Chapter 13.00: The Best Bacon on Earth

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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_Fri__Oct_7__1960_

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.

fb_img_1591994036806-2

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.

Mild Cure bacon

 

Wiltshire short black bacon

Wiltshire short black bacon

Traditional dry cured Irish Shortback bacon

Stuart WraithShort bacon from a supermarket pork loin

Chris Malek‘s Maple Bacon

Vladimir Medvedev‘s Ayrshire Middle Bacon from Ukrainian pigs

AYRSHIRE MIDDLE BACON from Ukrainian pigs2

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.

Chapter 12.01: The Castlemaine Bacon Company

Chapter 12.02: Eskort Ltd.

3rd company is still to be written about.

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!


green-next
green-previous
green-home-icon

(c) eben van tonderBacon & the art of living” in book form
Stay in touchLike our Facebook page and see the next post. Like, share, comment, contribute!Bacon and the art of living

Promote your Page too


Chapter 08.07 Lauren Learns the Nitrogen Cycle

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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


Lauren Learns the Nitrogen Cycle

Copenhagen, August 1891

Dear Lauren,

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

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

Tribute to Jacobus Combrinck

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best I Can Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

Discovery of the Microscopic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ammonium Chloride (Sal Ammoniac)

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

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

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

Natural Sal Ammoniac

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

Turpan to Samarkand.png

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

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

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

Human-Made Ammonium Chloride

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

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

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

Discovery of gasses

– Joseph Black

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

– Charl Wilhelm Scheele

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

– Daniel Rutherford

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

– Joseph Priestley

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

– Isolation of Ammonia

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

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

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

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

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

– From Ammonia to Nitrogen

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

A Hint of Nitrogen in Animals

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

Techniques for Testing for Nitrogen

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

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

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

Nitrogen in Respiration

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nitrogen in Animal Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

François Magendie: Nitrogen as the basis for Nutrition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean Baptiste Boussingault

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

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

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

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

Nitrogen and the Nutritional Value of Plants

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

Synthesis by plants

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

Ammonia, Nitrite, and Nitrate

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

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

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

– How does nitrogen enter the plant kingdom?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chemical Engineering at MIT
Chemical Engineering at MIT

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

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

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

food 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Dad.


Practical Applications for the Modern Bacon Curer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Further reading

From the start of the Chemical Revolution to Boussingault

Fathers of Meat Curing

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

The nitrogen cycle and meat curing


green-previous  green-home-icon    green-next


(c) eben van tonder

Bacon & the art of living” in book form

Stay in touch

Like our Facebook page and see the next post. Like, share, comment, contribute!

Bacon and the art of living

Promote your Page too


Notes

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

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

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

WP_20141019_12_03_36_Pro__highres
Jacobus Combrinck’s grave in the Maitland Cemetery.

WP_20141019_12_04_07_Pro__highres
The funeral procession would have walked along this path from the train tracks at the far top side of the picture to Jacobus’s grave on the right, under the tree, on the right.

WP_20141019_11_52_56_Pro

WP_20141019_11_52_42_Pro

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

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

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

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

The following notice appeared in a colonial newspaper.

The_Colonies_and_India_Sat__Oct_10__1891_
A notice published on page 11 in The Colonies and Indian under the heading “Colonial, Indian and American News Items” on 10 Oct 1891.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In keeping with our interest in the person and his discovery, the following notice was published at the death of Prof. Hoagland by the University of California.
“1884-1949

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(12)  He also attributed fermentation to microorganisms.

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

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

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

(Barnett, JA.   1998, 2000)

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

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

The spelling of his surname varies between Polenski and Polenske.

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

References

Barnett, JA.   1998, 2000.  Extract from lectures.  Beginnings of microbiology and biochemistry: the contribution of yeast research.  http://mic.sgmjournals.org/content/149/3/557.full

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

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

Danchin, A.  From Lamarck to Semmelweis, Transformation of chemical biology1800 – 1849:  http://www.normalesup.org/~adanchin/history/dates_1800.html

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

Associative and Endophytic Nitrogen-fixing Bacteria and Cyanobacterial …

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

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

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

Pennsylvania Packet, Friday, 18 August 1786

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

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

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

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

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

Zumbal. 2000. Chemistry, 5th edition.  Houghton Mifflin Company.

https://www.boundless.com (Early Discoveries Nitrogen Fixation)

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/azote

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horace-Benedict_de_Saussure

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

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

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

Pictures

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

Figure 2:  http://fletchingtonfarms.wordpress.com/

Figure 3:  http://today.uconn.edu/blog/2011/09/the-evolution-of-biology-at-uconn/

Figure 4:  http://web.mit.edu/cheme/about/history.html

Figure 5:  From http://www.foodhistory.com/foodnotes/road/cwf1/

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

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

 

Chapter 08.05 The Polenski Letter

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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


The Polenski Letter

June 1891

My dear Son,

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

the_noord-nieuwland_in_table_bay_1762
The Noord Nieuwland in Table Bay 1762

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

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

FOODS by Edward Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Eduard Polenski – Nitrate and Nitrite

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

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

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

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

The Value of Speed

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

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

The Wiesbaden Meetings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Polenski Experiment

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

The Foundational work of Ulysse Gayon and Gabriel Dupetit

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

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

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

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

The Mentorship of Louis Pasteur

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

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

Jeppe and the Main Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly!”

“Exactly!”

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

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

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

A Bigger Point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be well, my boy!  Take care of Lauren!

Lots of love from Denmark,

Your Dad.


green-previous green-home-icon green-next


(c) eben van tonder

Bacon & the art of living” in bookform

Stay in touch

Like our Facebook page and see the next post. Like, share, comment, contribute!

Bacon and the art of living

Promote your Page too


Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Payne, W. J..  1986)

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

(9)  Dr Ed Polenski’s findings has been published in “Arbeiten aus dem Kaiserlichen Gesundheitsamte , 7. Band, Springer, Berlin 1891, S. 471–474” (http://books.google.co.za/books?id=R_YAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA471&redir_esc=y)

References

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.

http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1938/mar/01/meat-prices

Picture References:

A cargo ship at the Cape:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_Western_Cape

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

Bacon & the Art of Living 1

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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

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


Minette, the Cape Slaves, the Witels and Nitrogen

Copenhagen, May 1891

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

Minette

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

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

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

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

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

Drosters Gat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Witels

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

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

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

dwars, bree and witels.png

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

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

IMG_3238

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!

Nitrogen

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

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

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

Nitric Oxide

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

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

N2 (g) + O2 (g)  lightning —> 2NO (g)

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

Nitrogen Dioxide

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

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

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

NO (g) 1/2O2 (g) —> NO2 (g)

Nitric Acid

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

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

3NO2 (g) + H2O —> 2HNO3 (aq) + NO (g)

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

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

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

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

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

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

We had the most amazing dinner!

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

Lots of love,

Dad


green-previous  green-home-icon    green-next


(c) eben van tonder

Bacon & the art of living” in bookform

Stay in touch

Like our Facebook page and see the next post. Like, share, comment, contribute!

Bacon and the art of living

Promote your Page too


References

Mechanisms of meat curing – the important nitrogen compounds

Chapter 08: Woodys Bacon

Introduction to Bacon & the Art of Living

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.


Woodys Bacon

South Africa, August 1890

new_york_tribune_sun__mar_18__1900_

Upon my return from Johannesburg, I again stopped over at Oscar’s farm. The few days that I had to think things over while offloading in Johannesburg made me more excited than ever! This is exactly the kind of opportunity I have been looking for!

Oscar’s farm is a well-run business. Every month he receives newsletters from the Cape and Holland about farming and he studies them in detail to learn about farming in the modern way. In doing this, he reminds me of my Oupa Eben. He has always been very careful to study the farming magazines in great detail to keep up to date with the newest farming trends.

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

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

We believe our future is not connected to the land, as many of our fellow Boers believe it to be. Both Oscar and I see our future in free enterprise. Farming, in Oscar’s mind, is not a God-given right to the Boer nation, but a business that has to make a profit. Security is not vested inland, but a positive bottom line. The idea of a bacon company appeals to us.  The markets we can service are enormous. The two Boer republics, the colonies in the Cape and Natal, passing ships and the British Navy and army are all markets within our reach. There is also the very tantalising possibility to export our finest bacon to the old world of Europe and England.

fb_img_1590080436224
Johannesburg, Market Square. Photo supplied by Dirk Marais.

Oscar and I spend the better part of three days making plans and strategizing. I got an opportunity to meet his two brothers, James and Willem. Both are equally impressive men, like Oscar. Will was an industrial psychology student at the Potchefstroom University. James did trading for the Netherlands Bank of South Africa. Both men were immediately very excited when they heard of our plans and right there and then it was decided that they would join us at the earliest opportunity. Will would focus on marketing and James on finances. Before I left a date was set when the company would formally be established.

fb_img_1590081810268
Johannesburg Market Square. 1895. Photo supplied by Dirk Marais.

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

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

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

woodys logo - Copy

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

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

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

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

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

FB_IMG_1585656071803

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

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

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

Traders between the Chains, Simmonds Street, Johannesburg. Supplied by Dirk Marais.

We met in the stately Mounts Bay Hotel in Pritchard Street. (4) At the hotel’s bar, time and chance overtook ability, as Solomon would have it, and completely by accident we met an old spice trader from Copenhagen. He drank a copious amount of beer, even at midday, while always smoking his pipe. He overheard us talking about bacon production and asked if we will be interested in the finest bacon spices from Denmark.

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

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

In the Cape Town Docks. Photo supplied by Martin Greshoff.

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

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

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

Cape Town pier lit up at dusk and photographed back in 1925. Judging by how still the water is in the photo it must have been a pleasant calm evening back then. Photo and caption by Grant Findlater.
Photo supplied by Michael Fortune.

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

I said farewell to my hiking buddies by trecking up Table Mountain with them one last time before I depart. The group that came up was Mike, Achmat, Taahir, Uncle John, Minette and I. For our last hike together before I leave for Denmark, we decided to do a very special hike. Mike was leading the group. He had previously spent about a year looking for Penny’s cave, an iconic cave on the mountain. When he located it, he investigated all possible access routes and could lead us on the safest and best way to it. We went up with Platteklip Gorge, past the slave caves (8), down with Grott Ravine, across to Fountain Ravine where we scrambled to Penny’s Cave (9). This mysterious and secluded cave overlooks the Atlantic. We spent the night here.

The cave is believed to be one of the locations where Joshua Penny lived for over a year. He was an American, impressed into the British Navy, who visited the Cape where he took part in the Battle of Muizenberg in 1795. He deserted and spent fourteen months in hiding on Table Mountain. So he became the person who is reported to have lived the longest on Table Mountain without any support from the city.

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

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

Photo supplied by Andre Strydom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


green-next
green-previous
green-home-icon

(c) eben van tonder

Bacon & the art of living” in bookform
Stay in touch

Like our Facebook page and see the next post. Like, share, comment, contribute!

Bacon and the art of living

Promote your Page too


Notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we arrive at the cave.

Here are the first glimpses of the cave.

Inside Pennys Cave.

img_20190613_141332
img_20190613_141423
img_20190613_135721
img_20190613_135706
img_20190613_135710
img_20190613_135704

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

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

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

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

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

References:

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credits:

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

Best Bacon System on Earth

Best Bacon System on Earth
By Eben van Tonder
8 January 2018

Background

Almost four years ago I started working with transglutaminase.  I outsourced the manufacturing of my custom blend to a reputable company in China.

We embarked on designing a system that is optimal for bacon production from a manufacturers perspective.

Unique Features

The features that were important to us were the following:

  • It had to be easy to use
  • The grids should not bend when dropped, even if they are full
  • The seams should not split.  High pressure will be applied to the meat to ensure that air is removed from the meat matrix that will interfere with the binding.
  • We opted NOT to stack bellies on top of each other – it does not work well.
  • It had to be cost-effective
  • Trolleys had to be fitted with durable wheels, able to pivot.

Unsurpassed Benefits

  • Slicing yields of 98%
  • Consistent production yields
  • Bacon is perfectly consistent in shape

Superior Engineering

USP

The complete system is produced in South Africa at a price that is almost impossible to match in any other country.

Safety/ Food Safety Features

The system was designed with European safety and food safety features in mind.

Two sizes:

480mm long for Treif-type slicers and 900mm long for high-speed slicers.

Other Bacon Components Available

A Unique Bacon Brine:

I designed a brine with all the features and benefits required for excellent bacon at a fraction of the price of bacon brines from regular spice companies.

Baking Paper

After intensive tests, we opted to stay with a specialized, perforated baking paper.

Consulting and recipes

I have extensive experience in bacon production and developed a number of custom recipes such as excellent catering bacon.  If you buy the system from us, I will happily share most of these recipes with you.

Batching system

A German Master Butcher developed a batching system that works hand-in-glove with the total bacon production system.

Hydraulic Press

press.jpg

After extensive testing, we designed a hydraulic press to deliver the pressure required to remove air from the meat system and greatly enhance the binding and restructuring of the meat.  It also ensures consistency in the final bacon shape.

Full Automation

The entire system is designed with full automated loading and offloading in mind.  These features are currently being designed.

All Bacon Cuts

The system is ideal for processing belly, loin, leg, shoulder, catering bacon.

Conclusion

Over the years I had the opportunity to work with most other systems available on the market.  We took the best features from everyone and worked hard to eliminate the defects.  The result is a superior system with no equal.

Further Reading

Contact

Mail me for more information at ebenvt@gmail.com or contact me on + 27 71 545 3029.