The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
On Innovation and Creativity
I count myself among the most fortunate humans on earth. The things I discovered about life transcend all disciplines. In my research, over the years I came across some of the greatest stories but few are as great as the stories from your own family. Before I write the last chapter on the best bacon company on earth, I want to talk a bit about innovation. It is the hallmark of what I tried to do during my career. Barend from Dayavu Farming taught me a saying which I will never forget. He would say. . . “Well, we have come too far to now f..ing give up!” Any person who is committed to a new and innovative approach at some point comes to that realisation. Marius Kok, my cousin whose brainchild Dayavu Farming is, passed that point long ago and Barend keeps telling him that. Before one gets that confident, one must know what you are talking about! I want to tell you the story of Oupa Eben Kok, Marius and my grandfather and your great-grandfather. For what follows, Ouma is the Afrikaans for grandmom, Oupa is grandfather and Oom is uncle.
Oupa Eben Kok: Innovation and Creativity
Oupa Eben matriculated at the local school in Heilbron in 1929 and after school, he joined Standard Bank. He completed several bank exams and worked in places like Vrede, Vredefort and Koppies. In 1934 he bought a Kings English Dictionary that is still in Oom Jan’s possession to this day to help him with his studies. While he was working in Vredefort he met Ouma Susan and they got married on 07 Augustus 1939. Oupa had a bicycle to ride to work and when he wanted to visit Susan, he would ride with his bicycle to her parent’s farm, Leeuspruit. It was 7 miles out of town. A story is told that he left for home one evening very late when it was already dark. There was no moon that night. He did not see a cow sleeping on the road and bicycle-and-all rode over the poor sleeping animal. Ouma Susan had to take care of her grandfather, Piet Rademan. Oupa Eben at that time lived with Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie and they could only get married after Oupa Piet’s death at the age of 99 in 1937. Eben and Susan were both 28 when they got married.
From Vredefort Eben was trasferred to Koppies. In his heart, he was a farmer and they lived on a smallholding in the Weltevrede area just outside town. My mom, Santjie, Oom Jan and Oom Uysie were all three born while they lived on the smallholding. They had cows, donkeys, sheep, chickens and turkeys. Even though Oom Jan was only 3 years old when they moved from the smallholding to the farm Stillehoogte, he still remembers the smell of the living room (voorkamer) where the cattle and other feeds were stored.
While working in Koppies, Oupa Eben got transferred to Natal. Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie were very disappointed that their child had to move so far away and Oupa Giel invited Oupa Eben to join him in his own farming business. This big move to the farm Leeuspruit happens in 1945 just after the birth of Oom Uysie.
Up to this point, it is just a story of your great grandparents and what they did to create a life for themselves. The next bit of the story hones in on the point I am trying to make about creativity.
The first prerequisite for innovation and creativity is hard work and commitment. It is the caveat to all stories of success in any sphere of life. Oupa Eben was committed to making a success of farming. The farm was self-sufficient. Once a year, in the winter, an ox was slaughtered with a pig and sausages and biltong was made and meat was cured. In those years there were no fridges or freezers and cooling was accomplished through evaporation. Meat was hung in a cabinet, covered with a fine sieve.
Marius built exactly such a cabinet to cure biltong at his place in Kitwe, Zambia. It stands in his garage. A perfect place to dry biltong! 🙂
This cabinet was called “the safe,” constructed to keep out vlies and other insects. Every second or third week a sheep was slaughtered, and chickens, ducks and turkeys provided eggs. Butter was made from the cream from the few milk cows. Leather reams or straps were made from beef hides and used to span the oxen. The chickens, eggs, cream and butter provided the income to pay for groceries when they went to town.
They ploughed and planted using oxen. Fertiliser was a luxury and unnecessary expense because before any planting was done, animal dung was removed from the cow and sheep sheds and worked into the fields to fertilise the soil.
Oupa Eben was not scared of hard work. He had three farms: Leeuspruit, Stillehoogte and Christina. The last two farms were approximately 25 km from Leeuspruit where they lived. Whenever they worked those two farms he stayed over on the farms from Sunday evening to Saturday afternoon. There were no buildings on the farms. He would join plastic fertiliser bags and hung them around the trailer as protection from the wind and some insulation and he slept under the trailer on a camping bed. He cooked his food on an open fire. When a shed was later constructed on the farm Stillehoogte, this became his home while that farm was worked. Any great breakthrough goes hand in hand with great personal sacrifice which goes hand in hand with complete dedication.
The third characteristic of innovation is study and a thorough knowledge of the subject matter. Oupa Eben used every opportunity to study farming and to become acquainted with the latest farming techniques. He eventually managed to convince Oupa Giel that they should buy tractors. Oupa Giel was not very agreeable but eventually, they bought a blue Fordson tractor. As it happened, the first year they used the tractor they had a complete crop failure. Oupa Eben and the tractor were blamed for it. At some point, the vision of an innovator becomes crystal clear and he or she pushes through despite temporary setbacks. Every innovator at some point says: “Well, we have come too far to now f..ing give up!”
Oupa Eben’s tractor made unexpected world news. In my research on bacon, I came across a very short mention of him in newspapers in 1953 and 1954 across America. What probably happened was that these papers either belonged to the same owner or had some agreement about sharing content and so it happened that the story of Oupa Eben and his tractor was reported on across America. By itself, it is not a headline-grabbing article, but the fact that Oupa Eben and his tractor made newspapers across America is in itself remarkable and fits the discussion on creativity. The exact article that appeared across so many newspapers is given below.
From The La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wisconsin) 27 May 1953
The newspapers that carried the exact same story of Eben Kok were:
The La Crosse Tribune, La Crosse, Wisconsin, Wednesday, May 27, 1953 (quoted above);
The York Dispatch, York, Pennsylvania, Thursday, March 04, 1954;
The Times, Shreveport, Louisiana, Sunday, May 03, 1953;
The Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Tuesday, July 27, 1954
The Daily Sentinel, Grand Junction, Colorado, Sunday, May 03, 1953
Lubbock Morning Avalanche, Lubbock, Texas, Friday, May 01, 1953
The Morning Call, Paterson, New Jersey, Monday, August 17, 1953
Fort Lauderdale News, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Friday, May 15, 1953
Wausau Daily Herald, Wausau, Wisconsin, Tuesday, May 19, 1953
The Tampa Tribune, Tampa, Florida, Friday, May 08, 1953
Sioux City Journal, Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday, May 07, 1953
The Knoxville Journal, Knoxville, Tennessee, Sunday, May 03, 1953
Hartford Courant, Hartford, Connecticut, Tuesday, May 12, 1953
Dayton Daily News, Dayton, Ohio, Tuesday, May 12, 1953
Oupa Eben is my role model for creativity and innovation and has been for my entire life.
Oupa Eben on his farm Stillehoogte on one of his later acquired tractors.
Ouma Susan on Stillehoogte, bringing coffee and refreshments to her husband.
Oom Jan Kok (my uncle), eldest son of Eben Kok writes, “I remember the incident like yesterday. Japie’s dad, Uncle Freek phoned to say that the shed was on fire. Oupa Eben immediately jumped in his jeep and hastened to Stillehoogte (his farm). In the corner was a few 44-gallon drums with power paraffine used for the tractor. Fortunately, the fire was put out before they exploded. The parts of the tractor that could burn or melt were all gone. Oupa Eben and Uncle Rademan Marx, who had a garage on Reitzburg, re-did the wiring and everything that had to be replaced was bought. Eventually, the tractor could be used again. It was a blue Fordson.”
Oom Jan continues that “the thing that made a huge impression on me was Ouma (grandmom) who sat on the bed with her head in her hands, crying.” Oom Jan again tells about the disagreement brought about by the use of the tractor. “There was a serious argument between Oupa Eben and his father in law and mother in law over the tractor. The first year they used the tractor there was a complete harvest failure and Oupa Giel and Ouma Santjie staunchly believed that this was the tractors fault that the harvest was so bad.”
Such is the course of events of all great innovations and creative moments. What is innovative today, real proper innovation becomes the normal and generally accepted of tomorrow.
The Woodys Example
In Woodys we did many things that speak to a culture of innovation and creativity. One of the first things we had to do was to project an image “bigger than ourselves.” Dawie Hyman was instrumental in helping us achieve this by creating four memorable adverts for Woodys which instantaneously got us appointments with the right buyers. I remember how one of these adverts was featured at a national conference of the largest retailer in Africa. Oscar, myself and Ehrhardt were there to represent the company. We were nobody in everybody’s eyes, but the advert made an impression and got us appointments with the right people.
As the company grew we continued to meet challenges with creativity based upon a thorough understanding of the principles of curing and meat technology.
It is very cold again tonight. I can hear the waves crash on the rocks below our apartment. I am looking forward to an early night!
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
Over the years I have written letters to my kids telling them what I learn and about my experiences. They followed my quest to produce the best bacon on earth through these monthly communications. When I returned home I found that they kept every letter. When they were here last December, they gave me the draft of a book where they are including every letter. They even contacted Dawie and Oscar who both sent them my letters. They asked me to write the introduction to every county and the “Union Letters” as they called the letters I sent them from Cape Town.
I asked them if I can add three accounts of companies who achieved perfection in the large-scale production of bacon. This is the second of the three good examples of people who achieved what I sought. I think that for a time at Woody’s we achieved the same and when Duncan and Koos took over, things took a dip, but they are recovering beautifully. What makes this an insanely exciting story is the fact that Wynand Nel, the legendary production manager of Eskort is a good friend!
These stories begin much in the same way. A very close tie with England. A young nation that is trying to find its place in the global village; visionary farmers and politicians and one man who made all the difference!
In the Natal Midlands, on the banks of the Boesmans river lays the largest bacon plant in South Africa, that of Eskort Ltd.. A few months ago I visited Wynand at the factory. I was 30 minutes early and instead of reporting to reception, I decided to drive a few hundred meters further and up the hill, right next to the bacon plant to Fort Dunford. The Fort is situated exactly 500m away from the bacon plant which is nestled between the Boesmans River and the Fort.
It was built by Dunford in response to the Langalibalele Rebellion in 1873. The location of the old military site at Bushmans River drift, overlooked by Fort Dunford is where the Voortrekker leader Gert Maritz originally set up camp along the river.
The curator, Siphamandla, saw me driving up. I was the only visitor and he came running up to give me a proper welcome. I told him I will be at Eskort but when we are done, I’m coming back to see the Fort.
While waiting in reception at Eskort, I took a photo of a stone that was laid by J. W. Moor in 1918. He was the first chairman of “The First Farmers Co-Operative Bacon Factory Erected in South Africa”, the Eskort factory. I was intrigued!
I saw Wynand, visited the Fort briefly and was on my way back to Johannesburg. As soon as I got home I started digging through piles of information on the subject of Eskort and an amazing story emerged. All the information was firing through my mind as connections started to form between the new facts I learned and old history. When I finally fell asleep, I kept waking with every new connection made. Bits of information jolted me from deep sleep to a light slumber. Here is what I discovered.
The origin of the Eskort Bacon factory is tied up with the story of the development of the Natal Midlands in the mid-1800s to the early part of the 1900s. It is embedded in the broader context of the existence of a very strong English culture in Natal. The Natal colony was created on 4 May 1843 after the British government annexed the short-lived Boer Republic of Natalia. A unique English culture continued. This bacon factory became one of the cornerstones of the creation of a meat industry in South Africa and contributed materially to the establishment of a meat curing culture in the country. The historical importance is seen in the fact that the South African roots of large scale industrial meat curing are English and not German.
The broader international context of its establishment in a cooperative can be traced back to Peter Bojsen who created the first cooperative abattoir and bacon curing plant in the world in Horsens, the Horsens Andelssvineslagteri, in 1882 in Denmark. By 1911 the first such cooperative factories were built in England, namely the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory, modelled in turn after the factory at Horsens. The 1918 development in Estcourt, Natal would, no doubt, have been a continuation of the model.
In terms of curing technology, the bacon plant produced its bacon in the most sophisticated way available at the time, using the same techniques employed by the Harris Bacon operation of Calne in Wiltshire. Following WW1, its curing techniques progressed from the Wiltshire process of the Harris operation (and through Harris, to Horsens where the technique was developed) to the direct addition of sodium nitrite to curing brines through the work of the legendary Griffiths Laboratories.
The great benefit of the dominant English culture of the Natal Midlands was in the fact that they had access to the Harris operation in Calne and the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory more so than the fact that the English population of the Midlands could have provided a possible market for their bacon. The population in Natal at the time and even in South Africa remained relatively small and the goal of creating such a sophisticated operation was to export.
In terms of access to local markets, I have little doubt that they relied heavily on the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company Ltd. of Sir David de Villiers Graaff (1859 – 1931) who was a contemporary of JW Moor (1859 – 1933). They were born a mere 6 months apart with David in March 1859 and John (JW Moor) in September of the same year.
One can say that David with his Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company in Cape Town was a follower of Phillip Armour in Chicago with the establishment of refrigerated rail transport and cold storage warehouses throughout Southern Africa (just as Phil Armour did in the US). David probably met Phil in Chicago in the mid-1880s and possibly again in the early 1890s, who, in all likelihood, showed him his impressive packing plant and gave him the idea of refrigerating railway carts. John (JW) Moor, on the other hand, was in technical detail and broad philosophy, a follower of the Dane, Peter Bojsen in his creation of the first farmer’s coop for slaughtering and production of bacon and its marketing in England and the English operations of C & T Harris with their Wiltshire bacon curing techniques.
The location of the plant in Estcourt is in all likelihood closely linked to the existence of Fort Dunford and the close association with the military of the Moor family as is evident not only through the heritage of their grandfather but through their close involvement in the schooling system and the introduction of cadet training. The possible involvement of the Anglo Boer War hero, Louis Botha is fascinating.
The context of its creation is, more than anything, to be understood by two realities. One was the first World War. The second, the Moor family of Estcourt with a wider lens than a focus on JW Moor. To understand the Moor family, we must understand their heritage and how they came to South Africa.
Immigrating to South Africa
Immigration back then was done, as it is today, through entrepreneurs who made money by facilitating movement to the new world and who sold their products through colourful displays and exciting tales of success and a new life. Between 1849 and 1852, almost 5000 immigrants arrived in Natal through various schemes. One such agent was Joseph Byrne, who chartered 20 ships to ferry passengers to Natal between 1849 to 1851. One of the 20 ships was the Minerva, which set sail on 26 April 1850 with 287 passengers from London. A festive atmosphere must have prevailed on the voyage to Natal and the promise of a new life. (Dhupelia, 1980)
On 4 July 1850, they arrived in Durban and the Minerva was wrecked on a reef below the Bluff. All occupants and cargo ended up overboard. Two of the passengers aboard were Sarah Annabella Ralfe who was travelling with her family and Frederick William Moor. (Dhupelia, 1980)
Romance and Settlement
F.W. Moor lifted the young Sarah Annabella Ralfe from the waters and carried her to the safety of the shore. It is not known if they were romantically involved before this event, but romance bloomed afterwards and the couple was married in June 1852. (Dhupelia, 1980) They settled in the Byrne valley, which Byrne cleverly included in the total package he was selling back in England.
The Moors and the Ralfes were interested in sheep farming, and the wet conditions at Byrne, close to Richmond, were not favourable. In 1869 F.W. Moor moved to a farm Brakfontein, on the Bushman’s River at Frere close to Estcourt. Here the conditions were more suitable. “The farm was some five miles (8 km) southwest of Estcourt, and he obtained it from the Wheeler family in settlement of a debt. This farm has some historical interest. It was the site of the Battle of Vecht Laager in 1838 when Zulu impi of Dingaan clashed with the Voortrekkers who had settled there. It was on this farm that F.R. Moor and his wife settled on their return to Natal, his father having moved to Pietermaritzburg. Moor and his wife stayed for some years in a house built by the Wheelers until he built a larger house which he called Greystone. It was on this property that Moor’s seven children were born and it was here that he carried out his adventurous farming activities.” (Morrell, 1996)
Sara and FW, in turn, had 5 children. Two of these were F. R. Moor, born on 12 May 1853 in Pietermaritzburg and J. W. Moor born in September 1859 in Estcourt.
Strong Military Traditions
The Moor family had strong military connections going back to the father of F.W. Moor (FR and JW’s grandfather). FW was the youngest son of Colonel John Moor. Col Moor was an officer in the Bombay Artillery in the service of the British East India company. FW was born in Surat in 1830 and returned to England after the death of his father. “He and his mother settled first in Jersey and later in Hampstead while he trained to be a surveyor and, not entirely satisfied with his position in England, he decided to emigrate to Natal.” (Dhupelia, 1980) His mother followed him to Natal and passed away in 1878 on the farm of FW, Brakfontein, aged 85. (The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, Ireland; 18 Oct 1878)
The military connection of the Moor family is highlighted when one considers that when FR Moor was in high school, he and other students considered it desirable that the school should have a cadet corps. FR attended the Hermannsburg School situated approximately 15 miles (24 km] from Greytown and founded in the early 1850s by the Hanoverian Mission Society.
Moor, as a senior student at the school, was deputed to write to the Colonial Secretary seeking permission for the school to initiate the movement. Permission was granted and in 1869 a cadet corps of 40 students, between the ages of 14 and 18 years, was formed with a teacher, Louis Schmidt, as the captain and 16 years old F. R. Moor and John Muirhead as the first lieutenants.
Moor thus played a role in the establishment of the cadet movement and in giving Hermannsburg School the distinction and honour of being the first school not only in Natal but in the British Empire to have a cadet corps. Though the Hermannsburg cadet corps lasted only until 1878 its example was followed by Hilton College and Maritzburg High School in 1872. Yet another pupil of this first boarding school in Natal who was to make a name for himself in politics and was to be later closely associated with Moor was Louis Botha.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
The Moor family became one of the large landowners in the Natal Midlands. Some of these families brought wealth from England and some, as was the case with the Moor family, made their money in other ways. The two most likely ways to make a fortune in those days were in Kimberley on the diamond fields or riding transport between Durban and Johannesburg.
After school, in 1872, the young FR Moor went to Kimberly to make his fortune. JW was still in school when FR left for the diggings where he remained for 7 years. The 19-year-old Moor made his first public speech on behalf of the diggers while in Kimberley “standing on a heap of rubble”. “Later he was twice elected to the Kimberley Mining Board which consisted of nine elected members representing the claim holders for the purpose of ensuring the smooth and effective running of the mines and diggings. This experience probably gave him confidence as well as experience in public affairs.” (Dhupelia, 1980) He later served as Minister of Native Affairs between 1893–1897 and 1899–1903. He became the last Prime Minister of the Colony of Natal between 1906 and 1910.
“While FR Moor was in Kimberley he met Cecil John Rhodes, another strong personality with outstanding leadership qualities. There is some indication that the two men were closely associated during these years for the Moor and Rhode’s brothers belonged to an elite group of 12 diggers who were teasingly named “the 12 apostles” and who associated with each other because of their common interests. Moor’s daughter, Shirley Moor, claims that her father would not have associated with Rhodes for he disliked him and in the 1890’s he abhorred Rhodes’ role in the Jameson Raid and held him responsible to a certain extent for the Anglo-Boer war of 1899.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
“After Moor got married, he felt that there was no security in remaining in the fields. He consequently sold his claims to his brother George, and returned to Natal in 1879 to take up farming has been very successful financially at the diamond fields.” (Dhupelia, 1980)
Dhupelia states that FR was “later joined (in Kimberley) by two of his three brothers.” As far as I have it, he had only two brothers with his siblings being George Charles Moor (whom we know took his diggings operation over); Annie May Chadwick; John William Moor and Kathleen Helen Sarah Druwitt. (geni.com) If both brothers joined him, this would mean that JW also spent time on the diggings. (This needs to be corroborated.) It would explain why JW shared the wealth that his brother obtained in Kimberley.
Success in Farming
FR’s success in farming related to JW, the main focus of our investigation, in that they conducted many of their farming activities as joint ventures. This is why I suspect that JW joined FR for a time on the diggings. Morrell (1996) states that “Moor displayed a considerable initiative and a pioneering spirit in his farming activities, making a name for himself as had his father who was one of the first in the colony to introduce imported Merinos from the valuable Rambouillet stock in France. Estcourt was one of the four villages in Weenen County and most farmers kept cattle, sheep, and horses. By 1894 Moor, in partnership with his brother J.W. Moor, was engaged in farming ventures over an area of 20 000 acres [8097,17 ha]. Their stock consisted of 6000 to 7000 sheep and they were among the largest breeders of goats in Natal possessing 1200 goats. Moor, in fact, acquired the first Angora goats in Natal where the interest in the mohair industry was considerable in the 19th century. In addition to the sheep and goats, Moor engaged in ostrich farming, for he believed there was a good market for the sale of ostrich feathers. He also kept horses and cattle and imported Pekin ducks.” (Morrell, 1996)
The British Market in Crisis
Walworth reported that by 1913 in the UK, “imported bacon had largely secured the market.” This was according to him one of the reasons for a rapid decline in the pig population with a 17% reduction in numbers from 1912 to 1913. (Walworth, 1940) Conditions in 1917 and 1918 were desperate in the UK with meat supply falling by as much as 30%. Stock availability increased prices, and war rationing all played a role. Canada responded to the shortage of pork in 1917 and their export of bacon and ham increased from 24 000 tonnes to 88 000 tonnes in 1917. Corn was in short supply during the war, but it was in reaction to meat shortages that rationing was finally introduced in the UK in 1918. (Perren) The 1918 situation related to bacon in England was reported on by The Guardian (London, Greater London, England), 6 July 1918. The meat situation was generally better than it has been in a while. In the article, they report that Bacon is being imported into the country in large quantities and that the import “will be maintained at the same rate throughout the year.” It is interesting that the article also reports that “the intention is to build up a big reserve of bacon in cold storage for later use.” (The Guardian, 1918, p6) The article oozes with planning and deliberateness happening in the background.
It is clear that the two countries well-positioned to respond were Canada and South Africa. New Zealand was focussing on exporting frozen meat, as was Australia. Walworth leaves the South African response to bacon shortages out (except one comment that South Africa was one of the countries that eventually responded) but it is clear from the Estcourt case that the response was there.
The immediate context of the establishment of the bacon company is the war but in the early 1900s, the pork industry in the UK was in a bad state in terms of industrializing the process of bacon production. Producers were unable to compete in price or quality with imports. The reasons are interesting. Much of the curing in the UK was done by small curing operations or farmers who used dry curing. A large variety of pig breeds made it difficult. Small volumes or a large variety of pigs vs a large variety of a standard pig – the latter suits an industrial process. Fat was highly prized in many of the curing techniques, as it is to this day, but for lard to be cured takes a year. Again, it does not fit the industrial model. The main reason for the high-fat content in bacon was due to imports from America who generally produced a much fatter pig on account of its diet. (Perren)
Market trends moved away from fat bacon and a leaner pig was required which the UK farmers were unable to deliver in the volumes required. The consumers also called for a milder bacon cure that was achieved with the tank curing method. The predominant way that bacon was cured in the UK was still dry curing which resulted in heavily salted meat.
In April 1938, at the second reading of the Bacon Industry Bill before the British Parliament, the minister of Agriculture Mr W. S. Morrison summarised the conditions in the bacon market in the UK pre-1933 as follows. “As far as the curers (in the UK) are concerned, lacking the proper pig as they did, and a regular supply, they could not achieve the efficiency in large-scale production and the economies which were within the power of their foreign competitors. Nor could they achieve adaptation to the changed taste of the public, and the change in taste was, indeed, largely the result of the foreign importation.” The change of taste he was talking about was a movement away from fatty bacon to lean bacon and a milder cure (less salty). The solution in terms of fatty bacon was to breed fewer fatty pigs but the UK market failed to deliver such pigs. My suspicion is that this was not due to a technical inability or ignorance of the British farmers, but due to the deeply entrenched nature of the specialized, small scale dry-curing operations. Having gotten to know butchers from the UK, now in their 70’s, who stem from such traditions, I understand that they hold their trade in such high esteem that they would rather amputate a limb than compromise the dry curing traditions they were schooled in.
The fact is that for whatever reason, the UK pork and bacon market pre-1933 was fragmented and Morrison stated that “the factories in this country worked to a little more than half of their capacity with consequently high costs. The cheaper and quicker process of curing bacon (i.e. tank curing) made little headway and the whole industry was in a very weak position to stand competition even of a normal character.”
In response to the enormous size of the UK bacon market and the inability of local curers to convert to tank curing, foreign curers moved aggressively to fill the void. This aversion of the British to convert from dry curing to tank curing did not disappear after the war and would continue to be the basis of bacon imports into the UK following 1918 when the war ended. Mr Morrison continued that “what was in store for the industry was not competition of a normal character. In the years 1929 to 1932, there ensued a scramble for this bacon market.” “In 1932 the importation rose to 12,000,000 cwts. or more than twice as much as it had been in the five-year period preceding the War.”
The British market started to respond after major government programs to change the bacon production landscape in the UK and tank curing was adopted to a large extent. Even though I have little doubt that the potential to export to England was a major driving factor in the creation of the company, as it was in Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Canada, and the USA, a further mention must be made of the very robust local bacon market. An interesting comment was made in an article published in The Gazette (Montreal, Canada) on 24 January 1916. In the article entitled “Trade for Canada in South Africa”, the comment is made about bacon that “good business can be worked up in Canadian bacon brands if attention is paid to the packaging.” The first interesting point to take from this comment is that the demand for bacon in South Africa by 1916 was sizable and, secondly, that the standard of packaging was very high, pointing to high technical competency.
Agricultural Operations and the Establishment of a Bacon Cooperative
Back in Natal, farmers saw the benefit of various forms of cooperation precisely due to their small numbers and the fact that cooperation gave them access to larger markets and more stable prices. The children growing up in the Natal Midlands were encouraged after completing their schooling, to join one of the many farmers’ associations (FA). “The “reason for being” of these agricultural societies was to hold stock sales. As Nottingham Road’s James King (founder member of the LRDAS in 1884) said. “The worst drawback was the lack of markets”. (Morrell, 1996). It was this exact issue that JW addressed with his bacon cooperative.
“Their function was thus primarily marketing and their fortunes were generally judged by the success or failure of sales. The sale of stock differs markedly from that of maize (the product which sparked the cooperative movement in the Transvaal). In Natal. the market was very localised with local butchers and auctioneers generally dealing with farmers in their area.” (Morrell, 1996)
“A variety of factors increased the importance of cattle sales particularly in the late and early twentieth century. Catastrophic cattle diseases, particularly Rinderpest (1897-1898) and East Coast Fever (1907-1910) reduced herds dramatically making it all the more important for farmers to realise the best prices available for surviving stock. The number of cattle in Natal was reduced from 280 000 in 1896 to 150000 in 1898. This amounted to a loss of £863 700 to farmers.” (Morrell, 1996)
“It was only in the area of stock sales (sheep, cattle and to a lesser extent, horses) that cooperative marketing operated. Foreign imports began to undercut local products, particularly once the railway system was developed. In 1905, on behalf of the Ixopo Farmer Association, Magistrate F E Foxon objected to the government allowing imported grain.” (Morrell, 1996)
In other domains (such as dairy and ham products), cooperative companies were formed. These were joint-stock companies, generally headed by prominent and prosperous local farmers (JW Moor and George Richards of Estcourt, for example), who raised capital from farmer shareholders. The members of the Board were generally the major shareholders. Farmers who joined were then obliged to supply the factory/dairy with produce, in return for which they got a guaranteed price and, if available, a dividend.” (Morrell, 1996) This was the basis of the operation of the Farmers’ Cooperative Bacon Factory.
“The small size of the local market put pressure on farmers to export. The capacity of Natal’s manufacturing industries was minuscule. It began to expand around 1910 yet by 1914 there were no more than 500 enterprises in the whole colony.” “So it happened that many prominent farmers were also directors of agricultural processing factories.” (Morrell, 1996)
Generally, it seems that as FR’s political involvement increased, his attention to farming decreased and he relied increasingly more on JW to take care of their farming interests. JW himself was politically active, but never to the extent of FR. JW Moor became MP for Escort while he was director of Natal Creamery Limited and Farmers’ Cooperative Bacon Factory.”
It is interesting that, as was the case around the world, pork farming followed milk production. This was what spawned the enormous pork industry in Denmark and to a large extent, sustaines the South African pork farming industry to this day.
“It was Joseph Baynes, a Byrne settler and dairy industry pioneer who established a milk processing plant in Estcourt under the name of the Natal Creamery Ltd. where JW was a director. “This factory was located adjacent to the railway station. Baynes died in 1925 and in 1927 the factory, which by this time was owned by South African Condensed Milk Ltd. was bought by Nestlés. Today the factory produces Coffee, MILO and NESQUIK.” (Revolvy)
In 1917 a group of farmers, including JW Moor, met in Estcourt to discuss the establishment of a cooperative bacon factory. The Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917 and the building of the factory started. When the plant opened its doors, it was done on 6 June 1918 by Prime Minister General Louis Botha. We can not overstate the massive symbolic nature of the leader of a country in the midst of war opening a food production facility.
The products were marketed under the name Eskort. It takes about a year to get a factory up and running and it was no different in the plant in Natal. When they were ready to supply the UK, the war was over but not the shortages. In 1919 the factory started exports to the United Kingdom. The honour went to the SS Saxon who carried the first bacon from the Estcourt plant exported to the United Kingdom, in June 1919. The products were well received.
A fire in 1925 caused significant damage to the factory. Production was relocated to Nel’s Rust Dairy Limited in Braamfontein, Johannesburg while renovations were being done at the plant. Despite this, the company still won the top three prizes at the 1926 London Dairy Show. (openafrica.org)
They were ready with streamlined efficiency when the second World War broke out and supplied over one million tins of sausages to the Allied forces all over the world and over 12 tonnes of bacon weekly to convoys calling at Durban harbour. (Revolvy) “Early in 1948 plans for a second factory in Heidelberg, Gauteng, were drawn up and the factory commenced production in September 1954.” (openafrica.org) In “1967 the Eskort brand was the largest processed meat brand in South Africa. In 1998 the company was converted from a cooperative to a limited liability company.” (Revolvy)
An interesting side note must be made here. This is the story of my travels to Denmark and the UK to learn how to make the best bacon on earth. The purpose of the venture was to export the bacon and supply the Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company. The similarity of what we did to prepare for our own bacon production in Woodys and how the bacon plant in Estcourt came about is striking. To raise capital for the venture we relied on investors while I rode transport between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Without any knowledge of JW Moor, by simply looking at the Southern African context of the late 1800s and early 1900s, their course of action was logical. (2)
The technical aspects behind the curing technology employed at the new plant are of particular interest. The establishment of the operation in 1918 placed it right in the transition time when science was unlocking the mechanisms behind curing and an understanding developed (beginning in 1891) that it was not saltpetre (nitrate) that cured meat, but nitrite through nitric oxide.
The second technical fact of interest was the form of cooperation that was chosen to house the bacon plant. From Denmark to England farmers saw the benefit of the cooperative model to solve the problem of “access to markets” and this was no different in South Africa.
Tank Curing or using Sodium Nitrite
In terms of curing brines, the scientific understanding that it was not saltpetre (nitrate) curing the meat, but somehow, nitrite was directly involved came to us in the work of Dr Edward Polenski (1891) who, investigating the nutritional value of cured meat, found nitrite in the curing brine and meat he used for his nutritional trails, a few days after it was cured with saltpetre (nitrate) only. He correctly speculated that this was due to bacterial reduction of nitrate to nitrite. (Saltpeter: A Concise History and the Discovery of Dr. Ed Polenske).
What Polenski suspected was confirmed by the work of two prominent German scientists. Karl Bernhard Lehmann (1858 – 1940) was a German hygienist and bacteriologist born in Zurich. In an experiment, he boiled fresh meat with nitrite and a little bit of acid. A red colour resulted, similar to the red of cured meat. He repeated the experiment with nitrates and no such reddening occurred, thus establishing the link between nitrite and the formation of a stable red meat colour. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
In the same year, another German hygienist, one of Lehmann’s assistants at the Institute of Hygiene in Würzburg, Karl Kißkalt (1875 – 1962), confirmed Lehmann’s observations and showed that the same red colour resulted if the meat was left in saltpetre (potassium nitrate) for several days before it was cooked. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
This laid the foundation of the realisation that it was nitrite responsible for the curing of meat and not saltpetre (nitrate). It was up to the prolific British scientist, Haldane (1901) to show that nitrite is further reduced to nitric oxide (NO) in the presence of muscle myoglobin and forms iron-nitrosyl-myoglobin. It is nitrosylated myoglobin that gives cured meat, including bacon and hot dogs, their distinctive red colour and protects the meat from oxidation and spoiling. (Fathers of Meat Curing)
Identifying nitrite as the better (and faster) curing agent was one thing. How to get to nitrite and use it in meat curing was completely a different matter. Two opposing views developed around the globe. On the one hand, the Irish or Danish method favoured “seeding” new brine with old brine that already contained nitrites and thus cured the meat much faster. (For a detailed treatment of this matter, see The Naming of Prague Salt) The Irish and the Danes took an existing concept at that time of the power of used brine and instead of a highly technical method of injecting the meat and curing it inside a vacuum chamber, a simple system using tanks or baths to hold the bacon and regularly turning it was developed which became known as tank curing.
The concept of seeding the brine did not develop from science around nitrite, but preservation technology that was a hot topic in Ireland’s scientific community at the beginning and middle of the 1800s. Denmark imported tank curing or mild curing technology in 1880 from Ireland where William Oake invented it sometime shortly before 1837. Oake, a chemist by profession developed the system which allowed for the industrialisation of the bacon production system. (Tank Curing was invented in Ireland)
A major revolution took place in Denmark in 1887/ 1888 when their sale of live pigs to Germany and England was halted due to the outbreak of swine flu in Denmark. The Danes set out to accomplish one of the miracle turnarounds of history by converting their pork industry from the export of live animals to the production of bacon (there was no such restriction on the sale of bacon). This turnaround took place in 1887 and 1888. They used the cooperative model that worked so well for them in their abattoirs.
They were amazingly successful. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.
The first cooperative bacon curing company was started in Denmark in 1887. Seven years earlier, in 1880, the Danes visited Waterford and “taking advantage of a strike among the pork butchers of that city, used the opportunity to bring those experts to their own country to teach and give practical and technical lessons in the curing of bacon, and from that date begins the commencement of the downfall of the Irish bacon industry. . . ” (Tank Curing was invented in Ireland)
This is astounding. It means that they had the technology and when the impetus was there, they converted their economy. It also means that Ireland not only exported the mild cure or tank curing technology to Denmark but also to Australia, probably through Irish immigrants during the 1850s and 1860s gold rush, between 20 and 30 years before it came to Denmark. Many of these immigrants came from Limerick in Ireland where William Oake had a very successful bacon curing business. Many came from Waterford. A report from Australia sites one company that used the same brine for 16 years by 1897/ 1898 which takes tank curing in Australia too well before 1880 which correlates with the theory that immigrants brought the technology to Australia in the 1850s or 1860s.
Tank curing or mild curing was invented without the full understanding of the nitrogen cycle and denitrifying and nitrifying bacteria and the chemistry of nitrite and nitric oxide. Brine consisting of nitrate, salt and sugar were injected into the meat with a single needle attached to a hand pump (stitch pumping). Stitch pumping was either developed by Prof. Morgan, whom we looked at earlier or was a progression from his arterial injection method. (Bacon Curing – a historical review and Tank Curing Came from Ireland)
The meat was then placed in a mother brine mix consisting of old, used brine and new brine. The old brine contained the nitrate which was already reduced through bacterial action into nitrite. It was the nitrite that was responsible for the quick curing of the meat.
Denmark was, as it is to this day, one of the largest exporters of pork and bacon to England. The wholesale involvement of the Danes in the English market made it inevitable that a bacon curer from Denmark must have found his way to Calne and I am the one who told John Harris about the new Danish system and implemented it at their Calne operation. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
A major advantage of this method is the speed with which curing is done compared with the dry salt process previously practised. Wet tank-curing is more suited for the industrialisation of bacon curing with the added cost advantage of re-using some of the brine. It allows for the use of even less salt compared to older curing methods. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
Corroborating evidence for the 1880 date of the Danish adoption of the Irish method comes to us from newspaper reports about the only independent farmer-owned Pig Factory in Britain of that time, the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory Ltd. in Elmswell. The factory was set up in 1911. According to an article from the East Anglia Life, April 1964, they learned and practised what at first was known as the Danish method of curing bacon and later became known as tank-curing or Wiltshire cure. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
A person was sent from the UK to Denmark in 1910 to learn the new Danish Method. (elmswell-history.org.uk) The Danish method involved the Danish cooperative method of pork production founded by Peter Bojsen on 14 July 1887 in Horsens. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri)
The East Anglia Life report from April 1964, talked about a “new Danish” method. The “new” aspect in 1910 and 1911 was undoubtedly the tank curing method. Another account from England puts the Danish system of tank curing early in the 1900s. C. & T. Harris from Wiltshire, UK, switched from dry curing to the Danish method during this time. In a private communication between myself and the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, Susan Boddington, about John Bromham who started working in the Harris factory in 1920 and became assistant to the chief engineer, she writes: “John Bromham wrote his account around 1986, but as he started in the factory in 1920 his memory went back to a time not long after Harris had switched over to this wet cure.” So, early in the 1900s, probably between 1887 and 1888, the Danes acquired and practised tank-curing which was brought to England around somewhere around 1911 if not a bit earlier. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
The power of “old brine” was known from early after wet curing and needle injection of brine into meat was invented around the 1850s by Morgan and others. Before the bacterial mechanism behind the reduction was understood, butchers must have noted that the meat juices coming out of the meat during dry curing had special “curing power”. It was, however, the Irish who took this practical knowledge, undoubtedly combined it with the scientific knowledge of the time and created the commercial process of tank-curing which later became known as Wiltshire cure when the Harris operations became the gold standard in bacon curing. Their first factory was located in the English town of Calne, in Wiltshire from where the method came to be known as Wiltshire cure. Its direct ancestor was however Danish and they, in turn, capitalised on an Irish invention. (Bacon Curing – a historical review)
It is of huge interest that the Eskort brand of bacon, to this day, bears the brand name of Wiltshire cure. Wiltshire is an English county where Calne is located which housed the Harris factory. (C & T Harris and their Wiltshire bacon cure – the blending of a legend) There is no doubt in my mind that the same curing was practised in Estcourt in 1918, as was done in the Harris factories in Calne and that this is the historical basis for the continued reference on the Eskort bacon packages as Wiltshire Cure. A facinating subject for further inquiry is if Eskort used Auto Curing.
At a time before the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines, the only two ways to cure bacon was either dry curing or tank curing with auto curing being a progression of tank curing. Dry curing requires about 21 days as against 9 days for tank curing. The bacon marketing scheme officially established tank curing in the UK. (Walworth, 1940)
It would not have been possible for the plant to use sodium nitrite in its brine in 1918. Where the Danes and the English favoured tank curing, the Germans and the Americans liked the concept of adding nitrite directly to the curing brines. This was however frowned upon due to the toxicity of sodium nitrite. In America, the matter was battled out politically, scientifically and in the courts. It became the standard ingredient in bacon cures only after WW1. The Germans used it during the war due to a lack of access to saltpetre (nitrate) which was reserved for the war effort and the need to produce bacon faster to supply to the front. The American packing houses in Chicago toyed with its use due to the speed of curing that it accomplishes.
The timeline, however, precludes its use in the bacon factory in Estcourt in 1918. In fact, Ladislav Nachtmulner, the creator of the first legal commercial curing brine containing sodium nitrite, only invented his Prague Salt, in 1915. Prague Salt first appeared in 1925 in the USA as sodium nitrite became available through the Chicago based Griffith Laboratories in a curing mix for the meat industry. (The Naming of Prague Salt)
In Oct 1925 in a carefully choreographed display by Griffith, the American Bureau of Animal Industries legalised the use of sodium nitrite as a curing agent for meat. In December of the same year (1925) the Institute of American Meat Packers, created by the large packing plants in Chicago, published the document, “The use of Sodium Nitrite in Curing Meats.” (The Naming of Prague Salt)
A key player suddenly emerges onto the scene in the Griffith Laboratories, based in Chicago and very closely associated with the powerful meatpacking industry. In that same year (1925) Hall was appointed as the chief chemist of the Griffith Laboratories and Griffith started to import a mechanically mixed salt from Germany consisting of sodium nitrate, sodium nitrite and sodium chloride, which they called “Prague Salt.” (The Naming of Prague Salt)
Probably the biggest of the powerful meat packers was the company created by Phil Armour who gave David de Villiers Graaff the idea of refrigerated rail transport for meat. More than any other company at that time, Armour’s reach was global. It was said that Phil had an eye on developments in every part of the globe. (The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896, p2) He passed away in 1901 (The Weekly Gazette, 9 Jan 1901), but the business empire and network that he created must have endured long enough to have been aware of developments in Prague in the 1910s and early ’20s. (The Naming of Prague Salt)
There is, therefore, no reasonable way that the bacon factory in Estcourt could have used sodium nitrite directly in 1918. If Armour’s relationship was with JW Moor, this could have been a possibility since I suspect that Armour was experimenting with the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines as early as 1905, but his relationship, if any, would have been with David de Villiers Graaff, who was a meat trader at heart and did not have any direct interest in a large bacon curing company until ICS acquired Enterprise and Renown, long after the time of David de Villiers Graaff (the 1st). Besides this, where would they have found cheap nitrite salts in South Africa in 1918? This takes the 1918 establishment of the company back to the technology used by the bacon curers in Witshire which was mother brine tank curing, the classic Wiltshire curing method which was later exactly defined in UK law.
At the demise of the Harris operation, many of the staff were taken up into the current structures of Direct Table which is, according to my knowledge, one of the few remaining companies in the world that still use the traditional Wiltshire tank curing method for some of its bacons. It undoubtedly is one of the largest to do so. In the Eskort branding of its bacon, the reference to Wiltshire cure is a beautiful reference back to the origins of the company which pre-dates the direct addition of sodium nitrite.
The Griffith Laboratories became the universal evangelist of the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines. They appointed an agent in South Africa in Crown Mills. Crown Mills became Crown National and Prague Powder is still being sold by them to this day. It could very well have been Crown Mills who converted Eskort from traditional tank curing to the direct addition of sodium nitrite through Prague Powder.
It must be mentioned that the butchery trade was well established in South Africa long before the cooperative bacon factory was established in Estcourt. Bacon curing was one of the first responsibilities of the VOC when Van Riebeek set the refreshment station up in 1652. Swiss, Dutch, German and later, English butchers were scattered across South Africa. The largest and most successful of these companies in Cape Town was Combrink and Co., owned by Jakobus Combrink and later taken over by Dawid de Villiers Graaff who changed the name to Imperial Cold Storage and Supply Company. I suspect that most of these operations used dry curing which was not suitable for mass production.
Peter Bojsen and cooperative Bacon Production
The second technical aspect is the form of cooperation that was established and a few words must be said about Peter Bojsen for those who are not familiar with him. Cooperative bacon production was the buzzword in the early 1900s, but where did this originate?
It started in Denmark. The Danes were renowned dairy farmers and producers of the finest butter (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) They found the separated milk from the butter-making process to be an excellent food for pigs. The Danish farmers developed an immense pork industry around it. (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) The bacon industry was created in response to a ban from England on importing live Danish pigs to the island. The Danish farmers responded by organising themselves into cooperatives that build bacon factories that supplied bacon to the English market. (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 1901: 6) This established bacon curing as a major industry in Denmark.
“On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region joined forces to form Denmark’s first cooperative meat company. The first general meeting was held, the land was purchased, building work commenced and the equipment installed.” (Danishcrown.com) “On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsen’s Share Abattoir), stood ready to receive the first pigs for slaughter.” (Danishcrown.com) The first cooperative bacon curing company was also established in 1887. (Tank Curing came from Ireland)
The dynamic Peter Bojsen (1838-1922) took centre stage in the creation of the abattoir in Horsens. He served as its first chairman. He created the first shared ownership slaughtering house. In years to follow, this revolutionary concept of ownership by the farmers on a shared basis became a trend in Denmark. Before the creation of the abattoir, he was the chairman of the Horsens Agriculture Association and had to deal with inadequate transport and slaughtering facilities around the market where the farmers sold their meat at. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri) Peter was a visionary and a creative economist. The genius of this man transformed society.
In 1911, the St. Edmunds cooperative bacon factory was opened in England in Elmswell, with Danish help. It is clear that the concept of the Horsens plant crossed the English channel. It is plausible that its creation reached the ears of a group of farmers in a very “British” part of the empire, in Estcourt, Natal not just with the Wiltshire Tank curing of the Harris operation, but the cooperative movement in bacon production from St. Edmunds in 1911.
Early Success for Eskort
An article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales), 2 June 1919, p7 entitled “On Land, Livestock in South Africa – Further Competition for Australia.” The article reports on pork production that “pig breeding has been taken up systematically and while in the year before the war imports of bacon and hams were valued at GBP368,112, last year they were reduced to GBP31,590, and there is good reason to think that soon these articles will be exported.” One may think that the reduction in import is due to the war and that in general South African producers were stepping up to the plate to fill the void, but the trend of the article is that something is happening “systematically” and there is a trend that projects that soon the GBP368,112 import figure will completely be supplied by South African producers and that surplus bacon will be exported.
The farmer’s cooperatives were founded in 1917 in Estcourt. Moor laid the cornerstone in January 1918, the report in the Sydney Morning Herald appeared in June 1919, the same month when the first exports of Eskort bacon to the UK took place. Export may have taken place before the local market was completely saturated. Regardless of the actual circumstances, the export of bacon to the UK was not just a major achievement and competing nations took notice. I also suspect that Eskort managed to supply a sizable portion of the 1913 import figure of GBP368,112 in 1918 and that the article may elude to exactly this.
Pulling the Military Connections Together
The location of the Estcourt plant is of interest virtually right next to Fort Dunford, between the fort and the Bushman’s river. My suspicion is that the land belonged to the army and that Moor, either JW or with the help of FR, secured rights to purchase it. This could have been done only by a family who had very cosy relationships with the military and had friends in high places in the persons of Louis Botha and FR Moor himself.
Just look at the defences of the Fort. There were three defences. The first would have been the Bushman’s river. Secondly, there was a moat around the fort, 2 meters deep and 4 meters wide. Then, one part of the staircase could be pulled up in case two of the defences were bridged. It is clear from the map that even the hospital was strategically located to be within the general protection of the Fort and the Boesmans River bend.
There is a second interesting contribution that the military post could have made to the establishment of the bacon plant. It is known that men from Elmswell and Wiltshire were drafted into service in South Africa. Could it have been that some of these men actually contributed their knowledge to the cooperative bacon plant in Elmswell? These records can quite easily be checked and will be worth the effort.
Strong circumstantial evidence, however, points to more than just a coincidental relationship between the location of the plant and the military establishment. Probably more important than the affinity of Moor family for the military was the fact that FR Moor was the political leader of the Natal colony until the Union of South Africa was created in 1910 and the fact that the old school friend of FR, General Louis Botha was in 1918, the Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa. Whichever way you look at it, it is hard not to recognise the close proximity of the Eskort plant to the military installations. What could be the uniting thought that pulls all these facts together? (Of course, in part, predicated on the fact that the factory is in the original location)
Looking at the state of the British Empire and wartime circumstances in the UK, I believe offers the answer. The military context goes much deeper than schoolboy comradery, family nostalgia or friends in high places. 1918 was the beginning of the last year of the Great War. On the one hand, it is hard for us to imagine the unified approach that the Empire had towards the war and every citizen in every Empire country. The empathy and support that the war elicited in South Africa generally, but especially in Natal, so closely linked with the UK in spit and culture was enormous. One source reports that in Estcourt school staff subscribed a portion of their salary monthly to the Governor-General’s Fund in support of the war. (Thompson, 2011) It is outside the scope of this article to delve deeper into the unprecedented effort that was being expended by the South African population and the people in Natal in particular in support of the troops but reading the accounts of what was being done in Natal is quite emotional.
On the other hand, directly responding to wartime shortages in the UK was an international effort. Bacon, in those days, was not just a luxury. It was a staple food. The production of bacon was a matter of national importance debated in parliament. It was a key food source sustaining the British navy. Many people only had bacon as food every day. They would boil the bacon before eating it. The parents who had to work the next day had the actual meat and the kids only had the water. Eduard Smith made the remark in his landmark work, Foods (1873), that in this way both the parents and the children went to bed “with a measure of satisfaction.” Bacon had strategic importance to the military and in the first world war, spoke to the general food situation in war-ravaged England.
The fact that the bacon company was established in Estcourt in 1917 shows clearly that South Africa was ready to step in to prop up meat and bacon supply in particular to the UK. Was there direct involvement from the South Africa leader, General Louis Botha who possibly passed on a request from London to all Empire states to assist in the supply of meat and bacon in particular? It is a matter of conjecture, but a tantalising possibility. These are speculations that can be corroborated by looking at the correspondence of Botha. FR Moor himself had direct communication with London and Botha may have simply opened the factory in support of the idea. FR’s letters along with that of JW have to be scrutinised for leads. The one reason that makes me suspects that there may have been a direct request from Botha or some early support for the venture is the location of the factory, right next to the Fort. In my mind, it swings the possibility for direct involvement from Botha from possible to probable. (Facts from correspondence should solve the matter)
Supplying the British market may have been done to build up South Africa, just as much as it was done in support of the Empire. I suspect that the former may even be more of a driving force than the latter. On 13 June 1917, an article appeared in the Grand Forks Herald (Grand Forks, North Dakota), reporting from London that “Developments on an enormous scale are expected in South Africa after the war and plans in this connection are being made as regards the export of food. It is confidently predicted that so far as meat is concerned the Union will be in a position to compete very soon with any other part of the world and in order to assist the expansion of the industry all the steamship lines propose, it is understood, to increase their refrigerated space very considerably and to place more vessels in service.” This report came out in the year when the Cooperative bacon Company in Estcourt was formed. It oozes with deliberateness and purposefulness from the highest authorities.
One person who was clearly involved in the “deliberateness and purposefulness” becomes clear from a pamphlet that was published in that same year. In a document dated 12 Jan 1917 about the South African meat export trade, compiled by A. R. T. Woods to Sir Owen Phillips, chairman of the Union-Castle Line who by this time was carrying meat from South America to Europe in their Nelson Line of Steamers, the following interesting quite is given by Gen. Louis Botha. The background is the delivery of what is described in the document as “by universal consent,. . . probably the best specimen of South African meat (beef) yet placed upon the London market” delivered by the R. M. S. “Walmer Castle” to the Smithfield market in London and inspected by a group from South Africa featured below in 1914. (I will give much to know the names of the men below. Will there be the name of one JW Moor?)
The party travelled to London by invitation from The Hon. W. P. Schreiner, High Commissioner of South Africa and Mr Ciappini (the Trades Commissioner). The South African meat was deemed comparable to frozen meat produced in any part of the world. The letter was a motivation that the South African meat trade was mature enough to be taken seriously and some helpful advice was given based on experience in South America.
He quotes Gen. Louis Botha who advised farmers that “so far as mealies are concerned the export should not develop, but that the mealies should be used to feedstock in this country, and that the export should be in the form of stock fed in South Africa on South African Mealies.” There is, therefore, good evidence of Genl. Louis Botha involving himself in the details of the establishment of the meat trade from South Africa and, I believe that it is in part this general encouragement that JW Moor followed in creating the Cooperative Bacon Curing Company in 1917.
I located this pamphlet among documents in the Western Cape Archive of J. W. Moor and his farmers Cooperative where they apply for permission to erect an abattoir and a bacon curing company in East London on the harbour. It is interesting that one of the recommendations given in the pamphlet is that abattoirs and chilling factories be erected in Ports, “along the quays where the ocean-going refrigerated steamers load” as it was done in Argentina. The influence of Botha’s encouragement of Moor can be well imagined.
The application for the abattoir was lodged in 1917, the same year when the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917. It is possible that members of the Natal Farmers Co-operative Meat Industries and the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited were the same people. Or that the one owned the other. Whichever way you look at it, John Moor was a key figure in both and the establishment of a bacon company in East London was directly in line with the proposals set out to boost meat exports. It is very interesting that both occurred in 1917 and that only the Eskort factory survived. As someone who established such a venture myself, my initial thoughts were that having a curing company at two such geographically distant sites as East London and Estcourt would have been impossible to manage, especially since both were new ventures. Further documents show that the factory was built on the proposed site and it is telling that only the Estcourt site survived.
The stone in Estcourt was unveiled by JW Moor on January 7, 1918, almost a full year before the Armistice. The Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory Limited was founded in August 1917, 16 months before the end of the War. The factory was opened on 6 June 1918 by Prime Minister General Louis Botha, 6 months before the Great War ended. This is remarkable.
The shortages in the UK in 1917 and 1918 were dire. The end of the war was not in sight and calls went out across the Empire to assist. Meat supply, at this time, diminished by 30% in the UK. In this context, it is easy to see how military land was either made available or that it would have been strategically prudent to locate such an installation close to a military site, but again, it would have required high-level support (involvement?).
For the South Africans, the call for help would have been close to home. Delville Woods took place in 1916, a year before the company was created. In the month when it was founded, August 1917, Lieutenant-General Sir Jacob Louis van Deventer had just taken over command of the mostly South African troops involved in the German East African campaign. His offensive started in July 1917. The entire East African region remained very active for the duration of the war.
When the fighting was all done almost 19 000 South Africans lost their lives. The madness of the time can best be described by the opening sentences of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair… Such would have been the experience of the men and women involved in the war while setting up the Farmer’s Co-operative Bacon Factory on the banks of the Boesmans River in Estcourt, Natal. (1)
The Best Bacon on Earth
The Farmers Cooperative Bacon Factory at Estcourt has been producing the finest bacon on earth since its inception. The first international endorsement for the quality of the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory in Estcourt, Natal came in 1920 at the British Dairy Farmers’ Association Show in London.
Almost right from the start, the show became the platform where the best produce from around the world was exhibited alongside the best from England. The British colonies used this as a platform to sell into the lucrative English market. The first British Dairy Show was held in Islington in London in 1876. It was initially called the Metropolitan Dairy Show. “At this show, the British Dairy Farmers’ Association was formed and in the following year the first Dairy Show was held at the Agricultural Hall, Islington.”(Pasfield, 1961)
It was never only about dairy. The 1876 show included competitions for Jersey, Guernsey, Shorthorn, Ayrshire, Kerry, Brittany, and any other breed of dairy cow, based on inspection. These were however banned “by order of the Privy Council owing to an outbreak of cattle plague in the country. However other livestock such as goats, donkeys, mules and poultry were exhibited at the first show, together with dairy produce, roots, grain and hops.” (Pasfield, 1961) Bacon soon became a standard feature at the show where they catered for the farming trade as well as the consumers. By 1893, there were 43 bacon and ham exhibits.
The Morning Post (London) of 19 October 1897 reported on the influence of foreign producers. “So much is heard nowadays of the versatility and ability of the foreign producer that attention has been largely diverted from home production and opinion educated to regard as of secondary merit butter, cheese, and other articles emanating from British dairies.” The report stated that “the prominence attained by the imported article is due mainly to the moderate price at which it can be produced, together with admitted uniformity in quality.” The journalist was writing about butter, but for sure, it applied to other produce, including bacon.
The Union of South Africa, which was created in 1910, was represented at the show and was particularly successful in 1920. An advertisement in The Times newspaper from October 1920 indicated that South African bacon was part of the Union Exhibit at stand 121, Gilbey Hall, at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Islington.
The Age, October 20, 1920, reporting on the poor Australian representation, calls the South African exhibit “magnificent” in all classes of produce. It states that the Union’s exhibition is the “finest of its kind ever seen at the dairy show.“
A report from The Age, the next day, on 21 October, reported that South Africa won all prizes for cheese and bacon produced in British colonies.
British newspapers did not directly report on which South African bacon producers were so successful in 1920, but E. G. Hardy, Assistant Superintendent of Dairying, Pretoria, writing for the Journal of the Department of Agriculture, gave us the detail when he reported on the South African exhibit at this show in 1921. In the category of bacon from a British colony, four sides of bacon had to be entered per participant. “There were nine entries, all from South Africa except one from New South Wales. The Farmers’ Co-operative Bacon Factory, Ltd., Estcourt, Natal, secured the gold medal, scoring 92 points.” This, by itself, is a stunning achievement, but he then compares it with even greater success from the previous year. “This company (The Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory from Estcourt, Natal) therefore repeated their success in the previous two years. Before we look at the 1920 results, he mentions that in 1921 “Messrs. Sparks and Young, Durban, was placed second and awarded the silver medal, their exhibit scoring 90 points, and the Estcourt Factory were third with another exhibit scoring 87 points.” (Hardy)
Above is the gold medal awarded to them in 1921 by the Royal Agricultural Society of Natal.
The results from 1920 in this same category received his attention. He wrote that “he was given to understand that the quality of the South African (our) exhibits was hardly up to the high standard of last year (1920), when the Estcourt factory’s winning exhibit scored 100 points.” Part of the blame for the poorer showing in 1921 was “to some extent at least, due to faulty smoking of the bacon in London.” (Hardy)
The scorecard of 1920, when the Farmers’ Co-operative Bacon Factory, Ltd., of Estcourt, Natal, achieved 100%, proudly hangs in their Irene Head Office boardroom.
This is the earliest and clearest endorsement of the superior quality of the bacon that was produced at the Estcourt Factory. It is a tradition that was repeated at subsequent shows stretching well into the 1950s and which is still part of the ethos of this remarkable company. I am planning a separate page where all the achievements from these shows will be detailed.
The Dairy Show in Islington, London, remained the primary showcase of agricultural products in the British Empire. The company continued to win first prizes at this prestigious show. In 1926 they again won the category of bacon produced in British colonies and were awarded this beautiful rose bowl cup with lion masks and rings.
On 21 October 1926, The Age, London, reported on this win.
A trophy won at the Royal Agricultural Show in Natal for the best exhibit of Hams and Bacon.
The London show remained important for the emerging South African economy for many years and the Co-operative Bacon Factory in Estcourt (Eskort Ltd), remained one of the pillars that the South African drive for international recognition was being built on.
In 1950, the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory achieved second prize at the show.
As happened many times before, they not only won first prize, but also a second prize.
In 1953 they again won first prize at the British Dairy Farmers’ Association Coronation Dairy Show. The fact that it was called the “Coronation Dairy Show” refers to the ascension of Princess Elizabeth to the throne, upon the death of her father in 1952. She was formally crowned Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953.
The Eskort factory is a historic site where many interesting cross-currents meet. Its uninterrupted existence from a time before nitrite was directly added to brine makes it unique in the world! Apart from Danish Crown and Tulip, I know of very few other companies.
Besides this, tied up in the story of its creation is a romantic immigrant, a family, defining themselves through diamond digging and making powerful friends; re-investing its fortunes in farming and establishing a food company that exists to this day. We see the use of tank curing which predates the direct addition of nitrite to curing brines. The global influence of Griffiths probably converted Eskort to an operation using the direct application of nitrite to curing brines following WW1. We see the influence of the Danish Cooperative system, probably through the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory. Besides any of these, we see hard work, imagination and high character and particular response to a specific call for help.
What is the purpose of this study? Besides the fascinating context of the Eskort operation, is there anything we can learn from the past? I offer a few suggestions.
1. Stay on top of the game. Use the best and latest technology available to stay well ahead of the race. A 1914 US newspaper article, from the Deming Headlight, called the Danish cooperative bacon factory “the last word as to efficient scientific treatment of the dead porker.” The article was entitled A Cooperative Bacon factory. (The Deming Headlight (Deming, New Mexico), Friday 8 May 1914, Page 6.)
2. Use the best corporate structure, appropriate for the time.
3. This point probably dovetails into the previous one – ensure that the business is well funded.
4. Think big! No, think massive! By no account was any of the plans of JW Moor or any of his brothers or their father ever small!
5. The factory was built with a specific market in mind. “It was built for exports”, even though saying it like this may be too specific. Let’s state it this way – “technology was chosen to attract the right clients.” A modern-day example may be investing in a tray ready packaging line for fresh meat for the retail trade or cooked bacon for the catering trade.
6. Things are not as bad today as they were during the world wars. If anything, we have more opportunities. No matter what is happening in our country, this can be our age of wisdom, our epoch of belief, the season of light and our spring of hope!
The last comment must be made about the legacy of the bacon plant. There can be little doubt that it had a large impact on the meat processing landscape in South Africa over the years. It provides a fertile and productive training centre for many men and women to later either set up their own curing operations or work at other plants across the country, thus transferring the skills inherent in the Estcourt plant to the rest of the country. In this regard, the impact of the visionary work of the Moor family is volcanic. It is interesting to talk to executives in Eskort and to realise how many people in top positions in curing operations across the country started their careers at the Eskort plant in Estcourt in the Natal Midlands.
These are some of the obvious lessons I take away from the study. This is insanely exciting!
Gen. Louis Botha was the man who pushed for the development of the meat industry in SA. Of course, he found a great ally in David de Villiers Graaff who created ICS. At the end of 1934, the company was in serious financial trouble following the Great Depression. Anglo-American corporation was the largest investor and as it invested more money in the company, while the company worked ever closer with Tiger Oats, which was another Anglo subsidiary. In March 1982 Barlow bought a large share of Tiger Oats and the controlling share in ICS. In October 1998 Tiger Brands (Tiger Oats Limited) bought Imperial Cold Storage and it was taken up in the portfolio of this company’s brands.
Look at this old photo I found. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was created uniting the Transvaal, Free State, Natal and the Cape. Botha was asked to become Prime Minister. Here is a photo of his first cabinet. David was a member of this cabinet. He is in the back row on the right.
FR Moor is 3rd from the left, back row, looking to his right. His younger brother, JW Moor, was the chairman of the farmers cooperative that became Eskort. Botha opened the Eskort factory in Estcourt, Natal shortly before he passed away. The complete list of men on the photo and members of the first Union cabinet is: Back row, left to right: Gen JBM Hertzog, H Burton, FR Moor, Col. G Leuchars, Gen JC Smuts, HC Hull, FS Malan and David de Villiers Graaff. Front: JW Sauer, Gen Botha, and A Fischer.
In a way, both Eskort and Enterprise (at least Tiger Brands) were represented. The individual photos are of De Villiers Graaff and Moor.
The history and impact of bacon, men and women, run deep! What a story!
Arnold Prinsloo, the CEO of Eskort, sent me a message. He has a present for me, a book commemorating the first 100 years of Eskort, Ltd..
It was a day when Paul Fickling, my partner in crime at Van Wyngaardt and I decided to follow Christo Niemand’s advice to stand back a bit and think about our strategy with the business. I was glad that Paul was with me so that I could introduce him to one of the legends in our industry.
What I never had was an image of JW Moor. Arnold showed me his photo.
Finally, I am looking for the legendary first chairman of the First Farmers Cooperative Bacon Factory to be established in SA in the eyes. We spoke about the history and the Moor family; the industry at large and then Arnold gave us a bit of information that is invaluable to our quest. “Build your company on quality! Nothing less than that will exist for 100 years.”
At home, I could hardly wait to page through the book. Here I saw so many of my friends.
Wynand Nel who worked with me at Stocks Meat Market, Arnold Prinsloo, Melindi Wyma, Bob Ferguson – I know his son, Alex who is heading up Multivac.
This morning Paul Fickling was telling me about a small hotel they stayed over in Natal the previous week, Hartford House. It turns out that the house was owned by JW Moor. Arnold elucidated us and suggested we get in contact with Mickey Goss, the current owner of the estate, for an in-depth discussion of the history of the region and the Moor family.
I will definitely send Mickey correspondence and arrange for a visit to his famed estate. I am thrilled to be part of this incredibly rich history, humbled by the gesture of Arnold and the coincidence of Paul and his family staying at the exact house a week ago. Well, that is just strange!!
I received a mail this morning (14 June 2020) from Bruce, Sally and Phyllis. Bruce writes that “having spent time growing up playing along the Bushman’s river at the back of the bacon factory, your story would not be complete without the mention of Harry Lambert.” He attached an old newspaper clip which reads:
“H. W. Lambert is a man who has watched Estcourt grow from “half-a-dozen” andone house and a handful of wood and iron shops and homes.” It was in 1920 when H. W. Lambert immigrated from Edinburgh, Scotland to take up an appointment with the Farmers Co-operative Bacon Factory.
“Only a small part of the town today resembles the Estcourt of 1920. Mind you, what was then used as the farmers’ hall is still in use as the civic offices.” When Mr Lambert joined the bacon factory, the killing of 300 pigs a week was considered “quite something.”
He was responsible for starting the manufacture of sausages at the factory and, by the time of his retirement a few years ago, he had overseen its growth to a point where 2500 pigs were being processed each week. “
Estcourt has plenty of “local legends,” says Mr Lambert. “One that intrigues me is the belief that the author Rider Haggard used to sit in the saddle between two hills just outside the town, working on his stories. He is said to have written his book “King Solomon’s Mines” at this spot, and the two hillocks have been aptly named ‘Sheba’s Breasts’.”
In 1920, he recalls, Estcourt had no regular street lamps and only the roughest of footpaths.
“Those were the days of horses and traps and wagons. The chief social function of the townspeople was to watch the mail train pass through once a night.”
When sausages were first made at the factory, Mr Lambert remembers how school children would irk the employees by sticking their heads in when they passed and shouted “sausage town” in derogatory tones.
He has given a lifetime of devoted service to Estcourt and spent nine years on the Town Council – two as mayor. One of his chief pleasures was a game of snooker at the club.”
(1) 1917 and 18 were very interesting years besides for the creation of the bacon plant in Estcourt. On 8 June, two days after the start of production, the South African financial services group Sanlam was established in Cape Town. 1917/ 1918 was the year when the RAF was founded with another interesting South African connection. On 17 August 1917, General Jan Smuts released his report recommending that a military air service should be used as “an independent means of war operations” of the British Army and Royal Navy, leading to the creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918. (Hastings, Hastings, 1987)
(2) In reality, I did go to Denmark to learn bacon curing. The interesting thing is that Tulip is a Danish company, wholly owned by Danish Crown and a direct outflow of the creation of the cooperative curing plant at Horsens. In the ’70 and ’80, the Danish abattoirs and large processing companies consolidated and formed Danish Crown. The Danes created Tulip in England to, in a way, set up their own distribution company in England for the vast quantities of bacon they produced in Denmark. Essentially, they created their own client. In later years Tulip became involved in every aspect of the pork industry in England and currently is the largest pork farmer in the UK. Exactly as it was logical for my path to lead to Tulip, so, it was logical for JW’s path to lead to the Harris operations and a cooperative bacon plant. Given the same set of variables, the best choices are obvious to all, no matter how far in the future you look back at decisions of the past.
Dhupelia, U. S.. 1980. Frederick Robert Moor and Native Affairs in the Colony of Natal 1893 to 1903. Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in the Department of History in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Durban-Westville. Supervisor: Dr. J.B. Brain; Date Submitted: December 1980. Download: Dhupelia-Uma-1980
Dommisse, E. 2011. First baronet of De Grendel. Tafelberg
The Freeman’s Journal, Dublin, Ireland; 18 Oct 1878, p1.
The Guardian (London, Greater London, England), 6 July 1918, p6.
Max, Bomber Command: Churchill’s Epic Campaign – The Inside Story of the RAF‘s Valiant Attempt to End the War, New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1987, ISBN0-671-68070-6, p. 38.
Morrell, R. G.. 1996. White Farmers, Social Institutions and Settler Masculinity in the Natal Midlands, 1880-1920. A Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in the Department of Economic History. University of Natal. Durban, March 1996
The Morning Post (London, Greater London, England) · 19 Oct 1897, Tue · Page 2
Pasfield, J. The Royal Dairy Show. Brit. vet. J. (1961), 117, 373, Horsham.
Perren, R. Farmers and consumers under strain: Allied meat supplies in the First World War. The Agricultural Historical Review. PDF: Richard Perren
The Saint Paul Daily Globe, 10 May 1896
Thompson, P. S.. 2011. Historia Vol. 56, no. 1. The Natal home front in the Great War (1914-1918) On-line version ISSN 2309-8392; Print version ISSN 0018-229X. The Historical Association of South Africa c/o Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, University of Pretoria.
Walworth, G.. 1940. Feeding the Nation in Peace and War. London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd.
The story of bacon is set in the late 1800s and early 1900s when most of the important developments in bacon took place. The plotline takes place in the 2000s with each character referring to a real person and actual events. The theme is a kind of “steampunk” where modern mannerisms, speech, clothes and practices are superimposed on a historical setting. Modern people interact with old historical figures with all the historical and cultural bias that goes with this.
The Best Bacon on Earth Cape Town, October 1960
The kids visited last December. Is it almost a year ago? Where did the time go! Where does one begin to wrap up an epic adventure? As in Homers Odyssey, you quickly learn that it is all about the journey. The destination is a bonus. What we discover, however, is enriching and life-changing! Still, not even wisdom comes to anything! Our heavenly Jerusalem or Nordic Valhalla is precisely in the fact that we are conscious and in the moment of consciousness, the universe is conscious through us. I am saving a full explanation to the end of the book, yet, I can not progress if I don’t give you this glimpse into the art of living that bacon steered me to. My quest has always been more than bacon, yet, it was never less than. Within this simple culinary marvel, I started to discern the secret of life itself. Bacon curing is the instrument that the universe used to lead me to the answer to life, death and everything there is. Is it not fitting for such a simple thing to hold such rich wisdom!
The secret processes of the creation of bacon have been discovered by humans, yet it was not invented by humans. It mimics natural physiological processes yet in the incorrect understanding of those processes and their limitations we endanger ourselves because we do not appreciate the powers we unleash! Still, the truth is that its processes are natural! Its discovery a fait accompli. Its wonder is both in its taste and the beauty of its processes. Discovering the laws governing its creation is complex and requires the utmost diligence and complete dedication to the quest. Yet, it exists not for this purpose. Its reason for being is the sustenance it gives at the right time. It provides nutrition in the time of want. So is life. Life is simple and the one who never gives a thought as to the purpose of our existence or our ultimate end can enjoy every good gift on this earth, bear all the grief and ends his or her days completely satisfied. Yet, for those, wholly absorbed in understanding the meaning of it all, there are answers – great, profound and satisfying. Still, this quest has the potential of taking the very enjoyment of life away from the investigator in which case it would have been better not to have started the journey!
Dawie Hyaman’s Widsdom
Dawie wrote to me from America. We were discussing the fact that for all our reasoning ability, humans are not very intelligent. He writes, “that is a fascinating thing.. thought of it many times myself. I look at the intelligence in a tree, to take manure and sunshine and turn it into a juicy fruit, or a fragrant flower. Or the intelligence in my body that takes all the food I throw at it and converts it into a human. I can eat all the bananas I want but I won’t become a monkey! Then this other thing, we call intelligence, which is reasoning, and logic, and seeing patterns and following insights over instincts.. and there .. there is NO intelligence there .. or very very little. Seems to me the intelligence in the universe is everywhere except in the reasoning capacity!!” Is this not precisely the point! The reason why we are alive is completely apart from our logic. The very search for the eternal is itself a mirage. It is getting lost in the complexity of the processes of bacon curing without ever curing bacon and enjoying it yourself! Still, there is great value in a pursuit of its secrets. The end must always be to enhance its enjoyment when consumed. Life is exactly the same. We can ask for the eternal and the fixed but if this becomes the end in itself, we are completely missing the point.
To the point, Dawie writes that “there’s nothing wrong with the world as it is. I think it’s heaven. Look at the exquisite beauty, the endless complexity, colour, flavour, possibility. Sure we suffer biological pain because the protection mechanism of the body is not intelligent enough to turn itself off when its no longer doing much (or maybe it is, we just don’t like the settings hahaha) .. and of course we only appreciate pleasure because we know pain.. but my point is .. most of what we suffer is in the constructs of our mind… we suffer our memory and our imagination!! WE suffer our experience. And that seems to me because we think we are our mind, we think we are our body.. when we are not that.. because when we sleep we still exist, and when we lose our legs we still exist… so the whole thing of freedom to me is to stop suffering the thinking mind, and then just “be” .. and when we are present like that.. we are in bliss .. every single time.” Do you get his point? What he is saying is that the quest is not the goal. When it all gets so frantic, stop and quiet your spirit and just be. Think less!
He concluded by writing: “Seems to me .. we are always Here, Now. We always have been. Our thoughts, feelings and perceptions come and go, and are experienced in time .. it has to.. it has conceptual start and end, and a conceptual space.. so it is not always here.. so in that sense, we die. But beyond perceptions… the Nothing beyond Thinking .. the no-Thing … its nothing to the constructs and perceptions of the mind.. but it is the source of everything. Where else did forms come from, but from the formless?”
Living in the Real World
Just like the incorrect application or understanding of some of the complex processes in bacon can get us in trouble on many fronts including health and wellbeing, so the incorrect view of reality can create endless misery for ourselves and others. Politics in our beautiful country did not turn out as I would have liked, but it did happen exactly as I predicted! I see us steering the course of conflict as I saw it all these years ago while riding transport. Still, I continue to learn about life and had many years where I could put everything I learned about bacon to good use.
Daily News New York, 7 October 1960
The country voted for independence from Britain! It breaks my heart because it was done for all the wrong reasons! I am in full support of independence from Britain, but not for the reason that the referendum was fought over. It ended up as a fight between the white English and Afrikaans speaking people which was merely a rehash of the Anglo-Boer war, contrary to the efforts of Smuts and Botha to unite the groups after the war.
It would have been far better if the discussion included the non-white population of the country and was focused on doing what is right for everybody instead of the selfish ambitions of a few. All South Africans should have been allowed a say in their future as equals. The end result will be untold hardship for many millions of people.
Still, there is an important lesson for me. No matter our circumstances, we can find in ourselves and in things around us reasons to be thankful. This is a tremendous human ability. Amidst the greatest injustice, we can hope! When all hope is lost, we can persevere, and we can hope, against hope! The strange thing that I learned over my life is that this kind of hope never disappoints! This too is part of the art of living! I have no doubt that the Afrikaner and every other race in the country will rise up to take their rightful place as co-heirs of this land as equals. Anything less will be an injustice!
When I left Cape Town for the first time as a young man many years ago, I set out with a single-minded objective to learn the mechanisms underlying the art of curing. We desired to create the best bacon on earth. Did I achieve this? I would like to think that for a time, just before I left Woody’s, that we did just that. We created amazing bacon. Now Koos and Duncan have the company and are facing new challenges. They went through a time of great hardship themselves in the company, but from what I can see on the shelves, the quality is returning to the brand. It makes me incredibly proud of what they have achieved since Oscar, Will, James, Roy, Stanford, Adrian, myself and so many others left. I keep on learning! That making the best bacon on earth, consistently, year in and year out is a very difficult thing and an art in itself.
Many great bacon companies exist around the world. There are three examples of companies that I got to know very well who manage to achieve amazing quality bacon. Two of the companies have been doing it now for over 100 years! I salute them both by concluding the most amazing journey imaginable by focussing not on what Oscar and I manage to achieve, but on others. Others can judge our success or failure in this regard. Three companies who also learned how to make the best bacon on earth stand out! The last few chapters deal with them.
Best Bacon on Earth
Below are photos of some of the best bacon produced on earth by a Master Butcher from Germany whom I have the honour to work with. The best bacon on earth is being created. No compromise! Just quality! Some are cooked fully and some not, depending on where it is made and for what market. The pale bacon is cooked. These are all created in large, high throughput factories in Europe.
Note that all the commercial bacon was produced using a grid system. At Woody’s, we designed, what I believe to be, the best grid system. This can be seen under The Best Bacon System on Earth.
Bacon & the Art of Living focuses mostly on commercial bacon. There is an entirely different discipline around dry-cured, artisan bacon. This is the subject of Chapter 02: Dry Cured Bacon. My mentor here is an Englishman living in Canada, Robert Goodrich.
The photos below are not all “bacon” but it showcases some of the work of the master!
To prove my point about Robert’s bacon, here are some other examples of his work.
I give Vladimir’s recipe to illustrate the difference between artisan bacon and those produced in large high-throughput factories. You can see that time is not an enemy or a factor to overcome in the example below, but an ally to be embraced.
Vladimir’s recipe is given as:
Ingredients – Nitrite salt – 2.2% – Brown sugar – 1% – White vinegar (100 ml) and spice (Black pepper, several peas of juniper, bay leaves)
Procedures. People say that real bacon from Ayrshire should be marinated in a liquid with vinegar. I did not do this. – 4 weeks in a vacuum with salt, wine, vinegar and spices. – Rinse, dry and tie bacon into a roll. – Smoking – 8 hours. – 4 weeks of maturation in the chamber at + 10С and humidity 80%
The white vinegar was a surprise!
Companies who Achieve This
Of all the amazing bacon companies out there I have opted for three examples. There can be many as there are amazing companies out there! I close the three because they have unique ties to South Africa.
The amazing thing about these companies, as with so many others, is that they possess real soul. In their DNA are locked up unique qualities which made them and still make them stand out head and shoulder above the rest. One element of this DNA is a pursuit for quality. Another one is that at some point in their history they were led by a group of people who understood the secret of life. That we are here today and gone tomorrow and our greatest joy (purpose) is in being! These companies have the most fascinating stories to tell and the amazing thing is that I bet you it is the same with every good bacon company out there. They all have great stories to tell becasue bacon people, I mean REAL bacon people, understand humility, comradery and friendship. They are what we refer to as salt-of-the-earth kind of people. They know how to make great bacon and the art of living! These stories form the closing chapters of this epic journey!
Meat-on-Meat Bacon and Ham: Injection for Profit and Taste Eben van Tonder December 2020
After many years in the bacon industry, and working on sausage technology, I was able to conceptualise a complete bacon line, almost fully automated, exploiting a selection of different equipment and sets of technoligy, and in cooperation with a few key players in the industry, to design a bacon line which will deliver volume, at a cost never achieved before.
The new technology will, for example, make vastly reduced nitrite and possibly nitrite free bacon a reality which is not based on smoking-mirrors, as is currently wide spread in offerings to consumers. Plant based brines are used where nitrites are produced by the plants in large concentrations due to how the plants are cultivated and by exploiting loopholes in legislagion, producers are not declaring the nitrites since they did not add chemical nitrites. They only declare the plant juices but do not have to say that by adding these, the also added extraordinary additional quantities of nitrites.
The fact that the system we are conceptualising is continus with minimal handling becomes a powerful hurdle against clostridium and botulinum poisoning which is the reason why nitrites is allowed in meat.
The main contribution I want to focus on here is, however, the possibility for meat-on-meat injection with a scope of application that has not been possible before. Further, I want to put it in the context of the best bacon system on earth since it is only one additional building block to a complete system.
Much of the thinking was inspired by sausage technology.
From Sausage Technology – Back to Bacon
I have been working most of 2020 on fine meat emulsions (Nose-to-Tail and Root-to-Tip: Re-Thinking Emulsions). Most of my work was on re-working the formulation. I started by grouping the different chemical reactions together along with ingredients which links to the reactions. From this I produce a number of emulsions (emulsions is an old and incorrect industry term – meat paste is more accurate). The different pastes are created seperate using the new super emulsification system. The different pastes are then combined through a mixing step, where spices and showpieces are also added. It was during this phase of trails, creating the different meat pasts, when I bacame aware of the possibility to apply the technology to reduced nitrite or even nitrite free curing systems.
After blending, we move to filling through a filler and a hanging line into a continuous smoking system. No trollys required. The sausages goes in on the one end, are dried, smoked and schillied in one continuas system and comes out on the other end at 4 deg C and packed immediately. It easily adds another hour production time, reduce staff cost and handling and improves product quality, consistency and safety! On the back end, we are looking at continuous and automated packing solution and a man who designed and implemented one of the largest of these lines in the world will be assisting me.
The Relevance to Bacon
I started my career in meat processing as a bacon man and as I was working today, I thought about BACON! The applications of what I learned this year are enormous.
Meat-on-Meat Injection, through the use of the super emulsifier, becomes the most obvious application in brine injection. Inject lower cost trim with spices added into whole meat muscles. Around the world, super quality meats are produced using the general concept of injecting meat into meat. It has, however, never been this easy or commercially viable! The list of possible raw materials used for such injection is also tremendously expanded.
In formulating the brine, we are able to use components such as tendon and rinds which for the first time is now injectable! Other systems exist, but not one as simple, clean and wide in application as this one.
Below I introduce you to the equipment which will produce the brine. This innovation may very well be the biggest breakthrough in brine technology over the past 100 years since the direct addition of nitrites to curing brines. (Best Bacon and Rib System on Earth)
We can now continue to place the new technology in the context of the broader bacon system.
The injected bacon logs are rested and loaded into bacon grids which we designed (Best Bacon and Rib System on Earth). We opted for individual baskets which are filled and pressed individually after which the entire log with the basket can be loaded into the smoking/ cooking/ freezing chamber. It will be easy to see how it works if you study the baskets and the pressing system shown in Best Bacon and Rib System on Earth. The fact that the baskets are ONLY removed at the end of the line, after freezing, speeds the smoking and freezing process up due to the effect of the stainless steel and its thermal properties.
The same approach to the continues drying, smoking, cooling of the sausages has been adapted with a freezing step at the back. It is envisaged that bacon logs will be de-gritted at slicing temperatures or slightly above if manual Treif-type slicers are used. An automated de-grid system is being designed that must allow the grids to slide into the system which removes the lid from the basket, tips the basket over for the bacon log to fall out from where it moves directly to the slicer or, alternatively, to a boxing station where they are boxed and palletised before storage in a freezer for later slicing.
The basket are then either sent to the manual cleaning station or into an automated high pressure spray cleaning system.
Slicing/ packing solutions have been developed over the years which makes automated slicing and packing possible with minimal human handling. Several very good system is available commercially.
The one major issue I don’t have clarity on is Pasteurisation. High-Pressure Pasteurisation, for all its claims, does not seem to add up to a viable investment compared to heating systems (PPP) which can be constructed in-house or at much lower cost by contractors. This is the consensus opinion of production managers from around the world whom I consulted on the matter. I have had no time to look in more detail into the matter myself. The fact is that some form of eliminating contamination during packing should be part of the total system. The effectiveness vs total cost of ownership of the different systems must be thoroughly understood. Systems working with light and ultrasound should also be considered and combination systems. I would love to receive comments and input on this matter especially from production managers. In South Africa, there seems to be a wholesale rush to HPP, but I am not convinced. It may be, but I would love to see the data for myself and get more input from production managers and business owners with first hand experience.
I feature new technology in terms of brine preparation, but set out new thinking about drying, smoking, chilling and freezing through one of the most advanced Smokehouse producers in Europe. We developed a bacon grid system which fully integrates into this drying, smoking, chilling and freezing system and skilled designers are completing the work by focussing on an automated offloading and de-gritting system from where the bacon will either be sliced or stored.
The possibility exist to use the new brine preparation technology featured here, to create vastly reduces nitrite or even, possibly, nitrite free curing systems.
All-in-all, claiming that this is the most advanced system on earth is not an exaggeration!
The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.
The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
The Polenski Letter
My dear Son,
This weekend we had plans to visit the geology museum at the University of Copenhagen. It is summer in Denmark and the demand for our bacon is very good. We all agreed that we would go next weekend and put in extra work on Saturday to get through our work. Next weekend Uncle Jeppe will not be able to join us but we will all still go, capitalising on good weather we are having. I am not disappointed at all. The most unexpected set of facts became known to us.
There is much that we can learn from the Danish nation. Their food, the strange shops, elevated above the streets, the beer and the warm people. I realised that the culture of this amazing land is having just as big an impact on me as what I am learning about the curing of bacon. These people set their mind to a task and then work to achieve the goals. They not only learned from the Irish system of curing but took it to new heights by combining it with their powerful and unique cooperative model! I am learning the mechanics of a bacon curing business and spend a lot of time on the topic of saltpeter. Andreas gave me a word of caution that knowing the steps of a process and understanding the process are two different things. My understanding of the steps in bacon production will flow from my understanding of saltpeter.
No sooner did I hear those words from Andreas when the ever-resourceful Jeppe presented me with the next gold nugget in my education. How it happened that I came to Europe at this time, is remarkable. It is exactly in this epoch when humans are discovering that, despite the fact that saltpeter has been used for thousands of years to cure and preserve meat, there is an even more fundamental principle behind it that stems from the composition and nature of saltpeter. This fundamental principle is a relative of saltpeter or sodium nitrate, called sodium nitrite. The “a” changes to an “i“.
FOODS by Edward Smith
After supper, at the Østergaard home, we follow another great Danish tradition. We read together and discuss what was read. This is customary in many households. The Danes have a practicalness about them. As I have seen from their unique high school model, they never stop learning and if something works, they adopt it.
Andreas’ dad chose as a book to read every night after supper, called Foods, written over 20 years ago in the 1870s by an Englishman, Edward Smith. He helped me to see the curing of meat as both a necessity and a delicacy. We cure meats because, for the most part, using modern curing methods, cured meat tastes great. On the other hand, meat curing was started to impart longevity; to prevent spoilage.
Back home we are familiar with the value of meat that “last.” In Europe and England with their growing populations and vast navies that have to be fed, it has been an obsession and a priority to solve the problem of conserving meat for future use. Edward Smith says in his book that “the art of preserving meat for future use, with a view to increase the supply and lessen the cost of this necessary food (meat), is of very great importance to [England] and all the available resources of science are now engaged in it.” (Smith, 1876: 22) This meant that the best scientists of the time devoted at least part of their work to unravel the secret of meat curing in order to develop mechanisms to manipulate the process. The discovery that it is not actually saltpeter (nitrate) that cures meat but nitrite grows out of this focus.
Smith lists the main ways that meat preservation is done, as “by drying, by cold, by immersion in antiseptic gasses and liquids, by coating with fat or gelatin, by heat, salted meat and by pressure.” (Smith, 1876: 22 – 38) All have their benefits and disadvantages and I have a feeling that over the years, the technology within any one of these groups may develop, but these broad categories will remain and continue to be available to the public.
Edward Smith says that pork is particularly prized over beef and mutton because of the “taste, but chiefly perhaps [due] to the universal habit among the peasantry of feeding pigs, which has descended from Saxon times. Moreover, there is a convenience in the use of it, which does not exist with regard to beef and mutton, for in such localities the pork is always pickled and kept ready for use without the trouble of going to the butcher, or when money could not be spared for the purchase of meat.” Pigs proved to be an equally prized meat in the new world due to the “ease with which pigs are bred and reared, and the meat preserved, whilst there is great difficulty in obtaining a sufficient number of persons, in a thinly populated country or a small village, to eat a sheep or ox whilst meat is fresh. (Smith, 1876: 59)
“Bacon is made when cuts from the pig are preserved by salt and saltpeter.” (Smith, 1876: 64). This gives bacon its characteristic pinkish/ reddish colour, a nice flavour, and it lasts a long time before it tastes “off”. This is the kind of thing we learn at night. After a good supper, we discuss what has been read for an hour or two before retiring to bed.
At Uncle Jeppe’s bacon curing factory I started working in the curing department where we mix herbs, spices and salts. Uncle Jeppe is a knowledgeable man and it seems as if he has been around in the meat industry forever. I have not asked him any question that he did not know the answer.
Saltpeter is the curing salt for bacon and hams which I work with every day in the curing department. When we do dry curing, we use 1.25 st. (10 pounds) salt, 0.375 st. (3 pounds) of brown sugar, 0.04 st. (6 ounces) of black pepper and 0.02 st. (3 ounces) of saltpeter. We use 1.25 st. (10 pounds) of this mixture per 12.5 st. (100 pounds) of meat. (1, 2, 3) The Irish system of mild cured bacon calls for a liberal use of saltpeter and the purer form called sal prunella. It is military-grade refined saltpeter. This is the main curing system we use and in both dry curing and tank curing (as mild cure is also called), it is a key ingredient.
What confused me much about saltpeter was that Trudie’s dad, Anton, also talks about the value of phosphates and saltpeter in fertilizing their fields in the Transvaal. We know that it is the explosive power in gunpowder. I know that the Dutch East Indian Company, as well as the English East Indian Company, were created, in large part, for the purpose of transporting saltpeter from India to Amsterdam, London and other European cities like Copenhagen for fertilizer and to make gunpowder. How can this one substance be useful for such diverse applications?
The power of saltpeter is the fact that it contains nitrogen and nitrogen is one of only two elements, with carbon, that can exist in 8 oxidation states. This means that nitrogen can react in a diverse and complex way and, like carbon, is foundational to all of life. The two substances that contain nitrogen, most familiar to us, are saltpeter and ammonia.
The nitrogen in saltpeter makes it very reactive, giving it an explosive power. In saltpeter it has a particular effect on blood, explaining the fact that it gives cured meat its pinkish/ reddish colour. Nitrogen exists in the first place as a gas in our atmosphere and comes into our world in different ways. Remember the lecture I have Minette and the baboons on the Witels about how saltpeter is formed? I said that there are other ways in which atmospheric nitrogen is converted into a salt that we can use. The most important process is not through the action of lightning as I explained on the Witels but through microorganisms with the ability to take it from the air and convert it directly to plat food.
Dr. Eduard Polenski – Nitrate and Nitrite
Uncle Jeppe told Minette and me that he will return to the fascinating story of how this was discovered but must be patient to hear this another day. The first very tentative step to identify the “real” curing agent came when a friend of Uncle Jeppe discovered something remarkable. His friend’s name is Dr. Eduard Polenske (4), a chemist, working at the Imperial Health Office in Germany. Jeppe tells me that 1891 will forever be remembered as a watershed year for Woody’s since it is the year I arrived in Denmark and started learning about bacon curing; for the curing industry in South Africa since it is the year when Woody’s took the first steps to excellent bacon in Africa; and for the curing industry around the world because of Dr. Polenskis’ discovery.
He tested and saw that curing brine (the curing salts) and cured meat contain nitrite. This is remarkable since we know that saltpeter or nitrate does not contain nitrite. Nitrate is . The one oxygen atom in the nitrate composition is not as tightly bound as the other two and is easily stripped away. The new compound is nitrite. On the other hand, nitrite () has the affinity to combine with an extra oxygen atom to again form nitrate (). It is a very volatile compound. Nitrite is then when one of the three oxygen atoms is removed from the molecule and we have . It does not look like something important but it changes the nature of the compound.
When meat is cured with saltpeter, nitrate () is added. If Dr. Polenski tested the brine and meat and found nitrite () present, the only way this could occur is if somehow the one oxygen atom was stripped of the saltpeter molecule to form nitrite ().
The fact that he discovered nitrite in the curing brine is of concern because nitrite is toxic. I know nitrite very well! In Cape Town, as is done around the world, the local water is tested for nitrites every day and if the levels are too high, one can not drink the water. It is so important that newspapers report the nitrite counts in the water on a weekly basis. Farmers can suffer loss if their livestock drinks from this contaminated water. For humans and animals, it can be fatal.
The Value of Speed
Before Uncle Jeppe learned about Dr. Polenskis’ findings in 1891, what we knew is that only saltpeter or nitrate is used to cure meat. We also know that the Irish system of curing compared to dry curing cures the meat much faster. This matter of the speed of curing is important. Dry curing is accomplished in 28 days where mild cured bacon can be produced in 19 days. On farms, long curing is generally not a problem, but for a commercial curing operation, it means that you keep large stocks of bacon that are in the process of curing. If you produce bacon for household consumption, that is one thing, but when you have an army to feed, speed is of the essence.
The question has been asked why mild curing cures meat faster than dry curing and various possible answers have been discussed.
The Wiesbaden Meetings
Jeppe and Ed met up in Wiesbaden, Germany, earlier this year. This has been an annual winter ritual for the two men taking their annual retreats at the same time. They became acquainted at the General Congress on Hygiene in Brussels in 1852. It is exactly the hygienists that Dr. Ed fears will be most concerned about the fact that he found nitrites in cured meat.
Both men attended the conference and struck up a friendship based on their shared passions. Wiesbaden is famous for its hot springs since ancient Roman times and the second shared love between these men, besides meat technology and science, is their love for hot springs.
They have been hosted each year by an equally interesting man, Francois Blanc, at one of his gambling resorts in Wiesbaden. It is said that he is the man who made Wiesbaden what it is today. Jeppe describes Blanc as a mighty wizard with an eye, quick to see the possibilities of a situation, with a brain to plan and a hand to execute. His ambitions and achievements are great across Germany, yet, Jeppe tells me that his tastes are simple.
His clothes do not attract any attention and he wears his spectacles on the tip of his nose. He does not pay attention to flattery, yet, he is a hard-headed, silent man without any enthusiasm and equally without any weaknesses. He keeps lavish tables, yet he himself eats sparingly. His wine cellar rivals those of the autocrats in Russia, yet, he himself only drinks mineral water. He is one of the largest gambling hall owners in Europe, yet, for entertainment, he may occasionally play Dominoes and frequently goes on a drive through the countryside with his wife.
It was at their annual retreat at Wiesbaden, earlier this year, where Dr. Ed told Jeppe about a monumental discovery. Dr. Ed is not a fan of cured meat since in the process of making it, nutrition is lost. The entire matter of the relationship between nutrition and nitrogen is introduced by this statement. Unfortunately, the subject is of such a nature that, again Jeppe said that we will deal with this over the next two weeks. For the time being, we take Jeppe at his word of such a relationship (nitrogen and nutrition).
Without looking too much into the subject, my suspicion is that this has to do with the meat juices that are lost in dry curing. I also suspect that in the loss of meat juices, nitrogen is lost which explains the loss of nutrition, if indeed the relationship between the two is linear. The new Irish system largely overcomes the loss of meat juices by filling the tank with liquid brine and placing the meat inside it.
This means that pressure is created around the meat with brine wanting to draw into the meat instead of drawing the albumen (protein-rich protein) out of the meat. If the meat is not placed in liquid brine, as is done in dry curing where the meat is only rubbed with salt, in the mild curing technique, brine seeps into the meat as opposed to albumen (meat juices) being drawn out of it. In mild curing, no albumen is lost.
For the most part, dry curing is practiced with an accompanying loss of nutrition. At a time when most families across the world can not afford to eat meat more than two days a week and where most children go to bed hungry, at least a couple of times a week any loss of nutrition is a problem in any food. In the current world context, Dr. Polenske believes the most important consideration in evaluating methods of preservation is its effect on the nutritional value of the preserved food. He is obviously not very familiar with the Irish mild cure and in his work, he mainly considered dry curing. His observations about the formation of nitrites are, however, volcanic!
The Polenski Experiment
Dr. Polenski designed an experiment to study just how much nutrition is lost. The brine he prepared was a combination of salt, sugar, and saltpeter. (5) He put this in three jars with three pieces of meat which he sealed and opened again after 3 weeks, 3 months and 6 months respectively. When he tested for nitrite, he unexpectedly found it in the brine and the meat, despite the fact that he did not add any. (6)
The Foundational work of Ulysse Gayon and Gabriel Dupetit
Dr. Polenske told Jeppe that he was not really surprised to find nitrite in the brine since he knew that saltpeter is a compound of potassium or sodium nitrate. Nine years earlier a drama unfolded with a discovery by French scientists of bacteria that changes nitrate into nitrite and further into nitric oxide. What this means is that certain bacteria, under certain conditions is able to remove one oxygen molecule from nitrate () to form nitrite (). It is further able to remove another oxygen atom from the nitrite () to form Nitric Oxide (NO). Thus, it is clear that the conditions that favours such a removal or “reduction” as it became known of nitrate to nitrite must exist in curing brines and must occur in the meat.
In 1882 a team of researchers, Ulysse Gayon from the French commune or town, as we call it, Bouëx in Charente and his 22-year-old collaborator, Gabriel Dupetit, from the town of Auch, Gers, coined the term denitrifying bacteria. This formidable research team went on to make a number of very important discoveries about denitrifying bacteria. (7)
Nitrification starts with nitrogen gas which is one of the most abundant gasses in our atmosphere and through the nitrification process, bacteria create more complex compounds such as nitrate (). An example of nitrification is ammonia () which is changed into nitrite () and finally into nitrate () which serves as the nutritional source for plants.
Denitrification is the reverse where a more complex molecule is broken down to the point where it ends up with a simple molecule like nitric oxide (NO) or pure nitrogen gas (). Denitrification is, therefore, the reverse of nitrification. This time it starts with a complex compound of nitrate () which is changed into nitrite (), into nitric oxide (NO), into nitrous oxide () and finally back into nitrogen gas or molecular nitrogen (). Note the gain or loss of the oxygen atom in both processes.
The Mentorship of Louis Pasteur
Louis Pasteur, the renowned French chemist, and microbiologist urged Gayon to follow what happens with the oxygen of the nitrite utilised in the process of denitrification. They heeded his advice paid close attention to this. They conclusively refuted an old notion that nitrate was reduced through chemical means by hydrogen, generated during fermentation. As to the purpose of the loss of oxygen they believed that the bacteria used the oxygen from nitrogen for the combustion of organic matter to generate carbon dioxide (CO2). (8)
Based on their very thorough work, Dr. Polenske believes that nitrite is present through this process of denitrification of nitrate by bacteria. He expects there to be much public concern following his discovery. (9)
Jeppe and the Main Point
Jeppe was now becoming particularly excited. “Eben, Minette!” he said and put his hands around our shoulders. “In dry curing, we start with nitrate. Sodium or potassium or calcium or magnesium nitrate, depending on where you harvest the nitrate from. Nitrogen and THREE oxygen atoms. We mix it into salt and rub it on the meat to cure in dry curing. What is happening?”
I told him that the nitrate will be turned into nitrite by bacteria. “Yes, yes, yes!” He said impatiently. “But what else? What do you see?” Still, I had no clue what he was talking about.
“Time!” Jeppe exclaimed, “It will take time! Bacteria are living organisms and it will take time to achieve the reduction of the nitrate. Think about fermentation – it takes time!”
“What is the faster process? Dry curing or mild curing”, he asked.
That one I gladly knew. “Mild curing!” “Correct!”, he exclaimed. “Correct!” “But why?”
Suddenly Minette and I saw what he was driving at! She answered, “The time it takes the bacteria to convert the nitrate to nitrite . . .” “And what?”, he spurred her on. “What does this points to?” “What is doing the curing?'”
I suddenly saw it and a bolt of energy hit me. “It is the nitrite doing the curing and not the nitrate!” “The time difference between the old system of dry curing using nitrates and the new system which re-uses old brine is that in the old brine, the nitrate has been converted to nitrite! This is the power of the old brine! This is why it is so much faster!”
His secretary walked in at that moment announcing that his next appointment is there. “Oh, let him wait”, Uncle Jeppe exclaimed! “”Get us coffee! There is some hope for South Africa after all!” He gave me an enthusiastic slap on my back!
He walked around his desk and sat down. “I did not discuss this with Polenski but I saw it immediately! If I told him the entire Germany would convert to mild curing and Denmark’s competitive edge would be lost. I sat there thinking of what Andreas told me. That I will find that my greatest discovery won’t be the mild curing process, but why it works the way it works. The “why?” And “how?” of curing. I was exhilarated!
Tristan, I know you love biology and the natural sciences. This is why I address this mail to you and I have no worry that I become too technical. The reaction sequence and mode are beautiful. I can honestly say that I am completely in love with the natural world and my fellow explorer in all this is Minette!
I now want to know every element present in the brine, and its exact function. What is the chemistry in the meat itself? How does curing happen? When we know this, we will be in a position to manipulate the process and improve it.
A Bigger Point
Jeppe had something very important to share with Minette and I that flows the discovery of denitrifying bacteria. Right at the start of this journey, I realised that what we are discovering is much more than simply learning how to cure bacon. This journey back to the lands of my forefathers is a big deal! In a way, it was already an end in itself for me. History and context if of enormous importance. Our lives are never in isolation. We come from the soil of Denmark and the fact that it is here where we find the answers is hugely important to me!
Bacon is in the center of scientific research of Europe, America, and the United Kingdom, and the combined scientific focus of these countries are directed at unlocking its secrets which are bound up with that of agriculture and superior technology in warfare. Besides these, there are many human stories that are part of the story of bacon. Real people who each contribute small parts of a very large jigsaw puzzle that is coming together. They teach us about life. We do not live in isolation, my son! What I am recounting is not fiction! I tell you real stories of real people! Jeppe taught us that life is more than bacon. The journey of discovering its secrets are far more important than just the factory we will one day set up.
Within the same year of publishing a major paper on denitrifying bacteria by Gabriel and Ulysse, tragedy struck. The young Gabriel Dupetit ended his own life. He traveled to the Italian city of Savano and booked in at the Albergo Svizzero under the false name, Gaston Denault. Overcome by anxiety of all sorts, on the evening of 28 December 1886, he injected poison into himself. He was discovered, barely alive and despite many efforts to save his life, he passed away on the morning of the 29th. He left a note in French explaining some of his worries. The use of the false name was done to hide his identity and spare his parents’ embarrassment. Both Minette and I sat silently as Jeppe told us what had happened.
Minette had to fight away the tears. We are both humbled and saddened by this story. His work directly contributes to our quest of understanding bacon and still, his death reminds me that our lives are bigger than our goals and dreams. Despite our ambitions, we must pay attention to each sunset and sunrise and never make the mistake of thinking that achieving goals define us. Francois Blanc got it right. He found fulfillment in small things, despite his success. His success does not define him. He finds the greatest fulfillment in the ordinary in life. In this, bacon and life become inseparable and I am never sure when I stop learning about the one and start learning about the other.
Maybe, I wonder, the biggest and most important act of his life was the drives he took through the countryside with his wife. His relationship with his sons and the evenings that Uncle Jeppe and Dr. Polenski spent with him. Uncle Jeppe told me how much he enjoys it!
We see glimmers of the full mechanisms of curing brought about by microorganisms, nitrate, nitrite, salt, sugar, and spices. I would love to know much more to take back to Cape Town a curing method where curing can be done in a shorter time than 19 days, yielding a product that tastes just as exquisite as Irish or Danish Mild Cured bacon. I have many friends in the curing industry who would rather cut off their one hand than do anything quickly. This is a discussion for another day. There are those who believe that in order to cure bacon in the “right” way, one needs time, but my quest is centered around understanding a process that fits with a bacon curing plant that is capable of supplying bacon in large quantities. We do not envisage setting up something small in Cape Town.
Even so, with all the excitement from our quest, never forget the priority of each sunset. Knowing that we are but small parts of a very big whole. That our highest achievements will be measured in whom we loved and how content we were with whatever life offers us. My heart goes out to that young man and his parents! Imagine his final moments – alone, in a foreign land!
With these, my dear son, it is time for me to go. Know that, no matter what, my love for you and your sister is eternal. You guys will be my last thought when I die. The vision of you and my dear Minette! You guys are my entire world and as certain as I write these words today, one day you will read it and I will be gone. Know that my life was not just about bacon, but like Gabriel Dupetit, it is also about the art of living! Imitate me, my son! Live!!
(1) “St” is the abbreviation for “stone.” Until as recent as the Second World War, the Smithfield market in London used the 8 lb to a stone measurement. (hansard.millbanksystems)
The stone weight differed according to the commodity weighed. Animals were weighed in 14 lb to a stone before they were slaughtered and once slaughtered, the carcass and meat would be sold in 8 lb to a stone measure. Spices were also sold in 8 lb to a stone weights. (Newman, 1954)
(2) A survey was done in the US in the 1950’s to determine the most common brine mix used for curing bacon at the time. (Dunker and Hankins, 1951: 6) Even though it is 60 years after this letter was presumably written, I include it since methods and formulations in those days seemed to have a longevity that easily would have remained all those years later. The survey was also done among farmers, in an environment where innovation are notoriously slow.
(3) How salty was this bacon in reality? The recipe is used by most US farmers by the 1950’s was 10 lb (4.54kg) salt, 3 lb (1.36kg) of brown suger, 6 ounces (170g) of black pepper and 3 ounces (85g) of saltpeter. 10 pounds (4.54kg) of this mixture per 100 pounds (45.36kg) of meat.
The total weight of dry spices is therefore 6.07kg of which salt is 74% or 3.4kg. This was applied at a ratio of 3.4kg salt per 45kg of meat or 1 kg salt per 13 kg of meat. Not all salt was absorbed into the meat, but the meat was regularly re-salted over the curing period which means that this ratio would be applied many times over before curing was complete. Compare this with the salt ratio targeted by us in 2016 of 25g per 1kg final product, this means that the bacon made with this recipe would be extremely salty, irrespective of the use of sugar to reduce the salty taste. The bacon would have to be soaked in water first to draw out some of the excess salt, before consumed.
(4) Eduard Polenske (1849-1911) was born in Ratzebuhr, Neustettin, Pommern, Germany on 27 Aug 1849 to Samuel G Polenski and Rosina Schultz. Eduard Reinhold Polenski married to Möller. He passed away in 1911 in Berlin, Germany. (Ancestry. Polenske)
The Imperial Health Office was established on 16 July 1876 in Berlin,focussing on the medical and veterinary industry. At first it was a division of the Reich Chancellery and from 1879, fell under the Ministry of the Interior. In 1879, the “Law concerning the marketing of food, luxury foods and commodities” was adopted, and the Imperial Health Office was tasked with the responsible for monitoring compliance with it. Established in 1900, the Reichsgesundheitsrat supported the Imperial Health Office in its tasks. (Wikipedia. Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt)
(5) Brine is a solution of salt in water.
(6) Qualitative and quantitative techniques for measuring nitrite and nitrates in food has been developed in the late 1800’s. (Deacon, M; Rice, T; Summerhayes, C, 2001: 235, 236). The earliest test for nitrites is probably the Griess test. This is a chemical analysis test which detects the presence of organic nitrite compounds. The Griess reagent relies on a diazotization reaction which was first described in 1858 by Peter Griess.
Schaus and others puts the year of the discovery by Griess as 1879. According to him, Griess, a German Chemist used sulfanilic acid as a reagent together with α-naphthylamine in dilute sulfuric acid. In his first publication Griess reported the occurrence of a positive nitrite reaction with human saliva, whereas negative reactions were consistently obtained with freshly voided urine specimen from normal individuals. (Schaus, R; M.D. 1956: 528)
(7) Gayon and Dupetit’s discoveries include the following:
they demonstrated the “antagonistic effect of heat as well as oxygen on the process.”
“They also showed that individual organic compounds such as sugars, oils, and alcohols could supplant complex organic materials and serve as reductants for nitrate.”
In 1886 they reported on “the isolation in pure culture of two strains of denitrifying bacteria.”
(Payne, W. J.. 1986)
(8) In reality, the key to understanding the function of the utalization of the oxygen atom is understanding cell respiration. The purpose of cell respiration is the formation of ATP. The organism needs nutrients for respiration which is obtained from sugar, amino acids, fatty acids and an oxidizing agent (electron acceptor), oxygen (). Now, in environments where oxygen is depleted (where the rate of oxygen consumption is higher than oxygen supply, the bacteria respire nitrate. The nitrate serves the purpose of the terminal electron acceptor, a function which is better performed by molecular oxygen, if it is available. It is not only nitrite that is used by microorganisms in respiration when molecular oxygen is depleted. Other electron acceptors are sulfate, iron and manganese oxides.
Asheville Citizen Times (Asheville, North Carolina), 20 August 1895. All information on Francois Blanc was from an article on page 3.
Dunker, CF and Hankins OG. October 1951. A survey of farm curing methods. Circular 894. US Department of agriculture
Jones, Osman, 1933, Paper, Nitrite in cured meats, F.I.C., Analyst.
Drs. Keeton, J. T.; Osburn, W. N.; Hardin, M. D.; 2009. Nathan S. Bryan3 . A National Survey of Nitrite/ Nitrate concentration in cured meat products and non-meat foods available in retail. Nutrition and Food Science Department, Department of Animal Science, Texas A&M, University, College Station, TX 77843; Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Texas, Houston Health Science Center, Houston, TX 77030.
Payne, W. J.. 1986. 1986: Centenary of the Isolation of Denitrifying Bacteria.
Smith, Edward. 1876. Foods. D. Appleton and Company, New York.
Schaus, R; M.D. 1956. GRIESS’ NITRITE TEST IN DIAGNOSIS OF URINARY INFECTION, Journal of the American Medical Association.
The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to the late 1800s when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.
The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
Minette, the Cape Slaves, the Witels and Nitrogen
Copenhagen, May 1891
Last week Andreas tells me that we will not be doing anything the following Saturday. Uncle Jeppe visits Liverpool once a year. He is returning to Copenhagen and Andreas and his dad asked me to welcome him to the harbour. I am always delighted to spend time with the old man! I was looking forward to the train ride into the city with him. I was bright and early at the harbour and when the English steamer docked, I eagerly looked through the crowd to see him.
The crowd was milling around with people greeting and porters busily hauling luggage to waiting horse carts and some, off to board the train. I scanned the milling crowd and my eye caught sight of a beautiful young lady, a bit younger than me. She looked a lost with no porter by her side, carrying two leather travel bags, too heavy for her. My glance passed over her, looking for Uncle Jeppe. My gaze almost immediately returned to her. There were two reasons for this. She was beautiful and there was something familiar about her! She looked up and right at me and suddenly I recognized her. “Minette!!”
My heart jumped with excitement! At the same time as I recognised her, she saw me and a broad smile graced her beautiful face! “Minette!” I blurted out! The last person on earth I was expecting and the one person that I most dearly want to see! “Minette!” I said again, this time a lot softer as I riched her after a few large strides to get to her. “Minette, what on earth!?” I said again. She dropped her bags and we embraced! “I almost did not recognise you with your hat and your nice dress!
“What are you doing here?” “Where are you staying?” “Come,” I said and picked her bags up. “I’m here to visit you,” she said and started walking with me towards the train. I was still baffled. “Two months ago Andreas wrote to me. He invited me to visit and surprise you.” I realised that it must have been after Andreas and my long drinking session in Copenhagen that I write to you in my last letter that he hatched his plans. It appears that he took his lead from the many times I spoke about you in all my adventures.
Suddenly I remember that I was there to welcome Uncle Jeppe! She saw the panic in my eyes as I started looking around again. “Uncle Jeppe is only arriving next week,” she helps me out of my misery. “He is still in Liverpool. The whole thing was a ruse to get you to the harbour!”
I have never been this excited to see anybody! The last time I saw her we were sitting in Pennys Cave on Table Mountain with our friends. Minette and I love exploring the mountains and valleys around Cape Town and we would do this as often as we get an opportunity.
It was on one of our hikes that we discovered the cave on Kogel Bay, Dappa se Gat, where I think the slaves lived who took in the pigs from the Colenbrook which became known as the Kolbroek pigs. We discovered the Cave when we hiked from Hermanus to Cape Town, one year. We started at Hangklip at Pringle Bay close to Hermanus where my younger brother, Elmar, Juanita and their two kids live.
I started reading Alexander Von Humboldt’s work when I was still a small boy and was captivated by the destruction brought about by European colonists. In my imagination, I would accompany Von Humboldt on his travels across South America and the Russian Steppe. I got intensely interested in the physiology of the human and animal body when I read about his work with Guthrie. The sense of adventure and the need to explore partly come from stories such as his.
Across the decades that separate our lives, Von Humboldt mentored me. If I had enough money to buy a book I wanted, but not enough for food for the day, I would buy the book. Choices between using my savings from my Transport work to buy a house in Cape Town or to either travel to Europe to learn how to make bacon or go on an expedition to the Magaliesberg Mountains always ended up on whatever would teach me the most and be the greatest adventure. Buying a house never was a priority!
During my time as a Transport Rider across the vast open spaces of Southern Africa, I witnessed the destruction that people bring to nature and each other first hand. I visited old Tswanruins at the Vaal River between Paryd and Potchefstroom and at Hartebeespoort. I hiked through these massive Tswana and Sotho cities at the Suikerbosrand and in Johannesburg on the farm of Sarel Marais. The cities of the Tswana and the Sotho were decimated by Mzilikazi Khumalo, a Southern African king who founded the Mthwakazi Kingdom now known as Matabeleland. It was precisely because Minette and I shared these priorities and values that I was drawn to her. Well, apart from her good looks and inquisitive personality.
The existence of slavery and the wholesale destruction of our natural world went hand in hand. A period followed where I had an intense interest in slavery and the knowledge I gained allowed me to understand our land better. The Kolbroek pigs are an excellent example.
Minette and I knew there was another famous cave where a community of runaway slaves lived. Between Pringle Bay and Rooiels, much closer to the water’s edge, legend has it that these poor people discovered a cave that can house them and hide them from the slave masters. The entrance is very narrow and like Dappa se Gat, one can enter it only during low tide. It is accessible from the sea. It became known as Drostres gat (cave). From Rooi Els to Kogel Bay is a short distance.
We rode out to Pringle Bay at Cape Hangklip. It is always good to rely on local knowledge when looking for these things. Locals directed us to a restaurant and bar called Miems. The owners are Morris and Kerneels. Morris, a tall and well-built man, is a trained geologist who worked in Johannesburg mines for many years. Kerneels, his partner and he traveled to Ireland a few years ago in a stunning reversal of where people go to find their fortunes. Where most Europeans are hoping for the new world to provide a living, Morris and Kirneels went to Ireland where they worked till they saved enough to start Miems at Cape Hangklip. He too read the account of Green about Drostersgate (Drosters cave) between Pringle Bay and Rooiels.
An old farmer wrote that the Gat (Cave) can only be accessed at low tide and climbing down down a precipice with a rope. A neighbor and he went in with candles for about eighty yards. He remembers that it was dark and damp and one could see bones of large game animals and cattle still scattered across the cave floor. They also found trunks of melkhout trees, used to make fire to roast the meat. He wrote that there are graves of “strandlopers” (scavengers) around the general location of the cave. Morris has been to the exact location more than once and says that he is not able to get into the cave. The opening is too small for such a big man. He tried to access it from the sea without any success. It does not surprise me that the salves managed to get into areas where he could not. By all accounts, they were gaunt and small.
Minette and I looked for it and when we could not find it, we returned to Miems for another few pints. Back at the bar that evening, it seemed as if everybody had a cave story where runaway slaves hid out.
It is immediately obvious that finding food would have been a massive challenge. There are accounts of such slaves wandering around on Table Mountain only to eventually returned to Cape Town and hand themselves over to authorities to face the cruelest punishment rather than dying of starvation. It is this reality that made the feat of young Joshua Penny even more remarkable who stayed for an extended time period on Table Mountain.
The only place on the mountain that was regularly inhabited by these most unfortunate people was an overhang up Platteklip Gorge on Table Mountain. There are accounts of slaves who lived up this gorge taking live cattle up. Anyone who ever hiked up there will know that taking a cow or an ox up there must have been extremely arduous. The cave can still be seen to this day up the oldest recorded route up Table Mountain.
The many accounts of the struggle for food of the slaves and the fact that keeping livestock was a strategy they used to sustain themselves lend tremendous credence to my theory about the fate of the Kolbroek pigs. In the Hangklip area, there are a number of other well-known legends of runaway slaves-communities hiding away in caves. The area is mysterious and to this day, sparsely populated. An old man once told me, there are many ghosts in these mountains!
We hiked from Rooi Els to Kogel Bay when we first discovered Dappa se Gat. We just passed Kogel bay and I got to the stretch of beach, strewn with round boulders, resembling cannon shot when I saw the cave. Dappa se gat! The cave is a couple of hundred meters deep and during high tide it is inaccessible. I sat in front of the cave and tried to imagine what it must have been like for the runaway slaves.
My mind effortlessly wondered to the sinking of the Colebrook and the fate of the pigs that swam ashore. So it happened that not even on Minette and my wildest adventures were we ever very far from bacon, hams, salamis, and pigs.
Another favourate site of ours is the Witels River. Between the Matroosberg and the Winterhoek Mountains is the town of Ceres that officially existed since 1854. A pass was constructed called, Michells Pass which follows the route to Ceres next to the Bree River. Where the Witels flows into the Bree River is an open “outspan” area which is clearly seen on the West bank of the river. I am sure that the trekkers spent a couple of nights here, feeding and resting their cattle before taking on the pass.
The first pass was built by Jan Mostert and was called Mostert’s Hoek Pass (1765). Jan was one of the first settlers to settle on Ceres’ side of Tulbagh. The pass was a very rugged 3kms. The road was so bad that wagons had to be dismantled and sections crossed on foot, the cargo and the wagons strapped to the backs of oxen.
Charles Michell surveyed Mostert’s Hoek Pass in 1830 to improve it. Andrew Geddes-Bain constructed the new pass in 1846, with the assistance of 240 convicts. The Bree River runs all the way into the Warm Bokkeveld. The pass effectively reduced the travel time from Cape Town to Beaufort West from 20 to 12 days. It was almost possible to do the route with a horse-drawn carriage.
On my way to Johannesburg through Kimberly, I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn. It was the main road between the Cape and Kimberley. It was formerly known as Mill & Oaks Country Inn. The restaurant is built on the foundations of an olf wheat-mill dating from the 1800s. It was called the Ceres Meul (Mill). It is not known exactly when the Mill was built. Probably in the late-1700s by the first European settlers. The Inn is the kind of place that I prefer. Steeped in history, enough ghosts to chase, legends to unravel, exceptional food and great company!
One of Minette’s banking clients told her about the Witsels river; that it runs down towards the Bree River from the southern Peaks of the Hex River mountains. The best approach is through the Waaihoek Kloof. The man who first identified the route will forever remain nameless in accordance with his own wishes. The next time I stayed at the Winterberg Mountain Inn, I asked the locals if they know the access route. They explained to me in great detail. When I got back to Cape Town a few months later, I immediately looked Minette up at the Bank and the plan was set out for a legendary hike.
One ascends a mountain and through a very precarious route, access the river. Once you are in the river, there are very few ways out. The cliffs are for the most part right next to the river, forcing you to either swim or jump from boulder to boulder. At certain places, the cliffs fold over the river creating long stretches that you swim through caves, following the flow of the river. Next to the river, there are small stretches that resemble sea sand. It created the most amazing places to sleep. To go up the mountain, into the Witels River and out at the Bree River takes around 5 days. Some young people are able to cover the distance in a day provided that they don’t take anything heavy in their backpacks. The best Minette and I did was 2 days from start to finish, but the river was very full and progress painfully slow. The Witels river has become a spiritual pilgrimage for us and ranks as one of our most favourate routes on this bountiful earth!
One of the Witels hikes it started raining. Rain down the Witels can be life-threatening if it rains higher up in the catchment area and the river comes down. The force of the river carries large boulders from higher up, downstream and the force is such that if one would be in the water when this happens, chances for survival are slim to zero. We moved our backpacks higher up the sandbank and as close to the cliff as we could get a comfortable place to lay down. I was trying to get Minette’s mind off the raging river!
I was laying under my sleeping bag. Minette was getting her overnight spot comfortable for the night; painstakingly removing the rocks that would start to irritating her once the initial tiredness has worn off. I asked her if she knew what air was made off. “Oxigen and of course. . . ” “Nitrogen!” she answered.
“Correct! It was discovered separately in 1772, by the Scottsman, Daniel Rutherford and in the early 1770s by a Swiss, Carl Scheele. Rutherford called it “noxious air” and Scheele, “foul air.”” I replied.
I briefly explained for fear that I would bore her, “It exists as a gas and comprises of two nitrogen atoms, joined to form one gas molecule. They are split apart by something of high energy such as a lightning strike. This leaves the two atoms free to react with other matter floating around it.
“One of these elements floating around in the atmosphere is oxygen. Nitrogen reacts with oxygen and forms nitrogen monoxide (NO). Nitrogen monoxide, a colourless gas, is an extremely important compound. It is also called nitric oxide or nitrogen oxide. The nitric oxide is heated from the energy from the lightning flash that created it.”
The drizzle was coming down softly. Minette finished nesting and I got enough energy together to build a fine. I cleared a small sandy patch at my feet and with a twig I wrote the simple chemical reaction in the sand.
N2 (g) + O2 (g) lightning —> 2NO (g)
“There are different sources of Nitric Oxide. Very important one which I will tell you about later.”
“As it cools down, it reacts further with the oxygen molecules around it to form nitrogen dioxide. Nitric Oxide is one nitrogen atom attached to one oxygen atom. It now combines with another oxygen atom and forms nitrogen dioxide, a poisonous, brown, acidic, pungent gas. There is another important molecule that exists in our atmosphere as a gas namely ozone which is three oxygen atoms that combined into a molecule. Nitrogen mostly reacts with ozone to form nitrogen dioxide.”
“Like nitrogen, oxygen occurs as two oxygen atoms, bound in one molecule. Ultra-violet light and lightning cause the two tightly bound oxygen atoms to separate and react, either with other single-atom oxygen molecules or with more stable two-atom oxygen molecules. In the latter case, three oxygen atoms are bound into one molecule (O3). It is not very stable and quickly breaks down into one oxygen atom and or two oxygen atom molecules or it reacts with nitric oxide to form nitrogen dioxide.”
I wipe my previous simple formulation from the sand to write another very simple one.
NO (g) + 1/2O2 (g) —> NO2 (g)
“Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) reacts with more oxygen and raindrops. Water is H2O. The two oxygen atoms of nitrogen dioxide combine with the one from water to form 3 oxygen atoms bound together. There is still only one Nitrogen atom giving us NO3 or nitrate. There is now still one Hydrogen atom left and it combines with the nitrate to form nitric acid (HNO3). Nitric acid falls to earth and enters the soil and serves as nutrients for plants. Old writers called nitric acid (HNO3) aqua fortis or spirit of niter.”
I clear the sand at my feet for a third equation.
3NO2 (g) + H2O —> 2HNO3 (aq) + NO (g)
“Nitric acid is highly reactive and combines with salts in the soil. The Hydrogen atom is replaced by a calcium, potassium or sodium atom, converting it to a nitrate salt. This salt is called saltpeter. The extreme importance of this is that it is plant food. Saltpeter is used today for gunpowder, fertiliser and to cure meat.”
“Fascinating,” Minette said a bit sarcastic. I did not notice that she started cooking supper and I can help. She hands me an onion to peel. “Saltpeter!”, she said. I thought its the sweat from a horse. My dad always said that we ride the horses till the white saltpeter is running down his neck!
I smiled because she did not know how completely correct she was! The few raindrops that fell stopped. The sound of the rushing river and the peace of the mountains transcends everything. I looked at her in the glow of the fire and was struck by her beauty!
The Witels became one of those important cathedrals in our life! The first time I came down the Witels, it arrested my soul and I fell in love with it. Unspoiled! If you are thirsty, you drop into the water and drink directly from the river. The only company for almost the entire length if the baboons on the cliffs. The place I gave my first lecture on nitrogen and the place where I first noticed how beautiful Minette is. It was the start of the two great loves of my life. Unraveling the technical reasons why saltpeter cures meat and Minette!
How much I would love to have you guys here with us. Today, as they say in the Bible, “my joy is complete” with Minette here with me. What I was feeling on the Witels and in Penny’s Cave is now undeniable. I have very strong feelings for this amazing woman who traveled halfway around the world to see me.
When we got home, Andreas and his family provided Minette with her own room. I was overjoyed that she is staying with us. That evening around the supper table we told our stories, including my nitrogen lecture on the Witels. Andreas slapped me on the shoulder when he walked past me. Let Minette join you tomorrow for Uncle Jeppes’ lunchtime lecture. He is going to start with “satltpeter” and if you and Minettes’ interest in it, you will both find it fascinating.”
We had the most amazing dinner!
Well, kids, its time to go to bed. A great week is waiting for me with Minette here. Next weekend I will write and tell you all about it!
The quest to understand how great bacon is made takes me around the world and through epic adventures. I tell the story by changing the setting from the 2000s to late 1800 when much of the technology behind bacon curing was unraveled. I weave into the mix beautiful stories of Cape Town and use mostly my family as the other characters besides me and Oscar and Uncle Jeppe from Denmark, a good friend and someone to whom I owe much gratitude! A man who knows bacon! Most other characters have a real basis in history and I describe actual events and personal experiences set in a different historical context.
The cast I use to mould the story into is letters I wrote home during my travels.
The Danish Cooperatives and Saltpeter
Copenhagen, March 1891
My dear Minette,
It is Sunday afternoon. I slept most of the morning. I am excited and refreshed. I know you are here in spirit. Life has turned out much more insanely exciting than I could ever have hoped for. The entire thing is a grand adventure of discovery. I could never dream that trying to unlock the secrets of bacon would be as insanely exciting as it all turned out to be. Hopefully, you will receive the letter I wrote yesterday before you get this one. I will hold on to it and post it next Friday.
I have been wondering about meat curing for as long as I can remember. Even as a child I tried to imagine how people discovered that dry meat lasts longer. Initially, I believe that people ate meat raw or fermented. Animal carcasses that are left outside will start to ferment. Fermentation breaks the tough muscles down and the first priority of humans must have been to find ways to get tough game meat soft. Leaving the carcass then outside or in water to protect it from preditors would have been a natural way of softening the meat. Later, boiling the meat and roasting it over fire became other ways to soften meat or pulverizing it with a stick or a rock.
I imagine that as people soon discovered that dry meat lasts long and the wonderful benefits of salt. Food was initially only seen as something to consume in order to fuel our bodies. As humans developed, we started changing food into an art form. The king or leader and people with means could now demand the best meat. We learned that meat, like any other food, can be prepared in many different ways to improve the taste and food changed into art. These different techniques of “softening” meat were becoming art in themselves and Sharma, medicine men and women and housewives became the custodians of this new technology.
When we make bacon, we use a technique called curing. Cured meat is identified by three things. The salt and saltpeter change the colour of the meat. When an animal is killed, the meat blooms a beautiful red colour. If you do not rub it with saltpeter, it changes to a dull brown colour. If you, however, rub it with a mixture of salt and saltpeter, it changes the colour to a pinkish-reddish colour. Related to the science of making good bacon, colour is the first key.
The second thing that saltpeter does is to impart a unique cured flavour to the meat. The third characteristic of cured meat is taste. The last one is longevity. Cured meat lasts long outside a refrigerator and in Europe is the staple food in many countries as far as meat is concerned.
I know saltpeter is important because it imparts all three characteristics to bacon. Let me rather say it like this. Using Saltpeter is not the only guarantee for good bacon, but leaving it out of the salt-rub, you will never get the right colour, taste or longevity. You have the option of drying the meat without saltpeter in which case it will also last longer, but the meat will be dry and it will not have the characteristic taste of cured meat.
In South Africa, the old Dutch farmers fused their knowledge of drying meat in the chimnies in Holland and the North European practice of using vinegar in their hams with the indigenous practice of hanging meat out in the sun and wind to dry. I have found this to be an ancient practice among all the peoples of southern Africa that I met in my travels.
The Dutch farmers add coriander and black pepper with salt to the vinegar to create what they call biltong. The coriander and black pepper were initially added to mask any off-flavours in case the meat did not dry quick enough and some spoiling of meat has set in. This is a good example where drying works well to preserve meat with or without saltpeter. Saltpeter can only be left out of the recipe if vinegar is used and lots of salt.
I have always known that the secret of bacon is in saltpeter, but saltpeter is not everything that goes into the making of the best bacon on earth. So, my quest to understand bacon starts with saltpeter. What is it and why does it have the power to give longevity to meat, change the colour back to the colour of freshly slaughtered meat why does it give this unique taste? These are the questions I knew I had to answer first.
Besides understanding saltpeter, our goal in Cape Town is to set up a factory and not merely making bacon for home use. Scale changes everything. This is a lesson I learned from very early on. On my grandfathers’ farm, I have seen how easy it is to make the best bacon on earth if we make it for our family only. When my dad’s bacon became famous and Dawid de Villiers Graaff placed an order with us, we made five-time more we normally do. It was a disaster! Everything went wrong. We had more workers to help, but they were not trained. We could not keep the meat cool and in the end, we had to feed most of the meat to our dogs. Scale is difficult and the importance of the right structure of a bacon factory is something that we can not under-estimate. Right from the word go, I came face to face with lessons pertaining to structure and ingredients and the first ingredient to look at was saltpeter!
The Spirit of the Danes
The morning was crisp and interesting. Andreas’ dad is an impressive man. He is very intelligent with an amazing knowledge of many things. He gave me a lot of perspective on what Jeppe told me on Friday. For example, how did it come about that a man of Jeppes age was exposed to learning new butchering and curing techniques? Why was there in Denmark such a focus on continued education that people showed up for lessons by the Irish, in sufficient numbers to make a proper transfer of skills possible. How did the most current thing about the structure of a bacon plant fit so nicely into the Danish culture? How were the Danish people inspired to take up a new way of doing things?
It often takes a prophet to change long-held perceptions; a visionary to change entrenched positions! An inspirational man who draws his own strength from the Divine to lift peoples gaze from their own depressed positions and onto better things. To instill hope. These are however not all that is needed because these are often also the qualities of an imposter and someone who destroys. What is needed are all these qualities with a simple and effective plan to improve things. A person who can lead people to a better and more profitable future.
Andreas’ dad told me about just such a man. In many ways, he is the father of the agricultural miracle of Denmark. It may sound like a boring report on men and women who lived very long ago, but the truth is that it is an inspirational story about men and women with their backs against the wall. Who triumphed against the odds. The man at the center of the story is N. F. S. Grundtvig.
Denmark was an impoverished nation. They lost Schleswig-Holstein to Germany. The soil of their lands was depleted and yielding fewer crops with every harvest. In all of Europe, the Danish soil seemed to be the poorest. The conditions in 1864 were dire and farmers had little hope competing with Russia and America with their crops. They were not making money. Apart from little diversified agriculture, there was very little money in the country. Farmers identified dairy farming as a lucrative diversification of their economy, but they lacked the money to make their plans a reality. The depleted soil on the farms offered little collateral for lenders to advance money against.
I wish so much that I would get every South African to hear their message. We are a nation of faith and still, we complain as if we have no hope. What we need in South Africa is a prophet, a visionary and a very good plan! The plan will in all likelihood have to be built on very practical education! It is exactly for this reason that I am here! I need to be very clear on the plan! To my great amazement, the bedrock of the structure of the Danish bacon factory is in the first place not on the mechanics of doing it one way as opposed to another way. The basis of their entire system rests on an almost religious belief in the power of cooperation and education!
Grundtvig was a churchman who lived between 1783 and 1872 and was described by some as the Apostle to Denmark. He taught that Danish people must love their own country above all, more than any other real estate on earth. He believed that Danes must love God and trust each other; their own skill and ability to solve problems; that success will come through cooperation. The principal way to achieve this was through education and what he called the “cultivation of the people.” This was distilled through his concept of high school which is completely different from high school in the rest of the world.
N. F. S. Grundtvig’s high schools were initially attended by people from the age of 18 to 60 or even older and everyone in between. Every farmer’s adult son and daughter, every farmer himself or his wife, considered it a loss not to attend High School for at least one term. The poor and the rich paid the same small fees and lectures covered an array of interesting subjects. Religion and nationalism were part of the course, but it never dominated the other subjects. Men and women looked forward to high school in the same way as Americans looked forward to a trip to Europe. What he achieved is that even more than the information that was imparted, a general method of teamwork was created which would become the basis for cooperative farming and production. Later, men and women aged between 16 and 35 mostly attended these high schools. Young men attended in the winter and young ladies, in the summer. Experimental agricultural farms were set up around the schools. The teaching was not done from textbooks, but from practice.
His teachings against individualism slowly but surely sowed the seeds which germinated into mutual trust and a belief that by doing things together, more can be achieved. Directly as a result of this, in 1881/ 1882 the first cooperative dairy farm was established in Jutland. The Danes realised that to be successful, they must find ways for their fields to yield better crops and they must develop better ways to use their crops, once harvested. Better than selling it at depressed margins on the open market in competition with the Russians and the Americans would be to utilise it to produce commodities. On par with a relentless focus on scientific farming practices was unprecedented cooperation. The middle man had to eliminate. The farmer and the salesman joined forces and discovered that by cooperating they always had “something to go on,” a phrase which became an example of the new approach.
The cooperatives were set up where every member had equal rights. Each member of the dairy cooperative had one vote and his milk was collected every morning and the cooperative agents returned the skimmed milk. The cows, therefore, produced butter and feed for the pigs. Money is loaned from the bank. Each member made himself responsible for repaying the loan in accordance with the number of cows he had. Every seven days, the members received 25% of the value of the milk they delivered to the cooperative. Apart from selling the milk to the cooperative, the member was entitled to his shares of the profit on the sale of the produce. The cooperative kept 25% from which running expenses were paid and the loan was repaid.
There is another reason, Andreas’ dad tells me, why the Danish system works so well. Not only did they manage themselves, but they also elected farmers to positions of power in government. It was not only, like the Americans, for the people, by the people, but the Danes took it one step further. The need and most pressing priority was their agriculture and so the cooperatives elected representatives for the farmers, by the farmers to the government. These men and women abhor profiteering so that the priority is the benefit of the many. This hatred for large trusts and monopolies goes back to the old feudal system which was prevalent in Europe. Peasants did not own land, but in Denmark, this changed and the peasants were allowed to own their own farms. This gave them every stimulus and motivation to improve the small farms. It is said that 90% of all farmland in Denmark is owned by small scale farmers. The first revolution in Danish agriculture was ownership.
The new farm owners started protesting against rulership and land aristocracy. They sought more political power and proper representation. They worked out a constructive plan to break up the remaining large feudal farms and to distribute it among sons and daughters of the workers. Farm ownership, a systematic and thorough education system and the cooperative model for farming and production all work together. The one feeding the other and strengthening the overall agricultural experiment. In large part, the middle man was eliminated and the few matters run by the state are done for the benefit of the farmers and not for the government to make a profit. A good example is the railways. Still, the Danish farmer is not a socialist. They simply believe in cooperation who thinks in terms of self-help and are not reliant on the state for help.
As Andreas’ dad spoke, I again wished I could get him to South Africa to come and tell them how it was done in Denmark. I know that cooperation runs much deeper than simply pooling resources. The role of education and private ownership was the basis of the Danish miracle and I see no reason why the exact same model cant work in South Africa. The one reason I see is how deeply distrust runs between the different peoples who call South Africa their home.
Skimmed Milk to Pork to Bacon
In Denmark, it was probably the need to find a use for the skimmed milk that gave the farmers the idea of raising pigs in the same way that the need to feed cows indoor for nine months of the year forced them into intensive farming in fodder. Pig farming therefore directly grew out of dairy farming. It was going well with the establishment of cooperative pig farming and the live pigs were sold to Germany.
Before 1888, Danish farmers relied on selling all their live pigs in Germany. The Germans, in turn, produced the finest Hamburg bacon and Hams from it and it was mainly sold to England. A disaster struck the Danish pork industry when swine fever broke out in the country in the autumn of 1887. This halted all export of live pigs. Exports to Germany fell from 230 000 in 1886 to only 16 000 in 1888. One of the most insane industrial transformations followed. In a staggering display, the Danes identified the problem, worked out the solution and dedicated every available nation resource to solving it. The creation of large bacon curing cooperatives was born out of the need to switch from exporting live pigs to processed pork in the form of bacon and to sell it directly to the country where the Germans were selling the processed Danish pork namely England. The project was a stunning success. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, converted from bacon production, 1 250 000 pigs.
After breeding and pig farming, the next step in great bacon production is slaughtering. On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region created the first shared abattoir. On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsens’s Share Abattoir), received their first live pigs for slaughter. In 1887 and over the next few years eight such cooperative abattoirs were set up and there is still no end in sight where it will end. Each is in excellent running condition. As in the case with the dairy farmers, each member of the cooperative has only one vote. The profit of the middleman and the volumes exported for butter and bacon are determined by the cooperative. The market price is fixed in Copenhagen on a daily basis by an impartial committee.
Every farmer in Denmark or manager of a bacon curing plant cant be a scientific person, and yet, it is important that farmers and factory managers alike know something of the science underpinning their trade. It is here where the high school lessons play an important role because it provides a solid foundation and the government is doing the rest. They have a system of inspectors who look after farms and factories where they do the exact calculations, for example, to show how much butter must be produced from the milk of each cow. The reason for the inspections was that the Danish Government were required to guarantee the quality of the bacon and the butter it delivered to England, but it had the double benefit of on the one hand guarantees the quality and satisfy the English requirements and on the other hand, improved the quality by assisting the farmers and producers.
The logic of cooperation was extended into England, the largest market for Danish bacon. Some years ago the English bacon market was being serviced for the Danes by middlemen. The farmers organised a selling agency in England to represent them known as the Danish Bacon Company of London. The concept was applied to many areas of the Danish economy. Banking and buying in Denmark are likewise done cooperatively. Every village has a cooperative store.
The farmer in Denmark also uses the state in another interesting way. Commissions are sent abroad to study foreign methods. It was most probably on one of these trips that the Danes came across the striking workers in Ireland whom they brought back to Denmark to teach them mild curing. Mild curing technology that came from Ireland years earlier became the cornerstone of Danish bacon. It was this industrialised model that allowed the Danes to become the undisputed leaders in the world bacon trade. The Danes did exactly what we intend doing namely learning not only how the cooperative factory is set up, but also the inner workings of such a factory. They learned this from the Irish and I intend learning it from them! That will satisfy one of the cornerstone reasons why I am in Denmark.
Neat, Prepared, Ready
Many years ago, on one of my visits to Johannesburg, I met another chemicals traders with the name of Willie Oosthuizen. Willie told me that wherever I am in the world, before I leave home, every morning I must ask myself, “am I ready, prepared and neat? These are according to him, the three essentials without which nobody will be in a position to use opportunities that come our way every day.
Thinking about the Danish Bacon trade, I realise that the government ensured that when the right time came, the industry was ready, prepared and in a general position of neatness. It is a strange thing that as we walked through this small Danish town and I saw the small but neat Danish houses, that I could see this Danish approach to life in everything. I do not see class differences between people. I see people from all walks of life getting together in small coffee shops at the end of the day, celebrating life and sharing stories.
I can see how my quest to unravel good bacon curing is teaching me as much about life than it is teaching me about meat. Andreas told me something this afternoon before I retired to my room which is very curious. He told me that I am too quick to claim that this is the end of my quest. That simply knowing the steps of bacon curing without understanding it is not to know the steps at all. Brief exposure to the Danish attitude towards work and cooperation and the internal mechanics of a bacon curing operation is only the beginning of my education.
We were sitting in a small coffee shop one afternoon when Andreas and I were talking about all these matters. Nothing about the pork trade is easy! It is one of the most wonderfully complex trades on earth! He asked me how long I think I will have to stay before I know enough to set up our Woodys bacon plant in Cape Town. I knew enough by now not to simply venture a guess. “As long as it takes”, I said. He smiled. “There is so much to learn!” “Stay for at least a year!”. He then produced a pouch with salt in. He placed it in the middle of our table. I dipped a finger in the salt and tasted it. I recognised it as saltpeter. “This, he said, is the next subject. I discussed it with Jeppe and he agrees that after the structure of the factory, understanding Saltpeter is your next priority!”
That was where our business talk ended. The rest of the afternoon we talked about life. What it was like growing up in Cape Town and the many different cultures that co-exist in this great city. I shared many of my experiences with him from my transport business. I told him the story of Joshua Penny and how, after his ordeal on table Mountain, a Danish captain gave him a job on his ship sailing for Europe. I invited Andreas to visit us when we set the Cape Town factory up. The evening was pleasant and I became very fond of my Danish instructor. A great friendship was struck that would last the rest of my life.
Please give the kids all my love and to our dear parents. Please give them both my letters to read before you sent it on to Oscar, James, and Will. I will write Dawie Hyman, David de Villiers Graaff, and Uncle Jakobus separately.
I miss you dearly!
Photos from Chris Speedy and my visit to Denmark in 2011 when Andreas Østergaard introduced us to the science of bacon production. Chris was a master, but as for me, I knew nothing! 🙂