Brine, with the phrase, “Incomparable Method of Salting Meat as Adopted by the late Empress of Russia” as the heading, just as I suspected it would be but adds the following sentence, “the following method of salting meat is asserted to have been used by the great Empress Catharine, in her household establishment, with the utmost success.”
Before we look at the identity of the Empress in question, first a look at additional information given about the brine in what is most likely the original quote. The wording is slightly different and other elements are discussed. It begins the same way. “Boil together, over a gentle fire, six pounds of common salt, two pounds of powdered loaf sugar, three ounces of saltpetre, and three gallons of spring water. Carefully scum it, while boiling; and, when quite cold, pour it over the meat, every part of which must be covered with the brine .”
The fact that it is intended to be used again only becomes clear towards the end of the quote. The following is what is omitted by the other references. “In this pickle, it is said, the meat will not only keep for many months, but the hardest and toughest beef will thus be rendered as mellow and tender as the flesh of a young fowl; while either beef, pork, or even mutton, will have a fine flavour imparted by it. In warm weather, however, the blood must be expressed from the meat, and the whole well rubbed over with fine salt before it is immersed in the liquor. Young pork should not be left longer than three or four days in this pickle, as it will then be quite sufficiently softened: but hams, intended for drying, may remain a fortnight before they are hung up; when they should be rubbed with pollard, and closely covered with paper bags, to prevent their being fly-blown. Though this pickle is, at first, somewhat more expensive than common brine, as it may be again used, on being boiled with additional water and the other ingredients, it is far from being, on the whole, importantly more dear; while it seems to promise advantages which most people would be happy to purchase at a much higher price.”
The enigmatic phrase “it seems to promise advantages which most people would be happy to purchase at a much higher price” without question refers to the speed of curing. The phrase “with advantage” has also cropped up in other references to the re-use of brine and I wonder if those references are not all based on this one from the brine of Catherine!
The link which other authors make between the Empress of Russia’s Brine and Westphalian hams and bacon is almost certainly a later addition, a link that did not originally exist. It is quite possible that due to the reference we have of the re-use of the brine in Westphalia, that this region became one of the earliest to adopt the “Empress Brine” outside Russia and the link between the two may be as simple as this. The original method used in Westphalia was described in the same terms as the “Empress Brine.”
– Catherine the Great!
Catherine, who is referred to, was most certainly non-other than Catherine II (born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst; 2 May 1729 – 17 November 1796), most commonly known as Catherine the Great. She was the last reigning Empress Regnant of Russia (from 1762 until 1796) and the country’s longest-ruling female leader.
The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 26 Oct 1841 now becomes important. If this brine was discovered by Catherine the Great, or someone associated with her court, and if the reports of the brine made it to Antrim, Northern Ireland much earlier than 1841, then the tantalising possibility exists that William Oake, the chemist from Ulster in Northern Ireland, learned of the existence of this brine and progressed the idea by doing away with the boiling step between the different batches. The earliest mention of mild cured bacon I could find was in newspaper reports from Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1837. It is fair to conjecture that the invention did not happen far from there. The report that William Oake from Ulster invented the process and the earliest reference to “mild cured bacon” coming from Antrim correlates since Antrim is in Ulster. The fact that the existence of the Empress of Russia’s brine was reported on, four years later, also in Antrim, seems to be too much to be merely coincidental!
Of all the Empresses of Russia, Catherine the Great fits the profile of the inspiration behind the brine or possibly its inventor, the best. It was in her time that the salt tax would play a major part in Russian society. By the end of the 1760s, the combined direct taxes, the salt tax with the liquor tax would account for more than 3/4 of the national income in a time when the Russian economy was desperate for revenue to fund its expansions. (LeDonne, 1975)
The person behind the drive to raise indirect taxes was Petr Ivanovič Šuvalov, the chief of the artillery. His thinking dominated policy in the 1750s to the extent that he was in reality the minister of the economy. Collecting the indirect taxes amongst which salt was a major component was so successful that between 1750 and 1756 he was able to reduce direct taxes. (LeDonne, 1975)
The first expression of Petr Ivanovič Šuvalov’s new policy was then a steep increase in the price of salt. “In January 1750 the price of a pud of salt was raised from about 21 kopeks to 35 kopeks and in August 1756, at the outset of the Seven Years’ War, to 50 kopeks. This was a dangerous expedient and it backfired in the form of reduced consumption and increased smuggling. . . Salt became out of reach for so many that one of the first acts of Catherine was to reduce the price by 20% to 40 kopeks in July 1762.” (LeDonne, 1975)
“The second component of Suvalov’s policy was to open up new and possibly cheaper sources of salt. The production of Perm (Solikamsk) salt could not be raised beyond a certain level because it depended on the availability of labor, the supply of wood fuel, and the length of the work season. In the late 1740s the state began the exploitation of Ileck rock salt and, more important, the extraction of salt from Lake EPton. Transportation costs, however, were so great, resulting in part from the insecurity of the trans-Volga region, that these salts could only supplement Perm salt, not replace it. The result of this increased production was the closing of older but uneconomical sources, at Bachmut, Staraja Russa, Balachna and Soligalic.” (LeDonne, 1975)
Suvalov’s policy only created an ambiguous situation because it rested on a contradiction: raising the price of salt cancelled part of the benefits that could be expected from the rise in supply. Catherine’s policy was wiser. It combined a cut in prices with a major effort to develop production, and it resulted in making salt available everywhere at a reasonable price. During the first decade of her reign, however, little was done beyond reducing the price of salt. This, however, shows us that she was deeply aware of the suffering that the salt tax caused and she was actively involved in finding ways to reduce the cost of salt. It is perfectly in step with the invention of a way to recover salt that would be lost if the old brine is discarded.
“A commission of three members under general Fermor was set up in 1764 to make a thorough examination of the salt trade and to recommend measures to remove widespread abuses. It was closed in 1768 and its work left little mark on legislation. In 1771 the president of the College of Audit was transferred to the Main Salt Board ostensibly to remedy a chaotic situation. It was decided in 1772 to reorganize the Board, to require it to purchase enough salt to have a permanent two-year reserve always available, and to improve the accounting of procedures. Four years later, however, a major reform of local government began to take effect and the salt administration was integrated into the new structure. This was the purpose of the code of 1781.” (LeDonne, 1975)
For the full treatise on the salt tax in Catherine’s Russia and the salt code of 1781 by John P. LeDonne, see “Further Reading.“
Salt was a key commodity in the world of Catherine the Great! One of the uses was in curing meat. For Catherine to suggest the boiling of the brine as a way of “cleaning” it so that it can be re-used was a stroke of genius. I refer you to the production method of one of the major sources of salt in Russia namely that of Penn salt. It was produced exclusively from natural brines. “Production techniques were relatively simple, but they required careful supervision and consumed large quantities of firewood. It was first necessary to pump up the brackish water to the surface or, in favourable circumstances, to tap an artesian source. The next step was to remove the suspended impurities and to increase the salinity of the solution – even a rich natural brine might include but three percent salt – by exposing it to the sun so as to cause evaporation. This was done by various methods, their chief purpose being to create maximum exposure and ventilation.” (LeDonne, 1975)
“The brine was then poured into large horizontal pans [creny] under which a fire was kept going without interruption. The brine was brought to the boiling point and kept boiling for several hours. Impurities sank to the bottom or rose to the surface and were removed with a long hoe-like instrument called a kocerga. Then precipitation began. Heat was reduced and when little of the mother-liquor remained the salt was raked away. Boiling down the brine took about six hours, and the precipitation lasted from half a day to three days depending on the desired grain of salt.” (LeDonne, 1975)
There may have been another reason for boiling it which is at first not all that obvious. I found many of the references specifying the use of rock salt. Let’s return to LeDonne (1975). He writes, “At the southern end of the Ural range, sixty versts south from Orenburg, exploitation by the state of a huge underground salt dome began in 1754 near the Ilek river. Rock salt is of lesser quality than salt obtained by boiling – it dissolves more slowly and is never free from impurities -but it is easier to obtain. Petr Ivanovic Ryckov, who became the administrator of the mine in 1770, pronounced it so pure that it could not be distinguished from sugar, although the Salt Board in Moscow was of a different opinion. The Board was probably right because rock salt strata are usually interbedded with thin layers of gypsum. The salt was extracted in the form of large blocks weighing thirty to forty puds (since 1899, set at approximately 16.38 kilograms or 36.11 pounds), then broken up with hammers. In such blocks a “heart” was sometimes found as pure and clear as crystal. But salt dust often became mixed with dirt and sand on the way to the stores and this lowered its general quality.” (LeDonne, 1975) Boiling the brine would therefore have been a very good idea, nevertheless, even before any curing is attempted. This may be a reason for heating salt in a pan before it is rubbed into the meat, as was commonly practised, even where dry salting is used and not a liquid brine. The fact that heat was used to “clean brine” was a well-known practice. The progression was the boiling of the used brine.
There is a problem with this theory though in the context of the Empress of Russia’s brine. The first brine batch was not boiled! The technique of boiling the salt was a known technology but it was not used to concentrate the salt as was the case in salt recovery and if the purpose were sterilizing the salt, it would have been done for the first brine batch also. Considering the knowledge of microorganisms during the time of Catherine the Great, my suspicion is that decay through microorganisms was associated with meat and not with salt. I suspect that in their view, the brine was “contaminated” only after it encountered the meat. I developed this thought in detail in my article, “The Mother Brine.”
A comment is in order as to the relationship between the Empress of Russia’s Brine and the smoking of Westphalia Hams. If it is true that salt was in short supply, it would have been doubly so for saltpetre. It warrants careful future study, but the fact that saltpetre was omitted from some of the cures in Westphalia could almost certainly be ascribed to the scarcity of this resource. So, saltpetre was scarse in Russia. Westphalia learned how to cure meat with smoke only with salt – no saltpetre. That Russians adopted the Westphalian smoking techniques, and that Westphalia adopted the Empress of Russia’s salt recovery technology stands to reason! That they witnessed extraordinary value in a salt/ saltpetre brine that is re-used both in Russia and Westphalia is a deduction that flows from the facts!
The fact that William Oake is the inventor of the mild curing system that developed into tank curing is by now a well-established fact. (Mild Cured Bacon) His inspiration to re-use the old brine could very likely have come from this Russian invention under Catherine the Great! The link with the smoking technology of Westphalia is fascinating and that cross-pollination took place between these two curing-superpowers stands to reason. The impetus of the invention was the salt tax and the actions of Petr Ivanovič Šuvalov and Catherine the Great’s desire to mitigate the effect of these measures on the Russian curers.
The world has seen two major movements to facilitate the curing with nitrite salts. One was this one. The method is indirect and came about almost by accident. Russian technology that became known in Ireland which, in the hands of a chemist, became tank curing. Nitrite formation through fermentation.
The second major development was caused by the First World War when the use of nitrates was restricted for the war effort, resulting in the use of nitrite salts directly. (The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – the Master Butcher from Prague and The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War)
(c) Eben van Tonder
Westphalia Bacon Recipes
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Bradley, R.. 1726. A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening. T Woodward.
Godfrey, W. H., F.S.A., F.R.I.B.A. Bour Park, Near Canterbury. Archeological Constantia, Vol 41, 1929
LeDonne, J. P. (1975). Indirect Taxes in Catherine’s Russia I. The Salt Code of 1781. Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas, 23(2), 161–190. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41047094
Youatt, W. 1852. The pig: a treatise on the breeds, management, feeding, and medical treatment, of swine; with directions for salting pork, and curing bacon and hams. New York, C. M. Saxton