Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon

Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia's Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon 
Eben van Tonder
18 December 2021

-: Dedicated to my Son, Tristan van Tonder who is 24 today and Shanonnon Hounsell who share his life and his birthday! You have been part of so many quests and discoveries! What an amazing world we live in! :-

Introduction

The study of Westphalia Bacon and Ham smoking techniques and the Empress of Russia’s Brine leads us to one of the most astonishing discoveries about the history of curing since I uncovered the role of the First World War and the direct addition of nitrites to curing brines. (The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – the Master Butcher from Prague and The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War) Whether fermentation or through adding nitrites directly, curing is dependent upon nitric oxide formation from nitrite salts. How nitrite salts are accessed brought about two roads that run parallel and have been for hundreds of years. The direct and most recent development in curing where nitrite salts are used instead of nitrates. The first curing salt where this was included was Praganda from the city of Prague. Griffiths Laboratories brought out Prague Salt and soon afterwards Prague Powder and became the international evangelists of this new curing system. Before this, nitrite salts were accessed through deliberate fermentation in the system that was invented by William Oake in Northern Ireland (Mild Cured Bacon), was exported to Denmark through disgruntled striking bacon workers (The Danish Cooperative and Saltpeter) and became Wiltshire cure or tank curing or the live brine system which was so typical of English bacon (Wiltshire Cured or Tank Cured Bacon). The power of the old brine is in the fact that nitrate salts have been reduced to nitrite salts through bacterial fermentation. By re-using the old brine, one now has a brine with nitrites in it already and curing speed is vastly improved. I never dreamt that I would be able to discover how this was brought about? Why did people start to re-use the old brine? What forces caused people to start using it? A study of Westphalian bacon and ham and the Empress of Russia’s Brine leads me to the discovery of the origins of what later was progressed and composed into a complete system by the Northern Ireland chemist, William Oake. (Mild Cured Bacon) Unravelling the mechanism of moving from an immersion brine with dry salting to start re-using the brine was completely unexpected and, in the end, became one of the most thrilling discoveries of my career!

The Primitive Descriptions of Dr Cogan

It started with a study of Westphalian ham and bacon. A description of the process is given by Dr Cogan who toured the region of Westphalia. His description comes to us from a 1796 newspaper article. His language could be a bit clearer, and considering it carefully, he seems to be speaking about the application of stove technology in the houses in Westphalia in the 1700s.

He describes the Scheuren or Barns where the people lived as housing a small family and their livestock. Hogs and poultry occupied the middle section with horses, milk cows and oxen on the one extremity. The family lived mostly on the gable end of the building. The hearth or fireplace was far from the door. The fire was normally made of oak wood and smoke, with no chimney or vent, collected in the middle of the roof and was distributed through the entire structure and finally escaped through the barn door. A reflecting board was placed perpendicular above the fireplace at such a height that it prevented the collecting of the smoke among the beams and rafters by diffusing each column as it rises over the middle region. Dr Cogan compared it to the sounding board on a pulpit.

Some of the Scheuren or Barns had a second small apartment called a stove room. This room was warmed by a stove, or a furnace placed against the wall and generally heated from without through an opening in the partition wall so that the air in the apartment has no access to the fuel but received a close, hot, humid, and unwholesome heat from an accumulation of ignited particles which have no proper vent.

He referred to these machines as ovens. It is a generic term used referring to a particular furnace which is most generally used in Germany at the time. It looks like a furnace! The ovens of the rich were elaborately constructed with an elegantly crafted iron with ornaments and figures in relief with crafted Saxon china. It is useful in large and spacious apartments but in these small spaces, they yield suffocating heat.

To Dr Cogan, this seemed to be the cause for frequent pulmonary complaints in Germany and in England. He mentioned that this is not the case in Holland where rooms are more spacious and fires not so violent and the inhabitants are better dressed for the cold.

The success of the Westphalian hams and bacon was in large part ascribed to the construction of these barns and to the fact that they do not have chimneys. The ham and bacon were hung in the thick stream of smoke, a few yards away from the board by which it was repelled. The fact that it hung in the smoke and not in the heat meant that the fat did not turn rancid as is the case with chimney smoked ham.

Another report points out that if hams are left in a warm and moist environment “they have acquired that degree of softness which precedes purification. Then they are duly salted and exposed to the current [of smoke]. (The Ipswich Journal, 1796) This refers to the curing process but once it has been cured, the meat is hung in the smoke. Curing and smoking are always dealt with in combination and, as we will see later, most often in the context of a very particular brine from Russia called the Impress of Russia’s Brine.

A newspaper report from Northern Ireland in 1841 fills out the picture more fully. It seems that Dr Cogan’s report speaks about small villages. A description comes to us from much earlier, in 1841 and it describes a more “formal” or bigger Westphalia smoking operation. Smoking Westphalia hams was done at this time in “extensive chambers in the upper stories” as Dr Cogan describes, but then seems to be speaking about a structure in a city, either an apartment or large factory because it says that the buildings are “high. . . , some of four or five stories.”

The fire was made in the cellar which also speaks of a bigger building and “the smoke was directed to the meat through pipes in which the heat was absorbed, and the moisture removed.” I would love to know how this was achieved! (Belfast News-Letter, 1841) “The smoke was dry and cool when it came into contact with the meat. The meat is, in this way, perfectly dried and had a flavour and a colour far superior to meat smoked in the “common method.” (Belfast News-Letter, 1841)

The strict aversion to heat of any kind in the smokehouse was not shared universally. Some favoured meat in the drying stage due to the removal of moisture through heat. The Westphalia method of smoking was called “cold smoking” as early as 1864 but there was also a method of smoking called “wet smoke” or “moist smoke” as opposed to “dry smoking”. The complete quote related to Westphalia hams is: “Westphalia Hams. —These usually come by way of Hamburg, and owe their fine flavour to their being “cold smoked.” The hams are hung in the upper part of tin building; the smoke is generated in the cellar and carried up to the smoking-room through tubes. During its ascent, it deposits all moisture, and when it comes in contact with the hams it is both dry and cold so that no undue change occurs in the meat while being smoked. —Newspaper paragraph.” (The English and Australian Cookery Book, 1864)

Revelations by Richard Bradley

Our earliest reference to Westphalia hams and bacon comes through the English botanist, Richard Bradley who sent a letter to James Petiver seeking information on the secret of salting, drying, and blackening bacon, gammon, or ham in the west German way as early as 1714.

The 17th- and early 18th-century methods of preparing these, delicacy eluded him until his great friend John Warner of Rotherhithe went to Germany and wrote him a letter on the subject in about 1721. I quote the entire letter published in 1726.

“Friend Bradley, Thy favour of the 30th ult. I receiv’d; in answer to which, I send thee the method used to cure bacon in and about Hamburgh and Westphalia, which is after this manner: Families that kill one, two, or three hogs a year, have a closet in the garret joining to their chimney, made very right and close, to contain Smoke, in which they hang their Bacon to dry out of the reach of the heat of the fire, that it may be gradually dried by the smoke only, and not by heat; the smoke is conveyed into the closet by a hole in the chimney near the floor, and a place made for an iron stopper to be thrust into the funnel of the chimney about one Foot above the hole, to stop the smoke from ascending up the chimney, and force it through the hole into the closet. The smoke is carried off again by another hole in the funnel of the chimney above the said stopper, almost at the ceiling, where it vents itself. The upper hole must not be too big, because the closet must be always full of smoke, and that from wood fires; for coal, or turf, or peat smoke, I apprehend will not do so well.” (Richard Bradley, 1726)

In terms of curing the meat, the process does not mention the reuse of the old brine which shows that it was not always used in Westphalia. So, even in Westphalia, there were two basic curing methods. One with saltpetre and one where only salt is used. In this instance, the latter is described. John Warner of Rotherhithe writes, “the manner of salting is no other than as we salt meat in common; sometimes they use our Newcastle salt, or St. Ubes, or Lisbon Salt, and a Salt that’s made at Nuremberg (not so good as Newcastle) made from salt springs; in those parts they do not salt their bacon or beef so much as we do in England . . .” (Richard Bradley, 1726)

He quickly returns to the subject and the importance of salt and smoke and shows that in this curing method, no saltpetre is used. In the salt-smoke combination, he focuses again on the smoke. He writes, “the smoke helps to cure, as well as the salt; for I have seen when dry’d flesh hath not hang’d long enough in the smoke, it would be green within, when if it had hung its time, it would have been red quite through; for as the smoke penetrates, it cures the flesh, and colours it red without any salt-petre, or any other Art.” (Richard Bradley, 1726)

The last purported special ingredient in Westphalia ham and bacon is the feed. Some authors try and make a case that they feed their swine differently before they are slaughtered by letting them roam the woods and feed on acorns, but this was also the practice in many parts of England. John Warner of Rotherhithe therefore correctly observes “as to the feed of their swine, I saw no difference between their feed and ours here if any have the preference, I believe the English, and our bacon would be full as good, if not better than the Westphalia if cured alike.” (Richard Bradley, 1726)

He concludes, “I have here above answered thy desire, and wish it may be approved by our Bacon Makers; for the bacon will not only be not so salt, but relish better every way, Thy Friend, John Warner.” (Richard Bradley, 1726)

Transferring the Technology to England

Back to the topic of smoking meat, Bradley gives the most satisfying news that someone in England took him up on his description of the Westphalia smokehouse. First, he thanks his collaborator, Mr Warner for providing him with the information which he was quick to disseminate to interested parties in England. He writes, “I am obliged to Mr John Warner, a very ingenious gentleman of Rotberbith, for the first just account of preparing bacon in the Westphalia manner, and from whose letter to me, I have already communicated to the public the principles of the art.” (Bradley, 1732)

The most satisfying part of the exchange is the report that some took the method up in England. “Since which [the communication to the English public], my learned and curious friend, Dr Corbet of Bourn-Place near Canterbury, has built a bacon-house capable of drying (as I am informed) sixty large hogs at one time, and has even improved upon the Westphalia method, viz. by drying so large a quantity by one fire, when the drying-rooms or closets abroad do not cure, perhaps, above five or fix hogs at a time.” (Bradley, 1732)

The construction in Westphalia smokehouse is the same as we have seen repeatedly, namely a closet that was installed in the attic for ham or bacon smoking. Dr Corbet of Bourn-Place constructed the largest dedicated smokehouse that we are so far aware of in the early 1700s, capable of accommodating 60 large pigs. I assume the Dr Corbett who is referred to and is associated with Bourne-Park, is Dr John Colbert who married the eldest sister of Sir Hewitt, Elisabeth. (Godfrey, 1929) He was not a very savoury character but the fact that he embraces this new method of smoking reveals a positive angle on his character. It may, however, have more to do with him being desperate to fund the large estate than anything else.

Read this fascinating article of how John Corbett gained control over Manor of Bourne, not to any credit of his name. Painting from this article. http://www.elham.co.uk/other%20communities/bourne%20park.htm

Reusing Old Brine

An 1852 report by Youatt makes it clear that the method of reusing old brine and boiling it in between was practised in Westphalia. One cannot take the earlier accounts we looked at as exhaustive and a summary of all the various techniques used in Westphalia. They represent what the reporters saw and none of them set out to do a complete survey of curing and smoking techniques in Westphalia. The account we will look at next is later and may point to a progression in curing techniques of the early 1700s to the early 1800s. On the other hand, it may simply include a method that may have been in use in the early 1700s at certain places and one that the reporters of earlier simply did not see.

It relates to the re-use of the old brine. He writes, “The annexed system is the one usually pursued in Westphalia: — ” Six pounds of rock salt, two pounds of powdered loaf sugar, three ounces of saltpetre, and three gallons of spring or pure water, are boiled together. This should be skimmed when boiling, and when quite cold poured over the meat, every part of which must be covered with this brine. Small pork will be sufficiently cured in four or five days; hams, intended for drying, will be cured in four or five weeks, unless they are very large. This pickle may be used again and again, if it is fresh boiled up each time with a small addition to the ingredients. Before, however, putting the meat into the brine, it must be washed in water, the blood pressed out, and the whole wiped clean.” (Youatt, 1852) This cure was called the Empress of Russia’s Brine.

The Magazine of Domestic Economy, and Family Review, Volume 1, Jan 1843, W.S. Orr & Company gives the same description as Youatt in 1852. The 1843 account begins as follows. “In Europe, the Russian pork is much esteemed, and bears a high price; its quality is supposed to be owin to the pickle in which it is preserved.” The rest of the quote which Youatt omits in his 1852 work reads as follows from 1843: “Pickling tubs should be larger at the bottom than at the top; by which means, when well packed, the pork will retain its place until the last layer is exhausted. When the pork is cool, it may be cut up, the hams and shoulders for bacon, and the remainder salted. Cover the bottom of the tub or barrel with rock-salt, and on it place a layer of meat, and so on till the tub is filled. Use the salt liberally, and fill the barrel with strong brine, boiled and skimmed, and then cooled. The following method of preparing hams and shoulders is a good one, as many who have tried it in substance can testify. To ascertain the probable weight of the meat to be prepared, weigh a number of the hams and shoulders. Then pack them with rock-salt in a suitable tub or cask, being careful not to lay the flat sides of the large pieces upon each other, and filling the intervals with hocks, jowls, & c. To every 300lbs. of meat, then take 20lbs . of rock-salt or Onondaga coarse salt, 1lb. of saltpetre, and 14lbs. of brown sugar, or half a gallon of molasses, and as much water ( pure spring water is the best ) as will cover the meat: put the whole in a clean vessel, boil and scum, then set it aside to cool, and pour it on the meat till the whole is covered some three or four inches. Hams weighing from 12 to 15lbs. must lay in the pickle about five weeks; from 15 to 25lbs. , six weeks; from 25 to 45lbs., seven weeks. On taking them out, soak them in cold water two or three hours to remove the surface salt, then wipe and dry them. It is a good plan in cutting up to take off feet and hocks with a saw instead of an axe, as it leaves a smooth surface and no fractures for the lodgment of the fly. Some make only six pieces of a trimmed hog for salting; but it is more convenient when intended for domestic use, to have the side pork, as it is called, cut in small pieces. The goodness of hams and shoulders, and their preservation, depend greatly on their smoking, as well as salting.”

The Empress of Russia’s Brine

This 1843 report we just looked at and where the brine is described in detail links the Empress of Russia’s brine with Westphalia’s method of smoking. It is not called that specifically, but other sources name the brine. The rest of the quote reads as follows, “The goodness of hams and shoulders, and their preservation, depend greatly on their smoking, as well as salting. Owing to some misconstruction of the smoke house, or to the surface of the meat not being properly freed from the saline matter, or other causes, it not infrequently happens that during the process of smoking, the meat is constantly moist, and imbibes a pyroligneous acid taste and smell, destructive of its good qualities. The requisites of a smoke-house are, that it should be perfectly dry; not warmed by the fire that makes the smoke; so far from the fire, that any vapour thrown off in the smoke may be condensed before reaching the meat; so close as to exclude all flies, mice, & c., and yet capable of ventilation and escape of smoke. The Westphalian hams are the most celebrated in Europe, principally cured at, and exported from, Hamburg. The smoking of these is performed in extensive chambers in the upper stories of high buildings some of four or five stories; and the smoke is conveyed to these rooms from fires in the cellar, through tubes on which the vapour is condensed and heat absorbed, so that the smoke is both dry and cool when it comes in contact with the meat. They are thus perfectly dry and acquire a colour and flavour unknown to those smoked in the common method. Hams after being smoked may be kept any length of time, by being packed in dry ashes, powdered charcoal, or being kept in the smoke-house, if that is secure against the fly, or a smoke is made under them once a week. When meat is fully smoked and dried, it may be kept hung up in a dry room, by slipping over it a cotton bag, the neck of which is closely tied around the string which supports the meat, and thus excludes the bacon bug, & c. The small part of a ham, shoulder, & c., should always be hung downwards in the process of smoking, or when suspended for preservation.”

The main point of this quote above is the date, 1843 where the Empress of Russia’s brine is linked with Westphalia smoking. The brine is also given in the Pictorial Times: Volume 2, Jan 1843. In 1841 in New England Farmer, and Horticultural Register – Volume 19 Joseph Breck and Co. the entire quote is given as I have just given it. Several publications featured the brine in 1839. The Farmers’ Cabinet, Volume 3, 1838 gives the same recipe but says that it was copied from an English publication.

The long version of the recipe also appeared in a number of newspapers at that time. New England Farmer, 1841 is one example. Several more carried it between 1842 and 1844. Of great interest is the same report that appeared in the Belfast News-Letter, 1841. The name of the brine is given as the Empress of Russia’s Brine.

Who was the Empress?

– Alexandra Feodorovna?

So, the origin of the cure is Russian, but who will the Empress be that is referring to. I asked the question on a Russian site and Maria Didurenko responded almost immediately. “At that time, the Empress was Alexandra Feodorovna, the wife of Nicholay the First. She was of Prussian origin and according to my information, which, perhaps, colleagues will correct, she was not fond of gastronomy at all. Salt was relatively expensive at that time, the cost of a pood of salt (16 kg) was about 300 silver rubles (source General I. F. Blaramberg). I can assume that it was the high cost that made it necessary to look for options for the most efficient use of expensive raw materials.”

The first option I have is then Alexandra Feodorovna, born Princess Charlotte of Prussia, the wife of Nicholay the First. Without any reason to doubt the veracity of the information given me I wondered if there was another Empress of Russia who was closely associated with salt. From the references we looked at so far, it seems unlikely that she is the empress referred to since she passed away in 1860 and the 1810 reference to the brine which we will look at momentarily, refers to her as already “late” by 1810. It, therefore, ruled out Alexandra Feodorovna.

More importantly than the actual name that Maria Didurenko gave me “what to look for!” She started a twofold quest. On the one hand, to see if I can find a name associated with the reference in any of the many references to this brine and on the other hand, can I identify an Empress of Russia who was deeply involved in salt?

– A clue – Catherine?

Baylor (1889) offers a further clue when he writes, about an “Incomparable Method of Salting Meat as Adopted by the late Empress of Russia,” “more expensive than common brine,” as imperial brine has a right to be, “but promising advantages that most people would be glad to purchase at a much higher price.” It seemed as if the phrase, “Incomparable Method of Salting Meat as Adopted by the late Empress of Russia,” was a heading for the discussion on the brine and the reference to it as the “Empress of Russia’s Brine” to be a change that was later made. So, when I searched for the more likely original title, I happened upon the 1810 publication, The Family Receipt-book, Or, Universal Repository of Useful Knowledge and Experience in All the Various Branches of Domestic Economy, Oddy and Company. This publication gives the same Empress of Russia’s Brine, with the phrase, “Incomparable Method of Salting Meat as Adopted by the late Empress of Russia” as the heading, just as I suspected it would be but adds the following sentence, “the following method of salting meat is asserted to have been used by the great Empress Catharine, in her household establishment, with the utmost success.”

Before we look at the identity of the Empress in question, first a look at additional information given about the brine in what is most likely the original quote. The wording is slightly different and other elements are discussed. It begins the same way. “Boil together, over a gentle fire, six pounds of common salt, two pounds of powdered loaf sugar, three ounces of saltpetre, and three gallons of spring water. Carefully scum it, while boiling; and, when quite cold, pour it over the meat, every part of which must be covered with the brine .”

The fact that it is intended to be used again only becomes clear towards the end of the quote. The following is what is omitted by the other references. “In this pickle, it is said, the meat will not only keep for many months, but the hardest and toughest beef will thus be rendered as mellow and tender as the flesh of a young fowl; while either beef, pork, or even mutton, will have a fine flavour imparted by it. In warm weather, however, the blood must be expressed from the meat, and the whole well rubbed over with fine salt before it is immersed in the liquor. Young pork should not be left longer than three or four days in this pickle, as it will then be quite sufficiently softened: but hams, intended for drying, may remain a fortnight before they are hung up; when they should be rubbed with pollard, and closely covered with paper bags, to prevent their being fly-blown. Though this pickle is, at first, somewhat more expensive than common brine, as it may be again used, on being boiled with additional water and the other ingredients, it is far from being, on the whole, importantly more dear; while it seems to promise advantages which most people would be happy to purchase at a much higher price.”

The enigmatic phrase “it seems to promise advantages which most people would be happy to purchase at a much higher price” without question refers to the speed of curing. The phrase “with advantage” has also cropped up in other references to the re-use of brine and I wonder if those references are not all based on this one from the brine of Catherine!

The link which other authors make between the Empress of Russia’s Brine and Westphalian hams and bacon is almost certainly a later addition, a link that did not originally exist. It is quite possible that due to the reference we have of the re-use of the brine in Westphalia, that this region became one of the earliest to adopt the “Empress Brine” outside Russia and the link between the two may be as simple as this. The original method used in Westphalia was described in the same terms as the “Empress Brine.”

– Catherine the Great!

Catherine, who is referred to, was most certainly non-other than Catherine II (born Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst; 2 May 1729 – 17 November 1796), most commonly known as Catherine the Great. She was the last reigning Empress Regnant of Russia (from 1762 until 1796) and the country’s longest-ruling female leader.

The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 26 Oct 1841 now becomes important. If this brine was discovered by Catherine the Great, or someone associated with her court, and if the reports of the brine made it to Antrim, Northern Ireland much earlier than 1841, then the tantalising possibility exists that William Oake, the chemist from Ulster in Northern Ireland, learned of the existence of this brine and progressed the idea by doing away with the boiling step between the different batches. The earliest mention of mild cured bacon I could find was in newspaper reports from Antrim, Northern Ireland in 1837. It is fair to conjecture that the invention did not happen far from there. The report that William Oake from Ulster invented the process and the earliest reference to “mild cured bacon” coming from Antrim correlates since Antrim is in Ulster. The fact that the existence of the Empress of Russia’s brine was reported on, four years later, also in Antrim, seems to be too much to be merely coincidental!

Of all the Empresses of Russia, Catherine the Great fits the profile of the inspiration behind the brine or possibly its inventor, the best. It was in her time that the salt tax would play a major part in Russian society. By the end of the 1760s, the combined direct taxes, the salt tax with the liquor tax would account for more than 3/4 of the national income in a time when the Russian economy was desperate for revenue to fund its expansions. (LeDonne, 1975)

The person behind the drive to raise indirect taxes was Petr Ivanovič Šuvalov, the chief of the artillery. His thinking dominated policy in the 1750s to the extent that he was in reality the minister of the economy. Collecting the indirect taxes amongst which salt was a major component was so successful that between 1750 and 1756 he was able to reduce direct taxes. (LeDonne, 1975)

The first expression of Petr Ivanovič Šuvalov’s new policy was then a steep increase in the price of salt. “In January 1750 the price of a pud of salt was raised from about 21 kopeks to 35 kopeks and in August 1756, at the outset of the Seven Years’ War, to 50 kopeks. This was a dangerous expedient and it backfired in the form of reduced consumption and increased smuggling. . . Salt became out of reach for so many that one of the first acts of Catherine was to reduce the price by 20% to 40 kopeks in July 1762.” (LeDonne, 1975)

“The second component of Suvalov’s policy was to open up new and possibly cheaper sources of salt. The production of Perm (Solikamsk) salt could not be raised beyond a certain level because it depended on the availability of labor, the supply of wood fuel, and the length of the work season. In the late 1740s the state began the exploitation of Ileck rock salt and, more important, the extraction of salt from Lake EPton. Transportation costs, however, were so great, resulting in part from the insecurity of the trans-Volga region, that these salts could only supplement Perm salt, not replace it. The result of this increased production was the closing of older but uneconomical sources, at Bachmut, Staraja Russa, Balachna and Soligalic.” (LeDonne, 1975)

Suvalov’s policy only created an ambiguous situation because it rested on a contradiction: raising the price of salt cancelled part of the benefits that could be expected from the rise in supply. Catherine’s policy was wiser. It combined a cut in prices with a major effort to develop production, and it resulted in making salt available everywhere at a reasonable price. During the first decade of her reign, however, little was done beyond reducing the price of salt. This, however, shows us that she was deeply aware of the suffering that the salt tax caused and she was actively involved in finding ways to reduce the cost of salt. It is perfectly in step with the invention of a way to recover salt that would be lost if the old brine is discarded.

“A commission of three members under general Fermor was set up in 1764 to make a thorough examination of the salt trade and to recommend measures to remove widespread abuses. It was closed in 1768 and its work left little mark on legislation. In 1771 the president of the College of Audit was transferred to the Main Salt Board ostensibly to remedy a chaotic situation. It was decided in 1772 to reorganize the Board, to require it to purchase enough salt to have a permanent two-year reserve always available, and to improve the accounting of procedures. Four years later, however, a major reform of local government began to take effect and the salt administration was integrated into the new structure. This was the purpose of the code of 1781.” (LeDonne, 1975)

For the full treatise on the salt tax in Catherine’s Russia and the salt code of 1781 by John P. LeDonne, see “Further Reading.

Salt was a key commodity in the world of Catherine the Great! One of the uses was in curing meat. For Catherine to suggest the boiling of the brine as a way of “cleaning” it so that it can be re-used was a stroke of genius. I refer you to the production method of one of the major sources of salt in Russia namely that of Penn salt. It was produced exclusively from natural brines. “Production techniques were relatively simple, but they required careful supervision and consumed large quantities of firewood. It was first necessary to pump up the brackish water to the surface or, in favourable circumstances, to tap an artesian source. The next step was to remove the suspended impurities and to increase the salinity of the solution – even a rich natural brine might include but three percent salt – by exposing it to the sun so as to cause evaporation. This was done by various methods, their chief purpose being to create maximum exposure and ventilation.” (LeDonne, 1975)

“The brine was then poured into large horizontal pans [creny] under which a fire was kept going without interruption. The brine was brought to the boiling point and kept boiling for several hours. Impurities sank to the bottom or rose to the surface and were removed with a long hoe-like instrument called a kocerga. Then precipitation began. Heat was reduced and when little of the mother-liquor remained the salt was raked away. Boiling down the brine took about six hours, and the precipitation lasted from half a day to three days depending on the desired grain of salt.” (LeDonne, 1975)

There may have been another reason for boiling it which is at first not all that obvious. I found many of the references specifying the use of rock salt. Let’s return to LeDonne (1975). He writes, “At the southern end of the Ural range, sixty versts south from Orenburg, exploitation by the state of a huge underground salt dome began in 1754 near the Ilek river. Rock salt is of lesser quality than salt obtained by boiling – it dissolves more slowly and is never free from impurities -but it is easier to obtain. Petr Ivanovic Ryckov, who became the administrator of the mine in 1770, pronounced it so pure that it could not be distinguished from sugar, although the Salt Board in Moscow was of a different opinion. The Board was probably right because rock salt strata are usually interbedded with thin layers of gypsum. The salt was extracted in the form of large blocks weighing thirty to forty puds (since 1899, set at approximately 16.38 kilograms or 36.11 pounds), then broken up with hammers. In such blocks a “heart” was sometimes found as pure and clear as crystal. But salt dust often became mixed with dirt and sand on the way to the stores and this lowered its general quality.” (LeDonne, 1975) Boiling the brine would therefore have been a very good idea, nevertheless, even before any curing is attempted. This may be a reason for heating salt in a pan before it is rubbed into the meat, as was commonly practised, even where dry salting is used and not a liquid brine. The fact that heat was used to “clean brine” was a well-known practice. The progression was the boiling of the used brine.

There is a problem with this theory though in the context of the Empress of Russia’s brine. The first brine batch was not boiled! The technique of boiling the salt was a known technology but it was not used to concentrate the salt as was the case in salt recovery and if the purpose were sterilizing the salt, it would have been done for the first brine batch also. Considering the knowledge of microorganisms during the time of Catherine the Great, my suspicion is that decay through microorganisms was associated with meat and not with salt. I suspect that in their view, the brine was “contaminated” only after it encountered the meat. I developed this thought in detail in my article, “The Mother Brine.”

A comment is in order as to the relationship between the Empress of Russia’s Brine and the smoking of Westphalia Hams. If it is true that salt was in short supply, it would have been doubly so for saltpetre. It warrants careful future study, but the fact that saltpetre was omitted from some of the cures in Westphalia could almost certainly be ascribed to the scarcity of this resource. So, saltpetre was scarse in Russia. Westphalia learned how to cure meat with smoke only with salt – no saltpetre. That Russians adopted the Westphalian smoking techniques, and that Westphalia adopted the Empress of Russia’s salt recovery technology stands to reason! That they witnessed extraordinary value in a salt/ saltpetre brine that is re-used both in Russia and Westphalia is a deduction that flows from the facts!

Conclusion

The fact that William Oake is the inventor of the mild curing system that developed into tank curing is by now a well-established fact. (Mild Cured Bacon) His inspiration to re-use the old brine could very likely have come from this Russian invention under Catherine the Great! The link with the smoking technology of Westphalia is fascinating and that cross-pollination took place between these two curing-superpowers stands to reason. The impetus of the invention was the salt tax and the actions of Petr Ivanovič Šuvalov and Catherine the Great’s desire to mitigate the effect of these measures on the Russian curers.

The world has seen two major movements to facilitate the curing with nitrite salts. One was this one. The method is indirect and came about almost by accident. Russian technology that became known in Ireland which, in the hands of a chemist, became tank curing. Nitrite formation through fermentation.

The second major development was caused by the First World War when the use of nitrates was restricted for the war effort, resulting in the use of nitrite salts directly. (The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – the Master Butcher from Prague and The Direct Addition of Nitrites to Curing Brines – The Spoils of War)

(c) Eben van Tonder


Westphalia Bacon Recipes

Westphalian Hams and Bacon Recipes

Further Reading

The Mother Brine

Chapter 09.01 – Mild Cured Bacon

Chapter 11.04: Wiltshire Cured or Tank Cured Bacon

Tank Curing Came From Ireland

Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon

Meat Curing – A Review


Follow us on Facebook

Stay up to date with the latest posts by joining Earthworm Express on Facebook


If I got something wrong that you want to correct or if you have information to contribute, please contact me on:


References

Baylor, F. C., 1889, A Shocking Example, and Other Sketches, J. B. Lippincott

Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 26 Oct 1841, Tue

Bradley, R.. 1726. A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening. T Woodward.

The Family Receipt-book, Or, Universal Repository of Useful Knowledge and Experience in All the Various Branches of Domestic Economy, Oddy and Company, 1810

Godfrey, W. H., F.S.A., F.R.I.B.A. Bour Park, Near Canterbury. Archeological Constantia, Vol 41, 1929

The Ipswich Journal (Ipswich, Suffolk, England), 19 Mar 1796, Sat

LeDonne, J. P. (1975). Indirect Taxes in Catherine’s Russia I. The Salt Code of 1781Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas23(2), 161–190. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41047094

The Magazine of Domestic Economy, and Family Review, Volume 1, Jan 1843, W.S. Orr & Company

New England Farmer, and Horticultural Register – Volume 19 Joseph Breck and Co. 1841.

New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 Jan 1841, Wed.

Pictorial Times: Volume 2, Jan 1843

The Farmers’ Cabinet, Volume 3, 1838

Youatt, W. 1852. The pig: a treatise on the breeds, management, feeding, and medical treatment, of swine; with directions for salting pork, and curing bacon and hams. New York, C. M. Saxton

Chapter 10.02.02: Robert Henderson and the Invention of the Smokehouse

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.


Robert Henderson and the Invention of the Smokehouse

February 1892

Dear Kids,

Last night at Bowood was volcanic. Susan is a force of nature! An inspiration. I got to know Mrs Smith and Fife better and the evening was most enjoyable.

Hendersons Bacon & Ham Curing Operation (Australia)

Since I arrived in England, I used every opportunity to read up on the progression of curing technology. One of the remarkable stories of bacon is the invention of the smokehouse by the Scottish farmer, Robert Henderson. What makes him unique was the fact that he was a formidable hog trader and a man of unusual intellect. He wrote about himself that “having been at a good deal of pains, by corresponding annually with dealers and intelligent farmers, almost in every parish in Annandale, and having myself formerly purchased the most part of the swine fed in the parishes adjoining to my residence. . ..” His account offers a great insight into the system of pork trading at the beginning of the 1800s and looking back into the 1700s. His attention to detail offers us unique insights. What I discovered was intriguing!

Henderson’s Earliest Record of Swine Husbandry

I like Robert! Like me, he too found a need to trace the subject he was studying to its earliest roots. His subject was pigs and he set out to discover the earliest record of swine husbandry on the island. The earliest date he could find took him back 2673 years from when he wrote in 1811.

A large herd of swine was kept by a royal prince in the vicinity of Bath. Baldred was the eldest son of Lub Hudibras, king of Britain. He spent 11 years in Athens studying liberal arts and sciences. When he returned home, he contracted leprosy. He was isolated to prevent the spread of the disease. Frustrated, he disguised himself and in a remote part of the country, found employment. After he fled the palace he found employment in the small town of Learwick as a swine herder. He was to drive them from place to place to feed on acorns, etc.

This is how it happened that he found himself one day in the vicinity of Bath looking after a herd of swine. A strange event occurred. Part of the drove of swine ran down a hill into an elder-moor to the place where warm came up out of the ground. When they returned, they were covered with mud. It was winter and Baldred was interested to find out why the pigs who like water in the summer to stay cool, decided to run into this water in the winder. He could see steam coming from the water and made his way there. The water was warm!

He noticed that after the pigs wallowed in this mud, the sores and scuff marks on their skins healed. The prince wondered if it would have the same healing effect on his skin and he tried it. It healed his skin and he declared who he was. He later succeeded his dad as ruler and created the baths on the spot where the pigs wallowed. A statue was erected in 1699 of King Baldred. The inscription on the statue reads, “Baldred, son of Lud Hudibras, eighths king of the Britains, from Brute a great philosopher and mathematician bred at Athens and recorded the first discoverer and founder of the baths, 863 years before Christ.”

Robert Henderson was an amateur historian and earned a living as a pork trader. Even more than this, he was an inventor. Here is his story.

Introducing the Pork Trade to Scotland

Pig husbandry was large in the south of England in counties such as Wiltshire and Kent where there were large dairy operations. Henderson recalls that in 1766 pigs were brought into Annandale in Scotland for the first time. Farmers bought them more out of curiosity than to make a profit. The pigs were small with bristles on their back. Between 1775 and 1780 both bacon flitches and hams became a considerable trade in this part of Scotland. By 1790 the pork trade was well established with buyers travelling throughout the region to buy pigs. Several markets were established for pigs. One such market was established at Dumfries where the Annadale curers meet the Galloway farmers. Events allowed Robert a birds-eye view on the birth of an industry!

Decentralised Bacon and Ham Drying/ Smoking

Robert Henderson was a formidable pork trader. He distributed the carcasses among the farmers to dry and smoke them in the farmhouses. In one season he would cure no less than 500 animals in this way. He wrote, “I practised for many years the custom of carting my flitches and hams through the country to farm-houses and used to hang them in their chimneys and other parts of the house to dry, some seasons to the amount of 500 carcases.”

The system was accompanied by many difficulties. For starters, he often had to provide his own wood for hanging the flitches and hams on. This was only the start of the trouble. He wrote, “for several days after they were hung up, they poured down salt and brine upon the women’s caps, and now and then a ham would fall down and break a spinning wheel, or knock down some of the children; which obliged me to resort to the shop to purchase a few ribbons, tobacco, &c. to make up peace.”

The biggest problem of this system is related to weight loss. Henderson wrote, “there was a still greater disadvantage attending this mode; the bacon was obliged to hang until an order came for it to be sent off, which being at the end of two or three months, and often longer, the meat was overdried in most places and consequently lost a good deal of weight.”

In 1811 Henderson noted that this was still the way that bacon was cured in large quantities in Dumfriesshire. He lamented the fact that people are slow to abandon old ways of doing things in favour of better alternatives.

Invention of the Bult-For-Purpose Smokehouse

Robert Henderson claims that twenty years earlier, in 1791, he designed a simple, dedicated smokehouse for smoking hams and bacon. This simple statement would become my earliest reference to a smokehouse. He describes it as being twenty feet square (1.8m2) with the walls about seven feet (2.1m) high. Each wall allowed for 6 joints. Twenty-four flitches can be hung together in a row without them touching. Each one of the flitches was resting on a beam. There are five rows, allowing for a total of 120 flitches in the smokehouse. The flitches were hung between 21/2 to 3 feet (900mm) from the floor which is covered with sawdust of five or six inches (100 to 150mm), kindled at two different sides. (Henderson, 1811)

The door is kept closed with a small hole in the roof for ventilation. Bacon and hams smoked in this smokehouse were ready for dispatch within eight to ten days. An advantage of this system is that there is only a little loss in weight. (Henderson, 1811)

So, the system was that the bacon was kept in the salt-house till an order is received. At this point, it was moved to the smokehouse for drying and smoking before it was dispatched to the client. (Henderson, 1811)

During this time, the invention of the smokehouse by Robert Henderson had a dramatic impact on the quality of the bacon. One of the consequences of too much drying is very salty meat since water escapes, but salt is left in the meat.

This invention was “in the air” already since Henderson’s 1791 invention of the smokehouse. Losing weight results in more salty bacon as a large weight loss reduce the volume of meat to salt, making the remaining meat saltier. Smoking, at this time, was exclusively cold smoke.

Apart from better-tasting bacon, there was a significant reduction in cost. Henderson wrote that he “found the smoke-house to be a great saving, not only in the expense and trouble of employing men to cart and hang it through the country, but it did not lose nearly so much weight by this process.”

Who was the First to Invent the Smokehouse?

It is extremely unlikely that Robert Henderson was the first or only person who did away with the farmhouse-drying/ smoking of hams and bacon and opted for a built-for-purpose smokehouse. The following hundred years would see a plethora of ideas being shared and taken up by various companies and individuals, many claiming priority for their invention or progression. It is possible to get close to the people who pioneered these different progressions based on the dates for their inventions but if we are ever able to identify the very first person related to each invention is highly unlikely. It is, however, fascinating how close we can get to the first instance of an invention or progression.

It is interesting that the 1791 reference of Henderson (when he first designed his smokehouse) is still the earliest reference we can find anywhere to smokehouses. Following the indirect reference of Henderson, the next reference I was able to find was a 1796 reference to a smokehouse being part of an estate for sale. (The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1796) Several advertisements for properties in Pennsylvania with smokehouses on occurred in the 1790s and into the early 1800s. There is an 1813 reference to a smokehouse by a reader who complains that his measures against insects are not working. (Buffalo Gazette, 1813)

Smokehouse Construction in America – 1820

This is the first reference I get where smoking and drying steps are separate. They begin by hanging the bacon till it is dry. Only then smoke it. The construction of the smokehouse is as follows: “Build a chimney with a very low fireplace, exactly as for a sitting room, and when the chimney is carried up 4 feet, close it at top. A small grate made with hoops or small bars of an older gridiron, at four inches from the hearth will assist the burning of the wood. By having a chimney thus constructed, the blaze of the fire can never injure either house or meat, and no pieces can fall into the fire when a string or nail gives way. Houses have been burned by pieces of meat falling into the fire, and dispersing it to the wood work. All these accidents are thus prevented, and whilst the blaze and smoke ascend the blind chimney, the smoke must descend again and pour into the smokehouse. A small chimney in brick houses on the corner of the wall may be useful to let out the smoke, but no holes in the wall to admit a ray of light. Some chips and a few billits of hickory makes the best smoke – this will also keep the house warm, which is very important; for if the smoke house is cold as will be the case when the smoke is carried by a flue from a lower story or another house, all our former care will be lost: a damp will settle on this bacon and it will have a bitter flavour.” (Newbern Sentinel (New Bern, North Carolina), 1820) It seems as if the author is not necessarily speaking of a completely separate smokehouse as I imagined, but maybe an addition to an existing house (dwelling) for the purpose of smoking bacon and hams.

The author elaborates on the experience of his teacher who warned him about damp which leads to bitter-tasting bacon. He uses an interesting phrase to describe Mr A of Baltimore namely a man who “followed smoking for gain.” He is therefore squarely set in a commercial mindset.

The author continues. “one good fire per diem will smoke the pieces exactly in the same time they were salted viz. hams 4 weeks, shoulders 3 weeks, other pieces in two. When the bacon is smoked and all returned to the smokehouse, a floor, if not laid before should now be laid on the joist; by this means rats will be prevented from descending on the bacon, and the heat of the sun will be moderate so that the bacon will not drip in the summer heats. Darkness and coolness are necessary to preserve the bacon from flies – it may there hang in perfect safety till wanted!” (Newbern Sentinel (New Bern, North Carolina), 1820)

Smokhouses in Ireland and Westphalia in the 1840s

The fact that smokehouses was a new progression in the 1840s is seen from a newspaper report from Northern Ireland in 1841. The article points out that due to the misconstruction of the smokehouse and because the surface of the meat is not properly wiped dry and there is still saline matter on the outside of the meat, these cause the meat not to dry out but remain moist. Because of this a “pyroligneous acid taste and smell” is left on the meat.

The author gives the requirements for a good smokehouse:

  • it should be perfectly dry;
  • not warmed by the fire that makes the smoke;
  • the fire shall be sufficiently far from the meat so that any vapour from the smoke shall be “thrown off” and may be condensed before reaching the meat;
  • yet, close enough to prevent flies, mice, etc from feasting on the meat.

The art of building a proper smokehouse was still being disseminated through the British Isles by 1841. Not only Britain but also in Germany smokehouses were not universally used to smoke bacon. The same article refers to smoking meat in Westphalia. Smoking Westphalia hams was done at this time in “extensive chambers in the upper stories of high buildings, some of four or five stories.”

In the constructions in Westphalia, the fire was made in the cellar and the smoke was directed to the meat through pipes in which the heat was absorbed and the moisture removed. The smoke was dry and cool when it came into contact with the meat. The meat is, in this way, perfectly dried and had a flavour and a colour far superior to meat smoked in the “common method.” (Belfast News-Letter, 1841)

The strict aversion to heat of any kind in the smokehouse would not last and subsequent authors and experts found that a bit of heat produces a better environment for drying (less moist). The Westphalia method of smoking was called “cold smoking” as early as 1864 but there was also a method of smoking called “wet smoke” or “moist smoke” as opposed to “dry smoking”. The complete quote related to Westphalia hams is: “Westphalia Hams. —These usually come by way of Hamburg, and owe their fine flavour to their being “cold smoked.” The hams are hung in the upper part of tin building; the smoke is generated in the cellar and carried up to the smoking-room through tubes. During its ascent, it deposits all moisture, and when it comes in contact with the hams it is both dry and cold so that no undue change occurs in the meat while being smoked. —Newspaper paragraph.” (The English and Australian Cookery Book, 1864) I am sure that during these years there was intense experimentation with different heat during smoking. It soon becomes obvious that there was a wide variety of approaches.

The English botanist, Richard Bradley sent a letter to James Petiver seeking information on the secret of salting, drying, and blackening bacon, gammon, or ham in the west German way as early as 1714.

The 17th- and early 18th-century methods of preparing these, delicacy eluded him until his great friend John Warner of Rotherhithe went to Germany and wrote him a letter on the subject in about 1721. I quote the entire letter.

“Friend Bradley,

Thy favour of the 30th ult. I receiv’d; in answer to which, I send thee the method used to cure bacon in and about Hamburgh and Westphalia, which is after this manner: Families that kill one, two, or three hogs a year, have a closet in the garret joining to their chimney, made very right and close, to contain Smoke, in which they hang their Bacon to dry out of the Reach of the heat of the fire, that it may be gradually dried by the smoke only, and not by heat; the smoke is conveyed into the closet by a hole in the chimney near the floor, and a place made for an iron stopper to be thrust into the funnel of the chimney about one Foot above the hole, to stop the smoke from ascending up the chimney, and force it through the hole into the closet. The smoke is carried off again by another hole in the funnel of the chimney above the said stopper, almost at the ceiling, where it vents itself. The upper hole must not be too big, because the closet must be always full of smoke, and that from wood fires; for coal, or turf, or peat smoke, I apprehend will not do so well. The manner of salting is no other than as we salt meat in common; sometimes they use our Newcastle salt, or St. Ubes, or Lisbon Salt, and a Salt that’s made at Nuremberg (not so good as Newcastle) made from salt springs; in those parts they do not salt their bacon or beef so much as we do in England, because the smoke helps to cure, as well as the salt; for I have seen when dry’d flesh hath not hang’d long enough in the smoke, it would be green within, when if it had hung its time, it would have been red quite through; for as the smoke penetrates, it cures the flesh, and colours it red without any salt-petre, or any other Art. As to the feed of their swine, I saw no difference between their Feed and ours here if any have the preference, I believe the English, and our bacon would be full as good, if not better than the Westphalia if cured alike.

I have here above answered thy desire, and wish it may be approved by our Bacon Makers; for the bacon will not only be not so salt, but relish better every way,

Thy Friend,

John Warner.”

In another letter addressed to Bradley, John Warner makes an interesting comment on the method of salting. Even though it’s not our topic of interest here, it is noteworthy that he did not observe them using the same brine twice, or at least, he did not report on it.

Back to the topic of smoking meat, Bradley gives the most satisfying news that two people in England took him up on his description of the Westphalia smokehouse. “I am obliged to Mr John Warner, a very ingenious gentleman of Rotberbith, for the first just account of preparing bacon in the Westphalia manner, and from whose letter to me, I have already communicated to the public the principles of the art; since which, my learned and curious friend, Dr Corbet of Bourn-Place near Canterbury, has built a bacon-house capable of drying (as I am informed ) sixty large hogs at one time, and has even improved upon the Westphalia method, viz . by drying so large a quantity by one fire, when the drying-rooms or closets abroad do not cure, perhaps, above five or fix hogs at a time.” (Bradley, 1732)

The construction in Westphalia was a closet that was installed in the attic for ham or bacon smoking. Dr Corbet of Bourn-Place constructed the largest dedicated smokehouse that we are so far aware of in the early 1700s, capable of accommodating 60 large pigs. I assume the reference to be of Dr John Corbett of Bourne-Park who married the eldest sister of Sir Hewitt, Elisabeth. (Godfrey, 1929) He was a swindler and a manipulator but, he was apparently prepared to gamble big on pork production!

That the development took place mostly in the 1700s in England is born up by the oldest references to smokehouses. They referred to drying rooms or houses and smoking closets or smokehouses.

Read this fascinating article of how John Corbett gained control over the Manor of Bourne, not to any credit of his name. Painting from this article. http://www.elham.co.uk/other%20communities/bourne%20park.htm

Heating the Smokehouse – 1833

There is a reference from Lancaster Intelligencer (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), 1833 which states that during smoking the smokehouse should be warm but after smoking, it should be cool and dark. This “heating” of the smokehouse is an interesting reference and was by no means universally practised as we saw from the construction of the smokehouses as described from Westphalia. Another report from 1840 states that the smokehouse should be of a moderate temperature. The purpose is given as it will prevent dampness on the meat. (New England Farmer, 1840)

The Harris operation would progress this concept years later when they invented pale dried bacon where the bacon is dried in specially constructed ovens but not smoked (Harris Bacon – From Pale Dried to Tank Curing!)

South Caroline Smoke House Structure – 1855

American smokehouses are often constructions set in wooden frames, exactly as many parts of the country build their houses. Next, we look at an interesting report about the construction of a smokehouse in the American South which follows this pattern. “It is a frame building, with large sills, large corner-posts and a great many studs, some of them very large too. Its dimensions are 17 feet (5m) wide, 20 feet (6m) long and 16 feet (4.8m) high. Beneath the sill is a foundation laid with bricks, 7 inches (18cm) deep. It is shingled and weatherboarded as every house, except that the weatherboarding has considerable lap and is put on with unusually large nails to prevent light entering through cracks. The upper joists rest upon the plates, a second tier being securely attached about 51/2 feet (1.6m) lower down. As yet, there is not a hole for light and scarcely for air, in the building. Perhaps we shall have some made before we are done with it – perhaps not!

The floor is thus: After filling in with dirt nearly halfway up the sill, we put down one layer of bricks. and this we covered with a heavy coat of Roman-cement mortar. A small basin as it were, rased in the middle of the floor for smoking purposes. The door is made to fit tight and this (with a good lock) finishes the job.”

They list the benefits of this construction. “It is roomy; It is dark; It is cool; It is cleanly; It is rat-proof.” (Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, South Carolina), 1855)

The rapid progression of smokehouse designs is evident in our short consideration of the time between 1792 and 1855 in the USA.

Smokehouse as the Storeroom for Finished Bacon

One system of storing the bacon was to keep it in the salt house till its sold. Then, smoke it and dispatch it to the client. Another system was to use the smokehouse as the storeroom for finished bacon. The system described in Winchester, Tennessee in 1856 calls for the bacon to be removed from the curing vats and the salt to be scraped off. Rub the bacon all over with hickory ash and hang it up for smoking, hock down. Smoke moderately for four weeks with only two fires a day made from hickory chips. On about the 1st of March, take them down, rub them with hickory ash again and hang them again. Here they remain the whole year. It makes an interesting comment that if little green mould appears on the outside of the bacon, it only insures against spoilage. (The Home Journal (Winchester, Tennessee), 1856)

The hams and bacon can be wrapped in cotton bags for storage during the summer. Before use, dip the bag in strong salt brines to protect against insects. The next season, while bacon and hams are being smoked, hang the cotton bags in the middle of the smokehouse. The smoke will preserve the cotton.

During the summer, the bacon should not be hung against the roof, due to the heat, but in the middle of the smokehouse where it is cooler. The smokehouse should be dark and in the summer the ventilation holes must be closed to keep insects and rodents out.

Was this customary in Wiltshire in the 1840s?

In asking this question, we look one more time at the possible nature of sweet cured bacon invented by Harris in the 1840s. (Sweet Cured Harris Bacon) An article from the Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald (1840) reports on the following method of curing used in Hants, Wilts, and Somerset.

The pork is singed by packing straw around the carcass and burning the bristles and hair off. Scalding tends to soften the meat and this method ensures the meat is left firm. The carcass is left to cool after which it is cut into flitches and salted and treated with saltpetre. The flitches are left for two to three weeks and turned three to four times. They are then wiped dry and suspended over a chimney over a wood or turf fire to dry out. A note is made that coarse sugar is used in Hampshire bacon but not in Wilts and Somerset. Hampshire bacon is imported with its particular flavour by the wood and turf smoke. During smoking, the flitches must be taken down and inspected for bacon-fly.

The 1840 newspaper report does not claim to be exhaustive, but it nevertheless creates the picture of a simple non-industrialised process and most certainly there is no mention of a dedicated smokehouse or salt house. In a dedicated butchers shop, as was run by the Harris family, one would expect a smokehouse and a curing room.

Comparisons with William Oake’s Mild Cured System

We dealt with the mild cured system of William Oake in great detail (Mild Cured Bacon) and since he invented what later became known as tank curing, it is important that we reference his system again.

The first major difference with what we have seen so far relates to drying. Instead of hanging the bacon to dry, Oake used pressure when he re-stacked the flitches after curing, on a dry floor. The weight of the bacon is incrementally increased as the flitches are re-stacks with the ones at the bottom now on the top and by stacking them higher and higher every time it is restacked while always rotating the position of the meat pieces.

Oake called for a quick smoking of the bacon. According to his system between twenty-four and forty-eight hours will suffice to properly smoke the bacon if the weather is suitable, after which it may be packed and forwarded to market.” His smokehouse design is in line with what we have looked at thus far. He also used cold smoke.

Samuel Henderson’s Curing Operation in Australia

Painting by S.T. Gill of Henderson House and the activity on the wharves in 1873.

In researching the life and times of Robert Henderson many years later, I came across this 1873 account of the operation of another Henderson in Melbourn, Australia. With the same surname, the tantalising possibility exists for Robert and Samual to be family. What an amazing “full circle” story that would be! More work remains! 🙂

I include it here as it is a fitting example of what a large, high throughput factory towards the latter part of the 1800s looked like. It is reported that Samuel’s operation was established in 1870. The image at the top is a drawing of his establishment. It is interesting to see the developments of ideas and concepts and their progression over many years till they culminate in a large integrated process such as was the case in the Henderson factory in Melbourne. I quote an article from the Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers (Melbourne, Vic.), 15 Jul 1873. It reads as follows:

The author introduces the subject with a general statement that “. . . energy, enterprise, and capital are used in an intelligent manner, in order to ensure that the articles produced shall be equal if not superior to anything of a similar character prepared for the market.” Mr Henderson’s factory is an excellent example of these and I am sure Robert Henderson would have been proud to witness the extent of the applications of principles he helped to establish with his simple 1791 smokehouse design.

“The ham and bacon curing establishment of Mr. Henderson is eminently one of the class referred to. It is situated on the west bank of the Saltwater River, about 400 yards below the bridge, and divided by the main road from the river. The site is about four acres in extent, and the surface is of an irregular character, about half the area being an alluvial flat, and the other half on the top of a high bank of basaltic rock. This inequality of surface has been turned to the best account by the proprietor when planning the buildings.

These comprise three sides of a square, commencing at the western side, which abuts on a street on the plateau, continued along the northern side, and then on the east along the edge of- the bank, which fronts the Saltwater River and overlooks Melbourne.

Slaughtering

On entering by a gate on the western side the visitor finds himself in a large paved courtyard and turning to the left he will, first enter the slaughterhouse, a building 90- feet by 45, in which the pigs are killed and dressed ready for curing. The outer walls of this building are of massive bluestone, in which there are a number of large openings fitted with louvres, but the frontages in the interior are of open woodwork. As there has: been most scrupulous care taken to have no openings in the stone facing to the north, it follows that all hot wind is excluded, and the cold breezes from the south, east, and west are freely admitted through the building, and hence even in sultry weather the atmosphere is comparatively cool.

In this portion of the works the pigs intended to be slaughtered during the day are placed first in a large pan, and from thence drafted into a smaller enclosure. Above this blocks and falls are fixed, and when slaughtering, commences each pig has a sling passed round one of its hind legs, and is hauled up thereby out of the pen, and is stuck while suspended. In a few seconds, it is lowered onto a hook suspended from rails, and transferred to the scalding trough, and another raised in like manner, and in a very short time a dozen are ready for cleaning. This is effected in two large troughs in the centre of the building. One of these contains scalding water, to which the requisite degree of heat is imparted by steam conducted from the boiler, through pipes laid in the bottom of the trough. Three or four pigs are placed in this at once, and in a very short time the whole of the hair and outer cuticle is removed with a small scraper, and the carcases are then hoisted over into the adjoining trough of cold water. There the cleansing process is soon completed, and by another block and fall the pigs are hoisted and each hung on gambles.

These hooks, of which there are about 200, are most ingeniously suspended from rails in such a manner that when even a large hog is hung up it can be transferred from one end of the place to the other with the utmost facility, by merely pushing it along in the required direction. There is also a weighing machine in the southwest corner of the building, so contrived that when the hook sustaining a carcass is brought directly over it the weight can be at once seen and noted. As soon as each pig is hung up it passes on to a man who opens it and clears out the interior, and then it remains hanging until thoroughly cold. Each animal is then weighed in the way described, and split down the back, stripped of the lard and kidneys, and left to set.

The carcasses are then cut as required for sides, middles, hams, rolls, or mess pork. It is then ready for the curing process, and to effect that the pork is placed on hand wagons, and wheeled into the building on the east side of the courtyard. This is a two-story structure, the walls of which are all of bluestone, and very thick. The upper story is on a level with the courtyard, while the lower one is excavated from the solid rock to a depth of about 15 feet. The dimensions of this lower story are 105 x 40 feet in the clear, divided into two rooms by a wall in which is an archway.

Curing Tanks

A patent hydraulic lift is fixed in one of these rooms, by which the trucks of meat are lowered from the upper floor. Round the walls of the northern room, there are between thirty and forty cemented tanks ranged. In these the first process takes place. When the meat has been sufficiently long in the brine the sides of green bacon are again placed on a truck and conveyed to the southern room, in which there is a low stone bench about five feet wide running round three sides, the surface of which slopes inward towards the walls, and on these the meat is packed after being well rubbed with salt. By the construction adopted all the brine that runs from the huge piles of meat is conveyed to a small reservoir, from whence it is taken to the salting vats. The vats for curing hams are in the centre of this room and are constructed to hold 1000 hams at a time. In this lower story there is room for scores of tons of meat to be passed through the curing process, and owing to the precaution taken to exclude hot air, and the admirable way in which the windows are fitted with louvre blinds and the walls pierced and fitted with ventilators, there is a sweetness and purity in the atmosphere that is surprising. This is the case, indeed, throughout the whole establishment, for all that is offensive is washed away at frequent intervals throughout the day, down underground drainpipes into the river, and nothing is allowed to remain that can create a foul smell.

Drying

When the bacon has been cured it is wheeled onto the lift, and round to the upper floor, from
whence it is taken to a part of the northern building and hung up to dry. This building is 100 feet by 25 feet, each ham has three tons of each, from each of which 144 sides of bacon can be suspended (1296).

Smoking

When the bacon has hung till sufficiently dry, it is transferred into the smoking-houses, of which there are three, each 12 feet square and 30 feet from basement to roof. Each house has three tiers of racks, from, each of which 144 sides of bacon can be suspended, and thus were all the smoking-houses filled at once; there would be 1296 sides undergoing the finishing process at one time. Some idea may thus be formed of the immense quantity of preserved meat that may be manufactured in this establishment during a year.

Other Parts

But in an establishment of this nature there are still other parts to deal with. The pigs’ heads are cured and smoked, and are thus converted into Bath chaps. Large quantities of beef and pork are also used for making German sausages and these are equal in quality to those manufactured in Europe, for the employee who has charge of this portion of the manufacture is a native of Berlin who there learnt his trade.

Other Species

Hitherto only one description of meat has been referred to, but Mr. Henderson does not limit himself to that. He buys vast quantities of legs of beef, of the finest quality he can procure, and the meat from these is transferred to the brine in the lower story and there cured. It is then lifted to the room above and there each salted leg is spiced and tightly bound with ligatures of small cord and these beef hams are then hung up to dry and ripen for the market. Sides of small porkers are similarly cured and formed into rolls of bacon.

Sausages

The meat for the sausages is chopped in a revolving chopping machine worked by steam and capable of supplying a very large quantity of sausage meat daily.

Heat

The steam referred to is generated in a boiler erected in the angle of the buildings in the northwest corner of the courtyard, and it does good service in various ways. Besides heating the water for scalding and supplying the power for the sausage machine, it supplies the heat by which the lard is melted and clarified and is also applied to the boiling down of all the bones and extracting the tallow from them. It also works a machine that crushes the peas with which the pigs are fed, Mr. Henderson having a large depot for these animals on the opposite bank of the river. It will before long be applied to working an ice machine, which has been imported at considerable cost, and will be erected on the premises very shortly.

In fact, for compactness, completeness, and cleanliness, it would be difficult to find establishments of a similar character, even in Europe, to equal Mr. Henderson’s, and in those respects, it cannot be excelled.

Mr. Henderson’s dwelling house occupies a large portion of the upper story over the salting rooms, and in its arrangement, fittings, and furnishing, it affords quite as much evidence of the good taste of its owner as the other portions of the premises do of his skill as a designer and his mercantile abilities. It remains to be noticed that on the south-eastern portion of the courtyard are the stables and sheds, in which are the horses and vehicles necessary in the conduct of the business, and that they are in every respect equal to the buildings and their equipment. We may state that the premises were built by
Mr. A. Kennedy, under the supervision of the proprietor.

Look How Far We’ve Come!

The achievements of the Henderson ham and bacon operation in Australia is impressive. Over the last few weeks, I had the opportunity to revisit the drying and smoking of bacon, ham and sausages again when Daniel from Kerres visited me in Cape Town. It gives me an even greater appreciation for the pioneering work of Robert Henderson in 1791. In the end, smoking and drying are so much more than managing the humidity and applying dry smoke to the product. The smokehouse team looking after the factory is entrusted with the final look and feel of the product along with taste and shelf life (food safety).

I have found the Kerres team to be the best to outsource the final look, feel and texture of the product to. I base this statement on the versatility of their equipment. It is a familiar frustration to all production managers that they buy equipment and lock themselves into a certain processing system which invariably comes to haunt them later when they want to change the production system. In smokehouse technology, it is clearly seen in the choice between a system with vertical or horizontal airflow.

As a case in point, consider the change from natural or artificial casings and the emergence of alginate casing technology. The use of alginate casing technology has become widely available, in South Africa, through the spice supplier Freddy Hirsch, but when drying, the sausages can’t hang and are packed on trays which favours a horizontal airflow and not the vertical airflow systems used when smoking sausages that hang on smoke sticks and are linked together. So, ineffective smokehouses now become an obstacle when the production manager wants to change how the sausages are produced.

Even more, what do you do if you only want to change part of the processing system to alginate casings and still offer the consumers the natural or collagen casings they are used to?

The same applies to bacon processing technology. The traditional way is to hang the bacon in the smoke chamber. However, the latest method of bacon processing using grids to “shape” the bacon, favours again a horizontal airflow system as opposed to the vertical flow systems. The latter is favoured by the traditional way of hanging the bacon. (Best Bacon and Rib System on Earth)

Because drying/ cooking/ smoking is so important in the final product, it is surprising that many owners/ investors or managers base their decision on “an easy deal” or the cheapest option available to them. The wrong smokehouse partners are one of the most expensive mistakes we’ve made at Woody’s!

The Kerres smoker has a hybrid system that incorporates both horizontal and vertical airflow. They offer it as an added option, but in my mind, it is an easy decision!

The Kerres Hybrid system caters for vertical as well as horizontal airflow and smoke distribution.

What amazes me is the level of information available about these matters for people like Robert Henderson and myself who have an interest in the roots of our trade. From the roots in the kitchen of farmhouses to its incorporation into a high throughput factory in Melbourne, Australia, the story of the smokehouse takes its rightful place in the grand tale of bacon and as we look at it, we continue to discover the art of living!

Lots of LOVE,

Dad.


green-next
green-previous
green-home-icon

(c) eben van tonder

Stay in tough through Facebook

Stay up to date with the latest posts by joining Earthworm Express on Facebook



References

Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 26 Oct 1841, Tue

Richard Bradley. 1726. A General Treatise of Husbandry and Gardening. T Woodward.

Richard Bradley. 1736. In the Gentleman and Farmer’s Guide for the Increase and Improvement of Cattle. . . G. S. Mears

Buffalo Gazette (Village of Buffalo, New York), 01 Jun 1813, Tue

Edgefield Advertiser (Edgefield, South Carolina)

The English and Australian Cookery Book. 1864. By an Australian Aristologist. Sampson Lowson, and Marston.

The Home Journal (Winchester, Tennessee), 05 Dec 1856, Fri

Godfrey, W. H., F.S.A., F.R.I.B.A. Bour Park, Near Canterbury. Archeological Constantia, Vol 41, 1929

Illustrated Australian News for Home Readers (Melbourne, Vic. : 1867 – 1875)  Tue 15 Jul 1873

Lancaster Intelligencer (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), 22 Nov 1833, Fri

Newbern Sentinel (New Bern, North Carolina), 05 Feb 1820, Sat

New England Farmer (Boston, Massachusetts), 29 Jan 1840, Wed

The Pennsylvania Packet (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 15 Jul 1795, Wed

The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 29 Dec 1796, Thu

Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald (York, North Yorkshire, England), 26 Dec 1840, Sat