The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The Curing Molecule
Before we get into storytelling, it will be of great value to have a technical discussion about meat curing. The story will be more enjoyable if you understand how curing works. This chapter is designed to give you enough background to understand the fundamentals of curing and some of its complexities. This is not intended to be a science textbook and so I take the liberty to present matters in a somewhat simplified manner. I don’t for example always indicate when I am talking about an ionic compound when I write a simple notation for nitrite as NOO. I also added, “Want to know more?” sections for those who have a chemical background or those who want to gain a deeper understanding. Get through Chapter 2 and a story awaits which will blow your mind!
What is Meat Curing?
The most important question in a work on the history of meat curing is to understand what meat curing is! Meat curing is the process whereby meat is changed into a form that lasts outside a refrigerator. We can say that it imparts longevity to meat. In the curing process, there are two changes that we can identify with our senses. A delicious taste develops and the colour change to a characteristic pinkish/ reddish colour. A slightly less obvious characteristic is cured meat is safe from microorganisms which make us sick. These characteristics are observed through observation but what happens as far as chemical reactions are concerned?
The large molecule which is the building block for muscle or meat is called a protein. An important class of proteins in our body is called hemeproteins (also spelt haem protein or hemoprotein). These are proteins which have something attached to them that biochemists refer to as a heme prosthetic group. A prosthesis helps a person who lost a limb to still accomplish a certain task like a handshake. The prosthesis in the case of proteins is non-protein additions to the protein which accomplish specific tasks. The heme prosthetic group allows proteins to carry oxygen, facilitate electron transfer and participate in oxygen reduction among other processes. Curing is the reaction between protein and the small gaseous molecule called nitric oxide (NO).
In curing nitric oxide is bound onto this heme component. It is this binding of nitric oxide to the protein which we observe as a pinkish/ reddish colour. Nitric oxide is responsible for key characteristics of cured meat. The colour, the longevity and the fact that the product is free from microorganisms, likely to make us sick. Another characteristic of cured meat we observed with our senses is the cured taste. Exactly how the taste is altered through curing is something which we have not completely worked out yet.
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Nitric oxide is the most important molecule related to the cured colour of meat. This does not say that other chemical species also derived from nitrogen do not play a role in changing the colour. This is true related to colour formation as well as anti-microbial ability. An example is nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The researcher Cornforth (1998) showed that pink rings that form in beef roasts cooked in gas ovens and turkey rolls are produced by nitrogen dioxide (NO2). Similarly, we know that both nitrite and nitric oxide plays a very important role in the antimicrobial working of the curing process. The researcher, Scairer (2012), reported on the antimicrobial value of nitric oxide.
How is Nitric Oxide formed?
Let’s begin by looking at how nitric oxide is formed. For our discussion, what is essential to know is that it is formed both inside the body or by the body itself and outside the body. Almost every cell in our bodies can produce it. There are also two basic types of reactions that produce it.
i. Meat proteins contain an amino acid called L-Arginine. The body has the ability to access its nitrogen and combines it with an oxygen atom to create nitric oxide. Beginning in the 1990s scientists started to understand that certain bacteria also have the ability to convert L-arginine into L-citrulline and nitric oxide which cures meat. The exact mechanism is still under investigation but this remarkable discovery accomplishes what has become like the search for the holy grail namely the curing of meat without the use of nitrate or nitrite.
ii. The second major way that nitric oxide is created is the conversion of nitrate to nitrite and the nitrite to nitric oxide. The source of nitrate can be salts such as sodium or potassium nitrate or it occurs in large volumes in certain plants which we regularly consume. Bacteria break the nitrate down to nitrite and nitrite is changed into nitric oxide through mainly chemical reactions. In conventional curing operations, either nitrate or nitrite salts are used to create nitric oxide which cures meat.
This means that bacteria are involved in the reactions involving nitrate and L-Arginine. Interestingly enough, this seems to be the reason why this remarkable discovery remained unidentified for so many years. The conversion of L-Arginine only takes place when no nitrate is present. If nitrate is present the bacteria use the nitrogen found in nitrate and not L-arginine. That L-Arginine plays a role in salt-only, long-term curing processes has been suspected for many years and in the 1990s it was identified that the reaction was mediated through bacteria. What seemed to have happened was that the scientific community continued to relegate this to the realm of long-term cured hams and bacon. It is only in recent years that commercial quick-curing factories using bacterial fermentation became a reality in large high throughput commercial curing plants using bacterial fermentation and no nitrates or nitrites. In fact, so successful have these developments in meat fermentation been that meat curing is achieved in approximately the same time as is done with sodium nitrite.
That sets the first part of the stage for our discussion about meat curing. My own life is a good example of how only knowing the facts as I presented above about meat curing does not mean that you can use the techniques. The reality is that these methods can only be effectively applied within the framework of a complete curing system and developing such a system is far more complex than one imagines. I have, for example, known that bacteria are able to use L-Arginine to create nitric oxide for a full five years before I started to unravel the context and requirements of what it will take to use this to cure meat in a commercial curing operation. Colour stability and a safe microenvironment must be created. The formation of biofilm must be managed. The speed of the reaction must be increased. So I can go on and on and the point is simply this, it is a wonderfully complex endeavour.
Let’s return to the consideration of the two curing paths that we just looked at. In the course of this chapter, I will make repeated references to these two reactions. The story of bacon is, in a nutshell, the story of ways to produce nitric oxide in the fastest possible time to cure meat.
It has been an obsession of many curers and scientists to find another way to cure meat. In other words, not to use the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide path to curing due to questions that emerged about the safety of nitrate and nitrite. The use of bacteria to cure the meat achieves this! However, right at the outset, I want to caution that nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide are like the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in that where you find one, you find them all due to the high reactivity of these nitrogen species (Reactive Nitrogen Species) as we refer to them. Creating nitric oxide with bacteria from L-Arginine may seem like solving the problematic use of nitrate and nitrites in meat curing but if the two cousins of nitric oxide (nitrate and nitrite) will in any event both appear in meat cured with bacteria only, is it really addressing the problem?
A far more fundamental question exists namely if the hysteria against nitrate and nitrite is warranted! Is the use of nitrite or nitrate really problematic? Are these really entities of concern when we consider human health? In recent years evidence started to emerge that the exact opposite is true namely that if we do not ingest sufficient nitrate and nitrite, this has far more detrimental health effects on humans than having them in our food.
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A closer look at the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide sequence in our bodies:
The researcher, Weitzberg (2010) reportes that “several lines of research . . . indicate that the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide pathway is involved in regulation of blood flow, cell metabolism, and signaling, as well as in tissue protection during hypoxia (meaning, a lower-than-normal concentration of oxygen in arterial blood).” This is the exact curing reaction when we begin with slatpetre (NO3–) or with nitrite NO2– as is the predominant current system of curing in high throughput curing operations. When we use sodium nitrite to cure the meat, the process still results in the formation of nitric oxide (NO). The curing reaction is therefore a “natural reaction” which takes place in our bodies and is essential to life.
Can we remove nitrogen (nitrate or nitrite) from our diets?
We are all aware of the importance of oxygen to our everyday lives. Without it, life as we know it is not possible. A second element as important to life as oxygen is nitrogen. Where does nitrogen come from and why is it important to life? Let’s take a step back and consider nitrogen for a moment before we return to nitrate and nitrite in food and the chemistry of curing.
The Importance of Nitrogen
I have written extensively about how reactive nitrogen species are formed from atmospheric nitrogen and I will leave the subject to be discussed later.
Sufficient to point out that nitrogen is one of the most essential plant foods and is taken up in the structure of plants. From the plants, they provide sustenance to animals when they eat the grass. The ability of animals to absorb nitrogen is a key element in what makes food nutritious. From very early it has been shown by various scientists that animals fed with food containing no nitrogen get sick and even die whereas animals fed with food high in nitrogen thrive. This is important since, in evaluating the use of nitrogen in meat curing (through nitric oxide), the first thing we must realise is that without nitrogen, there is no nutrition. We need nitrogen like we need water or oxygen to live.
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The role of nitrogen in plants:
Nitrogen is part of the green pigment of plants, responsible for photosynthesis, called chlorophyll. It further is responsible for a plant’s rapid growth, increasing seed and fruit production, and improving the quality of leaf and forage crops. (Plant Nutrients and Lilies) This is important as we will later see how nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide not only cures meat and ensures the overall health of our bodies, but how the same reaction is key to the nutrition of plants. The curing reaction is by no ways something foreign. It is vitally important to all aspects of animal and plant life and humans form part of this group of animals.
Nitrogen as plant food:
Potassium (K) and nitrogen (N) together with phosphorous (P) are considered the primary nutrients of plants. These are normally lacking in the soil because plants use them for growth and thus deplete it. As we will see, nature replenishes nitrogen, but modern farming created the demand to add extra nitrogen to the soil. Potassium (K), nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) are all part of the macronutrients. The secondary nutrients are calcium (Ca), magnesium (MG), and sulphur (S). These nutrients are normally abundant in the soil. When lime is applied to acidic soil, large amounts of calcium and magnesium are added. Decomposing organic matter normally yields enough sulphur. Potassium (K) is absorbed in bigger volumes than any other mineral element except nitrogen and in some cases, calcium. It assists in the building of proteins, photosynthesis, and fruit quality and it reduces diseases. (Plant Nutrients and Lilies) The abundance of potassium in plants can be seen from where we first identified it namely from potash or plant ashes soaked in water in a pot. Potassium is derived from this practice predating the industrial revolution.
All proteins, the building blocks of muscles contain nitrogen. Our bodies use nitric oxide to stay healthy in many different ways. To such an extent that without nitric oxide in our bodies, life will not be possible. The question is now if the body produces enough nitric oxide on its own and the answer is no. We need to supplement what the body can produce through our diet. Some of the foods where we get nitrate or nitrite in our diets are:
By far the biggest source of nitrates is leafy green vegetables. The way that the nitrates end up as nitric oxide in our bodies is the nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide sequence. These vegetables also contain nitrites and these turn into nitric oxide through the steps of nitrite-> various-chemical-reactions ->nitric oxide.
Borehole water often has nitrate and nitrite from animal and human waste and fertilisers in surrounding areas. The sequence of reactions that change the nitrates in water into nitric oxide is the same as above namely nitrate-> nitrite-> nitric oxide.
-> Cured Meat
Nitrate salts are found naturally around the world. Potassium nitrate for example we know as saltpetre. Nitrite salts are manufactured salts containing sodium and nitrite. Saltpetre (potassium or sodium nitrate) is used in meat curing to this day. If we consume cured meat we ingest nitrates or nitrites and it ends up changing into nitric oxide in our bodies either through the reaction nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide or nitrite-nitric oxide. Cured meat is, however by far the smallest and most insignificant source of nitrates and nitrites.
What is important to focus on here is the path from nitrate to nitric oxide. Let me illustrate it in greater detail using saltpetre as an example. Saltpetre can be represented as one nitrogen atom and three oxygen atoms and to make it easy, I will write it as NOOO to focus on the number of oxygen atoms. The astute observer will see that I leave the metal part of saltpetre out and I represent only the nitrate part. Nitrate joins forces with metals like sodium, calcium, or potassium to form sodium nitrate, potassium nitrate (which is known as saltpetre) or calcium nitrate. In terms of curing meat, only sodium plays a further role and we will look at that later, but for now, it’s helpful to ignore the first part of the pair and focus only on the nitrate part.
When nitrate connects to one of the metals it forms a very stable salt which does not easily lose an oxygen atom. We said we represent nitrate in this chapter as NOOO, but you remember that the actual representation is NO3–. The stable molecule now loses an oxygen atom through bacteria that use the extra oxygen atom in its metabolism. So, NOOO loses an oxygen atom through the action of bacteria and nitrite is formed which we represent as NOO (actually, NO2–). In contrast to nitrate, nitrite is an unstable molecule and is easily changed to one of the other Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS) such as nitric oxide. If NOO loses an oxygen atom, NO or nitric oxide is formed. This reaction happens chemically and not through bacteria and it involves nitrate first changing into other forms before it ends up as nitric oxide.
Ancient curing methods start with nitrate, which is changed to nitrite and eventually to nitric oxide. This is the way that it was done before sodium nitrite became available around the world after World War I and many artisan curers still prefer to start with nitrate when they cure meat. The reason for this is that the bacteria also contribute to the development of flavours in the meat which one loses if one starts directly with nitrite in the form of sodium nitrite which does not require bacteria to change into nitric oxide to cure the meat. It became the norm following World War II to skip the step of changing nitrate to nitrite which is time-consuming and may result in inconsistent curing by beginning the reaction sequence by using sodium nitrite and not nitrate.
Whether you talk about the reaction nitrate-nitrite-nitric oxide or nitrite-nitric oxide, these scenario has at their heart the loss of one oxygen atom in every step. The opposite is also possible mainly that oxygen atoms can be added. At times, nitric oxide can gain an atom to form NOO or nitrite and NOO to form NOOO or nitrate. Remember that we said that where you find one, you are likely to find the others. So, where you have either nitrate, nitrite or nitric oxide, you are likely to find the others also.
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It is easy to see that the 3 following the O which represents oxygen indicates that one nitrogen atom binds to three oxygen atoms in the nitrate molecule, but what does the minus sign indicate? The nitrogen and three oxygen atoms form a unit or a package. The nett charge of this package is, however, negative, which is what the minus sign indicates. We call this not a molecule, but a very special molecule called an ion (where there is only one atom) or an ionic compound as in the case of nitrate with nitrogen and oxygen atoms in the molecule. A compound is supply two or more elements grouped together. An ion is what we call a unit like this (which can be an atom or a molecule) but it has a net electrical charge which is either + (positive) or – (negative). Ionic compounds are held together by these ionic bonds or electrostatic forces, as we refer to them. The ion by itself has a charge as either + or – but when it connects with another ion of opposite charge, the molecule is neutral overall. It has a component which is positively charged (called an anion – a positively charged ion) and a negatively charged component (called a cation – a negatively charged ion). An example of an ionic compound from everyday life is table salt with one positively charged sodium ion (Na+) and one negatively charged chloride ion (Cl−) called sodium chloride or table salt. We call it a salt because one component is alkali and the other is acidic.
The combination of nitrogen and oxygen yields several salts of importance for example saltpetre. Like table salt is the colloquial term for sodium chloride, so the colloquial term for potassium nitrate is saltpetre. The nitrate component or ion, NO3– reacts with metal ions such as sodium, magnesium, potassium, or calcium. The metal components occur in solution (mixed into water) as a strong acid in the form of (HNO3) with a strong base (KOH) which reacts to form a crystal [P+].[NO3–] or PNO3. Traditionally, saltpetre refers to potassium nitrate.
Another metal it often combines with is sodium to form sodium nitrate. Sodium or natrum (German) is represented by the letters “Na” for sodium and again, the nitrate component which is NO3– combines to give sodium nitrate written as [Na+].[NO3–] to form NaNO3.
The final example is the metal calcium, abbreviated Ca which represents calcium, but calcium combines with two sets of nitrates (NO3–) x 2 written as (NO3)2 and the complete name is therefore Ca(NO3)2. In our discussions here we ignore the metal part of the molecule being in our examples above potassium (K), sodium (Na) and Calcium (Ca). For easy of reference, when we talk about nitrate, we only refer to the NO3–component but often, there would be either K or Na or Ca attached to the nitrate but because it plays no role in the rest of the chemical reaction, we will conveniently ignore these metal components.
Summarise different metals that combine with nitrate:
NOOO (nitrate) + K (potassium) = KNO3 (Potassium Nitrate)
NOO (nitrite) + Ca (Calcium) = Ca(NO2) 2 (Calcium Nitrite)
This is another equally likely reaction which involved the gaining of oxygen atoms and not losing it (reduction). An example of an oxidation reaction is the reaction with L-Arginine which we looked at briefly and the oxidation of ammonia (NO3)/ ammonium (NH4+), both of which creates nitric oxide and are mediated through bacteria. We will tell the story of the formation of nitric oxide from ammonia in a subsequent chapter.
We summarise the two reactions as follows:
-> Reduction (losing oxygen atoms)
One way to create nitric oxide is by removing oxygen atoms. We remove one of the three oxygen atoms from nitrate (NOOO), and we get nitrite (NOO). In the name, the “a” is replaced with an “i” and, nitrite has one less oxygen atom than nitrate. If we remove one more oxygen atom from nitrite (NOO) we get nitric oxide (NO) which is the primary curing molecule.
So, let’s review the simple but important chemistry. Don’t worry about trying to remember these. We will refer to them so many times that you will easily remember them when we are done.
NOOO or (NO3–) = Nitrate or Saltpetre
NOO or (NO2–) = Nitrite
NO = Nitric Oxide
When nitrate loses one oxygen atom, it changes to nitrite and nitrite that loses one oxygen atom changes to nitric oxide.
NOOO (nitrate) – O = NOO (nitrite)
NOO (Nitrite) – O = NO (nitric oxide)
We have seen that to form nitric oxide from nitrate salts, you lose two oxygen atoms. Chemists say that the number of oxygen atoms is reduced. The word “reduced” will be important as we will say that the nitrate or nitrite is reduced, we mean that it lost an oxygen atom.
The same salts that nitrate forms with metal are formed by the more reactive nitrite.
NOO (nitrite) + K (potassium) = KNO2 (potassium nitrite)
NOO (nitrite) + Ca (Calcium) = Ca(NO2) 2 (Calcium Nitrite)
-> Oxidation (Gaining Oxygen Atoms)
Earlier, we have seen that nitric oxide is created by our bodies through certain processes in our cells. Instead of taking an oxygen atom away, it created nitric oxide by starting with a nitrogen atom and then it adds an oxygen atom to the nitrogen atom, and it forms nitric oxide. This process is called oxidation (adding an oxygen atom).
Ammonia is oxidized through bacteria which adds an oxygen atom to nitrogen and creates nitric oxide. More about this later when we drill down into sal ammoniac. Another way this happens is when ammonia is burned in the presence of oxygen. In this case, it is also oxidized to either nitrogen gas (N2) or nitric oxide (NO). It must be noted that the oxidation of ammonium salts usually produces nitrogen gas.
The Ever-Presence of Nitrogen
Let’s return to considering how gas, nitrogen, enters our world and becomes part of the nutrition of plants and animals. Otto et al (2010) estimate that with 1.4 billion lightning flashes each year, an estimated 8.6 billion tonnes of chemicals of one form or other are generated from the general formulation of NOx. Don’t get scared with the introduction of the x. It tells us we have a variable from which the exact number differs. You are already familiar with three of the forms this can take. Look at Nitric Oxide (NO), nitrite (NO2-), and nitrate (NO3–) and see if you can spot the function of the x which in this case is either an implied 1, an overtly stated 2 or 3. Can you tell me why the 1 is implied and for what form of nitrogen and oxide?
This estimate by Otto et al (2010) is staggering. It dwarfs what the curing industry can produce. It comprehensively obliterates the notion that nitrogen or nitric oxide or even nitrite for that matter are evil chemical species, which is produced by humans, and added to meat which will, so it is reported, do harm to the human body.
Otto, et al (010) and many others show conclusively that the presence of nitrate and nitric oxide is pervasive on planet earth. Nitrite is far less prevalent than nitrate. Nitrite is highly reactive and does not stay in this state very long (similar to nitric oxide). It forms a salt such as sodium nitrate which is more stable and is naturally found in some vegetables and meat, but still, nitrites often occur in vegetables. Most current sodium nitrites in dietary sources are made by humans. Nitric Oxide is also “fleeting” being a gas which quickly reacts to become another species.
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“Nitrogen is an essential element for all forms of life and is the structural component of amino acids from which animal and human tissues, enzymes, and many hormones are made. For plant growth, available (fixed) nitrogen is usually the limiting nutrient in natural systems. Nitrogen chemistry and overall cycling in the global environment are quite complex due to the number of oxidation states. Nitrogen itself has five valence electrons and can be found at oxidation states between −3 and +5. Thus, numerous species can form from chemical, biochemical, geochemical, and biogeochemical processes.” (Hanrahan, 2005) Below I list the oxidation state of different nitrogen species (and important chemical data).
Global nitrogen species and selected chemical data by: Hanrahan, 2005.
If you’re interested to learn more, google oxidation states. For those with a lively interest in this, I give the oxidation state of key nitrogen species.
The special Oxidation States of Nitrogen
Nitrate ion, oxidizing agent in acidic solution.
Nitrogen dioxide is a brown gas usually produced by the reaction of concentrated nitric acid with many metals. It dimerizes to form N2O4.
An oxidizing agent usually produces NO(g) or a reducing agent to form the nitrate ion.
Nitrogen oxide is also called nitric oxide. A colourless gas is produced by the reaction of metals with dilute nitric acid which then reacts with O2 in the air to form the brown NO2 gas.
Dinitrogen oxide is also called nitrous oxide or laughing gas.
Commonly found in air and very unreactive because of the very strong triple bond.
NH2OH Hydroxylamine, a weak base, can act as either an oxidizing agent or a reducing agent.
Hydrazine, a colourless liquid, is a weak base. Used as rocket fuel. It is disproportionate to N2 and NH3.
In basic solutions and as NH4 agent in aqueous solutions. When ammonia is burned in the presence of oxygen it is oxidized to either N2 or NO. The oxidation of ammonium produces nitrogen gas. salts usually.
Demonstrating Oxidation and Reduction
Let’s illustrate this with a helpful diagram which illustrates both oxidation and reduction of nitrate found in beetroot.
Nitrate–nitrite–nitric oxide pathway. Adapted from Niayakiru et al., 2020 by Milton-Laskibar (2021).
In the illustration above, beetroot contains nitrate (NOOO). Nitrate loses an oxygen atom and nitrite (NOO) is created. This is done through bacteria. It loses another oxygen atom and nitric oxide (NO) is created. These are examples of reduction reactions or losing-an-oxygen-atom reactions. In our current survey, nitric oxide (NO) can now react with a heam protein to cure the meat.
Nitric oxide (NO) can gain an oxygen atom to create nitrite (NOO) and nitrite can gain an oxygen atom to create nitrate (NOOO). There is another mechanism whereby nitric oxide (NO) gains two oxygen atoms at once and nitrate (NOOO) is created directly, skipping the formation of nitrite (NOO) completely. These are all examples of oxidation reactions or gaining-an-oxygen-atom reactions.
I add another graph to explain the various ways that oxidation and reduction take place of nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide.
Meat curing is no longer the only industry to recognise the importance of nitric oxide. It turns out the molecule vilified for hundreds of years as purportedly being bad for us, possesses some remarkable qualities which recently became the intense subject of scientific investigation. Without it, life is not possible and the reason why few people know about it is that it has only been discovered as late as the 1980s and 1990s.
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Nitric oxide turns out to be an extremely important molecule.
The Biologically Essential Molecule, Nitric Oxide; Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) and Reactive Nitrogen Species (RNS)
Years ago, before the importance of nitric oxide was appreciated, consumers looked upon the fact that nitrite (which is very reactive and much more poisonous than nitrate) is used in food with great scepticism. They failed to understand that in nature N (nitrogen) easily and often becomes NO (nitric oxide), NOO (nitrite) or NOOO (nitrate or saltpetre). Also, NOOO (nitrate or saltpetre) often and easily becomes NOO (nitrite) and NO (nitric oxide). Where you find NO, chances are that you will also find NOO and NOOO. Likewise, where you find NOO, you will find NO and NOOO. This is a normal part of the functioning of the human body.
The fact that nitrite is poisonous must be qualified by the statement that nitrite is poisonous under certain conditions. What exactly those conditions are will become a major focus of our study, but simply to say that because something is poisonous under specific conditions, that it is dangerous to include it in food is itself a false assertion.
During this work, I will introduce a very important comparison namely between Oxygen and Nitrogen. Oxygen is like nitrogen in that under certain conditions it is toxic and can lead to death. In fact, it can be stated that ANY cell with a nucleus, as a normal process of the metabolism of the cell, generates both reactive species of oxygen and nitrogen. (Griendling, 2016)
We understand that even oxygen has unintended negative consequences such as ageing us and causing the ultimate demise of the body despite the fact that we recognise it as foundational to life on earth. The same two-edged sword experience is what we encounter in the discipline of curing and it is extremely important to understand it and responsibly ensure that no negative environment exists that may cause the nitrogen species to be harmful to humans in any shape or form.
The facts so far are crystal clear. Nitric Oxide (NO), the curing molecule, as its cousins of nitrate or saltpetre (NOOO) and nitrite (NOO) are essential to human and animal life and the functioning of our bodies. Nitrogen is probably no more or less dangerous than oxygen.
It’s Present in our Bodies!
Green et al, (1982) gave us these interesting results of nitrate and nitrite found in our urine, saliva, plasma, gastric juices and milk which points to the fact that these compounds are ever-present in the body. It is part and parcel of human physiology!
When discussing nitric oxide which we have seen as an essential part of our biology, or whether we are talking about nitrate or even nitrite, the first thing to grasp is that these molecules are naturally part of the human body and, as you can see from the table above, they are found in our saliva and our gastric juices. There are other places they are also found on the human body, but we will get to that later. A blanket statement such as that nitrite is bad for us we can unequivocally call an incorrect statement!
The curing molecule is Nitric Oxide. There are different ways to produce nitric oxide. One is to start with the more stable nitrogen salt, saltpetre or nitrate (NOOO). Bacteria use nitrate or saltpetre in respiration in the absence of air and nitrite is created (NOO). Nitrite comes into contact with chemical elements which facilitates the loss of another oxygen atom which brings nitric oxide about which reacts with the protein. It is this reaction that presents itself to us as creating a pinkish/ reddish colour. Nitric Oxide, an extremely important and versatile molecule is created in the human body through a chemical reaction with the amino acid, L-Arginine. This same reaction is also mediated through bacteria added directly to the meat and fermentation becomes a very productive method to cure meat without the use of sodium nitrate or nitrate. So, nitric oxide comes to us through that which our bodies produce naturally or through our diet when we ingest either nitric oxide, nitrates or nitrites.
Ancient plant Curing of Meats
Eben van Tonder
15 February 2022
I have been studying the history of meat curing and ham/ bacon processing for well over 15 years. Over the years I looked at the use of saltpetre and the older curing salt from antiquity, sal ammoniac. I considered long term salt curing. I searched the world for natural nitrite and sal ammoniac deposits and scratched around in remote parts of the globe for signs of an ancient meat curing culture.
You see, the food we eat is not always the thing that make the headlines or what historians love writing about. Yet, the precise nature of recipes and the uninterrupted mother to children transmission of culinary history, the way that the food we grew up with sticks and transmits our culture and becomes as important to us as our language makes food and recipes one of our best glimpses into the past, even to a time when writing did not exist or was not universally known.
I started to suspect that nitrate curing of meat from plant matter played just as important role in establishing meat curing as nitrate and ammonia salts. The subject was so vast and so many clues came to me from so many angles over so many years that I was uncertain where to start the story. The task was daunting!
In Lagos, I met Doğan Genç and Ayhan Yilmaz from Turkey on a business trip from the ancient city of Bursa, on behalf of their refrigeration company, Kaplanar. Unknown to them, the one morning they spent with me in a small boardroom at Spar Head Office in Nigeria would be the event that gave me the courage to dive into the subject. They introduced me to an ancient Turkish dish, Pastrma or Salt Cured Beef. It has a rich and relevant history. It became the point where I take a deep breath and launch into the subject of the ancient origins of the plant curing of meat! Let’s begin the story by looking at the history of Pastrima and immediately branching out to the general geographical and important region of the Black Sea and another famous method of curing meat, namely with horse sweat!
“The nomad Turks of Central Asia has developed many methods to preserve their surplus food. Some of these methods and the foodstuff discovered based on these methods have survived until the current times. “Pastırma” the salt-cured, air-dried beef is one of these foodstuffs that is inherited from the Central Asian Turks.” (TFC)
Cingil (2019) reports that the Turks used an area’s suitability for drying meat as a criterion for settlement. They would hang meat in a tree and observe how long it takes to dry or if it decays. If it remains in good condition for a long time, they will settle there. It is reported that Emir Timur selected Samarkand using this method.
“The Turkic tribes, who lived in the steps of Central Asia, before 11th Century A.D., have salted and air-dried their leftover meats to preserve it. Due to their nomadic nature, the dried meat was stored in leather bags and consumed, as necessary.” Weber Baldamus, in his world history book, mentions an unusual method of treating meat, based on the information obtained from Amiadus of Antioch” or Amiadus of Antakya who lived between 273-375. He writes, “Hun Turks eat dried meat and the meat that they crushed between the horse’s saddle and calf, along with fresh game animals, together with various herbs.” (Cingil, 2019) According to Cingil (2019), this is also the earliest reference to pastirma.
Jean, sire de Joinville, the great chronicler of medieval France who wrote in the 1200s, mentions “steak tartare” as “a Mongol culinary technique of placing the steak between the saddle and the saddle blanket, and eaten raw once all the blood has been beaten out.” (Turnbull, 2003) This is a famous Western reference and one that people love to use to show that de Joinville probably got the report wrong, but after a thorough investigation of the matter I believe the critics got it wrong and not de Joinville.
TFC is one of the authors who dispute the factualness of these claims. He contends that “the Huns actually stored the meats in the pockets found on the saddles. Therefore, the meat never touched the body of the horse.” He refers to the old sources of the Huns as per the Hungarian National Museum. (TFC) I see no contradiction between these sources. The meat could have been stored in the saddlebags as per the Hungarian National Museum and some riders may have chosen to place them between the saddle cloth and the saddle as described by both Jea, sire de Joinville and Amiadus. The next reference comes to us in the 1600s.
Władysław Łoś, responded to a question about placing the meat between the saddle cloth and the saddle in an online forum by pointing out that the story was again popularised in the 17th century, “by a certain Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan, a French military engineer in service of Poland, author of the book “Description des contrés du Royaume de Pologne” (“Description of the countries of the Polish Kingdom”). He repeated the Joinvilles story but this time his reference is to contemporaneous Tatar horsemen in the service of the Polish military.” He points out that the Tatars in question were not Mongols, but a Turkish tribe.
That this experience repeated itself in other parts of the world during different times is clear from history. Using the sweat of horses to cure meat, intentionally or unintentionally was practised by the Boers in South Africa. I refer to this in my article, Saltpeter, Horse Sweat, and Biltong where I explore the chemistry of sweat and the reaction with the meat and refer to the word we use on South African farms to this day in reference to the white sweat of horses as “saltpetre,” the enigmatic salt of antiquity used to cure meat and as a key ingredient in gunpowder. Saltpetre is potassium nitrate, today used in long term curing.
Ancient Meat Preservation
When one talks about ancient culinary processes, it is important to understand that the human view of bodily excretions in antiquity was vastly different from the current views. Anything generated by the body, including animals, was viewed as very special and endowed with powers, useful for humans. I refer to my article, How did Ancient Humans Preserve Food? Levine (1999), in her work on the origins of horse domestication, presented “some results from an ongoing ethnoarchaeological study of equine pastoralism on the Eurasian steppe. The data have arisen principally in the course of five interviews, conducted between 1989 and 1992, with people involved with horse husbandry in Mongolia and northern Kazakhstan in the recent past or present.”
She writes that “The horse is used extensively in Kazakh folk medicine (Toktabaev 1992). Horse fat, excrement, bone, hair, liver, kidney, and stomach are used in the treatment of many ailments. . . Back problems were treated by wrapping the sufferer in a fresh horse skin.” Importantly for our study, she says that horse sweat had a very specific medicinal value. “Horse sweat is said to cure gastric diseases, ulcers, typhoid fever, plague, fever, and cancer of the gullet.” The medicinal usages probably followed the discovery of its effect on the meat and the subsequent ingestion of it. Levine, writing on the general usefulness of the horse makes the same point about sweat again when she writes, “The horse can move rapidly and easily long distances over hard ground, providing its owners with both mobility (riding, packing, traction) and nourishment (milk, meat, fat). Other products, such as bone, hoof, hair, hide, excrement, and even sweat, are also valued, for example, as fuel, raw materials for the fabrication of tools, utensils, musical instruments, and other objects, and for medicinal purposes.”
The point is that using sweat to cure meat is not farfetched. I had a suspicion for a long time that urine and sweat had both been used in antiquity in meat preservation and from food, it entered medicinal use and gained religious value. The only way that meat can be cured is through access to nitrate or nitrite. It required nitrogen. Reduction takes place through bacteria from nitrates to nitrites and chemically from nitrites to nitric oxide which is the species responsible for linking up with the hem moiety on the meat protein and which then produces the cured colour of cured meat. The controlling mechanism of the entire process is one of reduction.
The only other way it can happen is through the oxidation of l-arginine by nitric oxide synthase. This requires time and the right conditions as far as temperature is concerned and metabolic water as we see in long term dry ageing of hams and bacon. Where reduction is easily managed, isolating, and harvesting oxidation enzymes are prohibitively expensive. The only way it can be done economically is through time and using what is already in the muscle. There should be no doubt in anybody’s mind that the basic curing reaction of accessing one nitrogen atom and one oxygen atom to form NO is the basis of curing. Without it, curing is not possible and what you have at best is salted meat.
Medical, Culinary, Religious and Military Value of Nitrogen
My initial focus was on nitrate salts found in desert areas and in certain caves. I discovered the two curing salts of choice for ancient people as ammonium nitrate (sal ammoniac) (The Sal Ammoniac Project) and the various nitrate salts. Later, humans mastered the art of producing saltpetre as it became important in the ancient worlds arms race with its key role in gunpowder.
Ray, talking about the arrival of saltpetre production technology in India, says that “the manufacture of nitre was. . . most probably introduced into India after the adoption of gunpowder as an implement of war.” (Ray, P. C., 1902: 99 – 100) According to Frey, the watershed time for India between the age of the blade and the age of the gun came in the early sixteenth century.
The area of the world where we are focussing on Turkey to the south of the Black Sea and across the Caucuses mountains into modern-day Russia and Mongolia yields ample historical record of the importance of these salts. Frey states that “it is likely that Mongols who introduced the making of fireworks to India in the mid-thirteenth century. We know almost nothing about saltpetre production during this early period, but technical expertise apparently diffused with the adoption of rocketry and eventually artillery by Indian rulers in the fourteenth century. The break-up of the Delhi Sultanate, the rise of regional states, and the growing presence of Turkish mercenaries in India may be linked to the establishment of regular saltpetre production and the adoption and use of gunpowder weapons.” (Frey, J. W.; 2009: 512)
It speaks to the sophistication of Mongal and Turkish technology related to nitrate production. In Arabic, saltpetre (nitrate salt) was referred to as Chinese snow, for, according to Needham, it was recognised and used in China long before anywhere else. “The oldest extant Arabic mention is in the Kitiib al-Jiimi’ fi al-Adwiya al-Mufrilda (Book of the Assembly of Medical Simples) finished by Abti Muhammad al-Mllaqi Ibn al-Baitarg about 1240 AD. Others follow shortly after. (Needham, J.. 1980: 193, 194)
As my investigations into the ancient origins of meat curing continued, I discovered the link between sea travel and nitrite curing. Sea travel is a great example of an activity that necessitated storing food for a long time. In keeping with the ancient practice of storing meat in water, they most probably used seawater. Dr Francois Mellett, a renowned South African meat scientist, shared a theory with me related to the curing of meat stored in seawater. He writes, “I have a theory that curing started even earlier by early seafarers: when a protein is placed in seawater, the surface amino acids are de-aminated to form nitrite for a period of 4 to 6 weeks. Nitrite is then converted to nitrate over the next 4 weeks. Finally, ammonia and ammonia are formed from nitrate. It is possible that they preserved meat in seawater barrels and that the whole process of curing was discovered accidentally.” I applied Mellett’s logic to coastal communities when I discovered the importance of meat storage in seawater by ancient coastal settlements and small groups migrating along the coastal regions of the world.
Of course, I saw horse domestication as another event, which, like seafaring, would necessitate the long term storage of meat.
East of the Dnieper River within the Don and Volga basins, on the Western Front of what later would be occupied by the Scythians, between 4600 and 4200 years ago, a dominant genetic horse population appeared which replaced the wild horses that roamed Eurasia for millennia.
No sooner did I discover this, and I found myself delving through old records about the Caucasus, or Caucasia, a region spanning Europe and Asia to understand the nature of their nitrate (saltpetre) deposits. Why? Because it is linked with the origins of the art of meat curing which I suspect happened in this region and to the north of it which again is linked to Turfan, the area I first suspected as the site where meat curing became an art, but the lack of solid evidence of a long meat curing tradition from old records from the Turfan area made me suspect that they only used it at a major source for Saltpeter and Sal Ammoniac, the primary two curing salts from antiquity. These were traded along the silk road that ran into Europe. The creation of a meat curing tradition happened somewhere else.
Why the link between the Caucasus and meat curing? Because my suspicion is that meat curing was transformed into an art (practices on large scale according to set principles and procedures) in an area where the horse was domesticated because no other event would have given rise more to the need for this than the domestication of the horse (other than sea voyages). As the exploration of vast distances and military exploits became possible, following horse domestication, the need would have existed to carry food along on these campaigns and since we know the Scythians were more than likely involved in the domestication of the horse (or the ancestors of what became the Scythian people), we know that animal protein (dairy and meat) was a major part of their diet.
> The Caucasus
I begin my investigation at the southern edge of the area where horse domestication took place.
Archaeological and geological records from the Caucasus are very sparse, to say the least, but it is the one region, adjacent to the site of horse domestication natural nitrate deposits occur. From there my interest in it. Well, my interest is in the entire Don and Volga basins regions (mostly, present-day Russia) between 2000 BCE and 2200 BCE. I begin in the south and will work my way north.
So, what am I looking for in the Caucasus mountains? Saltpetre and any other clue to develop the ancient picture for me.
I came across this fascinating book by McCulloch, John Ramsy. (1845) M’Culloch’s Universal Gazetteer: A Dictionary, Geographical, Statistical, and Historical, of the Various Countries, Places, and Principal Natural Objects in the World.
About minerals found in the Caucus mountains, McCulloch writes, “Iron, Copper, Saltpetre, sulfur, and lead are found, the last in tolerable large quantities. Salt is almost wholly wanting.” So, a little bit of saltpetre, which explains importing it from Turfan. No salt – very interesting! It was plentiful in the Don and Volga basins. . . more on this later!
I add a section of what I will be looking for in the Don and Volga basins region namely vegetables. About this McCulloch writes: “In amount and variety of vegetation the Caucasian regions seem to be unrivalled. Chardin, writing in 1692, says, ‘Mount Caucasus, till ye come to the very top of it is extremely fruitful,’ and Spencer in 1838 says, ‘However high the ascent, we see luxuriant vegetation mingling even with the snow of centuries.’ Nearly every tree, shrub, fruit, grain, and flower found from the limit of the temperature zone to the pole is native to or may be raised in the Caucuses. The Northern bases consist of arable land of excellent quality, meadows of the finest grass and dwarf wood in great abundance.” He continues to describe the quality of the soul in the regions to the south, east and west in equal lofty terms.
> Fruits, Vegetables, Grains
He continues, “Among the standard fruits are found the date palm, the jujube, quince, cherry, olive, wild apricot and willow leaved pear. Pomegranates, figs, and mulberries grow wild in all the warmer valleys and vines twine around the standard trees to a very great elevation up the mountains. . . . In addition to the vine, the other climbing plants are innumerable, which, mixing with the standards, the bramble fruits (raspberries, blackberries &c,) and other dwarf woods form a density of vegetation which is impossible to penetrate, unless a passage be hewn with the hatchet. Rye, barley, oats, wheat, millet are abundantly raised, even as high as 7500 ft. above the sea, and besides these grains, the warmer plains and valleys produce flowers of every scent and dye, cotton, rice, flax, hemp, tobacco, and indigo, with every variety of cucumber and melon.”
McCulloch quotes several texts to prove that the list just given is only a small sample of what is available from these regions, in particular from Georgia.
The list given is extremely important because it feeds into something I’ve picked up from the geological record of the territory occupied by the Scythians, especially the region where horse domestication took place in other research. A picture is forming that may alter our traditional view of the trajectory of the art of meat curing dramatically but patience is called for. Lots of investigation must be done across vast regions before I can venture to put the final picture together. If what I suspect happened is true, it will be truly revolutionary, but let the data form the picture.
The one sentence that caught my eye will follow. It’s under his treatment of the animals which are as innumerable as the plants. The detail is not as important as the list of plants and I understand that his lists of plants go back probably to the earliest, to the 1600s. It does not give us a list of what was there in 2000 BCE, but we will get there. The picture is, however, that most mentioned here were indigenous to the area and grew wild.
The first important comment relates to cattle. He writes, “This is also home of wild cattle; the large species (the Aurochs) being found in the forests; while of the domesticated kinds, the varieties are numerous and serviceable.” I wish I could have seen the aurochs!
This is the actual point I want to make here following on the identification of the exact location where horse domestication took place through DNA research. He writes the following of the horse which we know has been domesticated in the region directly adjacent and to the north!”The horses of the Caucasus have been famous from very high antiquity, the Bechtag mountains having been formerly called Hippicon (ἱππικόν) from the number of these animals which were grazed upon its side (Ptolemy, v., 9). They are not less numerous in the present day and are among the very finest varieties of the species.”
These horses were indeed famed throughout the ancient world, and it stands to reason that he is describing none other the descendants of the earliest domesticated horses, referring to their excellence based on the superior qualities they had for the horseman. In other words, domesticated horses but further refined through selective breeding.
I find it absolutely fascinating that what DNA research in 2021established could have been accurately predicted based on a careful reading of these old texts. That the region had superior technology related to horse husbandry and breeding cannot be disputed and I am sure that the process which started domestication did not stop. They continued their selective breeding, no doubt! The technology that brought the events about in the 2000s BCE kept producing superior animals and it is fascinating that the traditions continued from 2000 BCE into the 1800s A.D.. It is therefore not far-fetched at all to expect meat curing to be still practised at a superior level in regions where it originated. Of course, I can imagine events that could wipe such traditions out, but as a very broad general rule of thumb, I can see how a deeper understanding of curing in a region would point to an older tradition.
> The Nations of the Caucuses
There is probably no other part of the world, except Africa, S. of the Sahara, where so many nations and languages are collected within so small a space as in the Caucasus. Guldenstadt gives a list of seven different nations, besides Tartars, who speak languages radically different, and who are again subdivided into almost innumerable tribes, among whom the varieties of dialect are nearly infinite. The principal nations he thus enumerates
(Reise, i., 458 – 495.)
Of these the most numerous and important are the Georgians and Circassians or Tcherkessians; but the Abchasians and Okesians, called by Pallas and Klaproth Abassians and Osetians, are also powerful tribes. In habits and manners, a strong resemblance is observed among them all; they are usually wandering hunters and warriors, for which occupations their country is peculiarly fitted, and only in inferior degree shepherds or agriculturists. A partial exception must, however, be made to this general character in favour of the Georgians, who reside in towns, and have long possessed a fixed form of government and internal polity; but for the rest, they appear to possess the erratic disposition, reckless courage, boundless hospitality, and much of the predatory habits which mark the Arab and other half barbarous people. (See CIRCASSIA, GEORGIA, &c.) It is well known that Blumenbach looked here for the origin of his first and most intellectual race of men (the Caucasian); but for this, as already stated (anté 177). there is not a particle of evidence historical or philological. The Caucasians though surrounded by the means of improvement, and occupy a country more favourably situated than that of Switzerland, have made no progress either in arts or arms; and continue to this day the same unlettered barbarians as in the day of Herodotus. (Clio, 203.) They have fine physical forms, but their mental endowments are of the most inferior description.”
Next, he describes the nations living in these regions and their technology related to warfare.
Meat Preservation with Fruits and Vegetables
I found that all the nations around the Black Sea have long and ancient meat curing traditions. Georgie, Azerbaijan, Moldovia, Romania, Bulgaria, and of course, Turkey. In fact, we began with Doğan Genç and Ayhan Yilmaz from Kaplanar visiting Lagos and alerting me to the existence of Pastirma. Unknowing to them, it would provide the crucial link I long suspected that ancients not only cured their meat with the sweat of horses and nitrate and sal ammonia salts from desert regions but more importantly with plants!
It is, therefore, from Turkey that the rest of the story comes. The traditions of curing meat with plant matter are generally from Central Asia. The dish that unlocked the plant-based curing techniques for me is partirma.
TFC writes that “the oldest meat preservation method is to salt and air-dry the meat in the sun. Different cultures of the world have different meat preservation methods. The method used to make “pastırma” is invented by the Central Asian Turks, and it is the forerunner of today’s “pastırma”, a term which literally means ‘being pressed’ in Turkish.” (TFC)
“Looking into the old scripts, such as “Divan-ü Lügat-it Türk”, the first Turkish- Arabic dictionary written by Mahmoud al-Kashgari, the word “pastırma” was not used. Instead “basturmak” was used, which means to place something under a very heavy object. In the Turkish language used by the Central Asian Turks, there were other words such as “kedhirilmek” or “kakaç” used which means dried meat, and the word “kak” was used for everything dried.” (TFC)
“Based on the information from “Divan-ü Lügat-it Türk,” during autumn, meat would be mixed with some spices, dried and stored until spring. During spring the animals would lose weight and their meat becomes flavorless. Therefore, those who have stored up some “pastırma” would have access to good tasty meat.” (TFC)
Anatolia, also known as Asia Minor, is a large peninsula in Western Asia and the westernmost protrusion of the Asian continent. It constitutes a major part of modern-day Turkey. “Arrival of “pastırma” in Anatolia was especially well received in the city of Kayseri. The 17th-century Turkish traveller Evliya Çelebi, praised “pastırma” of Kayseri in his Book of Travels, and Kayseri “pastırma” is still regarded as the finest of all. Although there are several other cities that are known to make “pastırma,” Kayseri is the only one that is associated with this delicacy. Due to the fact that it is an important trade that passes from generation to generation, the climate of Kayseri and the high amounts of nitrate found in the city water also plays a very important role in this matter.” (TFC)
“Good quality “pastırma” is a delicacy with a wonderful flavor. Although “pastırma” can also be made with mutton or goat’s meat, beef is preferred. During the Ottoman period, although they almost always consumed lamb in their dishes, when making “pastırma” beef was the meat of choice.” (TFC)
Making of Pastırma
“Cattle, mainly from the eastern province of Kars, are brought to Kayseri, where they are slaughtered, and the meat made into “pastırma” at factories found on the northwest of the city. The different cuts of meat produce different types of “pastırma.” There are 19 to 26 varieties depending on the size of the animal. Extra fine qualities are those made from tenderloin and loin; fine qualities are made from cuts like the shank, leg, tranche and shoulder; and low quality from the leg, brisket, flank, neck and similar cuts. The many tons of “pastırma” produced in Kayseri are almost all sold for domestic consumption all over Turkey.” (TFC)
“The ideal season for making “pastırma” in autumn. The season starts by mid-September and continues until the end of autumn. This weather presents qualities such as; sunny and clear skies, low humidity and mild wind that are ideal conditions for drying and maturing. The “pastırma” making process consists of 5 stages that are; procurement of the animals, preparation of the meat, processing of meat, coating and packaging.” (TFC)
“The making of “pastırma” lasts for about a month. The freshly slaughtered meat rests at room temperature for 4-8 hours before being cut into pieces suitable for making “pastırma.” The meat is slashed and salted on one side, stacked, and left for 24 hours to rest. The same process is done to the other side. After the second 24 hour period, meat slabs are rinsed with plenty of water to remove the excess salt, and left to dry outdoors for a period varying between 3 to 10 days, depending on the weather. After some further processing, the meat is hung up to dry again, this time in the shade and spaced out so that they do not touch one another. After 3 to 6 days, they are covered with a paste known as “çemen” paste. “Çemen” is composed of fenugreek seed flour, garlic and powdered red chilli pepper and water to form a paste. This paste covering the slabs of “pastırma” plays an important role in the flavour, and protects the meat from drying and spoiling by cutting its contact with air. The excess “çemen” is removed, leaving a thin layer, and left to dry again. Finally “pastırma” is ready for consumption.” (TFC)
“When buying “pastırma”, make sure that it has a bright red hue, and cut very thinly with a cleaver. “Pastırma” can be consumed freshly on its own, or cooked with eggs, tomatoes, inside the white bean stew or “börek” (the savoury pastry). In the Anatolian region of Turkey it is also added to bulghur rice pilaf and sometimes in stuffed grape leaves.” (TFC)
“In conclusion “pastırma” is an important culinary legacy from the Turkish forefathers and a delicious delicacy that adds a depth of flavour to any type of food it’s combined with.” (TFC)
An insightful video on how to make Pastirma.
Pastrma became my entry point into the ancient art of curing met with plant matter replete with nitrates. Over the months to come I will delve into the wonderful technical and scientific considerations which are brought up by the subject. In our time, fermentation of brine produced from plant matter with starter culture bacteria to affect the conversion of nitrates to nitrites and the chemical and enzymatic creation of Nitric Oxide which is responsible for meat curing became a trend as a way to sidestep the legislative requirement to declare the direct use of sodium nitrate or nitrite in meat cures. What I discovered is that this is nothing new. It stands in an ancient tradition of recognised curing systems. In our technical evaluation of the method, we will discover the vast accumulation of health benefits that accrue to products cured in this way. I am escited to begin this facinating yourney with you!
It is mentioned in the documents that it was among the unique products of the Ottoman Palace Cuisine (matbah-ı amire) in the 1500s and that it was among the favourite foods of the cuisine with the name “Pastama-ı Kayseriyye”.
Again, in the Seciye Registers of the Ottoman Period Ankara Province (1591-1592), it was complained that the pastrami sent every year did not come from Kayseri.
The famous traveler Evliyâ Çelebi, after describing the white bread, lavash pastry and layered pastry when he came to Kayseri when he came to Kayseri, in his Travels, said, “There is no cumin bacon and musk-cented broth, which are known as Lahim-i kadid (fat meat). He always goes to Istanbul as a gift”.
In 1880, British Lieutenant Ferdinand Bennet was describing the Kayseri Sanjak of Ankara province, the food habits of the region; Bulgur pilaf with meat, yoghurt, pita… He reported that more vegetables and fruits are eaten in summer, pastrami is consumed in winter, and 360,000 okkas of pastrami is exported from Kayseri to Istanbul in the same year.
The French traveler Vital Cuinet, who visited Anadalu in 1888-1890, described the commercial life of Kayseri and recorded that bacon, wool, carpets, animal skins, almonds and various fruits were exported from the city.
The first information about the production of pastrami is found in a Construction Book in 1869 and in Fahriye Hanım’s work titled “Housewife” written in 1894, and detailed information about Kayseri Pastrami is given.
German Ewald Banse, in his work on the observation and geography of Anatolia in 1919, wrote that “Germir Pastrami” is very famous while talking about Kayseri.
The first books on bacon and sausage production analysis in Turkey are in Ottoman Turkish; These are the books called “The Copy of Kayseri Pasdırmaları” (manufacturing style) and “Inspection of Pastrami and Sucuks of the Allelum (in general)”.
In the Ottoman period Kayseri Sanjak Yearbook, dated 1881-1891, it is stated that “Kayseri pastrami has gained a lot of fame.”
In one of his articles, the writer Mustafa Gümüşkaynak from Kayseri;
“Kayseri has neither cotton nor olives, nor tobacco, nor any natural product. Nature has made it convenient to make only pastrami in this city. When the season comes, the pastrami piri comes and sits on the summit of Erciyes. Pastrami piri is strong like nature. It makes winter summer, and summer turns into winter. Pir enchants Kayseri. Once enchanted, a bright summer comes to Kayseri. The fat drips from the bacon. This is called “Bacon Summer”. Then it rains, and this is called “Bacon Rain”. This precipitation destroys the dust. Dusty bacon loses all its value.”
Kayseri is the homeland of fenugreek pastrami since the depths of history. The effect of its climate, nitrate water and traditional master-apprentice chain is great in this.
The weather is clear and sunny, low humidity and slightly windy in the autumn, when there is intense pastrami production in Kayseri. This environment allows the bacon to dry without getting wet, in the most correct and natural way.
As it can be seen, for years, “pastirma” is a very important part of Kayseri culture, about which poems, folk songs and epics have been written.
Of course, there will be bacon production in other cities. But these never change the fact that “pastirma is from Kayseri”. Just like Antep baklava, Maraş ice cream…
In short… -Pastirma and Ravioli both belong to Kayseri, they are from Kayseri! It belongs to the people of Kayseri! Just as; -Like Sausage and Water Pastry!
A website by the Turkish Cultural Foundation (TCF); Published under the section, Turkish Cuisine. Work reference “Her Yönüyle Pastırma”, Prof. Dr. O. Cenap Tekinşen, Doç Dr. Yusuf Doğruer, Selçuk Üniversitesi Basımevi, Konya 2000; Mustafa Çetinkaya / Skylife Magazine.
Frey, J. W.. 2009. The Indian Saltpeter Trade, the Military Revolution, and the Rise of Britain as a Global Superpower; from The Historian, Vol. 71, No. 3 (FALL 2009), pp. 507-554; Published by: Wiley Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24454667 Accessed: 23-09-2017 12:56 UTC
Levine, M. A.. (1999) Botai and the Origins of Horse Domestication. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 18, 29–78 (1999) Article ID jaar.1998.0332, available online at http:/ /www.idealibrary.com
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
Bacon & the Art of Living
When I say that it was my study of bacon that taught me the essence of the art of living, the reality is that in the first place it taught me to accept who I am in life. As important as my hopes and aspirations are, I am not my ideals and dreams. I am not the most current fad of the ever-changing mental world we live in. I am in the first place the physical being who lives in a physical world, connected to the bountiful earth that brought me forth. Despite the fact that I am in my mental world the centre of the universe, I am not! Life is not the life I live in my brain minus the physical world. It is all one thing and my mental world is only my perception of the real world I live in. In reality, I am nature!
I am Nature
My brain is a very complex physical event and my consciousness, as I define it with my human mind is here today and gone tomorrow. My thoughts, my thinking, is predicated upon my memory and indoctrination (learned information and past experiences). What is fundamental and what bacon taught me is that my connection with the earth itself is not primarily through my brain. The billions upon billions of atoms that form the molecules and the amino acids and bacteria and proteins and synapsis and organs that make up my body by its most basic essence is my connection to nature. My essential nature is my oneness with the universe and the universe is nature. Bacon curing is not a study of any food in that it mimics natural physiological processes essential for life. Nitrogen plays an essential role in it irrespective of the current thinking on the benefits or dangers of its consumption.
My initial resistance against eating bacon was initially not restricted to the question of nitrites. I had to work out for myself if I am comfortable eating other animals. Like the question about nitrogen, the fact that I eat other animals is a fact of my existence as a human being whether it is fashionable to do so or not. We only perceive this as a moral dilemma because we have departed our natural environment and so we think that in the plant kingdom the same predatory behaviour does not exist. If we see all living organisms as essentially the same, we will understand that to arbitrarily choose to eat one group and not another is non-sensical.
The Zambian Revelation
During my second trip to Zambia, I’ve spent days in the forests in the north of the country close to the Kongolese border with a remarkable man, Richard Horton. He looks at the trees and plants and knows every one of them by name. Which one is related to which. The basic characteristic of each individual fruit and flower. The locals call him “Capenta Mabullo,” meaning “The Man who Counts Leaves.” It was through the eyes of Richard and walking the forests of Zambia that I discovered that in the plant kingdom we find the same struggle for life and death as we find in the animal kingdom and the same predatory behaviour of many plant species. Walking with him through the woods becomes the same experience as seeing a lion hunt in the Kruger National Park or crocodiles hunting wildebeest in the great migrations on the Serengeti plains of Kenia.
It is here that I learned that to think that plants are different from mammals or other animals is a view based on our removal from the forests of our youth. Humanity lost its perspective on our essential nature. In the first place, the plants and trees of the forest are just as much alive with struggles and pleasures as the world of animals and insects. Both are living. Both have intellect – yes, not as we would define it in our human-centric worldviews of intellect. Choosing one over the other – to assign intellect and emotions as we understand it arbitrarily to the one group and not the other is supreme foolishness. In the Zambian forests, I have seen plants behaving like animals. They strive and compete; they weep and reach out in joy.
Evaluating the effect of the human intellect on the natural world, I am at a loss to see the benefit of our version of intellect and I fear that if we don’t come to our senses, our time as a species is short and nature will remove the element poised to destroy its world from the universe. Then, again, saying that we evolved intellect for a particular reason beyond simply survival is an assumption I can not make. That our intellect is not superior to that of plants and animals and insects and microbes is clear when we evaluate the effect our intelligence have on the natural world. The most we can say, it seems to me, is that our intellect is different in degree and an effective means to dominate. It manifests in a different way but I fail to see its superiority in quality or the result of its “differentness.” So, at least, it seems to me. Superseding everything is nature and it is nature that dictates that we eat in order to live and as a food source, nature feeds itself from all it brings forth, including humans as part of the world of animals.
I Consume and Will be Consumed – the Same Eternal Sycle for All
Before I could engage the issue of nitrites in meat I had to come to grips with the fact that no matter what I assign to animals and plants – the fact is that I consume both natural “forms” just as I will be consumed by them one day is the natural cycle of everything. The micro-world and insects will feast on my body one day long with plants. The possibility still exists that my initial end may be brought about by an animal if I continue to venture into forests. This does not make the animals or trees or microorganisms or insects immoral. It is life. Nature does not care about my view of morality. Nor yours!
When I transfer my view of emotion, righteousness or morality to non-human living beings (plants, animals, insects, microorganisms), it is supreme foolishness. These are mental constructs that operate solely in the mind-space of humans and within the ambit of human culture. It is natural in the sense that it is from nature (being our natural brains), but what we think and dream up is not a result of nature and is not inherently “natural.” It does not represent nature automatically.
One of the best recent developments in our mental world is the fact that we start to value the animals and plants who share the world with us. Abusing and mistreating them becomes cruel and unnatural. Inflicting suffering on nature for the sake of our own comfort is the most unnatural thing we can do and recognising this is a sign of a maturing understanding. Mistreating our food source becomes physical harm we do to them and mental harm we do to ourselves! However, to assign more to them than what nature intends is unnatural. I consume living beings that I share this world with. It took me years to understand this and it came to me through the understanding of the curing of bacon. I struggled with the fact that I am making my living through the death of other animals. The first lesson I had to learn was that it is unnatural to try and be more natural than nature itself.
The Basic Problem – Our Evolving Culture
As human populations increased and our culture developed we changed our natural habitat. We urbanised and had to design our own food sources. Humans incorporated the preparation of food into our culture and changed it for the sake of distributing it to the cities and towns we started living in. Food, in its most natural form, is best suited for our bodies as this is how we initially evolved. In so doing we did not always understand the implications of what we were doing. One of the most important lessons we had to learn, not just related to additives but also food sources themselves, like red meat, was the issue of “how much.” Including many additives at the wrong inclusion ratio becomes unhealthy and even poisonous. Red meat, for example, must be consumed in moderation. Too much will have serious health consequences. Not just ingredients and types of foods must be carefully considered, but also methods of preparations. Science is invaluable in a continual investigation into these matters so that we can improve our health.
A curious position emerged in particular related to the use of nitrites in foods. Despite the fact that nitrogen is an inherent constituent of animal and plant proteins and despite the essential role it plays in human physiology, there exist among parts of our population a perception that nitrite is one of the key villains in modern food. This group of our population further see the presence of nitrite restricted to cured meat and bacon in particular.
The advice from the WHO that intake of cured meat must be limited as is the case with red meat, alcohol, fatty food, refined carbohydrates and sugars, in particular, is something that every food scientist will agree with. In general, humans per capita consume more food than ever with the accompanying diseases of obesity and the impact on our general health. For some reason, the perception still exists that bacon or possibly cured meat should be singled out. Some go as far as to equate the consumption of these products with cigarette smoking.
Understanding why this is the case and dealing with this issue brought me to the greatest realisation about life namely the value of using nature itself as our guiding principle in the design of our food and our lives. Right at the outset then I can reveal that the greatest lesson I learned from bacon over many years is that if we want to be safe, we must strive to use the ratios and proportions of various compounds naturally found in the human body and in plants. This extends much further than only food. Over the years I have taken these lessons and applied them to every area of my life including things like exercise, water intake and stress. I learned to limit my mental activity during the day by quieting my mind whenever the flurry of mental activities goes out of hand. The blueprint of nature became the essence of my goals.
How I discovered that nitrate and nitrite have key physiological functions in the body and that it is by no means a villain to be avoided at all times in foods came to me through the contemplation of and search for the original location on earth where nitrate curing of meat most probably developed into an art form. I will deal with nitrosamines and the fact that most nitrosamines are cancer-causing in animals, but before I do so, let me start by giving you the chronology of my own discovery that nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide are three absolutely essential molecules for our existence on earth.
How I discovered the Value of Nitrate, Nitrite and Nitric Oxide to Human Health
It was my search for the original location where meat curing was turned into an art form that made me look at the use of salt in meat preservation which predates the use of nitrogen salts. The general consideration of salt led me to mummification which took me natural deposits of nitrate in the Atacama Desert in South America and the Turfan Depression in the West of China. In searching for supporting evidence of the general development of technology related to nitrates, I happened upon a very clear and effective remedy from this region which used nitrate, a cure so revolutionary that it was only finally understood by science in the 1980s which unlocked the reality of the absolutely key role of nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide in human physiology. So, in re-capping the progression of my search for the location of the birthplace of nitrate curing of meat, I am actually telling the story of my discovery of the value of nitrite, nitrate and nitric oxide to human existence and health.
The Story at a Glance
My quest started with a consideration of salt which is older than humanity itself. My interest is in its use as a meat preservative. When did this start and how and what are its functional benefits? Most of this has been dealt with in Chapter 12.10: Meat Curing – A Review, but I left an important link out in that discussion namely a realisation that studying mummies and mummification technology through the ages may be a very productive way of searching for the oldest known meat preservation technology and the use of salts at a time before writing was invented. I applied this thinking and did a survey of the oldest mummies on earth which yielded the most startling two results.
A semi-natural mummy in Chile’s Atacama Desert
The oldest mummies on earth, dating from around 7000 BCE are the Chinchorro mummies from the one place on earth that is at the same time the dryest and is replete with the highest concentration of natural sodium nitrate, the Atacama Desert from Chile and Peru! What makes this startling is that sodium nitrate has been the curing agent of choice for meat until it was replaced after World War 1 by sodium nitrite. I always thought that the use of sodium nitrate in meat curing became popular due to the cured colour it imparts to meat and that its preserving ability was a secondary application. I also thought that its widespread use was a very recent development that reached a height in Europe at the end of the 1800s. Following my logic about mummification technology, I was certainly not expecting a date of 7000 BCE for a probable use of sodium nitrate in meat curing.
I turned my attention to Asia from where, in an iconic review article from Binkerd and Kolari (1975), they claim that the use of nitrates in the curing of meat was first used as meat preservative “in the saline deserts of Hither Asia and in coastal areas.” They say that “desert salts contained nitrates and borax as impurities” and the discovery was accidental when they actually thought they use ordinary sea or bay salt (sodium chloride). I wanted to examine the veracity of their claims.
What I discovered was the most startling possibility, that curing technology was developed into an art form between a particular location in China and another one in Austria. Even more than that, following the mummy trail, I managed to identify one particular geographic location which is a prime candidate for the exact location where the technology of curing was discovered, developed and spread across the rest of Asia and into Europe. This is an amazing possibility and the fact presented by themselves are startling!
The oldest mummies in China are found in the Taklimakan Desert, in the Tarim Basin. Right here, in the region where the mummies are found, in the Turpan-Hami Basin, massive nitrate ore fields, close in proximity to the Tarim Basin exists. Nitrate deposits, so massive that it is estimated to be at least 2.5 billion tonnes and comparable in scale to the Atacama Desert super-scale nitrate deposit in Chile.
A Tarim mummy
At the graves near Loulan, one of the bodies were subjected to radiocarbon dating which indicated that she died about 1200 BCE. In the oldest cemetery so far discovered, the Small River Cemetery, mummies were discovered which carbon tests, done at Beijing University, show to be 3980 years old. This takes the known date for meat preservation, by our logic of linking it with mummification, to almost 4000 years ago in China.
The two areas in the Atacama Desert and the Taklimakan Desert in China share a striking similarity in weather. They are both some of the aridest regions on earth. A second factor that plaid a role in the natural mummification is rapid freezing due to extreme cold conditions in the winter and then, of course, the very high sodium chloride content of the soil.
I honed in on this region in China for its geographical importance as being on the important Silk Road connecting Asia with the Middle East and Europe. I asked if there is any evidence of the development of sophisticated thinking pertaining to the use of sodium nitrate salt from this particular region. My reasoning is that if meat curing as an art developed here, that would have been a springboard for the development of related applications.
The results of my enquiry have been nothing less than startling and leave me with little doubt that I have identified one of the exact locations on earth from where the art of curing meat developed and was spread into Europe and back into Asia. Not that they were the only ones who would have discovered this. I am convinced the ancients in the Atacama Desert would have easily made the same link with meat preservation but it was here, in China’s Western front, on the Silk Road, where a level of sophistication in thought related to the application of sodium nitrate developed that is unrivalled, as far as I am aware off, by any other location on earth.
The first factor in favour of the Tarim Bason for the birthplace of curing technology that was spread into Europe is then the enormous natural deposits of sodium nitrate. Secondly, you have the mummies which are something that observant ancients would have noticed almost immediately. It won’t take you 4000 years to realise that something extraordinary is happening with the corpses. The third fact relates to the level of sophistication in the application of sodium nitrate.
The clue of such sophistication of thought comes to us in the discovery of an ancient medical prescription dating from some time between CE 456 and 536, during the life of the famous Daoist alchemist and physician Toa Hongjing in a cave close to the city of Dunhuang, right in our area of interest.
The text describes the treatment of a condition identified as a case of severe angina, i.e. restricted blood flow due to the narrowing of the cardiac arteries. The treatment was to place saltpetre (potassium nitrate) under the tongue.
The basic curing pathway that alleviates the condition by the ancient prescription is a reduction of the nitrate through bacteria under the tongue to nitrite and in the tissue, transported there by the blood, the nitrite is converted to nitric oxide. The role of nitric oxide as a vasodilator was, amazingly, only discovered in 1987 simultaneously by a group of researchers at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham led by Professor Salvador Moncada and by a group in the USA led by Professor Louis Ignarro. So momentous was this discovery that the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded for the work. Once nitric oxide was identified as playing a role in physiological processes, it was found to be involved in many processes from inflammation to crying. So, here we have a text, detailing a medical prescription in the 5th and 6th decade of the Christan Era, from China, that has only been fully understood by modern science in 1987! This by itself is an astounding fact!
It gets even more startling. It turns out that this exact reaction sequence of nitrate ion that is reduced to nitrite through bacterial reduction and changed to nitric oxide, along with the influence of acidity and various reductants on the speed of the process is something that is well known in meat science. Humphrey Davy, in 1812 (cited by Hermann, 1865) was the first one to note the action of nitric oxide upon haemoglobin. On 7 May 1868, Dr Arthur Gamgee from the University of Edinburgh, brother of the famous veterinarian, Professor John Gamgee (who contributed to the attempt to find ways to preserve whole carcasses during a voyage between Australia and Britain), published a groundbreaking article entitled, “On the action of nitrites on the blood.” He observed the colour change brought about by nitrite. He wrote, “The addition of … nitrites to blood … causes the red colour to return…” Over the next 30 years, it would be discovered that it is indeed nitrites responsible for curing and not the nitrates added as saltpetre. It was Polenski who first speculated that saltpetre is reduced to nitrite in the curing of meat in 1891 and 1901 Haldane showed that nitrite is further reduced to nitric oxide (NO). (Fathers of Modern Meat Curing)
Meat curing has been known to follow this exact pathway since 1901. The tantalising possibility, now presents itself that the preserving nature of the salt was recognised from things like the natural mummification in this exact region in China. The salt was applied to meat in which it had an amazing preserving impact as well as, what must have been, a mysterious reddening effect. To the ancients, it probably looked as if the meat was coming to life again. The Chinese alchemists in all likelihood gravitated to this as a possible key component of the elusive elixir of immortality. Finding such an elixir was the goal of Chinese alchemy. They probably applied its preserving power to all kinds of ailments and in a process of trial and error, a treatment for angina must have been especially effective.
Such experimentation takes many centuries and if this was a known cure and part of a medical prescription by CE 400 or CE 500, it means that curing of meat must have been very advanced in terms of it being practised in this region by this time. From here, in terms of its key position on the Silk Road, the curing technology would have spread across Asia and into Europe.
Mummification – Key to Preservation Technology
The use of salt in embalming is an obvious application of the preserving power of salt to meat. It also seems reasonable to speculate that salt for preserving meat for domestic consumption came first and the application of the technology to mummification was probably a later development. One obvious reason for this is that meat preservation for consumption would have been a daily requirement. An immediate need, for a large group of people. So, many people, over a long time would have been engaged in experiments with various salts and ingredients to determine by a simple process of observation which salts ingredients and combination of factors preserved meat best. Burying the dead and mummification, on the other hand, was a far more infrequent event, with very few people working on solving the problem resulting in a much slower development trajectory. It is far more probable that techniques for meat preservation in general use would have been applied to the preservation of human bodies after death and in the art of mummification.
If one assumes this logic, it becomes an important tool to establish a date by which food preservation with salt was done by a society. The use of salt in embalming leaves us with clear records with precise dates and exactly what was used in meat preservation. If one assumes that meat preservation for general consumption would have predated the use for embalming, we can fix precise dates by what time a society used which salts to preserve meat.
I found support for this reasoning from Valerie Wohl. She writes, “While we do not know exactly how embalming began, it is likely that methods common at the time for preserving meat, fowl or fish probably suggested a clue for early techniques. One might bleed a fish, for example, then preserve it by salting, smoking, sun drying or otherwise heating it to prevent decomposition and store it for a later time. By the time of the very earliest documentation of the process of embalming (in about 500 BCE), it had become a sophisticated technique that had been evolved over hundreds of years.” (Wohl, V.)
The Chinchorro Mummies of the Atacame Desert
This line of reasoning yielded the most surprising results imaginable. Not in my wildest imagination did I think that the oldest mummies and their preservation would be linked, not with sodium chloride, but with what has been the curing salt of choice up until at least 1905, namely sodium nitrate. I have always thought, based on research on the subject, that sodium nitrate was used for preserving meat from the 1600s and reached its height in Europe in the 1700s and 1800s before it was replaced with sodium nitrite from around 1905 and in particular after World War 1. I thought it was used in isolated places around the world where various cultures re-discovered the reddening effect it had on meat, independently and over a long time and that this slowly filtered through to Europe where it gained popularity over time until it became a general practice. Never did I expect sodium nitrite to have been used for meat preservation since between 5000 and 7000 years BCE and not due to its reddening effect, but for its preserving properties. Let’s look at this case.
It turns out that the oldest mummies on earth are the Chinchorro mummies from the Atacama Desert in Chile and Peru, dating from as early as 7000 BCE. (Guillén, S. E.; 2005) Gypsum, a sulphate mineral, was later used with clay (3000 – 1300 BCE), but mud and clay played an important role from as early as 5000 BCE.
The fascinating link is between this region and sodium nitrate. Nowhere on earth are such large natural deposits of this salt found. The soil here is rich in sodium nitrate salt which is known as Chilean Saltpeter to distinguish it from potassium nitrate or regular saltpetre. A war was fought over these deposits and securing it was a major consideration of Germany going into World War 1. The second important factor is that the Atacama desert is the dryest place on earth. The soil is so rich in saltpetre and it is so dry that mummification occurred naturally, leaving mummies that exist since 7020 BCE.
Two of the most important ingredients in meat preservation namely heat/ drying and saltpetre were present in the mummifications rituals of the Chicharro people of the Atacama Desert since as early as at least 5000 BCE. I do not think that it is too far a stretch to assume that these people knew about the meat preserving ability by drying in combination with their special salts (sodium nitrate). Even though it is complete conjecture, I am comfortable to say that preserving meat through sodium nitrate salt and drying was probably known since at least 5000 BCE in Chile and parts of Peru. It is then not a stretch to say that this was likely to be known in the other two main regions in the world where saltpetre is found naturally namely in China and India. This is, of course, a fascinating possibility since this particular salt became the curing agent of choice in the 1700s which gave rise to the food category of cured meats and directly resulted in our use of sodium nitrite in meat curing today. This date of between 5000 and 7000 BCE is completely in line with a date proposed by Binkerd and Kolari.
Despite this tantalising possibility, the actual sodium nitrate concentrations at the burial sites in the Atacama Desert has never been studied. The degree of mummification varies tremendously (Aufderheide, A. C.; 2003: 141) which will indicate that various factors have been present in varying degrees.
The Tarim Mummies of China
A date of between 5000 and 7000 BCE is completely in line with a date proposed by Binkerd and Kolari. According to their iconic 1975 review article about the history and use of nitrates and nitrites in the curing of meat, “it appears that meat preservation was first practised in the saline deserts of Hither Asia and in coastal areas. Desert salts contained nitrates and borax as impurities. However, the reddening effect of nitrates was not mentioned until late Roman times.” (Binkerd, E. F. and Kolari O. E.; 1975: 655) A probable time for this discovery is however not given.
I first thought that what they were talking about was salt preservation generally, but the more I look at events in the Atacama desert, the more I wondered if the particular preserving power of sodium and potassium nitrate was not known from the earliest times and the discovery, focusing on its preserving power and not on its reddening effect on cured meat.
A further elaboration of what Binkerd and Kolari may have been talking about comes to us from a 1977 newspaper article. According to it, the suspicion is that prehistoric nomadic hunters in Western Asia began carrying salt, containing nitrate with them to preserve the hunting catch. (The Indianapolis Star; 1977) The focus was indeed on nitrate and its preserving ability and not just on salt generally. I learned that nitrate deposits occur and precipitate as an efflorescent crust in amongst other the Egyptian and Namibian deserts, the Abu Dhabi sabkhas, and deserts of the Mojave, Death Valley and of course, the Atacama Desert and the Gobi Desert. (Warren, J. K.; 2016: 1278)
It is, however, the largest desert in China, the Taklimakan Desert of Western China that offers the biggest surprise when I find the oldest examples of natural mummification in China, right in this desert region, replete with natural nitrate deposits. The conditions are almost identical to those of the Atacama desert.
Like the Atacama desert, the Taklimakan Desert is at the same time one of the aridest regions on earth and massive nitrate ore fields exist in the Turpan-Hami Basin, close in proximity to the Tarim Basin, in the Xinjiang province, where the oldest mummies in China was found. The nitrate deposits are so substantial, that an estimated 2.5 billion tons exist, comparable in scale to the Atacama Desert super-scale nitrate deposit in Chile. (Qin, Y., et al; 2012) The mummification happened, as was the case with the mummies of the Atacama Desert between 5000 BCE and 7020 BCE, spontaneously.
The initial discovery was made in 1939 by the Swedish archaeologist Bergman Folke. A set of tombs were discovered in the Chinese province of Xinjiang, known as the Xiaohe Tombs. For 60 years the tombs were forgotten until in 2000 a researcher, head of the Xinjiang Cultural Relics and Archaeology Institute, found the tombs again. It wasn’t until 2005 that the excavations were complete. (www.ancient-origins.net)
The size of the area is unprecedented. So far there have been 330 tombs found in multiple different layers. The tombs include adults and children as well as 15 intact mummies. About half of the tombs were looted by grave robbers. It is the first time anywhere on Earth that so many mummies have been found. (www.ancient-origins.net)
“Several bodies have been excavated from graves near Loulan, a site that once bordered a still shrinking lake fed by the Kongi River. Among these is the body of a young female with remarkably well-preserved facial features, whose radiocarbon date indicates that she died she died about 1200 BCE.” Subsequently, more than 500 tombs have been studied. Dr Wang Bing Hua, director of the Ürümxi’s Archeological Research Institute, attributes the spontaneous mummification to three factors: arid climate, salty soil and shallow, winter burial. Average salt content of the desert soil near Turpan is about 10g/ L but in the very surface layer, it can be five times greater. At Hami the soil contains layers of gypsum and at Cherchen actual salt blocks are obvious within the soil, especially near the surface. Most burials are only about a meter below the surface. (Aufderheide, A. C.; 2003: 268, 269) In the oldest cemetery so far discovered, the Small River Cemetery, mummies were discovered which carbon tests, done at Beijing University, show to be 3,980 years old. This takes the known date for meat preservation, by our logic of linking it with mummification, to almost 4000 years ago in China. The nitrate in Xinjiang Lop Nur exists in two forms: natural sodium nitrate mine and natural potassium nitrate. (en.cnki.com.cn)
The Turpan Basin is a “fault-bounded trough located around and south of the city-oasis of Turpan, in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region in far western China, about 150 kilometres (93 mi) south-east of the regional capital Ürümqi.” “The surrounding mountain ranges are the central Tian Shan in the west, the Bogda Shan in the north-west, the Haerlike Shan in the north-west, and the Jueluotage Shan in the south. Beyond the surrounding mountain ranges lie the Junggar Basin in the north and the Tarim Basin in the south.” (www.revolvy.com)
“Some geographers also use the term Turpan-Hami Basin, which is understood as including the Turpan Depression along with the Hami Depression (located to the east of the Turpan Depression, and to the southwest of the city of Hami) and the Liaodong Uplift separating the two depressions.” (www.revolvy.com)
One of these mummies may hold a further clue to their preservation. She became famous for her “excellent preservation and beauty and it is known as the Beauty of Xiaohe. It is a white person with round eyes, perfect eyelashes, and long hair and has features that are more similar to a European person than a Chinese person.” (www.ancient-origins.net)
According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber, her “beautiful eyelashes finally proves an earlier hypothesis, deduced from little detail at Zaghunluq, that those bodies that mummified had to have died in early winter, flash freezing and gradually freeze-drying over the next few months whereas other bodies decomposed.” She was dismayed at people’s acceptance or refutation of his arguments without dealing with the arguments posed. In the Beauty of Xiaohe she, at last, had hard evidence. “Eyeballs, being wet, cause rapid decomposition of both themselves and the eyelash-holding eyelids when warm; but by the same token, being wet, cause rapid decomposition of both themselves and the eyelash holding eyelids when warm, but by the same token, being wet, both they and the thin overlaying eyelids will freeze rapidly when being very cold, thus securing the eyelashes in place. Unlike putrefaction, the gentle process of freeze-drying will not dislodge eyelids.” (Mair, V. H., Hickman, J.; 2014: 35)
It has been known from the earliest times that meat curing could be done only in the winter in the absence of refrigeration. If not, the putrefying and decomposing forces would overtake the preserving action of saltpetre and decomposition would be unstoppable. It is the combination of cold and dry conditions along with the use of sodium nitrate to preserve and ordinary salt (sodium chloride) to aid in drying out the meat, that forms a link between the earliest forms of mummification and modern meat-curing techniques. It seems unreasonable to think that the result of these forces, in combination, would have gone unnoticed. I further suspect that the power of these forces would have been practised in relation to fish, fowls, game and domesticated animals for centuries before they found inclusion in the earliest mummification practices.
The Silk Road
The location of the Turpan-Hami and Tarim Basins are very important. Crossing the Taklimakan Desert is possible at the foot of the mountains surrounding the Turpan-Hami Basin or along its streams such as the Tarim, “that spring from the mountains to enter the desert from its periphery but soon vanish into the sand. As ancient caravans from Eastern China approached Dunhuang at the edge of this segment of what eventually came to be part of the Silk Road to the Mediterranean, the near absence of water in the desert’s centre forced them to make a choice. The southern option skirts the desert along its southern edge at the foot of the steep Kunlun slopes descending from Tibet’s high plateau. Alternatively, the northern route passes through Hami and those communities living along the Kongi and Tarim rivers that lead to Loulan and Lop Nor. It is along these routes that mummies from the Tarim Basin have been found.” (Aufderheide, A. C.; 2003: 268, 269)
The caravans on the Silk Road approached Dunhuang, crossing vast sodium and potassium nitrate deposits. If the knowledge of its power was developed in this region and exported to Europe, I am sure that there should be remnants of this ancient knowledge in this city.
“One of the people who has extensively studied the Caucasian mummies of China, Professor Victor Mair of Pennsylvania University, said that he believes that early Europeans long ago spread out in different directions. He believes that some of these peoples travelled west to become the Celts in Britain and Ireland, others went north to become the Germanic tribes, and still, others journeyed east to find their way to Xinjiang. These ancient European settlers are believed to represent some of the earliest human inhabitants of the Tarim Basin, and Mair has stated that from around 1800BCE the earliest mummies to be found here are exclusively Caucasoid or Europoid rather than Chinese in origin.”
The origins of the mummies have been studied extensively using DNA technology. Writing in the journals BMC Geneticsand BMC Biology, Chunxiang Li, an ancient DNA specialist at Jilin University, and colleagues report on their analysis of human remains from the Xiaohe tomb complex also on the eastern edge of the basin.
They conclude that by reconstructing a possible route by which the Tarim Basin was populated, Li and colleagues conclude that “people bearing the south/west Asian components could have first married into pastoralist populations and reached North Xinjiang through the Kazakh steppe following the movement of pastoralist populations, then spread from North Xinjiang southward into the Tarim Basin across the Tianshan Mountains, and intermarried with the earlier inhabitants of the region, giving rise to the later, admixed Xiaohe community.” (Killgrove, K, 2015)
“The populations from the Russian steppe seem to have contributed more genetically to this population than did the populations from the oases of Bactria. “The groups reaching the Tarim Basin through the oasis route,” the researchers note, “may have interacted culturally with earlier populations from the steppe, with limited gene flow, resulting in a small genetic signal of the oasis agriculturalists in the Xiaohe community.”” (Killgrove, K, 2015)
A New York Times article on the origin of these people presents the picture clearly. It reads that “all the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, Dr Zhou and his team conclude the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.” (Wade, N; 210)
It is however not the origin of these people who interest me as much as their destination and the destination of the traders who passed through this region. The Silk Road that ran through this region reached into the heart of the Middle East and Europe to the West and into the rest of China and India to the East. There is an interesting possibility that comes up and that is if it is possible that the Europeans brought the technology with them. Of course, this is a possibility but then there is the matter of the unique level of sophisticated insight into saltpetre from this exact region. Such a level of understanding of saltpetre did not exist in Europe for many centuries. It seems more likely that the transfer of technology went from Tarim, East, into Europe, rather than the other way round. The next section explains what I mean by this.
The question is if there is any evidence that anything was done with the nitrate deposits and the clear evidence of its preserving power in the mummification. If this was the region where curing of meat was progressed into the art that we know it as today, is there any evidence of this? Any ancient document or reference, not just from China generally, but linked to this region. These were the actual questions I asked myself as I was searching. This is not a device I employ after the fact for the sake of creating drama.
I knew my general geographic area of focus was the one I show below featuring the Tarim Basin.
I started plotting the important points.
Looking at the images above, the saltpetre deposits are the largest at Yuli, marked as NO3-. Loulan is the city where many of the mummies have been found. Dunhuang is a major city before the trip past or across the desert was undertaken on the Silk Road past the Tarim Basin.
I did a search for any reference to saltpetre from the city of Dunhuang which would have been a key trading city in the area and important in terms of its location on the Silk Road. Not in my wildest imagination did I expect to uncover what I found!
It is here, in the Mogao Caves, where a remarkable find was made by the Daoist monk, Wang Yuanlu on 25 June 1900. The mix of religious and secular documents date from the 5th to the early 11th centuries. One text is of particular interest to us, the Dunhuang Medical Text. “The text has been carefully studied by China’s leading experts in traditional Chinese medical literature and ancient manuscripts. The text is attributed to the famous Daoist alchemist and physician Toa Hongjing (CE 456 – 536).” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005) There is evidence that it relies on earlier traditions from the Han and Sui Dynasties. “The original was decorated with images of the Three Daoist Lords and the Twelve Constellations, indicating links with Doist traditions. In Translation, it reads as follows:
(Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
Until the 1500s this is the only script of its kind that we know off. “The symptoms described by the patient, as described in the Dunhuang manuscript, suggests an advanced case of cardiovascular distress. The colour of the fingernails (cyanosis) indicates ischaemia (lack of oxygen in the tissue) due to restricted blood flow. Cold hands and feet are additional symptoms of this condition. Also, acute pain suggests that the patient may be suffering from severe angina, i.e. restricted blood flow due to the narrowing of the cardiac arteries.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
“Modern treatment for angina is glyceryl trinitrate or isosorbide dinitrate. So, at first glance, there seems to be a similarity in treatment. All three remedies contain the all important nitrate. Salpeter is, however, an inorganic compound that exists as a positively charges potassium cation (K+) and a negatively charged nitrate anion (NO3-). Concerning organic nitrate, such as glyceryl trinitrate, there is a covalent bond or a molecular bond between the nitrate moieties (NO3) where they share electron pairs which form the bond with the rest of the molecule (CH2). Where glyceryl trinitrate relaxes the muscle lining of the artery to relax, enlarging the vessel and so allowing more blood flow, saltpetre by itself will have no effect on the treatment of angina. (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
This is however not the full story. The remarkable feature of the Dunhuang text is that the combination of the use of saltpetre, not on its own, but when applied according to the dictates of the text, becomes a remedy for exactly the condition described. “The thing about glyceryl trinitrate is that this too, in itself, is not a vasodilator (relaxing of the arterial lining). It is transformed, probably in the arterial wall, into a chemical species which is the vasodilator. Under very special circumstances, exactly as detailed in the Dunhuang text, the nitrate ion from saltpetre also converts to exactly the same species which is the vasodilator. Despite the fact that glyceryl trinitrate has been in use for over a hundred years, the identity of this species has only been discovered in 1987.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
“Lining almost all blood vessels on the inside is a layer of cells known as the endothelium. A very important function of the endothelium was first reported in 1890 by Furchgott and Zawadzki. The presence of acetylcholine (a small biologically active molecule) in the bloodstream affects vasodilation and it was generally assumed that acetylcholine acted directly upon vascular muscle. However, this was found not to be the case. Furchgott and Zawadzki showed convincingly that acetylcholine acted, not upon the muscle of the artery, but upon the endothelium and the endothelium produces a “second messenger” which then acts upon the muscles to effect relaxation. This second messenger was christened “the endothelium-derived relaxing factor” (EDRF).” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
During the 1980s, an intense effort was effected to identify the EDRF. It was initially assumed that it would turn out to be a complex molecule like a hormone. This speculation enhanced the surprise when the chemical nature of the molecule was finally determined. It turned out to be a small diatomic molecule called Nitric Oxide (NO). “That it had a physiological role, in a process as important as vasodilation, came as a complete surprise.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
“The discovery was made simultaneously by a group at the Wellcome Research Laboratories in Beckenham led by Professor Salvador Moncada and by a group in the USA led by Professor Louis Ignarro. The 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine was awarded for this discovery. Once nitric oxide had been detected in one physiological process it was found to have roles in many others, from inflammation to crying. That it should have remained undetected during a hundred years of intense scrutiny of human physiology is astonishing. Glyceryl trinitrate is a vasodilator because it is transformed by an enzymatic process (possibly by the enzyme xanthine oxidoreductase) into nitric oxide.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
Let us now return to the Dunhuang text. Is there any way that the inorganic nitrate could be transformed into nitric oxide? “In a healthy body it is very unlikely, that nitrate which is present in the blood plasma, is converted to nitric oxide. However, there is a species, nitrite (NO2-), very closely related to nitrate (NO3-), for which conversion into nitric oxide is quite possible. Do humans ever convert nitrate into nitrite? Such a conversion can occur in the mouth and it is this aspect of the Dunhuang prescription that is so interesting. The saliva contains many bacteria, some of which contain the enzyme nitrate reductase, which converts nitrate into nitrite.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
“Experiments on rats have shown that reduction of nitrate to nitrite is confined to a specialised area on the posterior surface of the tongue. If the same applies to humans, the Dunhuang procedure, which specifies that the saltpetre should be placed under the tongue will maximise the conversion of nitrate into nitrite. The retention of saliva as described would also enhance nitrite production. Unlike nitrate, nitrite is physiologically active. t is an antiseptic and a vasodilator, although not a powerful one. It has been suggested that animals, particularly cats, lick wounds because of the antiseptic effect of nitrite in the saliva. Although not a powerful vasodilator, there is now direct evidence that rat hearts, when subjected to global ischaemia, generate nitric oxide and that a significant proportion comes from nitrite present in the tissue. Ischaemic tissue is very acidic and the acid affects the conversion of nitrite to NO via the following equilibria:”
(Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
“Calculations, assuming only a modest level of nitrite in ischaemic tissue, show that enough nitric oxide from the above equilibria to activate guanylate cyclase, the enzyme responsible for the initiation of the cascade of reactions which lead, eventually, to vasodilation. So, if nitrite enters the plasma, as a result of administration of sublingual saltpetre, it could generate nitric oxide in ischaemic tissue. Because of the abundance of blood vessels under the tongue sublingual administration of a drug is a good way of getting a drug into the bloodstream and bypassing the stomach. Also, the tongue, in traditional Chinese medical theory, is linked to the function of the heart.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
“The interaction of saliva and nitrate to generate nitrite before conversion to nitric oxide in ischaemic tissue gives considerable credence to the Dunhuang procedure as a treatment for cardiovascular distress.” (Cullen, C, Lo, V.; 2005)
Here, in the Tarim Basin, we have three things present. One of the world’s largest natural saltpetre deposits. Natural mummification dating back to just over 3000 years ago. From these, the preserving power of these soils would have been evident to all since the mummies existed then already. The longevity of the corpses would have been evident to the ancients. We have a record of very sophisticated use of saltpetre from very early in the Christian Era from this exact region. In fact, some of the most sophisticated use of the salt on record and the exact mechanics is even today mirrored in the act of curing itself which has been until the early 1900’s when the direct addition of sodium nitrite replaced saltpetre as curing agent of choice.
Until that happened, curing was done by the addition of saltpetre which was reduced, through bacterial action to nitrite which diffused into the muscle for the purpose of preservation. The similarity in the curing action and the mechanism relied on, in the utilisation of saltpetre in the Dunhuang Medical Manuscripts is startling, to say the least. Of course, I am not suggesting that the full or even a partial understanding of the mechanism was known to the ancients, but the application did suggest a much more detailed understanding of saltpetre and its efficacy on meat muscles which could easily have originated from the experience with curing! Seeing the preserving power of the salt and the reddening effect of the meat could have led them to an application of the salt for heart conditions even though the reduction steps may not have been fully understood.
This is without a doubt the best possible location from anywhere in the world where the curing of meat could have originated in an art form which would have been preserved and transmitted to successive generations through societies which later became known as guilds. The picture is not of wondering hunters who stumbled upon the salt and early farmers using it for preserving meat – or at least, it could have started like this. But if it happened in this exact region, it soon found itself in the most advanced society on earth of its time with the most sophisticated thinking about chemistry. The Chinese alchemists in all likelihood gravitated to this as a possible key component of the elusive elixir of immortality. Finding such an elixir was the goal of Chinese alchemy. They probably applied its preserving power to all kinds of ailments and in a process of trial and error, a treatment for angina must have been especially effective.
Here, at a key location on the silk road, the knowledge of curing and the power of saltpetre could easily have been spread through India and China to the East and right into the heart of Europe to the West.
This is a remarkable find!
The Fascinating Link between Turfan and Salzburg
The possibility that the art of meat curing was developed in Turpan and spread around the world is most promising. Despite this not being my main point under discussion here, it is important to note that Europe may also have influenced the community around Turpan. Influences certainly did not only go one way.
A fascinating link has been discovered between the mummies in Turfan and the Austrian city of Salzburg. Victor Mair, a professor of Chinese in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania was committed to trace the ancestry of the mummies. “In Xinjiang, a Chinese colleague had slipped him a . . . gift: a swatch of blue, brown, and white cloth taken from a twelfth-century-bc mummy. The fabric looked like a piece of Celtic plaid. Mair passed it over to Irene Good, a textile expert at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Good examined it under an electron microscope. The style of weave, known as a “two over two” diagonal twill, bore little resemblance to anything woven by Asian weavers of the day. (Indeed, it would be almost another two millennia before women in central China turned out twill cloth on their looms.) But the weave exactly matched cloth found with the bodies of thirteenth-century-BCE salt miners in Austria. Like the DNA samples, the mysterious plaid pointed straight towards a European homeland.” (Tocharians: The Whites of Ancient China)
This startled me. The thread that ties it all together is salt and meat curing. Is it possible that a mummy found in the region which I believe may have been pivotal in spreading nitrate curing of meat across the world may have some direct or indirect link with the Austrian salt mines? It unlocks the possibility that work done on the use of nitrate salts was influenced by work done in Austria.
In my mind, the fact that nitrate and nitrite did not only have negative effects on human health was discovered by contemplating the possible location where the art of meat curing with nitrate originated. Today students learn this from textbooks but I somehow like the journey of discovery that I took much more.
Villifying Nitrite: A Drama for Fools
After telling the story of my own discovery that nitrate, nitrite and nitric oxide is far from evil molecules, tantamount to poison being added to meat, I return to the primary subject at hand. Is bacon safe to consume? Is the use of nitrate and nitrite in meat curing irresponsible? What about the claims that it causes cancer?
There is no greater illustration of willing enslavement to an incomplete understanding of nature than the drama related to the use of nitrites in meat processing. Humans happened upon a natural phenomenon that special salts containing nitrate change the colour of meat and has the power to preserve it. Since the start of the use of nitrites in meat curing, it was viewed with great suspicion due to its inherent toxicity. Much of Bacon & the Art of Living is dedicated to chronicling the unfolding of the great saga of nitrate and nitrite and the discovery of its essential nature and role in meat curing. There is no need to repeat any of what has been written by me earlier in this work except to point the reader specifically to the following chapters. The first two deal with the initial objection against the use of nitrite in food as a poison. This dilemma was resolved through science and legislation.
The use of a substance that is, in high concentrations, poisonous is, after all, nothing new to humans. Alcohol is one of the best examples. Aspirin is another example where, in high dosages, it is dangerous despite its positive benefits at low dosages. Ultra-high dosages of ascorbic acid are equally likely to have adverse effects, cause diarrhoea and nausea. Vinegar is another good example which in moderation is beneficial but consuming too much over a long period of time will have serious detrimental health implications. There are hundreds of other examples we can give. I heard of a well-known speaker in the Uk who addressed a group of meat processing professionals and started his talk by accusing them of poisoning the public through the use of nitrites. Statements like this show a serious lack of understanding not just nitrites but almost every other food ingredient customarily used in food production.
A friend of mine who is a 3rd generation German Master Butcher tells the story of his grandfather who used to buy nitrites from the pharmacy in the early days and made the most beautiful rich pink bacon. There were no limits on ingoing nitrites in those days and the role of ascorbate was poorly understood and sadly he passed away from colon cancer. This anecdotal account has been subsequently confirmed by countless studies and indeed it is true that at the wrong concentrations, without the use of ascorbate or erythorbate, the high nitrite levels used in curing meat is tantamount to poisoning the consumers. The chapter which I just mentioned deals with the international response to the subject and the combined legislative framework for the use of nitrites in food. The minuscule amounts of nitrites used in bacon curing today along with the use of ascorbate render bacon a safe product to consume in moderation. Of course, the caveat should always be remembered that this should be done in moderation as is the case with any other processed food, red meat, beer, cheese, milk, alcohol, dried milk powder, etc.
What has been said before should settle the issue, but over the years a number of other factors occurred to me which must be added to the discussion to un-vilify nitrite.
Nitrosamines – A Much Broader Issue than Bacon
At the outset, I want to apologise to the reader because the issue becomes wonderfully complex almost right from the start. You don’t have to remember all the terms used and all the intricate connections. I chose an article as the basis for our discussion which broadly introduces you to enough of the important factors so that you will be able to see that the issue with bacon is the same issue with beer, cheese, fish, red meat and many other foods. You will see that it even extends to packaging and food preparation. So, don’t be intimidated by the technical discussion which follows.
I firmly believe that despite the fact that a mammoth amount of work has been done on bacon and cured meat since the 1970s; despite the fact that I am absolutely convinced that based on the preponderance of the latest scientific data on nitrite in meat showing that it is a completely safe food to consume, the responsible producer will continue to work on doing even better by limiting residual nitrite in its products after it has been prepared by the consumer even further so that the consumer will be satisfied that concerns, valid and non-valid are being taken seriously by the producer.
Having said all this, let’s now delve into the issue.
a. What is N-nitrosamines?
Nitroso compounds refer to non-organic compounds containing the NO group. This immediately will get the readers attention because we know that it is NO (nitric oxide) which is responsible for the pinkish/ reddish colour in cured meat. The NO group in nitroso compounds for example directly binds to the metal via the N atom, giving a metal–NO moiety. A nonmetal example is the common reagent nitrosyl chloride (Cl−N=O).
If you combine nitroso with amines, you get nitrosamines or as they are more formally called, N-Nitrosamines. So, the next question is: what is an amine. Amines are compounds and functional groups with a nitrogen atom and a lone pair. Amines are formally derivatives of ammonia (NH3). Nitrosamines then is a group of organic compounds with the chemical structure R2N−N=O, where R is usually an alkyl group. An alkyl group, very simply stated, refers to hydrogen and carbon atoms arranged in a tree structure in which all the carbon-carbon bonds are single. The nitroso group (NO+) binds to a deprotonated amine. The reader with no background in organic chemistry will be able to spot the nitrogen in the three structures below.
The important point for our discussion is that most nitrosamines are carcinogenic in animals.
b. How are they formed in Food?
Look at the three structures of amines represented above. Nitrosamines are formed by the reaction of secondary or tertiary amines with a nitrosating agent, such as nitrite from which nitric oxide and an R-NO group formes. When water is eliminated from a compound, we say that an anhydrate is formed. This describes the formation of NO (nitric oxide) from NO2 (nitrite). So, in food, NO is formed from nitrite in an acidic, aqueous solution. The nitrosating agent is usually then a nitrous anhydride, formed from nitrite in an acidic, aqueous solution. This is, for example, the condition found in our stomachs or in the mouth and if we ingest nitrites, we run the risk of nitrosamine formation after we swallowed the food.
Another culprit for nitrosamine formation is the frying of bacon. Nitrite in combination with fats (lipids) seems to be the nitrosating agent during the frying of bacon. “The formation is related to the relatively high internal temperature of bacon during frying and the relatively low moisture content of bacon as compared to other cured meat products. When bacon is cooked by other methods, particularly in a microwave oven, considerably lower amounts of nitrosamines are found.” (Scanlan, 2003)
c. Bacon is not the only Product of Concern
From the point just made about the frying temperature of bacon in an environment where there are lipids and low internal water content which leads to nitrosamine formation, it should be a clue to the fact that processing techniques are also responsible for its formation. This was indeed shown and since the late 70s and 80s, it has been known that processing techniques, as well as packaging procedures, are responsible for introducing these carcinogens into food. Hotchkiss (1984) writes that these processing and packaging “procedures include drying foods in direct flame heated air, migration from food contact surfaces and direct addition as contaminants. In addition, other reports of N-nitrosamines in foods have less well defined routes of contamination.”
Hotchkiss (1984) cautions that despite the presence of nitrosamines in food, it is actually “occupational exposures” which may be responsible for “the highest individual exposures (Fine and Rounbeh1er, 1981).” Still, “the largest numbers of people have been exposed to exogenously formed N-nitroso compounds through the diet.”
There are three abbreviations I want to introduce at this point namely NA (N-nitrosamines), NVNA (non-volatile NA) and VNA (volatile nitrosamines where “volatile” refers to those compounds amenable to gas chromatography without derivatization). VNA includes for example “N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), N-nitrosopyrrolidine (NPYR), N-nitrosopiperidine (NPIP) and N-nitrosodiethylamine (NDEA), which occurs generally at low levels <5 µg kg−1 but levels up to 20 µg kg−1 has been reported (Hill et al, 1988, Massey et al, 1991). NDEA has been evaluated as the most potent carcinogen among the known meat related VNAs (Peto et al., 1984).” (Herrmann, 2015) NVNA include “the N-nitrosamino acids, e.g. N-nitrosohydroxyproline (NHPRO), N-nitrosoproline (NPRO), N-nitrososarcosine (NSAR), N-nitroso-thiazolidine-4-carboxylic acid (NTCA), N-nitroso-2-methyl-thiazolidine-4-carboxylic acid (NMTCA), generally occur at significantly higher levels than the VNAs, i.e. up to several thousand microgram per kilo (Herrmann et al, 2014a, Massey et al, 1991, Tricker, Kubacki, 1992).” (Herrmann, 2015)
Hotchkiss (1984) continues that “several groups have demonstrated that a number of foods can contain trace quantities of VNA. To date nearly all types of foods have been analyzed for VNA and, hence, some important generalizations can be made. Most importantly is that the use of nitrite as a curing agent is not solely responsible for the VNA content of foods. Several foods to which nitrite has not been intentionally added have now been shown to contain trace levels of VNAs. Equally significant is that the N-nitrosamine content of foods has decreased as a result of research in this area. He classified the routes and mechanisms by which foods can become contaminated. “The routes of contamination can be divided into 5 groups: Additives; drying processes; migration from contact surfaces; addition of performed NA; and those for which the route is not clearly defined.
This is the class where cured meats fall in. We are already familiar with the story as we discussed it in Chapter 12.06: Regulations of Nitrate and Nitrite post-1920’s: the problem of residual nitrite. Let’s recap what we said by quoting Hotchkiss (1984). “The suspicion that the use of nitrite in foods might result in the formation of NA stems from an incident in which animals fed nitrite preserved fish meal developed liver necrosis. The causal agent was determined to be NDMA and it was shown that the compound resulted from the nitrosation of the amines in the fish by nitrous acid formed from nitrite (Ender et a1., 1964). Nitrite is an economically and technically important food additive in the curing process in order to fix color, develop flavor and inhibit toxigenesis by C1. botulinum.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Since the late 1960s, a substantial research effort has resulted in a body of information concerning the occurrence and formation of VNA in cured meats. This has resulted in the knowledge that the addition of nitrite to meat is not, in most cases, sufficient to routinely cause the formation of VNA. In order for cured meats to consistently contain more than 1 μg /kg VNA6 the product must be subjected to temperatures greater than 100 C in a low moisture environment. The only cured product which meets these criteria is bacon. Other cured products only sporadically contain VNA in excess of 0.1 μg /kg (Gray and Randall, 1979). In a recent large survey, only 6 of 152 cooked sausage products had a VNA content greater than 5 μg /kg and only 4 of 91 dry sausages had similar VNA contents. In the same study, however, 11 of 12 dry-cured fried bacons contained VNA, some as high as 280 μg/kg. The fact that fried cured bacon consistently contains detectable VNA has been observed by numerous workers (Scanlan, 1975).” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Efforts have been directed at determining the chemical mechanism and precursors to the major VNA, NPYR, found in fried bacon. While several potential precursors to NPYR have been identified, including collagen, ornithine, hydroxyproline, citrulline, putrasine and arginine, it is generally accepted that the major precursor is proline (Gray, 1976). While the free-radical mechanism proposed by Bharucha et a1. (1979) is often cited as the mechanism which best fits observations, the steps of the reaction have not been clearly elucidated. At least two possible routes exist; proline could be nitro sated to form NPRO which is subsequently decarboxylated during frying to NPYR, or proline is first decarboxy1ated to the amine pyrrolidine which is then subsequently nitrosated. Both decarboxylation and nitrosation, regardless of order, must occur during frying because uncooked bacon does not contain NPYR or sufficient preformed NPRO (Hansen et aI, 1977). Nakamura et al. (1976) have suggested that the mechanism is temperature dependent; at temperatures above o 175 C decarboxylation precedes nitrosation and at lower temperatures nitrosation precedes decarboxylation.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“In addition to NDMA and NPYR, Kimoto et a1. (1982) and Gray et a1. (1982) each have reported that fried bacon also contains NTHZ. This VNA was likely missed by many researchers due to its long retention time or its on-column decomposition. We have also confirmed this VNA in fried bacon and have further identified the compound in the fried-out fat from bacon. NDMA and NPYR are, under most frying conditions, found in higher concentration in the fried-out fat than in the edible portion. However, in our experiments NTHZ consistently occurs in higher concentrations in the edible portion regardless of the frying conditions. The mutagenicity of NTHZ has been demonstrated (Sekizawa and Shib, 1980) but the compound has not been tested in whole animals for carcinogenicity. The formation of precursors of NTHZ have also not been studied in fried bacon but thiazolidine has been identified as a browning product in a glucose-Cysteamine model system (Mihara and Shibamoto, 1980).” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Nitrate may be added to certain cheeses to retard the growth of microorganisms which might cause defects. Concern has been expressed that the nitrate might be reduced to nitrite by reductase containing microflora and that this nitrite could nitrosate amines endogenous to the product. The Danish government has published the results of a large survey of cheeses in which no correlation between the use of nitrate and concentration of VNA in the product could be made (Anon. 1980). Only very small amounts (less than 0.7 μg/kg) were found in any cheese. Sen et al. (1978), however, found 21 of 31 cheeses imported into Canada contained VNA up to 20 μg/kg. These apparent discrepancies with regard to the use of nitrate in cheese have not been resolved.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“In addition to the use of nitrite and nitrate as additives, a second general mechanism by which foods may become contaminated with NA is through the drying of foods in air which has been directly heated in an open flame. The highest levels of VNA resulting from this common method of food processing have been in the kilning of malted barley. Concentrations of NDMA -in the dried malt of over 100 μg/kg have been reported (Hotchkiss et al. 1980; Preussmann et al. 1981). A number of workers have shown that the NDMA in the malt survives the brewing process and can be detected in the resulting beer in concentrations expected from the dilution of the malt (Havery et al. 1981). This widespread contamination was shown to be the result of the formation of oxides of nitrogen in the air as it is heated in the flame. Oxides of nitrogen have been demonstrated to be effective nitrosating agents over a wide pH range (Challis and Kyrtopoulos, 1978).” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Scanlan and coworkers have extensively investigated the formation of NDMA in malt. They have demonstrated that the plant alkaloids hordenine and gramine are effective precursors of NDMA in model systems and that it is likely that NVNA may also be present in direct fired kiln dried malt (Mangino et a1. 1981).” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“The first reports of NDMA in beer indicated average concentrations in the range of 2 to 6 μg/kg (Spiegelhalder et a1. 1981). While these levels seem, at first, low it is possible to consume 1 to 2 kg of beer at a single serving. This represents more NDMA exposure than from any other food source. Spiegelhalder et a1. (1980) have estimated that 64% of a West German’s dietary NDMA came from beer. There is recent evidence, however, that the VNA content of beer has decreased sharply (Mangino et a1. 1981). This decrease is due to the widespread use of sulfur dioxide or indirect heating of the drying gases in the malting industry. The application of sulfur dioxide during the early part of the kilning process may be either by direct injection of gaseous sulfur dioxide or by burning elemental sulfur in the drying air. The inhibition by sulfur dioxide is most likely due to the formation of bisulfite which may react with the nitro sating agent in a redox reaction.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Other foods which are dried in direct flame heated air have also been shown to contain trace amounts of VNA, albeit at lower levels than malt. Most notable is the finding that nonfat dried milk may contain traces of NDMA. Several reports have shown NDMA levels of 0.1 to approximately 5 μg/kg (Libbey et al. 1980; Lakritz and Pensabene, 1981). In a recent nationwide survey of 57 nonfat dried milks conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration, an average NDMA level of 0.6 μg/kg was found with 48 samples being positive (Havery et al. 1981). Apparent NPYR and NPIP were also detected in sub μg/kg concentrations. Because nonfat dry milk is diluted lOx before consumption some have onsidered it not to be a significant problem while others have been concerned because of the widespread use of this product by the young.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Other dried foods have been shown to sporadically contain detectable VNA. Sen and Seaman (1981) analyzed nonfat dry milk, dried soups, and instant coffee and found VNA in all dried milks, 3 of 20 dried soups and 5 of 10 instant coffees, most at levels of less than 1 μg/kg. Perhaps more importantly, 3 of 8 dried infant formulas contained detectable VNA. Fazio and Havery (1981) have observed VNA in soy isolates and concentrates and dried cheeses.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“In addition to formation from direct additives or from the direct flame drying process, recent evidence indicates VNA may enter foods through migration from food contact surfaces. In 1981 Spiegelhalder and Preussmann (1981) reported that a number of rubber products including nursing nipples contained substantial levels of VNA and that these compounds could migrate to water and milk. Later Havery and Fazio (1982) investigated one brand of nipple available in the US. They confirmed the presence of VNA in this product and demonstrated that when inverted nipples were sterilized in milk or formul, migration occurred.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“We have investigated the VNA content of 8 types of rubber nipples available in the US from several domestic and foreign manufacturers (Babish et al. 1982). One or more VNA were detected in all nipples tested and when each nipple was boiled for 3 minutes in 150 ml water or incubated 3 hours at 37oC, 6 to 44% migration occurred. Total VNA contents ranged from 42 to 617 μg/nipple (nipple weight is approximately 5 gm) and most nipples contained more than one VNA.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Direct food contact paper and paperboard packaging may also be a source of VNA and nitrosatable amines in foods. Analyses of 34 food packages by GC-TEA revealed 9 to be contaminated with NMOR. Perhaps more importantly, all packaging materials examined had levels of the parent amine morpholine ranging from 98 to 842 μg/kg (Hotchkiss and Vecchio, 1982). Morpholine is easily nitrosated and there is evidence that it may be nitrosated in the stomach to produce the carcinogenic N-nitroso derivative (Mirvish, 1975). Two experiments indicated that both the NMOR and morpholine may migrate to dry foods. First, when a food package was found to contain NMOR and morpholine, the food closest in the package often also contained NMOR and morpho line (Hoffmann et ale 1982). Secondly, when paperboards which contained NMOR and morpho line were incubated at elevated temperatures in closed vessels with dry foods migration could be demonstrated. Further research is needed to determine the extent of the contamination and degree of migration under normal conditions.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“When agricultural chemicals or food additives contain preformed VNA, it is conceivable that a portion of the VNA contaminate could be added to food. For example, meat curing premixes which contained salt, sugar, spices and nitrite and were designed to facilitate the mixing of curing brines were shown to contain relatively high levels of VNA including NPIP (Sen et ale 1974). This VNA resulted from the nitrosation of piperidine ring containing compounds in the spices. The NPIP was then added along with the cure solution to the meat and could be detected in the product.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Certain agricultural chemicals were shown at one time, to contain mg/kg quantities of VNA (Ross et al. 1977). Although current levels have been greatly reduced (Oliver, 1981) it has been demonstrated under laboratory conditions that when these mixtures are applied to food crops, absorption of the VNA either directly through the plant or indirectly through the soil is possible (Khan, 1981). For example, Dean-Raymond and Alexander (1976) have shown that radio labeled NDMA incorporated into soil could be taken up by edible plants. A recent survey of dried waste sludge also indicates most sludges contain small amounts of VNA (Mumma et al. 1982). If sludge is incorporated into soil uptake may be possible. It should be noted that no confirmed report of VNA in foods as a result of the use of pesticides or sludge in actual field use has appeared. On the contrary, Ross et al. (1978) analyzed soil, run off water and edible plant tissue after the application of a commercial herbicide containing NDPA and failed to detect the VNA in any sample. As pointed out by Oliver, (1981) it is difficult to draw conclusions about the VNA contamination of foods based on laboratory experiments.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“Another potential source of direct addition of NA to food maybe through the use of processing water which has been deionized by anion exchangers. Kimoto et al. (1980) have shown that NDMA and NDEA at levels of less than 1 μg/kg can be detected in water which has been passed through an anion exchange column. This is a common treatment process in food plants.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
“In addition to the above four mechanisms by which food may become contaminated with small amounts of VNA, other less well defined or uncorroborated contamination processes have been reported. For example, one group of Japanese workers have reported that broiling fish under a gas flame may result in substantial increases in the VNA content of the food (Matsui et al. 1980). The average NDMA content of 20 fish and seafood products increased 3 fold after broiling under a gas flame and one dried squid sample increased in NDMA from 84 to 313 μg /kg. When broiled under an electric element or covered with aluminium foil smaller increases in NDMA content were seen. Presumably, VNA is being formed by a mechanism similar to that occurring in dried foods such as malt and nonfat dried milk. Further work is needed to evaluate this source of dietary NA. Smoking fish has also been reported to result in the nitrosation of the amines associated with fish (Kann et aL 1980).” “Another potential source of direct addition of NA to food maybe through the use of processing water which has been deionized by anion exchangers. Kimoto et al. (1980) have shown that NDMA and NDEA at levels of less than: 1 μg/kg can be detected in water which has been passed through an anion exchange column. This is a common treatment process in food plants.” (Hotchkiss, 1984)
The Occurance and Benefit of Nitrate in Our Diet
So far we have looked at the occurrence of nitrite and the dangers associated with nitrosamines. I deal with it directly because it is the main charge levelled against the curing industry that poison is used to cure the meat. The second, and equally important consideration is the benefit of nitrate in our diets. The reader should be well familiar by now that nitrite is converted through bacteria from nitrate. Such bacteria occurs for example in our mouths and when we ingest nitrate much of these are converted into nitrite. So, in a way, when we talk about nitrate, we also talk about the occurrence of nitrate in our food.
Nitrate has been shown to be beneficial to our health and occurs naturally in, for example in beetroot. It has been credited with a speedy recovery after a strenuous workout, thus enhancing our exercise performance as well as lowering our blood pressure. Nitrates are the active ingredient in medicine for the treatment of angina where blood flow is restricted causing chest pains.
It is reported by the BBC that “only around 5% of nitrates in the average European diet come from cured meat, while more than 80% are from vegetables. Vegetables acquire nitrates and nitrites from the soil they grow in – nitrates are part of natural mineral deposits, while nitrites are formed by soil microorganisms that break down animal matter.” BBC
Uddin (2021) published an extremely helpful list of fruits and vegetables containing nitrate and the mg/kg which they typically contain all of which should be the end of the debate about nitrite in bacon.
The Guiding Power of Nature
My life has been guided by invisible forces from my birth. I believe this force to be nature itself. The biggest thing I have learned is that what I believe is completely irrelevant. Nature does not care for my belief! It is not swayed by it! What IS will prevail, irrespective of my personal belief or even our universal belief as humans. Every step of life was crafted by nature itself in a way that I don’t understand.
I came to realise that my own intellect and our ability as humans to perceive life through the matrix of our minds is not the most important aspect of our lives. I examined the most important mental constructs very carefully and realised that they are all bankrupt. The first quest was to understand God. I wrote a book about it, The Anatomy of a Sceptic. This magical time in my life introduced me to the amazing world of the human mind and the gods we create! We first create them and then we worship them just as we do with all our mental constructs. We do the same with concepts such as democracy and the free market system and yes, even with the idea of science! We first created these mental concepts and then we worshipped them.
It was my quest to understand bacon that brought me back to nature and to understand that I exist as a living being, in the first place not in my mind, but in my body as every bodily need and desire and instinct and drive is connected in the first place to nature. I eat to live and I eat that which I share this earth with. My quest to understand the secrets of bacon taught me that life is infinitely interconnected and I am nature itself!
Bacon evolved over millennia in a way that my quest only briefly introduced. Living life excellently means that I re-connect with nature. This is the art of living! It is why so many people who looked deeply into this tell us that the problem is not that we think too little. The problem is often that we think too much and the art of reconnecting with life is to become quiet and to stop thinking! It is that simple.
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The Best Bacon on Earth Cape Town, October 1960
The kids visited last December. Is it almost a year ago? Where did the time go! Where does one begin to wrap up an epic adventure? As in Homers Odyssey, you quickly learn that it is all about the journey. The destination is a bonus. What we discover, however, is enriching and life-changing! Still, not even wisdom comes to anything! Our heavenly Jerusalem or Nordic Valhalla is precisely in the fact that we are conscious and in the moment of consciousness, the universe is conscious through us. I am saving a full explanation to the end of the book, yet, I can not progress if I don’t give you this glimpse into the art of living that bacon steered me to. My quest has always been more than bacon, yet, it was never less than. Within this simple culinary marvel, I started to discern the secret of life itself. Bacon curing is the instrument that the universe used to lead me to the answer to life, death and everything there is. Is it not fitting for such a simple thing to hold such rich wisdom!
The secret processes of the creation of bacon have been discovered by humans, yet it was not invented by humans. It mimics natural physiological processes yet in the incorrect understanding of those processes and their limitations we endanger ourselves because we do not appreciate the powers we unleash! Still, the truth is that its processes are natural! Its discovery a fait accompli. Its wonder is both in its taste and the beauty of its processes. Discovering the laws governing its creation is complex and requires the utmost diligence and complete dedication to the quest. Yet, it exists not for this purpose. Its reason for being is the sustenance it gives at the right time. It provides nutrition in the time of want. So is life. Life is simple and the one who never gives a thought as to the purpose of our existence or our ultimate end can enjoy every good gift on this earth, bear all the grief and ends his or her days completely satisfied. Yet, for those, wholly absorbed in understanding the meaning of it all, there are answers – great, profound and satisfying. Still, this quest has the potential of taking the very enjoyment of life away from the investigator in which case it would have been better not to have started the journey!
Dawie Hyaman’s Widsdom
Dawie wrote to me from America. We were discussing the fact that for all our reasoning ability, humans are not very intelligent. He writes, “that is a fascinating thing.. thought of it many times myself. I look at the intelligence in a tree, to take manure and sunshine and turn it into a juicy fruit, or a fragrant flower. Or the intelligence in my body that takes all the food I throw at it and converts it into a human. I can eat all the bananas I want but I won’t become a monkey! Then this other thing, we call intelligence, which is reasoning, and logic, and seeing patterns and following insights over instincts.. and there .. there is NO intelligence there .. or very very little. Seems to me the intelligence in the universe is everywhere except in the reasoning capacity!!” Is this not precisely the point! The reason why we are alive is completely apart from our logic. The very search for the eternal is itself a mirage. It is getting lost in the complexity of the processes of bacon curing without ever curing bacon and enjoying it yourself! Still, there is great value in a pursuit of its secrets. The end must always be to enhance its enjoyment when consumed. Life is exactly the same. We can ask for the eternal and the fixed but if this becomes the end in itself, we are completely missing the point.
To the point, Dawie writes that “there’s nothing wrong with the world as it is. I think it’s heaven. Look at the exquisite beauty, the endless complexity, colour, flavour, possibility. Sure we suffer biological pain because the protection mechanism of the body is not intelligent enough to turn itself off when its no longer doing much (or maybe it is, we just don’t like the settings hahaha) .. and of course we only appreciate pleasure because we know pain.. but my point is .. most of what we suffer is in the constructs of our mind… we suffer our memory and our imagination!! WE suffer our experience. And that seems to me because we think we are our mind, we think we are our body.. when we are not that.. because when we sleep we still exist, and when we lose our legs we still exist… so the whole thing of freedom to me is to stop suffering the thinking mind, and then just “be” .. and when we are present like that.. we are in bliss .. every single time.” Do you get his point? What he is saying is that the quest is not the goal. When it all gets so frantic, stop and quiet your spirit and just be. Think less!
He concluded by writing: “Seems to me .. we are always Here, Now. We always have been. Our thoughts, feelings and perceptions come and go, and are experienced in time .. it has to.. it has conceptual start and end, and a conceptual space.. so it is not always here.. so in that sense, we die. But beyond perceptions… the Nothing beyond Thinking .. the no-Thing … its nothing to the constructs and perceptions of the mind.. but it is the source of everything. Where else did forms come from, but from the formless?”
Living in the Real World
Just like the incorrect application or understanding of some of the complex processes in bacon can get us in trouble on many fronts including health and wellbeing, so the incorrect view of reality can create endless misery for ourselves and others. Politics in our beautiful country did not turn out as I would have liked, but it did happen exactly as I predicted! I see us steering the course of conflict as I saw it all these years ago while riding transport. Still, I continue to learn about life and had many years where I could put everything I learned about bacon to good use.
Daily News New York, 7 October 1960
The country voted for independence from Britain! It breaks my heart because it was done for all the wrong reasons! I am in full support of independence from Britain, but not for the reason that the referendum was fought over. It ended up as a fight between the white English and Afrikaans speaking people which was merely a rehash of the Anglo-Boer war, contrary to the efforts of Smuts and Botha to unite the groups after the war.
It would have been far better if the discussion included the non-white population of the country and was focused on doing what is right for everybody instead of the selfish ambitions of a few. All South Africans should have been allowed a say in their future as equals. The end result will be untold hardship for many millions of people.
Still, there is an important lesson for me. No matter our circumstances, we can find in ourselves and in things around us reasons to be thankful. This is a tremendous human ability. Amidst the greatest injustice, we can hope! When all hope is lost, we can persevere, and we can hope, against hope! The strange thing that I learned over my life is that this kind of hope never disappoints! This too is part of the art of living! I have no doubt that the Afrikaner and every other race in the country will rise up to take their rightful place as co-heirs of this land as equals. Anything less will be an injustice!
When I left Cape Town for the first time as a young man many years ago, I set out with a single-minded objective to learn the mechanisms underlying the art of curing. We desired to create the best bacon on earth. Did I achieve this? I would like to think that for a time, just before I left Woody’s, that we did just that. We created amazing bacon. Now Koos and Duncan have the company and are facing new challenges. They went through a time of great hardship themselves in the company, but from what I can see on the shelves, the quality is returning to the brand. It makes me incredibly proud of what they have achieved since Oscar, Will, James, Roy, Stanford, Adrian, myself and so many others left. I keep on learning! That making the best bacon on earth, consistently, year in and year out is a very difficult thing and an art in itself.
Many great bacon companies exist around the world. There are three examples of companies that I got to know very well who manage to achieve amazing quality bacon. Two of the companies have been doing it now for over 100 years! I salute them both by concluding the most amazing journey imaginable by focussing not on what Oscar and I manage to achieve, but on others. Others can judge our success or failure in this regard. Three companies who also learned how to make the best bacon on earth stand out! The last few chapters deal with them.
Best Bacon on Earth
Below are photos of some of the best bacon produced on earth by a Master Butcher from Germany whom I have the honour to work with. The best bacon on earth is being created. No compromise! Just quality! Some are cooked fully and some not, depending on where it is made and for what market. The pale bacon is cooked. These are all created in large, high throughput factories in Europe.
Note that all the commercial bacon was produced using a grid system. At Woody’s, we designed, what I believe to be, the best grid system. This can be seen under The Best Bacon System on Earth.
Bacon & the Art of Living focuses mostly on commercial bacon. There is an entirely different discipline around dry-cured, artisan bacon. This is the subject of Chapter 02: Dry Cured Bacon. My mentor here is an Englishman living in Canada, Robert Goodrich.
The photos below are not all “bacon” but it showcases some of the work of the master!
To prove my point about Robert’s bacon, here are some other examples of his work.
I give Vladimir’s recipe to illustrate the difference between artisan bacon and those produced in large high-throughput factories. You can see that time is not an enemy or a factor to overcome in the example below, but an ally to be embraced.
Vladimir’s recipe is given as:
Ingredients – Nitrite salt – 2.2% – Brown sugar – 1% – White vinegar (100 ml) and spice (Black pepper, several peas of juniper, bay leaves)
Procedures. People say that real bacon from Ayrshire should be marinated in a liquid with vinegar. I did not do this. – 4 weeks in a vacuum with salt, wine, vinegar and spices. – Rinse, dry and tie bacon into a roll. – Smoking – 8 hours. – 4 weeks of maturation in the chamber at + 10С and humidity 80%
The white vinegar was a surprise!
Companies who Achieve This
Of all the amazing bacon companies out there I have opted for three examples. There can be many as there are amazing companies out there! I close the three because they have unique ties to South Africa.
The amazing thing about these companies, as with so many others, is that they possess real soul. In their DNA are locked up unique qualities which made them and still make them stand out head and shoulder above the rest. One element of this DNA is a pursuit for quality. Another one is that at some point in their history they were led by a group of people who understood the secret of life. That we are here today and gone tomorrow and our greatest joy (purpose) is in being! These companies have the most fascinating stories to tell and the amazing thing is that I bet you it is the same with every good bacon company out there. They all have great stories to tell becasue bacon people, I mean REAL bacon people, understand humility, comradery and friendship. They are what we refer to as salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They know how to make great bacon and the art of living! These stories form the closing chapters of this epic journey!
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
Oake Woods & Co., Ltd., Rapid – and Auto Cured Bacon
16 April 1892
Dear Lauren, Tristan and Oscar,
In the history of meat curing of the 1800s and early 1900s, one particular group stands out head and shoulder above the rest namely the Wiltshire curers. For a long time, I thought that C & T Harris was the only excellent cure from the area, but I was so far from the truth! There were many legendary companies from Wiltshire and the surrounding counties. When we talk about Wiltshire curers, it is particularly people from this area who cure the entire side of the pork which is referred to as the Wiltshire cut.
Back at our lodge from an unforgettable evening with the Harris family, two men stayed with us from a firm that also cures meat. The firm is Oake ‘ Woods & Co. Ltd from Gillingham located in the neighbouring county of Dorset. They were in Calne to visit service providers who sprang up around C & T Harris. One of the men is an engineer, Will Dean. The other guy is a curing expert. It was this meeting that made me realise that the curing world in England is much bigger than C & T Harris.
I learnt an important lesson namely great industries develop where there is fierce rivalry. It was the case in England related to meat curing. British firms were competing with Irish, Danish, Canadian, Scandinavian and maybe more importantly, with other British firms. This fierce competition created an environment of innovation and competitiveness. Even though John Harris knew about mild curing and the re-use of the old brine it surprised me that C & T Harris were so eager to learn the Danish way of curing of me. My surprise was well-founded when I learned that mild curing arrived in Wiltshire many years earlier through a company whose main method of curing has become, not mild curing but what they call Auto Curing.
Conversation with the two gentlemen from Gillingham was fascinating, and one of the most electric revelations was that the man who brought mild curing to Wiltshire and who invented Auto Curing was none other than William Harwood Oake, the son of Willing Oake from Limerick in Ireland who, as a young chemist, invented mild cured bacon. Our discussion did not start with auto curing. They insisted that we talk about mild curing first. Back at the Harris factory the next morning, I researched both mild cured bacon and auto cured bacon. It allowed me enough background to engage them on the subject for the rest of the week that they stayed in Calne. The information I got from them and what I discovered in my own research painted an amazing picture!
From Worth, R. N.. Jan 1888. Tourist’s Guide to Somersetshire: Rail and Road. E. Stanford
Re-Visiting Mild Cured Bacon
William Oak invented mild cured bacon and the essence of the invention centred around the power of the salts he used in the brine. To my great surprise, I discovered that the information about mild cured bacon was also published in a South African journal, as it was done in Australia and presumably around the world.
From the Cape of Good Hope (Colony), Dept. of Agriculture (1896) they quote the same paper published in Australia in 1889. It refers to a paper that was read at a congress of the South Australian Agricultural Bureau on pig-breeding and bacon-curing by Mr TN Grierson of Bodolla, New South Wales. The report begins as follows: “There is at the present time a new process coming into vogue, which is attracting considerable attention amongst bacon-curers. The process is called the “mild cure.” The discoverer of the new process of curing was, it appears, an eminent chemist – the late Mr William Oake, of Ulster. In the course of an experiment, he discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt) and that the obnoxious effects of dissolving the albumen in the curing process could, therefore, be avoided. This is really the key to the new system of curing. By the new process, it is said that the bacon and hams, although thoroughly cured with the very essence of salt, still retain all the albumen originally in the meat, and yet do not taste salty to the pallet. By the new process, the lean of the cured bacon remains soft and juicy, and natural in colour; and the best proof of the value of the system is in the fact that where mild cure has been adopted the bacon and hams will keep for any length of time in any climate. A great deal of labour, it is said, is saved by the new process, while the article put on the market is declared to be much superior in taste and flavour quality to bacon cured on the old system.” (Department of Agriculture, Cape of Good Hope, 1896)
A definition of albumen from 1896 says that it refers to “a substance found in the blood and the muscle. It is soluble in cold water and is coagulated by hot weather or heat. It starts to coagulate at 134 deg F (57 deg C) and becomes solid at 160 deg F (71 deg C).” It is distinguished from fibrin which is the substance in blood that causes it to coagulate when shed. “It consists of innumerable delicate fibrils which entangle the blood corpuscles, and from with them, a mass called blood clot. Fibrin is insoluble in both cold and hot water.” (Farmer, 1896). Albumin, with an “i”, in the modern use of the term refers to “any of a class of simple, sulfur-containing, water-soluble proteins that coagulate when heated, occurring in egg white, milk, blood, and other animal and vegetable tissues and secretions.” (Dictionary) Albumen, therefore, refers to meat juices in particular. It is the opaque fluid found plentifully in eggs, meats, fish and succulent vegetables, especially asparagus. (Gejnvic) It is the red substance that oozes from our steaks when we fry it and is mostly myoglobin, a protein from muscle tissue.
The reason why the meat juices do not leach from the meat is simply a function of the brine which surrounds the meat and comes down to the matter of partial pressure. Bristow gives us the real reason for the effectiveness of the system in terms of the speed and consistency of curing when he says “the same pickle can be used for many years – the older the better; it only requires, when it becomes somewhat muddy, to be boiled and clarified.” He follows this statement by saying that he has “seen pickle which had been used in one factory for 16 years, and that factory produces some of the best bacon and hams in Australia.”
There is no question that the preservative that William Oake observed is saltpetre, reduced to nitrite. In the detailed process description given, Oake insisted that the blood be drained properly. I give the full system as described by Bristow in note 1. The meat is cut up and notice that Oake’s system called for “the portions [to be] (are) laid on the floor of the factory (which should be made of concrete or flagged), flesh uppermost, and lightly powdered over with saltpetre, so as to drain off any blood.”
Here he does not use salt. He only uses saltpetre. After this step the pork cuts are “placed in the tanks” and he now introduces salt (NaCl) for the first time. He writes, “for salting. . . — sprinkle the bottom of the tank with salt, then put in a layer of sides or flitches, sprinkle saltpetre over them lightly, and then salt and sugar. The next layer of sides or flitches is put in crosswise and served in the same way, and so on until the tank is full. Then place a lid to fit inside the tank (inch battens 3in. apart will do); fix an upright on top of the lid to keep the bacon from rising when putting in the pickle.”
Now let’s consider the makeup of the pickle. He says that it is prepared as follows: “To every 10lbs. of salt add 8lbs. of dark-brown sugar, lib. of spice, and 1/2lb. of sal-prunella. Make it strong enough to float an egg; let it settle for some time, then skim, and it is ready to go on to the meat.” Let us pause for a second and clearly understands what is meant by sal-prunella. Sal-Prunella is, according to Errors of Speech or Spelling by E. Cobham Brewer, Vol II, published by William Tegg and Co, London, 1877, a mixture of refined nitre and soda. Nitre, as used at this time was refined saltpetre used in the manufacturing of explosives.
Let us again quote Oake through Bristow when he says that “in the course of an experiment he (Oake) discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt) and that the obnoxious effects of dissolving the albumen in the curing process could, therefore, be avoided. This is really the key to the new system of curing.”
Based on these statements I am convinced that what William Oake was testing to identify the exact substance which is responsible for the preservation of the meat. He tested the salt and that is not it. Salt preserves primarily through the drying effect it has on meat. He, no doubt, tested saltpetre and as experiments, almost a decade later from the 1920s confirmed, by itself, saltpeter is a poor preservative. However, Oake must have observed that there is a preserving power that developed in the brine which he clearly did not understand. It is due to this, I firmly believe, that he makes the somewhat enigmatic statement that he “discovered that the antiseptic properties of salt were found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt).” He knew it was something that was added to the salt and based on the priority he gives saltpetre in the purity he demanded of it, I believe he had a suspicion that it had something to do with the saltpetre but by itself, he knew that it was not it! Still, he saw that there is an “antiseptic” mechanism at work that is from nature but his vague wording at this point clearly shows that he was uncertain as to what it is exactly. In the cure, “antiseptic properties of salt [are present], (were) found in nature apart from chloride of sodium (salt).”
Before this meeting, I was very reluctant to say that Oake’s main characteristic of his mild cured system is the repeated re-use of the old brine. I could not come to that conclusion precisely because I very dearly wanted that to be the conclusion. I forced myself to find other options besides this and I refused to concede the point until such a time arrives when I am forced by the overwhelming weight of the clear evidence to say that to Oake goes the credit for using the power of old brines in a system of curing where the older the brine is, the better! Such a time has now arrived where I can say that the preponderance of evidence forces me to make this one simple conclusion that William Oake came to the understanding of the power of the repeated use of old brines albeit that being achieved without a full understanding of the mechanisms which was not understood at that time. This is absolutely and comprehensively remarkable!
For a long time since I discovered the work of William Oake, the furthest I was prepared to go in explaining why mild curing worked so well was the overall system that he developed by taking known techniques from his time and ordering it in a better way so that the outcome of the work would be better. You can see how I tried to avoid the conclusion that Oake pioneered the multiple re-uses of the old brine! I now believe that the former statement is still correct related to his ordering of the different components in the work of curing bacon in a better way and that it holds up to evaluation and scrutiny, but after repeatedly looking at the description of the process and having had much time to reflect on it, I am finally prepared to concede that by far the biggest feature in his new system was the repeated re-use of the old brine.
Another point that must be made and which is probably far more important than I ever realised is that the genius of Oake was not just what he used in his brine, but what he omitted. From the Sessional Papers, Volume 34, Page 204, Great Britain, Parliament. House of Commons,1902, we have the statement about Oake’s invention “to meet the increased demand for mild – cured goods without the use of modern preservatives.” This means that Oake is not just responsible for the repeated reuse of the old brine but for omitting any other preservative from bacon. It was then his work that was directly responsible for steering the course of the development of curing technology away of artificial preservatives and keeping the process, unbeknownst to him, close to the natural processes which take place in meat in dead matter and in living animals and humans. Sure, at this time Oake and Harris used borax or boric acid as preservatives in their hams, but Oake identified another preserving principle from nature which we now know as nitrite!
The question comes up about the origins of this practice of re-using brine. The first clue I got that there was something distinctly different to Oake’s system of continued reuse of the brine from anything that was in use at the time came to me from an 1830 edition of The Complete Grazier. The report says that wet cure is more expensive than dry cure unless the brine is re-used. First, the meat is well rubbed with fine salt. A liquor is then poured over the meat and “though the preparation of such brine may, at first sight appear more expensive than that prepared in the common way, yet we think it deserves a preference, as it may be used a second time with advantage if it be boiled, and a proportionate addition be made of water, and the other ingredients above mentioned.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830: 304)
The concept of reusing the power of old brine is something that has been known in England from at least the 1820s or possibly many years earlier. The Complete Grazier (1830) says that liquid brine may appear to be more expensive than if it is done “in the common way” which in the context should refer to dry curing or rubbing a mixture of dry ingredients onto the meat. The edition of the Complete Grazier referred to is from the 5th edition which means that by this time, the description may already be 5 years old if it appeared in the 1st edition. Notice the comment that the brine can be used “a second time.” The continued reuse of the brine was not what the author in the Complete Grazier was describing. The practice of reusing old brine in England of 1820 and 30 was a far cry from the complete system of William Oake from the same time in Ireland where the multiple (continues) re-uses of old brines were part of Oakes complete mild cured system.
I must also add that in the system that Oake developed the brine was no longer boiled after every use which has a major impact on the microorganisms responsible for the reduction of saltpetre which is added before the brine is re-used. By not boiling the brine after every use, a distinct microflora develops. The inspiration to re-use old brine was European with its roots in Westphalia in Germany. William Youatt who compiled the Complete Grazier restates this process in his 1852 work, Pigs: A Treatise on the Breeds, Management, Feeding and Medical Treatment of Swine; with directions for salting pork, and curing bacon and Hams. He says that “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 repeats the re-use of the brine in the publication just mentioned. He writes, “In three weeks, jowls, &c, may be hung up. Taking out, of pickle, and preparation for hanging up to smoke, is thus performed: — Scrape off the undissolved salt (and if you had put on as much as directed, there will be a considerable quantity on all the pieces not immersed in the brine; this salt and the brine is all saved; the brine boiled down [for re use].” Notice that his 1852 description is far more “matter of fact” and he does not go into all the explanations and caveats he did in the 1830 description and his reference to pickle . . . used again and again is a progression from the 1830 reference.
The incorporation of this facet of curing brines was undoubtedly not as advanced as it was in Ireland in the 1820s and 30s. Mild cured bacon was separately listed in newspapers of the time related to price and market conditions. The very first reference goes back to 1837 to a report from Antrim, Northern Ireland. It is fascinating that following this initial reference, Antrim completely disappears from the map and Limerick and Waterford takes over. This report simply said about bacon arriving from Ireland and that the Bacon market was dull the past week but (except) for “a small parcel of mild cure.” (Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) 21 July 1837)
Before this date, mild cured bacon is not mentioned. Remember that bacon was a commodity with prices daily or weekly reported in newspapers like maize and other farming commodities in certain publications. The second reference is in 1842 reported in the Provisions section of Jackson’s Oxford Journal which would regularly report on bacon prices from Ireland. In a mention about produce from Ireland, it says, “in the bacon market there is no great alterations; heavy bacon is more inquired after, and all fresh mild cure meets a fair demand.” Heavy bacon seems to be used as opposed to mild cure. (Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England) 17 September 1842, p4)
The progression in the references, all related to bacon from Ireland and all focused on amongst other, Limerick and Waterford. An 1845 report said that “choice mild-cured Bacon continues brisk.” (Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England) 26 July 1845, p4.)
An 1853 report from Ireland itself is very instructive. From Dublin, a report says “We are glad to observe that several Dublin curers are now introducing the system of mild cure in bacon as well as hams, in consequence of the great difference had in price. (The Freeman’s Journal, (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland) 11 Feb 1853, p1)
Following the Thread of Reports About Oake and his Son: Mild Cured Bacon Arrives in Wiltshire
Report from The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland) 23 Sep 1853, Fri, Page 4
There is a reference in The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland), 23 September 1853 reporting that the previous Wednesday, letters from London “announced the disposal of the provisions contract for the royal navy, 12 000 tierces (casks) of pork and 4000 tierces (casks) of beef.” The short notice says that “we have the satisfaction to add that half the pork contract was taken for Irish account, and a considerable portion will be made up in Limerick, by Shaw and Duffield, William G. Gubbins, William Oake, and Joseph Matterson.” The article is quoting the Limerick Chronicle and shows that Oake had tremendous commercial success.
We also know that at least one of his sons was involved in the business with him, but not in Ireland. A notice was posted in Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner (Manchester), Saturday, 28 September 1889 of the death of William Harwood Oake from Gillingham, Dorset “elder son of the late William Oake of Limerick“, aged 49. This means that WH Oake was born in 1840 and if we presume William Oake from Limerick had him when he was 20, William was probably born around 1820. I later revised this estimate, taking more information into account and it seems that he was born around 1807.
So it happened that mild cured bacon arrived, not in Wiltshire at first but in Dorset, a county bordering Wiltshire. It is from here that the technology spread to the rest of the region which later became known as Wiltshire curing. So, Wiltshire cure, as far as the curers in this county are concerned, came amongst other areas from Dorset!
From Daily News (London, Greater London, England) 18 Jul 1885, Sat Page 3 about the dissolvent of the partnership of the firm Oake Woods Waring. The new firm Oake Woods was created from this.
The bacon factory was opened next to the station in Gillingham. The Dorset Life reports that “the effect on agriculture was the rise in the number of Gillingham farmers; 12 in 1842; 34 in 1859; 45 in 1875. In 1860 and 1893 the station platform was extended to cater for the vast numbers of milk churns that were brought in each day. Close to the railway was Oake Woods & Co., bacon curers. Pigs arrived in cattle trucks to be delivered just yards away to the bacon factory. Next to Oake Woods was the Salisbury, Semley & Gillingham Dairy which acted as a collection depot and purchased milk from farmers whose production was in small quantities.” (Dorset Life. 2016) This factory became intimately associated with Wiltshire bacon curing. They won first prize as well as the silver medal at the annual Dairy Show held in the Agriculture Hall, Islington. (Cassell, 1894)
Auto curing was a revolutionary process that reduced the curing of bacon to times that was thought to be impossible. Due to this, it became an immediate success, not just in England, but across the globe. A report says that by 1861 it was already in use in England, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada.
Let us first understand what auto curing is. The process is described as follows. The pig is slaughtered in the usual way and the sides trimmed and chilled. After chilling, it is laid out in rows on a sort of truck that exactly fits into a large cylinder of steel 32 feet long, 6 feet in diameter and which will hold altogether 210 sides. When the cylinder is filled, the lid, weighing 3 ½ tons (7000lb. Danish) is closed and hermetically sealed by means of hydraulic pumps at a pressure of 3 tons to the square inch.
A vacuum pump now pumps all the air out which creates a vacuum of 28 inches. It takes about an hour to pump all the air out. The brine channel which leads to the brine reservoir, holding around 6000 gallons of brine is now opened. The brine rush into the chamber and as soon as the bit of air that also entered has been extracted again, the curing starts. It happens as follows.
The brine enters the cylinder at a pressure of 120 lbs. per square inch. It now takes between 4 and 5 hours for the brine to enter the meat completely through the pores which have been opened under an immense vacuum. When it’s done, the brine runs back into the reservoir. It is filtered and strengthened and used again. This is very clearly the continued reuse of old brine.
A feature of the system is that it allows the bacon to be shipped overseas immediately, assuming that maturation would happen en route as was usual. The time for the total process is around three days. On day 1 the pig can be killed, salted on day 2 and packed and shipped on day 3.
There are two brine reservoirs. The one is used with a stitch pump to inject brine into the sides as usual before they are placed in the cylinder and the second tank is used. The largest benefit of this system is the speed of curing and many people report that the keeping quality of the bacon and the taste is not the same as bacon cured in the traditional way.
The system cured the meat in a short time, partly because of the vacuum and the penetration of the brine into the muscle, but also because it too used the power of the old brine which is based on the reduction of nitrate to nitrite. The vacuum had an impact in keeping the brine inside the meat and sealing the meat fibres over the areas where holes were created during injection and brine normally leaches out again.
It clearly is a progression of the mild cured system but who invented it? The brine is distributed into the meat through injection and we would later discover that it is not primarily by what they call the “opening of the meat pores.” There is a reference from another source that meat cured in this way is more tender. The system allowed for a 3% to 4% brine pick up which would have added to the bacon being much more tender than with dry curing.
The Gillingham, Dorset Operation and Oake-Woods’ Patent
William Oake’s son and partners were responsible for setting up the curing operation in Gillingham, Dorset, making it clear that they were not just re-selling Irish bacon cured by Oake’s father, but they actually pioneered the auto cure technology.
The Journal of the British Dairy Farmers’ Association (1887) reports that Oake, Woods and Company won a bronze medal for their British Mild Cured Bacon. This being the case, we know for certain that mild cured technology, including the repeated re-use of the old brine which was the cornerstone of the system, was in wide use in Britain by 1887 which hones in on the time when C & T Harris acquired the technology. It must have been well before 1887. The second important point to note is that Oake, Woods and Company not only used auto curing but also mild curing.
An article appears in The Age, Melbourne, Australia in 1898 which describes the proliferation of the system. It reports that the leading factories in Canada, Denmark and Sweden are all adopting the new auto-cure process because the article produced by it supersedes all other brands in the largest market in the world” which at this time was England. The author of the article gives us a date when the curing operation of Oake, Woods and Company, Ltd was started in Gillingham, Dorset using auto curing. He refers to them as “curers of Wiltshire Bacon” which was in operation for 18 months by 1895 taking the establishment of the auto curing line to 1896. We know that by 1861 it was already in use in England, Sweden, Denmark, and Canada. It was, however in the 1890s when international patents were taken out and it would appear as if the expansion plans were global including the Scandanavian countries just mentioned but also the USA, South Africa and New Zealand.
A certain Mr Down, “the patentee of the process” described the process in his own words which are reported in great detail. It is a tedious description and the reason why it was so successful is attributed to incorrect factors, but it is nevertheless instructive and gives the full description of the process. One of the men who stayed with us at the lodge was Will Dean who writes that Mr Down was the managing director of Oake Woods in the 1890s. His full name was Evan Roberts Down.
Stanier elaborates on this information provided by Down. He says that the factory and offices close to the railway station was established in 1847. Vitally he credits William Harwood Oake, son of William Oake from Limerick for the invention of auto cured bacon. He writes, “Oake (referring to William Harwood) invented the ‘Auto-Cure’ method of curing bacon under pressure in cylinders, for which the Danes paid a £4,000 annual royalty. It seems then, that the factory was established in 1847 and sometime between then and 1861 he invented auto curing. Very importantly, the Danes who obtained the system of mild curing which was invented by his dad paid him a royalty for the use of his technology. This fact along with the reference to Mr Down as the patentee, informs us that he very well protected the invention. By 1896 it was in full operation in Gillingham.
Dean who looked at the actual patents told me in private communication that he “had always thought [the process patented by Oake Woods] sounded extremely similar to the “tanalising” process for treating timber – amusingly this is actually mentioned in one of the patents.” He also provided me with copies of the actual patents. This fact would become much more important in our consideration of the routs of the technology which we will look at momentarily.
Uncle Jeppe taught me that in meat curing, the corporate structure is of the greatest importance as it is a capital hungry operation. The following article appeared in the Morning Post (London, Greater London, England) 23 Nov 1889 reporting on new companies (Limited) which has been registered recently. The firm opted for public funds to finance the imminent international expansion.
Below we give links to actual patents taken out around the world. Special thanks to Will Dean who sourced these and sent them to me.
The fact that Down is clearly listed as the inventor in these patents is of considerable interest. It may be that he takes the place of the inventor, who had to be listed as filing the application simply on account of William Harwood Oake having passed away on 28 September 1889. Down may in fact have been responsible for improvements to the system in addition to the reality that Oake was not around in the 1890s to file the application.
We return to product quality briefly and an observation related to the Gillingham site is in order. We know that water quality was very important to William Oake. Stanier mentions related to this site that water was pumped from a well, and extensive cellars beneath the factory were said to be the best in the country for curing-by hanging bacon in the smoke of smouldering hardwoods. The factory employed 150 people at one point but closed down around the 1980s. He makes it clear that he is talking about the same factory we referred to above when he writes that “the United Dairies milk and cheese factory remains next door along Station Road.”
Food Flavourings, Ingredients, & Processing, Volume 1, 1979 likewise confirms the 1861 date of the invention of the auto cure system. The invention was featured at the Paris show in 1867. The 1897 Diplomatic and Consular Reports, Morocco, Harrison and Sons, mentions that the system was marketed not just by Oake but by his company, Oake, Wood & Co.
American Rapid Cure
It is probable that the Americans were amongst the first to take the process up. In the 1878 work, Meat Production by John Ewart, he records one method of curing used by Americans. It sounds exactly like auto curing. He writes that “a pneumatic process in the salting is [being] adopted, and of which the following is a description, viz.: – the pork is placed in an air-tight vessel in which a vacuum is formed by means of an air pump, and then a saturated solution of salt with a small proportion of saltpetre injected, by which every part of the pork becomes very highly charged with the saturated brine. The exterior of bacon or hams when salted by the process described on being dried becomes covered with re-crystallized salt having the appearance of hoarfrost.” (Ewart, 1878) It is a full 11 years after the invention was featured at the 1867 show in Paris.
Why did it not have the same effect as did the Oake Woods invention of reducing saltiness? Ewart comments that the process just described results in overly-salted meat. He says that “the greater portion of the cured article from that part of the world (the USA) is almost intolerable from its excessive saltness” and describes the vacuum curing process.
It may be that Ewart is misinformed as the overly salty meat was typical of the barrel pork supplied by the Americans to the British. Did he confuse barrel pork and auto cured bacon? His description that after drying, the exterior of the bacon has the appearance of hoarfrost as salt crystals cover the surface of the meat shows that he bases his assertion on more than casual information. So, what could be happening here?
If is referring to Auto Curing, it is possible that they realised that shipping bacon from Denmark vs shipping bacon from America is not the same thing. It is possible that the meat still did not “keep” and the system was adapted to include more salt. It may also be that they are referring to a system that was developed simultaneously with auto curing and that what he describes is a parallel but different process.
It was left to people like the Orthodox Jewish master curer Aron Vecht to combine a mild curing system with the correct temperature to be able to send cured meat from Australia and England. This quest was taken up by all Australian curers. So, either auto curing was in use by 1878 in many packing plants in the US or a similar but independently developed simultaneously or even before Auto Cure was invented in the USA. Can it be that Auto Cure is simply the progression of an earlier invention?
Clues as to the possible origin of the American report comes to us from an 1848 report in the Sydney Morning Herald. The author begins his explanation of a certain American curing system with an interesting statement. He says that “they (we) desire considerable satisfaction in promulgating the discoveries and inventions of our fellow labourers in the field of science, no matter whether they be transmitted to us from the shores of the Neva or the banks of the Mississippi, and we, therefore, hasten to lay before our agricultural friends an important American invention, which promises to with the greatest benefit in a particular branch of domestic economy, as well as in a commercial point of view, and which we are certain requires only to be generally known to be usually adopted.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 1848) In this, the author is completely right that adopting and adapting inventions are for the most part not very difficult. It clues us into something of the possibility that Auto Curing may well be an improvement of an American invention.
The author then turns his attention to a certain Mr Davison. Setting the 1848 report in the Sydney Morning Herald aside for a moment, we see if we can find evidence of who this Mr Davison was. A stunning description is given by Paul (1868) who records that Mr. Robert Davison attended the food committee meeting as a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, in order to give information on the subject of desiccation as a preservative process which he studied since 1843. So, here we have Mr Davison’s first name given as Robert. He was an engineer by profession and he has been studying preservation since 1843. It definitely looks like the right man!
Paul (1868) gives us more information. He was not originally from the USA, but resided in London. He writes that Robert was of No. 33, Mark Lane, in the City of London, Civil Engineer, and James Scott Horrocks, of Heaton Norris, in the County of Lancaster, registered a patent for improvements in the means of conveying and distributing or separating granular and other substances.” The patent was sealed.
Paul then explains the basis of Roberts method of preservation being through heated air and using the newly emerging science of creating a vacuum. “The importance of hot blast had been discovered in the melting of metals, and it occurred to him that impelled currents of hot air might be advantageously applied to other processes of manufacture, especially as a purifying and desiccating process. In reference to its application to the purification of brewers’ casks, the question arose, in the first instance, as to the effect it would have upon the strength of the wood.” Here we pick up the similarities of Oake’s Auto Cure system with treating wood. “He (Robert) experimented on the subject and found that, so far from deteriorating the wood, it gave increased strength to it to a large extent. He saw that impelled currents of hot air were a valuable thing that had been overlooked, and he then turned his attention to the desiccation (the preservation of food by removing moisture) of vegetable and animal substances.
The key first observation is that his interest was in the removal of moisture and the application of heated air. You may very well wonder how on earth he brought those two together, but hang on. He did it in an interesting way. Paul (1868) writes that “he was successful in the first instance in desiccating potatoes and other table vegetables, which were preserved for a very long time; and he afterwards operated upon a quantity of rump steaks, and by depriving them of all their moisture, they were preserved in a perfectly sweet and wholesome condition for several months.” So far it sounds like standard drying and hot air would not be required. In fact, any air velocity would aid the evaporation process as is done today with fans, for example, in producing biltong. But using hot air which is moved around sounds very similar to what we use in smoking/ drying cabinets today where the air is indeed wam.
For all South African biltong lovers and American Jerky fans, he reveals something extraordinary. Paul (1868) writes that “at the time he was engaged in these experiments an intelligent young man, brother-in-law to Dr Livingstone. . .” Dr Livingston was of course the famous African explorer missionary who resided at the Cape for some time and laboured mostly in Botswana. He had an intimate knowledge of indigenous drying practices and the value of salt.
Paul (1868) continues describing the relationship with the brother-in-law of Livingston and Robert. He does not focus on information about the indigenous practice from Southern Africa but from North America, even though I am absolutely certain that he would have informed Robert about the drying techniques in Southern Africa also. He mentions that Livingston’s brother-in-law was “then his pupil, mentioned to him that he was doing by an artificial process precisely what the North American Indians did with their buffalo meat and venison by the natural heat of the sun in preserving their provisions, and at the same time, he gave him an extract from Catlin’s work on the subject. The Indian method of drying their meat was to cut it up into thin strips, which were hung upon the branches of trees for several days in the heat of the sun. The moisture was entirely evaporated. The meat was then stowed away, and would keep good for years. Salt they never used, notwithstanding the country abounded with it. What the Indians did by natural means, he did by artificial, by the employment of impelled currents of heated air. He cooked some of the steaks desiccated by this process three or four years after they had been operated upon, and they were perfectly good and retained their flavour. After it had been soaked in water the meat recovered nearly its original bulk. In the process of desiccation, nothing but the water was removed, the albumen being all retained in the meat.” (Paul, 1868)
Take special note of his views on the nature of what causes spoilage in meat and vegetables. “By depriving them of all their moisture, they were preserved in a perfectly sweet and wholesome condition for several months.” Mr. Davison said that “he had not entertained the idea of preparing meat in this way (through drying) for the tables of the gentry, but his idea was to have the meat cut into thin slices, thoroughly dried, and packed away for use as we should biscuits. In this way, he thought an excellent article of food might be prepared for shipping purposes, and for the poorer classes.” Not just is it clear that he targeted the moisture of the meat but also his method of work required cutting the meat into smaller cuts and inserting it into the apparatus manually which is similar to what the Indians (and the tribes of Southern Africa) did in cutting the meat into strips before hanging it.
“Mr Davison remarked that three or four years ago an article appeared in the Times, expressing a hope that some plan would be devised for desiccating meat in a better manner than had hitherto been done. The results of the process he had described were decidedly superior to any charqui (drying of meat) that he had seen. He had long since parted with the last portion of the steaks he had experimented upon. The apparatus for desiccation was at present largely in use for other purposes, such as the seasoning of wood, the purifying of casks, &c. It was extensively used for the former purpose in the royal dockyards. He had no doubt he should be able to make the experiment for the satisfaction of the Committee and should have great pleasure in doing so at the earliest opportunity. The heat of the air in his experiments was 180°, but he believed the desiccation would be effected equally well at a temperature of 120°, when the albumen would not be coagulated.”
Let’s now park Davison’s views of preservation which we know he worked on since 1843 for a minute and return to the Sydney Morning Herald’s 1848 article. Davison is described as, “prior to his present occupation, was long connected with the manufacture of salt.” We also learn that he resided in South America for a time, in a country “with greater capacities for the production of the hog and the ox” and his attention was turned to the preservation of meat. Mr Davison drew upon his knowledge of salt and after much investigation invented a method of curing which will sound very familiar to us. He is described as possessing an “inventive genius,” well educated and assisted in the matter of science by Dr Lardner, “whom he consulted upon his arrival in the United States.” (Sydney Morning Herald, 1848)
So, we learn that he did travel to the United States and there he solicited the assistance of a certain Dr Lardner. He was an authority on the subject of steam engines and the application of steam in industry.
Peters (1846) describes the system as follows: “The apparatus is very simple, consisting of a cylinder made airtight. It has a “mouthpiece” through which meat is loaded into the machine and closed with a lid that is screwed onto the machine. The lid has two air vents which are opened and closed by screws. Next to the machine is a large wooden vat holding the brine, connected to the machine through a pipe and elevated higher than the cylinder. A lifting pump circulated the brine from the cylinder back to the vat.” I imagine it looking something like the apparatus at the top of the three above which were associated with Auto Curing.
“Meat is cut and placed into the cylinder. Brine is allowed to fill the cylinder which is then closed. Brine is now pumped back into the vat till all the brine is out and a vacuum is formed in the cylinder with the meat pieces in. Blood, air and gasses are thus removed from the meat also. Brine is now run back into the cylinder. The air vents are opened and the liquid brine expels all air from the vessel. As soon as the vessel is full, the air vents are closed again, the brine pumped into the vat again and the meat is left in a vacuum. Again, blood, air and gasses are pumped out. The cycle is repeated. The initial intervals between the cycles are short but eventually, as all the blood, air and gasses have been removed from the meat, the brine is allowed to remain in the cylinder for as long as between 6 and 8 hours. The entire process is completed in about 12 hours.”
It is here where the explanation or the link that Davison found with meat curing and preservation moves from the factual to the fanciful. He believed that the blood, air and gasses in the meat created some kind of a “resisting power” to the brine which had to seep into the meat. The blood had an affinity for the brine and left the meat for brine to fill it. The pressure created by the elevated brine created relative pressure greater than the gasses and air. When the meat is under vacuum, the reporter writes that the meat is “swollen, its fibre distended and pores open and it readily admits the brine even at the pressure of the mere quantity of brine which the cylinder will hold.” One atmosphere was sufficient and where double and triple that was used, it would respectively close and completely close the pores.
So, he abandoned the use of hot air but instead used a vacuum and the pressure of the brine. Whether his explanation is accurate or not, his invention worked. The process cures the meat in hours as opposed to weeks and he patented it. The process is named Rapid Cure.
The principal advantages, besides the speed of curing, are given as:
The apparatus is described as “extreme simplicity;”
The solution salt and brine is inexpensive to cure both meat and wood;
The brine not used is returned to the cistern and re-used;
If need be, sugar is used which is also not expensive;
The apparatus is made from metal which means it lasts long. It is very easy for any mechanic to fix it if it breaks down;
It’s easy to use, even by a boy of 13 years;
Producing it is not very expensive.
This means that Mr Davison’s invention or the application of a vacuum and pressure in curing has priority in terms of the Oake Woods invention which is a progression of the Davison invention. In all likelihood, what Ewart refers to in his 1878 publication is the American invention that was widely in use in America. The key object of the invention was the speed of curing and not the production of mild cured bacon as was the case with the Oake Woods patent.
The primary method of obtaining “mild cured bacon” from the USA was through the addition of sugar. Ewart writes that “it should, however, be stated, that American bacon, in its several forms of flitch, roll, and ham, and any of them of small and moderate weights, are also mildly cured in which sugar is in a considerable proportion an ingredient in the curing mixture used; and the article when so prepared is deservedly held in the highest esteem.” (Ewart, 1878)
Ewart also reports the formation of a bluish-green mould upon the flesh-cut portions of the flitches and hams from bacon or ham that are “perfectly cured and becomes thoroughly dried.” He states that the mould “most effectually prevents the rusting of the fat on these parts.” (Ewart, 1878)
It is clear that Aoto Cure for the meat industry is a progression of Rapid Cure, developed by Mr. Robert Davison which had huge success in the USA. Auto Cure quickly developed an impressive list of countries who participated in the technology.
Auto Cure: International Expansion
Having solved the riddle of the origin of the basic system used in Auto Cure namely a vacuum and brine, elevated to exert some pressure, and the repeated use of the old brine which Oake learned from his dad, we return to the matter of the international expansion of Auto Cure. The advantage of Oake’s system was that it yielded mild cure, fast! This was revolutionary in the bacon curing world of the day!
The matter of international sales of this patented system is very interesting. Henry (1897) reports in a section called “A tip to Bacon Curers.” He writes, “since the beginning of May this year experiments have been going on with a new method of curing bacon at the Ystad bacon factory in Sweden, and the results that have been attained have been so successful that it has been adopted at the Landskrona factory also, which belongs to the same owner. Mr Philip W. Heyman, of Copenhagen, the well-known curer of bacon, is adopting the same method, too, at two of his Swedish factories, and five of his Danish factories, and other bacon factories in Sweden and Denmark are making arrangements for having the same method introduced.
He then describes the Auto Cure system again in great detail. he describes the benefits of the system as follows. “The auto-cured bacon will retain the juice of the meat, by which it becomes more nutritious and tender and of milder and more agreeable flavour than bacon cured according to the usual method, and it is easier to digest and keeps for a longer time than the latter so that it need not be ” forced off ” in sale even during hot weather. It will lose no more in weight than other bacon when smoked. Swedish auto-cured bacon has been sent “unbranded” for some time to London from the above-mentioned factory, together with other bacon cured according to the usual method, and has been referred to the latter, having attained about a couple of shillings per cwt, higher price. The first bale of branded auto-cured Swedish bacon, marked “Down’s auto – cure patents, Sweden,” has been forwarded to the official representative for Sweden, Dr Hugo Wedin, of Lancaster Avenue, Manchester, ” for showing, ” having arrived last week, and has been inspected and tested by a number of merchants interested in the bacon trade here. It is expected that this bacon will soon find an increased sale on its own merits.” (Henry, 1897)
Mr Philip W. Heyman according to the Gasconade County Republican (Owensville, Missouri) 08 Jul 1898, from Copenhagen owned nine of the factories that adopted the system. Two was in Sweden and seven in Denmark. An annual royalty of £4,000 was paid by the Danes for the system. The publication in 1897 seems to point to the system being introduced into Scandinavia closer to the end of the 1800s.
There is a report from the Queensland Agricultural Journal: Volume 2, Jan 1898, Queensland Department of Primary Industries which says that “A NEW process of bacon – curing (says the Australasian) has been brought under the notice of the Minister for Agriculture in Victoria, named the “Auto – cure Process of Bacon – curing,” which has been adopted by some of the large bacon factories of Sweden, and by Messrs. Oake, Woods, and Co., Gillingham, Dorsetshire, who have employed it for the last eighteen months in the production of Wiltshire bacon.” The article then makes the interesting statement that “the new process will be used on a considerable scale in Canada and Denmark”
A year later, The Journal, Volume 2 by South Australia’s Department of Agriculture (1899) reports that “in Sweden and Dorsetshire (England), at the factory of Oake, Wood & Co., at Gillingham, a new process under the name “auto cure” has recently been adopted. About seven hours only is required to cure meat, which retains its albumen in an almost unchanged condition, so that the meat is tender, mild, and sweet. The process is carried on in air-tight cylinders of considerable capacity. The meat is then impregnated with brine under considerable pressure. The cost of apparatus to treat 150 sides at a time is said to be £780 in Britain.”
From New Zealand comes information that the same patent was lodged on 3 September 1896 number 8750 E. R. Down from Gillingham, Dorset, Eng. for cylinder or vessel for curing bacon and hams. (Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand) It seems likely that similar applications were filed around the world.
An 1893 reference from the NZ official yearbook mentions that a very definite expectation existed among farmers that the trade of raising pigs will meet the demand of local meat curers and the trade is expected to increase rapidly. It reports that an unnamed firm, referred to as “one of the largest suppliers in the UK of mess pork to the navies of the world and the mercantile marine operations” sent an agent to New Zealand in order to investigate the viability of setting up a branch in the colony. The agent was there a couple of months and was making inquiries as to the prospect of opening up a branch establishment. Reference is made to a trial that he ran to test the quality of the New Zealand pig for their purposes. The trial was done by preparing some carcasses by a process patented by the firm.
I have for a long time thought this was Oake-Woods that is referred to. It was, however a Jewish Dutch curer, Aron Vecht who established the first curing operation in New Zealand. (The Jewish Master Curer and the Prince of Ireland) Oake-Woods in all likelihood entered the New Zealand market based on the patent that was taken out but the particular reference in 1893 was the activities of Aron Vecht. It is interesting that both Oake-Woods and Aron Vecht were looking to New Zealand for bacon production. In an interview, Vecht said that the reason why he chose New Zealand was the raising pigs was possible all year round. Both Vecht’s curing process which was essentially a copy of the patent held by Henry Deeny as well as that of Oake-Woods were protected by patents.
The approach of protecting the process with a patent, followed by appointing local producers to use the system under license is an extremely effective way of expanding internationally. Oake-Woods was one of the only firms that could do it based on the fact that their process was highly patentable. The reason for this is that theirs was not only a process as was the case with mild cured bacon of William Oake but involved very specific equipment. Aron Vecht took a different direction to protect his intellectual property namely connecting it with a particular brand, York Castle. According to the agreement he entered with the licensee is only allowed to sell bacon under this brand which was produced with his curing method. He would then receive compensation from the company for every pig cured with his patented system.
If a particular brand is not connected to the method of curing, the only alternative is to rely on the equipment to differentiate it from other systems. Related to the difference between Auto Cure and the American system of Rapid Cure, the key difference is the scale of the equipment used by the Oake-Woods process. A process on its own is impossible to protect as the case of William Oakes mild cure system illustrated beautifully. The moment unique equipment enters the equation, the entire situation changes and it becomes highly patentable! No other firm had both a totally unique process as well as totally unique equipment which could not easily be copied going along with the process at this time. A process is only protected till your staff leaves. It was true then as it is true today! To my knowledge, Oake-Woods had the most expansive international coverage of any bacon and ham curing company at the time by far!
Vechts agents in New Zealand ran the trails and then shipped the meat to his principals in England. He received a cablegram which stated that the meat and the curing were done to “perfection.” As a result of this, arrangements were made for extensive trade throughout the colony. The English firm was prepared to erect factories at a cost of £20,000 each in areas where they have a reasonable expectation to secure 2,000 pigs per week. (The NZ Official Yearbook, 1893)
Helen Shorrocks contacted me with the following interesting recollection of a South African operation. She writes, “My Grandad worked for them (Oakes William & Co.) all his life, I believe he was head butcher and was offered a job in South Africa as a young family man with the company as they had a factory out there. My Grandmother wouldn’t go.” The same modus operandi would have been used in South Africa where a local company was granted a license to use the technology after it was patented. It is fascinating that the technology was already exported to South Africa
Auto Curing and Mild Curing: Same Result for Both Processes
We now know the link between mild curing and auto curing. Still, the systems are closely related in design and through the Oake family who gave us both systems. Looking through newspapers I realised that the terms were sometimes either confused or used interchangeably. A good case in point is an article that appeared in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) on 25 Jun 1901. In another article dated 12 Jan 1906 from The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia), they still refer to the merits of Australian produce. The article reads, “I could tell you now which goods are required in Africa that Australia manufactures. For instance, bacon in 15 lb. pieces would find a market. The market at present is entirely in the hands of one man – an American, I think who sells ‘mild cured bacon’ but when it is put in a pan it nearly all goes to oil. You make good bacon in Australia, but you hardly ever see it in South Africa except at Durban.” The term was definitely known in South Africa and I wonder if the implications of the author’s words were not intended to infer that “the real deal mild cure bacon is made very well in Australia!”
Another fascinating article from The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pennsylvania), 08 Feb 1899, which I attach a clipping off (I add it as Note 2), calls arterial injection “mild cured.” It refers to a young man from Denmark who presumably invented it and that by this date the method was well known in England. We, however, know it was the brainchild of Mr Morgan who became Dr Morgan. The author then reports on another method of curing which was created as auto curing. He gives a short description of the process and there is no question that it is the process as marketed by Oake Woods & Co, Ltd from Gillingham, Dorset. He then calls this bacon mild cured! (2) Upon thorough research, I found that the term auto cured was almost never used between 1890 and 1905 and the term mild cured was preferred! It seems as if the public called auto cure mild cure and my guess is that it is due to the fact that the end product was very similar. This being the case, it means that William Harwood Oake achieved the ultimate in product development in that he created a product, equal in the outcome but produced in a fraction of the time compared to the class-leading product!
The Oak family is responsible for giving us two powerful and historically significant systems of curing. The first, being mild curing by William Oake and the second was auto curing by William Harwood, his son. The key feature of both systems is the repeated re-use of the brine where the microflora is retained for as long as possible and the brine was only boiled under very specific conditions. The second, auto curing, adds vacuum and pressure with the accompanying befits. This is a remarkable journey and we salute the work of William Oake and his son.
The fact that auto curing has already been introduced to the curers in South Africa is a most significant fact and I will try my best to find more detail about who the company is. The entire experience emphasizes the need for innovation and remaining conscious alert to the latest developments in the field of curing. This is a business where one cannot for a moment lose sight of developments around the world!
It taught me a valuable lesson. The world is much bigger and always more complex than the simple models we build in our minds. We must continue to be students, not just of life and the sciences we employ for our daily bread, but also for the complexity of all these areas we find ourselves engaged in. People, our relationships and nature are complex and the biggest mistake we will ever make is to think we know something. On that philosophical note, I greet you will my next letter!
(1) When I returned to Calne many years later, Michael was still working with them and we conducted an experiment where we added colour to the brine and used one of the smaller autoclaves to evaluate the rate of diffusion. We did not use the injector needle to inject brine as is done in step one. This way we could see the effect of the vacuum on its own. At the end of the 5-hour curing process, we cut the muscle in two and saw that brine entered the meat, but it was not well diffused through the muscle.
We repeated the experiment but this time we injected the meat first as per the prescribed method. When we cut that meat open at the end of the process, we saw that small brine pockets formed in the meat, but not even this distributed the brine evenly. It explains to me on the one hand why there are many problems with bacon cured in this way and on the second hand, it shows the superiority of the tank curing or mild bacon system where brine is allowed to enter the meat over several days. Tank curing, therefore, removes the expensive cylinder and vacuum and it achieves much better brine distribution using time. It can be shown that the distribution of brine through the meat happens through diffusion which is simply the movement of the brine from an area of high concentration to an area of low concentration.
The most important contributor of diffusing the brine through the meat quickly and evenly still remains hot smoking. We concluded our experiment by hot smoking and heating some of the bacon in a pale dry chamber after we injected the meat with colour. The results were exactly as we expected. Proper diffusion of the brine took place during smoking. My guess is that it takes place as the meat heats up. This concept of autoclaving the bacon would later be combined with the concept of tumbling or massaging the bacon to create vacuum tumblers.
(2) The Sentinel (Carlisle, Pennsylvania) 08 Feb 1899, Wed Clipping
The Age (Melbourne, Victoria, Australia)25 Jun 1901, Tue
The Age. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia29 Mar 1898, Tue, Page 7
APPENDIX TO THE JOURNALS OF THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF NEW ZEALAND. SESSION II., 1897. VOL. III.
Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland) 21 July 1837
The Bristol Mercury and Daily Post, Western Countries, 18 July 1885, page 8
Cape of Good Hope (Colony). Dept. of Agriculture, VOL . VIII . 1896. Published for the Department of Agriculture, Cape of Good Hope by WA Richards & Sons, Government Printers, Castle Street, Cape Town.
Cassell. The Official Guide to the London and South Western Railway: The Royal Route to the South and the West of England, the Channel Islands, Europe and America, Cassell and Company, ltd Jan 1894
Diplomatic and Consular Reports, Morocco, 1897. Harrison and Sons.
The Freeman’s Journal, (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland) 11 Feb 1853, p1
The Freeman’s Journal (Dublin, Dublin, Ireland), 23 September 1853
Gasconade County Republican (Owensville, Missouri) 08 Jul 1898, Fri
Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England) 17 September 1842, p4
Jackson’s Oxford Journal (Oxford, Oxfordshire, England) 26 July 1845, p4.
The Journal of the British Dairy Farmers’ Association: For the Improvement of the Dairy Husbandry of Great Britain (1887), Volume 3
The Journal of Agriculture and Industry of South Australia, edited by Molineux, General Secretary of Agriculture, South Australia, Volume 1 covering August 1897 – July 1898 and printed in Adelaide by C. E. Bristow, Government Printer in 1898.
The Journal, Volume 2 by South Australia. Department of Agriculture. Vol II, No. 1. Edited by A Molineux, F. S. L., F. R. H. S, General Secretary Agriculture. Bureau of S. A., August 1898, to July 1899, Government Printers. 1899.
Manchester Weekly Times and Examiner (Manchester), Saturday, 28 September 1889
Paul, B. H.. 1868. Journal of the Society for Arts, Vol. 17, no. 839, (DECEMBER 18, 1868), pp. 65-80; Published by: RSA The royal society for arts, manufactures and commerce; Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41334687; Accessed: 24-10-2021 13:26 UTC
Peters GA, 1846, The American Agriculturist, Volume 5
The Queensland Agricultural Journal, Issued by the direction of the Hon. A. J. Thynne, M. L. C. , Secretary for Agriculture. Edited by A. J. Boyd, F.R.G.S.Q. Vol. II. PART 1. January 1898. By Authority: Brisbane: Edmund Gregory, Government Printer.
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The Quilliam Family and Pig Breeding in South Africa Cape Town, January 1970
It has been many years now since I boarded the steamer from Cape Town to Denmark. I learned about bacon from industry legends. Yes, through all my experiences I unlocked for myself the mystery of the eternal. I found it in bacon. Before I elaborate, there is a South African pig farming story that I have to tell you about. Lauren and I hiked across the old Quilliam farm today and it brought back amazing memories. Meeting Joe Quilliam years ago and hearing his story made me realise that the pig industry in our new country came of age. This farm played a pivotal role in its development.
As a boy, my dad told me about the farmers who left the Colony and moved north, into the interior. This great trek or Groot trek as it is known in Afrikaans is the background to one of the most remarkable families I got to know in the Transvaal after South Africa became a Union, the Quilliam family. They were one of the pioneers of the formal pig industry of the Union, located just south of Johannesburg.
How the farm was established is itself a fascinating story and I begin right at the beginning. In the early part of the 1800s, about 10 000 farmers who settled along the eastern frontier of the Cape Colony asked Piet Retief to compile a “trekkers manifesto” as a kind of a mission and vision statement of the disgruntled farmers. It started out as a discussion document with the colonial rulers and in the end, was left behind as the reasons for the settles immigrating north to a land where they could govern themselves.
In late 1836, Retief led the main party of ‘trekkers’ out of Grahamstown and on to the Beaufort West from where they joined the main trekker group at Colesburg. One of the families who were part of the trek party was the Marais family, led by their father G.S. Marais, and his two sons Sarel and Jan. Sarel was 22 years old at the time. Another family in the group was the Schmidt family and their two daughters, one of whom was named Hermien.
Sarel and Jan Marais move to the Transvaal in mid 1800s
“As far as can be established, the family stayed with the main trekker group until Retief decided to settle in Natal. By this time Sarel married Hermien Schmidt and Jan had married the other Schmidt daughter. The brothers and their families decided to trek into the Transvaal arriving there in the mid-1800s. After spending some time in the Potchefstroom area they eventually moved to the Witwatersrand. Jan bought the farm Doornkloof, the site of the present-day Suikerboschrand Nature Reserve and Sarel bought the western portion of the farm Rietvlei.”
It is interesting that both farms were established on the sites where two of the largest Tswana settlements around the Johannesburg area were located. Is it possible that they chose these sites for their close proximity to possible farm labourers? Was the deal for the purchase of the farms brokered by someone with close ties to the two settlements? Was it done with the permission of a powerful chief? These questions beg further investigation!
The hills around the Rietvlei farmhouse are covered with impressive old stone ruins. The original settlement area is gigantic! Right behind the old farmhouse are stone ruins built in a rectangular pattern, indicating western influence in architecture. Further away are older stone ruins, built in the much older round and semi-circular patterns. They are far less preserved, indicating a much older construction. The impression one gets, at least from the proximity of the buildings, is a “friendly” relationship between the new western immigrants and the original owners of the land. Could it point to a mutually symbiotic relationship after the devastation caused by Mzilikazi who settled along the Vaal River until Korana cattle raiders became a threat and in the winter of 1827, he started his march northwards towards the Magaliesburg mountains? Mzilikazi decimated the two cities where the Marais brothers settled and those left behind lived a pitiful existence of scraping out a meagre existence amidst the widespread destruction of the once mightly settlements. I believe that the indigenous population welcomed the opportunity for employment by the new arrivals on their ancestral lands.
The earliest Tswana inhabitants build stone walls to surround their inner kraals and living areas, shaped rather like a sunflower. Their most precious possessions, their cattle, were housed in the inner circle, safe from predators. The petal of the sunflower housed different households, and between these enclosures were smaller enclosures housing smaller animals like calves, goats and chickens. The outer walls reached around 1.5 metres in height. Excavations of nearby sites provided great insight into the lives of these early inhabitants. They grew sorghum, raised cattle, sheep and goats, and hunted wild animals. They, no doubt cured meat – a matter of huge personal interest to me.
There were many initial housing sites in the koppies. Two sites were large – 150 metres by 50 metres – and would have housed up to 100 people in a single settlement, made up of 10 households. The earliest settlement was deserted due to changes in climate, and the population decreased till it was no longer a viable place to live. In the 1700s groups re-established themselves in the area. They were pastoralists who traded with settlements at Melville Koppies, 25 kilometres to the north, who mined iron, not found down south.
A remarkable feature of these people was their light footprint on the environment. They lived harmoniously with the natural world and other tribes till their peaceful existence was shattered by the imperial aspirations of Mzilikazi who incorporated the area into his Kingdon which stretched from the Vaal to the Magaliesburg Mountains.
Garden of Eden
Like the Tswana who had previously lived in the area, Sarel Marais had acquired a veritable Garden of Eden. Ample grazing, fertile soil, plenty of water and an abundance of game. The site that Sarel and his wife selected for their homestead, faced west and had an unobstructed view of the Bloubosspruit. The back of the homestead snuggled into the base of a ‘koppie.’ The ground to the south, being lush grassland, was ideal for cultivation and grazing.
Sarel constructed the farmhouse, ruins of which can still be seen in the southern part of the reserve, from bricks made from clay that was found locally.
The roof was thatched and supported by yellow wood timbers and the ceiling was also constructed of wood. The floors were made of the traditional mixture of mud and cow dung. After finishing the house, Sarel started building a wagon shed. The construction of the shed differed from that used on the house, in that the walls were built from rocks to a level of about a metre, with large clay blocks being laid on the rocks, to roof height. The roof of the wagon shed was also thatched and supported by yellow wood beams. The remains of the wagon shed can also be seen in the south of the reserve.
Near the wagon shed are two large rocks that have been placed vertically into the ground. They indicate the entrance to the walled orchard. Most of the trees in the orchard were peach trees. Apart from the fruit that was either dried or preserved a large portion was used to produce Sarels’ excellent peach brandy. The orchard was irrigated from a weir that was erected across the spruit. Water was channelled to an earth dam and then into the orchard.
Sarel and Hermien had 13 children and as they prospered they were able to employ a teacher, who lived on the farm. Other children from the area also attended classes at the Marais farm. Hermien Marais died in the early 1800s. Sarel passed away in 1893 at age 79 (one reference says that he died in 1897, aged 83). About 500 metres north of the farmhouse is the Marais family cemetery. Seventeen members of the Marais family are buried in the stone-walled area. There are a further 56 unmarked graves, on the northern side of the cemetery, outside the wall. These graves are thought to be those of farm labourers.
Jakob sells to Quilliam
“When Sarel died, Jacob (Jakob) Marais, his son, inherited the farm. He had 10 daughters from two marriages and since he had no son, he sold the farm to the late father of Joe Quilliam in 1917 who told me the rest of the story himself. It was 2 000 acres which were sold for £6 OOO! Quilliam built a large milking and a cooling shed. On the farm, he grew lucerne, barley and mielies.
Quilliam was an accomplished farmer and his inclusion into my recollections of the pork trade in South Africa comes into its own at this point. It is reported that he farmed with as many as 10 000 pigs at one point. He ran an extensive dairy operation and as is the case around the world, the pork industry follows dairy due to the fact that it takes care of the by-products from milk production. This was true in Wiltshire in the UK and in Johannesburg. The fact of the 10 000 pigs raises a small controversy. Some descendants claim that this was never the case, but I traced the person down who first reported on it and she insisted that her sources are sound and this was indeed the case.
When Lauren and I hiked the farm we could not find any evidence of pig housing that would be required to keep such a large herd. I assume that they roamed freely in the hills as was the custom in the 1700s and 1800s at the Cape Colony. We paid a visit to a hill in the area that was called “Butchers Hill” where the animals were slaughtered. There were no buildings remaining on the hill, but we found ample evidence that there was extensive buildings on the site previously and a rubbish dump which still exists and is consistent with a slaughtering operation. I have no tales of meat ever being processed at the site into bacon and assume that either carcasses or meat cuts were sold to the developing city of Johannesburg and undoubtedly to its extensive gold mining operations.
Jacob died in the early ’30s and was about 100 years old which meant that he was born around 1830 and that he too must have participated in the Great Trek. Grandpa Jacob, as Joe knew him, lived on the farm as a “bywoner,” and was almost penniless as well as illiterate. He used to visit the family every Friday, have tea and cake and borrowed a ten-shilling note which was promptly repaid on the following Monday. This happened over a long period of time and Joe’s father, becoming suspicious, marked a note and received the same note back. On querying this, Jacob said, “I just want to have some money in my pocket over the weekend.”
Joe recalled that if you held a plate of cake for him to take one, he always accepted the whole plate and ate the lot! One Xmas, Jacob was given a large piece of Xmas pudding in which trinkets and “Tickeys” were placed. In case the old man missed some, additional items were placed in the cake. As a young boy, Joe anxiously waited for Jacob to find them and say “Look what I have found. ” However, the whole piece of pudding was eaten, to Joe’s dismay without a single trinket being produced. The possible explanation was that the old man was toothless. In reminiscing, the old man often referred to the wildlife which abounded in the early years.
Joe recalled that the following events which he recounted to me with great precision.
Many varieties of snakes, as well as grey duiker, caracal lynx, porcupine, jackal, aardwolf (a degenerated hyaena) which used to eat the Quilliam’s chickens, were found on the farm. There were also leguaans, rock and other rabbits. Birdlife abounded.
In 1967, when workmen were putting sewerage pipes in Mondeor, North of the farm, 2 pythons were killed on what is now the corner of Bellefield and Daleham Avenues.
The old farmhouse originally had a thatched roof. During the Second World War, the house was gutted by fire and the roof was replaced by corrugated iron.
The Old Farmhouse burned down after grandfather Quilliam’s wife moved from the farm in the mid-1980s when it was no longer safe for her to stay there on her own.
The house, because of its originality, and as no others of its age could be found, was the site of many films. At some time after World War I a film entitled “Die Voortrekkers” was made by the late I. W. Schlesinger. During the making of this film, an actress taking a part, Mabel May, was married to the producer.
In 1939 a film entitled “Die Bou van ’n Nasie” was made in which Joe took the part of Dirkie Uys at ten shillings a day. This was never finalised because of the outbreak of World War II.
After the war there followed “The Scavengers”, “Stroopers in die Laeveld”, ”The Battle of Majuba” and “The Battle of Blood River.” Before the filming of “Die Bou van ’n Nasie,” the Quilliam family received a handsome, sun-bronzed, gentleman visitor. He wished to look over the farm and turned out to be the Afrikaans director, A. A. Pienaar, the famous author of “Op Safari”. At that time Joe was in Matric at school and the Afrikaans set book was “Op Safari.” Joe was very proud to have met the author and boasted of the fact at school.
On the banks of the Bloubos River, there are a number of stone horse jumps of unknown origin. They were used at weekends by members of the Rand Hunt Club. When the then Prince of Wales, later to become Duke of Windsor, visited South Africa in about 1926, he was driven one Saturday morning in procession through the streets of Johannesburg. The Quilliam family left the farm early to gain a good vantage point on the route. Before entering the suburbs they noted members of the Rand Hunt Club, all mounted and assembling. One of them rode up to them and said “That gentleman,” pointing out a particular horseman, “is the Prince of Wales and we are going to do the jumps on your farm”. They immediately retired to the farm to see the prince enter one of six Humber cars and drive past the farmhouse back to town. A member of the Rand Hunt Club, noting their disappointment, said not to worry as the Prince was going to follow the same route the next morning.
The next morning they were ready for him. The road past the farmhouse was filled with cattle, sheep, pigs, etc. completely blocking the route. It confirms the notion I had that the pigs were not penned up, but roamed the farm free. The six Humber cars duly appeared and were blocked by the animals. One aide-de-camp asked my father to kindly clear the way. Joe and his dad moved from car to car until the one containing the prince was approached. Joe’s father doffed his hat, bade the prince good morning and apologised for blocking the way. The prince praised my father for the variety and condition of his stock and the cavalcade of cars passed on.
On the boundary between the farm and what is now Mondeor, where the Bloubos River enters the Klipriviersberg, there is a foundation of rock and a cutting into the hillside. This is still visible today and the area is known as the “Silent Pool”. It was an early attempt (sometime before 1914) to block the river and turn what is now Mondeor into a water reservoir. History states that Dutch engineers (Dyke experts) were called in and condemned the plan. Because of the geological formation viz. Ventersdorp Larva overlying the Witwatersrand System, the plan could not work as the water would drain away and the work was abandoned.
At the time when Joe told me the story, his mother of 88 years old was living at Dale Lace House having spent 63 years on the farm. Finally, Joe made mention of the fact that the producers of the various films referred to above, all stated that they chose the site because of the farmhouse, it being the only one of its type in the vicinity of Johannesburg.
Joe expressed the wish to me that since the Klipriviersberg was to be declared a nature reserve, he was hoping that the house would be restored to its original and be declared a national monument. He hoped that this suggestion be brought to the attention of the National Monuments Commission, but sadly it never happened. The farm remained in the Quilliam family until 1939 when it was sold to the Johannesburg City Council.
I love this story of the Quilliam family! I’ve spent so many happy days on their farm and met the most interesting people there. One of the men I bumped into and did a number of hikes with is a fascinating man whose son in law is one of the most notorious gangsters in Johannesburg. Gert Koen who worked with me for many years at Woody’s and who became a very good friend and confidant grew up in the area and he and his brothers used to roam the farm after school and during holidays. There are so many amazing stories in Johannesburg! Most of all, I include the story because it traces the development of the pork industry in South Africa. There were smaller farms around Johannesburg and Pretoria such as the Littleton Farm in Pretoria who boasted with the latest and best English pork breeds but none that I could find that rivals the Quilliam families operation.
I smile because the history of bacon is now teaching you about your own country! Well, my son, that is enough of my recollections for today. All that is left is for me to say how much I miss you and your sister. I can’t wait to receive news from you!
Lots of Love,
Your Dad and Minette
PLEASE HELP WITH MORE INFORMATION
This is where my information about the farm and the Quilliam-family ends. Obviously, my interest is mainly in their pig farming. I reached out to the family, now mostly living abroad, but without success. I am eager to find any information on the massive pig herd. What pig breed was it? I assume it was either Large White, Berkshire or Landrace. I would love to get photos of the family, including Joe Quilliam and of the old house and farm. Any information will be of huge interest.
Apart from the Quilliam family, I am looking for any information on the early days of the pork industry in South Africa.
Whatsapp: +27 71 545 3029
I liberally quoted from Joe Quilliam's piece which he wrote for the Southern Courier Vol. 12, No. 40, 26 October 1982. I chaged the first person to the 3rd person, but retained the original almost in its entirety. Once I have much more information, I will re-write the entire chapter.