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! :-


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!


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

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


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 11.04: Wiltshire Cured or Tank Cured Bacon

Wiltshire Cured or Tank Cured Bacon
Eben van Tonder
12 December 2021

Available in PDF:


One of the most important British heritage bacon is Wiltshire bacon. Not only was the legendary curing operation of C & T Harris located in Calne, Wiltshire, but the curers from the county created legendary bacon for centuries.

Wiltshire Cured Ham, Wiltshire Cured Bacon, Wiltshire Cured Gammon is eligible for consideration as a traditional speciality guaranteed (TSG) product. The British Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs launched an application process to afford the terms special protection and to specify the manufacturing process of such products.

Considering the application, I did more research on the subject to pull various historical strands together and ask the question, what is Wiltshire Bacon/ Ham? I divide this document into two parts. First, a historical consideration where I rely on my own research over many years and for the technical description of how Wiltshire bacon and ham is cured, I exclusively quote sections from the discussion document set out as part of the TSG registration process.

My latest work and updates, like this chapter, forms part of Bacon & the Art of Living. I reference several important chapters. Each chapter is coated in a story format where I write letters to my kids as I discover bacon curing and learn about life. I am sure this will frustrate many to no end, but when I conceived the idea, I wanted a book that people will read from beginning to end. I am convinced that I did not achieve this due to my lack of talent in writing narrative, and also because of both the complexity and volume of the subject matter. Still, the format stands and those who read it will have to excuse me. The research underpinning each chapter I reference is sound!


Early Reference to Wiltshire Bacon

The bacon curers from Wiltshire have been known for their excellent quality of bacon and hams for an exceedingly long time. Below is a short selection of references to Wilshire cured bacon in major international newspapers. The earliest I could find goes back to 1759.

“Fine Wiltshire Bacon” mentioned. (The Public Advertiser, 1759)

A “Bacon Rack” is mentioned in Bath. (The Bath Chronicle, 1764)

“Best town-made bacon” is mentioned in Bath. (The Bath Chronicle, 1790)

Wiltshire cheese and bacon (The Morning Chronicle, 1812)

Wiltshire bacon mentioned. (The Morning Chronicle, 1814)

In a list of winter provisions, Wiltshire Smoked Bacon (The Caledonian Mercury, 1818)

A reference to Wiltshire bacon for sale (The Morning Chronicle, 1822)

The phrase, “The average price of Wiltshire Bacon?” appears in a poem. (Pensacola Gazette, 1823)

“Real Wiltshire Bacon for breakfast,” advertised. (The Morning Post, 1838)

The Handbook of Domestic Cookery, 1839 had a section entitled Wiltshire Bacon (The Era, 1839)

There is a reference from a book by Daniel Defoe, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, published which goes back even further, to 1720 about a strong pork industry in Wiltshire on account of the abundance of whey from the local dairy industry.  He makes mention of large quantities of bacon sent from among other, Wiltshire to London. He wrote, “The bacon is raised in such quantities here, by reason of the great dairies . . . the hogs being fed with the vast quantity of whey, and skim’d milk, which so many farmers have to spare, and which must otherwise be thrown away.”  (Malcolmson, 1998)

C & T Harris: Located in Calne

The firm, C&T Harris (Calne), is, without doubt, one of the most famous Wiltshire curers. Their fame is such that it is easy to equate Wiltshire cure and Wiltshire cuts with Harris cures and Harris cuts. This, however, is not necessarily always the case despite Calne being in Wiltshire. I will therefore give special mention of them. The fact that the small town of Calne in Wiltshire played a key role in the history of curing in the region stems from both the strong dairy industry where pigs follow dairy on account of the abundance of whey and the import of Irish pigs through Bristol to London.

There was a strong supply of imported pigs from Ireland. Between 1770 and 1800 exports of Irish pork to England increased eight-fold.  Over 60% of the Irish imports into England was done to London. (Cullen, 1968) The pigs arrived by ship in Bristol and were walked on the hoof all the way to London. Along the way, it was important to rest the animals and give them a chance to graze to ensure good meat quality when they arrive in London. The small town of Calne, in North Wiltshire, was a convenient stop-over on the long walk.    

Not only were the pigs in abundance, but they came at decent prices and from a diversity of suppliers. Pork is a commodity, the price of which fluctuates on a daily or weekly basis.  The price is an indication of its availability and some level of price stability for quality pigs are an important requirement for a successful curing operation.  It was important back then as it is important today.

Another reason for the existence of a strong curing industry is the abundant availability of saltpetre in Calne. “The geology around Calne was excellent for saltpetre. The Calne Guild Stewards’ Book has an entry for 1654 listing payment for the removal of saltpetre tubs. It is mentioned in relation to glassmaking in the 17th Century. A token was found for use at the glasshouse in Calne, suggesting there was glass manufacture going on in the town, although no record has been found of it. Saltpetre is essential for making glass.  The antiquarian John Aubrey in his book ‘Topographical Collections’ 1659-70, says concerning Calne that the ‘Sand on the hills here about is very fit for glass making.’ He described it as being very white and having the largest grains he had ever seen. He also mentions on page 94, ‘The deep lane from Bowden to Raybridge is very full of nitre, as a warm day will indicate.’ Bowden Hill and Raybridge are only a few miles from Calne.” (SB)

The first Harris to come to Calne was the widow, Sarah Harris in 1770, who moved there with her son, John Harris. They were living in a small market town of Devizes, about ten miles from Calne. When they moved to Calne, Sarah set up in a small property in Butchers Row. John must have been around 10 years old. (SB) This means that when they arrived, Wiltshire bacon was already famed for its quality.

When John died in 1791 the business was carried on by his wife but on a small scale. (SB) She ‘thought it a good week if she had killed five or six pigs and sold clear out on a Saturday night’. Two of her sons helped her in the butchery, John and Henry. (british-history) When she passed away, she left in her will £60 to each of her three sons, John, Henry and James. Henry and James were twins, but James had no interest in butchery and became a civil servant. (SB) As John and Henry’s own bacon interests grew over the years, this must have been a story that she told them many times and it must have been a favourite family tale.

“Her one son, John, married Mary Perkins in 1808, who, in 1805/1806, opened a butcher’s shop and bacon curing business of his own in Calne, High Street. His younger brother, Henry Harris, married Sophia Perkins in 1813. He managed the Perkins Family Grocery and Butchers in Butcher’s Row (later Church Street). He took the business over when his father-in-law passed away.”

“John and Mary had twelve children. Disaster struck the young family when John passed away at a young age in 1837. “His wife, Mary, continued to run the business until eventually handing it over to one of their sons, Thomas. Henry and Sophia were childless and looked after four of John’s children. He left the Church Street business to his nephew George. Charles later joined George as a partner in Church Street. John’s son Thomas took over the High Street business when his father died. George died in 1861, leaving Charles running the Church Street factory. Charles and Thomas amalgamated their businesses in 1888. It is interesting to note that one of Thomas Harris’ sons struck out on his own and founded the Bowyers Bacon factory in Trowbridge.” (SB)

C & T Harris: Sweet Cured Bacon

The first progression of curing technology came in the 1840s when the Harris brothers invented Sweet Cured bacon. What this cure exactly was is a question that I have wrestled with over the years. The most complete treatment of the subject is given in Bacon & the Art of Living under Sweet Cured Harris Bacon, with support for the main conclusion related to the smoking of bacon found in Robert Henderson and the Invention of the Smokehouse and related to the injection of meat, found in Dublin and the Injection of Meat. The thoughts on the development of tank curing are taken further in Harris Bacon – From Pale Dried to Tank Curing!

There is a record showing that C & T Harris (Calne) used injection with their bacon from 1843 (SB). After it was dry-cured, the meat was smoked at a temperature of not higher than 38 deg C (100 deg F) in order to prevent nitrate burn which presents itself as green spots that appear on the meat. In the report, mention is also made that care should be taken if these products are stored to prevent damage from insects such as cheese skippers, mites, red-legged ham beetles, and larder beetles.  (Hui, 2012) The result was sweet cured bacon!

After careful considerations of all the available evidence in Sweet Cured Harris Bacon, I conclude that sweet cured bacon was cured with less salt and saltpetre, with or without the addition of sugar and smoked immediately after curing in a built-for-purpose smokehouse which resulted in less moisture loss (and therefore tasted less salty); liquid brine was injected with a single needle injector into the meat which further allowed for reduced salt levels and cover brine may or may not have been used.”

Wiltshire Cure 1843

If Harris changed to Sweet Cured Bacon, it is interesting to look at another reference to Wiltshire curing in 1843. An article from the Yorkshire Herald and the York Herald (1840) reports on the following method of curing used in Hants, Wilts, and Somerset. “Somersetshire and Wiltshire bacon which is the best in England is cured as follows:- The sides of the hogs are laid in large wooden throughs sprinkled with bay salt and left unturned for 24 hours, to drain off the blood and juices. Then they are taken out and wiped quite dry, and some bay salt previously heated in an iron frying pan is rubbed into the flesh till enough of it is absorbed. This is continued for four consecutive days during which the flitches are turned every second day. With large hogs, the flitches must be kept in the brine for three weeks and must be turned every other day, after which they are dried as usual. In these methods, the skin or hide is left on but in some counties, there is a different practice, which has been recommended abroad as preferable because it affords an opportunity of converting the skin into leather, while the meat takes the salt and is cured as well as in the former mode. The hides of swine have long been made into shoes in China. Where the consumption of bacon is very rapid, the last-mentioned practice may be adopted but it is certain that bacon will in a short time become rusty and consequent loss be incurred if it be not cured with the rind and kept in a dry room.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1843)

That both a liquid brine as well as dry salt is used is stated plainly. The bacon is either “salted in brine or with dry salt and then either kept moist as pickled pork or merely dried; white bacon or cured, dried and smoked bacon;” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1843)

“Other interesting processing techniques are described from across England. “In Hampshire, and some adjoining counties after the hog is killed, they first swale him or singe off the hairs, by kindling a fire around him which is far preferable than scraping off the bristles with warm water, as the latter mode softens the rind, and injures the firmness of the flesh.” Old postcards from Harris in Calne shows that this was practised in Wiltshire also.

Michael Caswell sent me the postcard. He grew up in Calne and his personal recollections include the Harris Bacon factory and the pigs on hoof en route to London from Bristol. He writes about the postcard, “this historic postcard shows what most local people did with their backyard pigs shortly after slaughter. The pigs were laid on a bed of straw and then the straw was set alight to burn off all the hair! Pretty simple really.”

The description of Hampshire curing continues. “He is then cut into flitches, which is well rubbed with common salt and saltpetre mixed and are laid in a through, where they continue for three weeks or a month, according to the size and are often turned. They are then taken out, suspended in a chimney or over a wood or turf fire or in regular curing-houses till they are quite dry.

In Kent, they are dried before a slack fire, which requires a similar method and time to that employed in salting. They are hung up or deposited on racks for use.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 1843)

What is interesting is that there is no reference to the re-use of old brines, the injection of liquid brine into meat or the use of built-for-purpose smokehouses. It would appear that our conclusions about the nature of the invention of sweet cured bacon are on solid ground.

What set different bacon’s apart?

The fact that matters such as singeing vs scalding was features that set different curing traditions apart is clear. A case was brought before a count in Northern Ireland under the Merchandise Markets Act related to the designation of a product as Wiltshire Bacon. The matter of what sets one kind of bacon apart from the other is set out in the court case. “He understood that there was in the trade a very well-known distinction between “Cumberland cut bacon” and “Cumberland bacon” and “Wiltshire bacon” and “Wiltshire Cut Bacon;” in fact, there was a particular method of dealing with the curing of bacon that was described and known in the trade, and used by the wholesale houses in the trade under the phrase. It applied partly to the singeing of the bacon – in one it is singed and in one it is scraped off. . .” (Belfast News-Letter, 1892)

C & T Harris: The invention of Ice Cured Bacon

In the mid-1800s, catastrophic events unfolded in Ireland that precipitated George’s travel plans. A devastating potato famine occurred between 1845 and 1852. When it was all over, more than a million people died and another million immigrated to flee the devastating conditions in Ireland.

The mass migration of people from Ireland to places like the USA happened on an unprecedented scale. It was reported in England that the emigration of 1847 would probably end up being as high as between 200,000 or 300,000 people from Ireland alone. An international effort followed and government agents from Europe prepared for the influx of people as the number of Irish heading to the port cities of the continent dramatically increased. Vessels were being hired to ship people to such cities at an ever-increasing rate, and Captains were forced to carry full compliments of passengers on every voyage, sometimes even exceeding the legal limits. (theshipslist)

The disaster in Ireland had a severe impact on the Harris brothers, as it did on food production around the world. The pigs stopped arriving in Bristol, threatening the existence of the butchers of Calne. George Harris and his mom, Mary, hatched a plan to rescue the situation.

The plan was ingenious. George would leave for America to set up a pork business with an American farmer. They would slaughter the animals and figure out a way to carry the meat across the Atlantic, packed in boxes, well-salted to prevent spoilage. The plan was that the meat would cure in transit into ham. (Smithsonianmag) The plan was not novel. By 1847, barrel pork had been exported from America to England for years. On Saturday, 4 November 1843, a circular appeared in Boon’s Lick Times (Fayette, Missouri) by George K. Budd, where advice is given to American pork producers on what they can do to ensure that the barrel pork reaches England in an excellent condition to fetch the best possible price.

The plan seems to have been for the 23-year-old George to procure the pigs directly from farmers as opposed to buying it from American packing plants. If George could procure the pigs directly from the farmers, pack the pork in America and export it, the Harris brothers would cut out the middlemen and would again regain not only their supply of foreign pork but also affect the imports at the best possible price. The supply of cured meat for bacon from America to England was, however, the poor quality barrel pork. Besides buying the pork directly from the farmers and packing it himself in the USA for export to England, George planned to do it by using their well-known dry cure process. George was the innovator and the driving force behind the Harris brothers. His brothers said about him, “Of all us brothers, George was a long way ahead; he was the smartest businessman of any of us. He was the means of lifting us out of the old rut and laid the foundation of the new system and its prosperous future.” (SB)

“For a year he travelled about America visiting many bacon-curers and sending home bacon, lard, cheese, and other provisions. After a brief visit home in the summer of 1848, he again returned to America and opened a bacon curing establishment in Schenectady (New York State). The venture was not successful, however, and the American branch was closed.” (british-history) If George travelled around in America for a year it would set the date for his trip to America to around 1846 which is after “sweet cure” was introduced by them. He could therefore not have gotten the idea from America as is cited in several sources.

George persuaded his brother Charles, who owned the Grocer and Butchers shop on Butchers Row with Thomas and some of his staff, to go back to America with him and look at the process. “As a result, both he and Charles set up ice houses in their separate factories.” (SB) The first ice-house was constructed at the High Street factory in 1856.

After a great deal of experimentation, it was found that charcoal was the best insulating material for use in the walls around the ice chamber. This fascinated me because it was the exact way that the “cooler” on my grandparents’ farm was built. Laid out with bricks on the outside and filled with charcoal on the inside. Water was trickled down the sides from the roof and the result was cooling inside to, oh, if I must think back and try and gauge the temperature, probably at around 15 deg C.

Thatching is extremely popular in Calne, and the Harris ice houses have thatched roofs. A steel-plated ceiling was installed to pack the ice on with drainage outlets. They measured the rate of melting and could estimate the stock of ice that was in the ceiling at any point in time. They used the unemployed and people from the workhouse to collect ice from streams and ponds but in warmer winters it was imported from Norway and transported by Canal. The ice preservation process was patented by Thomas Harris in 1864. (SB)

Two important conclusions follow from this. The first is that sweet cure had nothing to do with refrigeration. Sweet cure was introduced in the ’40s and refrigeration only arrived in Calne in the ’50s. The patent on the icehouse was taken out only in ’64!

The second is that Harris not only brought refrigeration to the bacon trade in England but would re-invent its curing system to incorporate it. So was born, Ice Cured Bacon!

The Harris’s Ice Cured Bacon

When refrigeration was introduced, the Harris brothers invented a famous cure called the “Ice Cure.” (The Gazette, 1904) Ice-cured pork was being marketed as being superior to dry, highly salted cured pork. (Richmond Dispatch, 1871) In 1873 Ice cured bacon is advertised in the USA. (The Norfolk Virginian, 1873)

In 1876, 1877 and 1878 American ice cured bacon is being sold in England. (The Leeds Mercury, 1878, Sat) (The Leeds Mercury, 1877) (The Leeds Mercury, 1876) An 1869 reference from the Pittsburgh Gazette where ice cured meat is advertised is the oldest reference I have in the USA.

In 1885 ice cured pork is listed on the Liverpool Provisions Market. (The Gazette, 1885) An 1871 American article celebrates the virtues of ice cured pork and states that ice cured operations are rapidly increasing. (The Weekly Intelligencer, 1871)

In 1883 an advertisement appeared in the Maidenhead Cookham and Bray, Thames, Angling Association. Diprose, Bateman & Co. London. It references Harris’s Patented Ice Cured Bacon.

The 1888 Overview of C & T Harris by Wyman

We have in Wymann’s Commercial Encyclopedia of Leading Manufacturers of Great Britain (1988) an interesting look back at the ould and current Harris operation. It summarises the business as follows:

John Harris took over from his mom in 1805. Thomas Harris took over from John in 1850. He had three sons, J. M. Harris, Tom Harris and Henry G Harris. On 1 July 1885, they were admitted into partnership with their father, Thomas and the firm Thomas Harris & Sons were created.

The two-story building was serviced with a hydraulic lift. Two large boilers were supplying steam to the equipment. Dedicated smoke rooms were used to smoke the bacon. Smoking bacon took a considerable time and the chambers were kept full. The curing where the bacon is salted before smoking with the and ice rooms were underground.

It reports that important changes were recently made to the curing process. The changes have been made on scientific grounds and are reported to have been done gradually over many years. The system was thought through well and changes have been made only after much experimentation. It claims that the current curing system has been “brought to perfection.”

The essential difference is the incorporation of refrigeration and it relates to the ability to drop the temperature in the curing room if the temperature in the atmosphere is too high. The credit for this invention is given to Thomas Harris who installed the first ice house in England in 1864. This was also patented.

Ice was collected around Calne in the winter, but when it was not too severe, ice was bought from Norway. It reports that the new firm, Thomas Harris & Sons, replaced the old ice chamber with a machine that reduces the temperature. The new machine did, however, not change the method of curing bacon as it was done in the ice house. The rest of the process is described as follows:

  • the carcassess were singeid as per the method of Henry Denny. For a detailed discussion on this, please read The Jewish Master Curer and the Prince of Ireland.
  • Carcassess are removed to another part of the building for cleaning and dressing.
  • Hang for a day.
  • Move sides to the curing room.
  • The great expansion of the bacon trade in calne only really happened after refrigeration was introduced.

The advertisement for Harris Ice Cured bacon in the previous section pins a date of 1883 by which time Ice Cured Bacon was available from Harris. This synopsis from Wymann’s in 1888 shows that at this time it was still a novelty, but the development took years to complete and was present in 1883. 1888 would be an important year in the life of the firm for another reason also!

The Development of Technology in Calne and the birth of C & T Harris and the amagamation in 1888.

“Most of the important bacon-curers throughout the country took advantage of the chance to improve their output by constructing such ice-houses under license.” The volume of trade from the two Harris operations continued to increase throughout this time and in 1863 the Harris family joined with other local interests to finance a branch railway line between Calne and Chippenham. Meanwhile, the income from the ice-house patent together with their own expansion enabled the two Calne businesses to increase their rate of mechanization. “At the High Street premises a new ice-house, furnace, and pigsties were built in 1869; and ten years later it was said that at the Church Street factory the pigs were moved almost entirely by machinery after they had been killed.” (british-history) “The first mechanical refrigeration was introduced in 1885. One 6 ton and one 4 ton Pontifex and wood absorption machines” (SB) “There was always close co-operation between the two firms and in July 1888 they were amalgamated as Charles & Thomas Harris & Co. Ltd.” (british-history) The legend of C & T Harris was born!

What was meant by the term “Wiltshire Bacon”?

Despite the huge influence that the Harris operation had in Wiltshire, Harris bacon and Wiltshire bacon has not always been the same as we can see from the many progressions of Harris bacon. I am sure that many of the innovations filtered through to the rest of the curers in Wiltshire and some did not, notably those protected under Harris patents.

The following advertisement makes it clear that C&T Harris, in their marketing drew a distinction between Wiltshire bacon produced by C&T Harris and those produced by other Wiltshire curers.

What exactly the definition is of Wiltshire bacon is something that was asked from early on. Under the Merchandise Markets Act, another case was heard in 1893 related to this question. John Harris from the form C & T Harris, Calne was called as a witness. In his view, Wiltshire Bacon does not necessarily mean that the hogs came from Wiltshire. He is referenced as saying that “hogs came to Wiltshire from various parts of Great Britain and if cured there he would call it Wiltshire bacon.” Two views emerged. On the one hand, it seemed that the act “meant bacon that was brought up, fed, and cured in Wiltshire, whereas the evidence of Mr Harris was to the effect that swine were brought from various parts of the country into Wiltshire and sold afterwards as Wiltshire bacon.

Wiltshire Cut bacon

A distinction was made, albeit being of a technical nature, between Wiltshire-cured-bacon or hams, and Wiltshire-cut-bacon. One chapter in Bacon & the Art of Living is dedicated to the subject of this paragraph, The Wiltshire Cut

In England, bacon is made from a typical Wiltshire cut or from the whole side of the pig and not just the belly as in the USA. In the photo below a fresh Wiltshire side is shown. The neck bone, blade, backbone, tenderloins, and aitchbones are removed. The feet are cut off at the hock or knee. The entire side is then given a mild sweet pickle, sprinkled with borax, and packed in 300 lb. capacity wooden boxes for shipment to Britain where it is smoked before its sold.

The Gazette, CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA, Tuesday, April 2, 1946

From Sweet-, Ice- and Pale Dried Curing to Tank Curing

The Harris family progressed bacon curing as often as the opportunity presented itself to remain competitive. At some point, they transitioned to tank curing.

– The re-use of old brine

We turn to the 1830 account of wet-curing where we identify important developments in brining technique. The farmer who wrote down the brining technique suggests that the brine mix must be boiled over a gentle fire for the impurities to rise to the top before these were skimmed off and the brine allowed to cool down. (The Complete Grazier, 1830)

When it is cooled down, the brine is poured over the meat so that the meat is completely submerged. Meat from small pigs is kept in the brine for three to four days and longer. An older pig may require one, two, or three days longer. (The Complete Grazier, 1830)

If the meat is intended for hams, it must be left in the brine for two days. At the end of the curing time, rub with pollard (a by-product from the milling of wheat, like bran) and cover with a paper bag to keep flies away. In warm weather, make sure that the blood is all drained from the meat and the meat is rubbed with fine salt before the brine is poured over. (The Complete Grazier, 1830)

Let us look carefully at the description given in the 1830 edition of The Complete Grazier of re-using old brine. The report says that wet cure is more expensive than dry cure unless the brine is re-used. First, the meat is well rubbed with fine salt. A liquor is then poured over the meat and “though the preparation of such brine may, at first sight, appear more expensive than that prepared in the common way, yet we think it deserves a preference, as it may be used a second time with advantage if it be boiled, and a proportionate addition be made of water, and the other ingredients above mentioned.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830)

The “other ingredients above mentioned” refers to the following. “First, let two ounces of saltpetre, one pound and a half of refined sugar, and four pounds of common salt be boiled in two gallons of pure spring water, over a gentle fire, and the impurities, that may rise to the surface, be carefully skimmed off. When this brine is cold, it should be poured over the meat, so as to cover every part.” (The Complete Grazier, 1830)

Three observations should be made here. The 1830 description indicates that this process is still in its infancy. Liquid brine, it says, may appear to be more expensive than if it is done “in the common way” which in the context should refer to dry curing or rubbing a mixture of dry ingredients onto the meat. Secondly, the edition of the Complete Grazier quoted is from the 5th edition which means that by this time, the description may already be 5 years old if it appeared in the 1st edition. The 3rd observation is that the brine can be used “a second time.”

The origins of this brine are not lost in antiquity, and we can know much more than this 1830 description. Catherin the Great, the last reigning Empress Regnant of Russia (from 1762 until 1796) was responsible for the practice. Salt was a heavily taxed commodity. She worked hard to reduce its price on account of the suffering it inflicted on the general Russian population. One of the measures under her reign was to increase the supply. The method of re-using the brine after boiling it was called the Empress of Russia’s Brine and Catherine is credited as the inventor. One of the first regions of the world that adopted this Russian curing practice was Westphalia. Their method of smoking made their hams world-famous and large volumes were exported around the world to America, England, into the rest of Europe and to Russia. For a detailed treatment on Westphalian smoking and the Empress of Russia’s Brine, see Westphalia Bacon and Ham & the Empress of Russia’s Brine: Pre-cursers to Mild Cured Bacon. The detailed look at the Complete Grazier (1830) reference to the boiling of the old brine and re-using it is an important introduction to the Empress of Russia’s Brine because it is clear that Complete Grazier is talking about the same brine with the only difference being that the reference comes from Westphalia. The reign of Catherine the Great makes it clear that the development took place in the latter half of the 1600s.

What in all likelihood happened is that the technology spread to Northern Ireland where it was picked up by William Oake. As a trained chemist, I have a suspicion that he may have been aware of recent discoveries in the early 1800s through the application of the microscope to the natural world that microorganisms existed in the brine and that boiling the brine would either kill these organisms or would not be necessary. Whatever his exact thought patterns were, he progressed the thought of re-using the old brine and removed the boiling step (see Mild Cured Bacon).

The initial practice of re-using the old brine was in the first place done for economic reasons – not to waste the scarce and expensive commodity of salt. Without a doubt, the curers would have noticed the superior curing power of this brine that now contained nitrites. William Oake seized on this concept and made this a key feature in his new mild cured system!

William Youatt who compiled the Complete Grazier repeats this process in his 1852 work, Pigs: A Treatise on the Breeds, Management, Feeding and Medical Treatment of Swine; with directions for salting pork, and curing bacon and Hams. Here he writes, “in three weeks, jowls, &c, may be hung up. Taking out, of pickle, and preparation for hanging up to smoke, is thus performed: — Scrape off the undissolved salt (and if you had put on as much as directed, there will be a considerable quantity on all the pieces not immersed in the brine; this salt and the brine is all saved; the brine boiled down [for re use].” Notice that his 1852 description is far more “matter of fact” and he does not go into all the explanations and caveats he did in the 1830 description.

Youatt is the source for the link to Westphalia. In the above-mentioned publication, 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.”

Neither in Russia, Westphalia, Ireland, or England of the 1600s and 1700s could they have had any idea of why the re-use of old brine worked so well is clear from the following comment he makes in the publication just mentioned. He writes under the heading, “Poisonous Properties of Brine” the following. “It is a fact worthy of notice that the brine in which pork or bacon has been pickled is poisonous to pigs. Several cases are on record in which these animals have died in consequence of a small quantity of brine having been mingled with the wash, under the mistaken impression that it would answer the same purpose and be equally as beneficial as in the admixture of a small quantity of salt.”

The key development related to the reuse of the old brine was therefore Russian. It was taken up by Westphalian curers who exported the idea to places like Ireland. The honour of the first nation to have combined the best practices of the time into one complete and logical system is the Irish.

– Tank Curing: Invented in Ireland

The concept of the re-use of old brine taken to Ireland but in particular to Northern Ireland, to Antrim. The man credited for the invention of mild cured bacon which later became tank curing was a prolific chemist, William Oake from Ulster in Northern Ireland. The earliest mention of mild cured bacon, as it became known, came from Antrim, Northern Ireland as far back as 1837. The chapter in Bacon & the Art of Living dealing with this progression is Mild Cured Bacon. His system is discussed in detail in that chapter and a blow-by-blow comparison is made with dry-cured bacon.

The biggest benefit to consumers of the new system was the improved taste. The benefits to the curing company would be on two levels. On the one hand, is the speed of curing which became increasingly important as industrialization took hold and the concept of the factory. The other was the fact that expensive brine in Oake’s system was continually re-used, which was the reason for the invention of the Empress of Russia’s Brine under Catherine the Great. The question comes up as to Oake’s thought pattern as he progressed it. Is there anything we know from history that can give us insight into his investigations?

Fortunately for us, we have good evidence from history as to the method Oake used to investigate the brine. His main concern was not cost, as was the case of its Russian inventors, but preservation! The cornerstone of mild-curing is the continual use of old brine! It is what reveals the genius of Oake the clearest! Oake investigated the preservation properties of different aspects of the curing process and the ingredients in the brine. What is it that causes bacon and ham to last a long time? He evaluated salt and discovered that on its own it does not have much antiseptic power. The other ingredient regularly used is saltpetre and similarly, it is not very antiseptic if compared to things like boric acid. Even combining it does not offer good preserving properties, but the re-use of old brine is a different matter. If the same brine is used repeatedly and never replaced, it continues to give exceptional preserving power. Oake’s training as a chemist taught him that there had to be something from nature at work but even if he is unable to identify it. He chose to rather harness it than explain it. This meant that his observations were very similar to that of Polenski. Polenski understood it. Oake used it! (See the important work done by Ed Polenski and his seminal article about nitrite curing, The Polenski Letter)

The concept of the mother brine harkens back to the mother dough concept from the sourdough industry but even this link does not explain why it was invented. Even though it was invented to save the salt (reduce the cost), I wonder if Oake did not think about sourdough when he decided to leave out the boiling step. They keep a small piece of dough that they constantly feed and re-use. They call it the mother dough. In some households, there are doughs of which the age is measured in generations. The genius of Oake was not to boil the brine and so destroy the microorganisms responsible for converting the nitrate to nitrite and which contribute to the flavour profile of the hams and bacon thus cured. This allowed for the re-use of bacon or ham brine for many years and the possibility is there that this may have inspired William Oake to use the same approach with the curing brine.

– Tank Curing: Spread to Denmark

The year was 1880. Denmark is a tiny nation. To remain competitive, they realised years earlier that they have to learn as much as they can from other nations and peoples and adapt. For a fascinating insight on the extent to which the Danes took this, read from Bacon & the Art of Living, The Danish Cooperative and Saltpeter.

Every industry in Denmark was constantly looking where new discoveries and how they can adapt. In 1880 there was a strike among butchers in the Irish town of Waterford. Some shrewd members of the Danish pork processing guild happened to be in Ireland at that time, in Waterford. They promised the striking workers lucrative employment in Denmark and persuaded a number to return with them to Denmark. In Denmark, they quickly arranged for them to train their butchers and the new system of mild cured bacon invented by William Oake.

Eight years later this investment in continual education paid off handsomely for the Danes. The Danes were large dairy farmers and a sizable pork industry developed from the by-products of dairy farming. Before 1888, Danish farmers relied on selling all their live pigs in Germany.  The Germans, in turn, produced the finest Hamburg bacon and hams from it and it was mainly sold to England.  Disaster struck the Danish pork industry when swine fever broke out in the autumn of 1887.  This halted all export of live pigs.  Exports to Germany fell from 230 000 in 1886 to only 16 000 in 1888. 

One of the most insane industrial transformations followed. In a staggering display of practical efficiency, the Danes identified the problem, worked out the solution and dedicated every available nation resource to action it. The creation of large bacon curing cooperatives was born out of the need to switch from exporting live pigs to processed pork in the form of bacon and to sell it directly to the country where the Germans were selling the processed Danish pork namely England.  The project was a stunning success. In 1887 the Danish bacon industry accounted for 230 000 live pigs and in 1895, the number of pigs converted to bacon in that one year was 1 250 000 pigs.

After breeding and pig farming, the next step in the process is slaughtering.  On 14 July 1887, 500 farmers from the Horsens region created the first shared abattoir. On 22 December 1887, the first co-operative abattoir in the world, Horsens Andelssvineslagteri (Horsens’s Share Abattoir), received their first live pigs for slaughter. In 1887 and over the next few years eight such cooperative abattoirs were set up and there is still no end in sight for the ongoing expansion.  Each is in excellent running condition.  As in the case of the dairy farmers, each member of the cooperative has one vote.  The profit of the middleman and the volumes exported for butter and bacon are determined by the cooperative. The market price is fixed in Copenhagen on a daily basis by an impartial committee.

William Oake’s mild curing system or tank curing as it would become known became the way that Danish companies cured their pork.

– Tank Curing: Spread to Wiltshire

How exactly tank curing spread to Wiltshire is not known, but I have a very plausible hypothesis. I don’t think that it came to Wiltshire from Denmark, but from Ireland and the man responsible for this was the son of William Oake, William Harwood Oake. At first, I believe that Oake distributed the mild cured bacon produced by his father in Ireland, in the Southwest of England. He set a curing operation up in Dorset, adjacent to Wiltshire. Here his firm, Oake – Woods, used his dad’s basic concept of mild cured bacon along with the key re-use of the old brine and incorporated this in the American curing method of Rapid Curing, invented by Robert Davison. The result was a new system of curing called Auto Curing.

Auto curing turned out to be a highly patentable system and they became the British firm with the largest footprint internationally through the effective marketing of the auto cure system. For a detailed discussion on WH Oakes Auto Cured system, read Oake Woods & Co., Ltd., Rapid – and Auto Cured Bacon, in Bacon & the Art of Living.

It would have been natural, normal and to be expected that staff moved from Gillingham in Dorset to the Wiltshire curers. Slowly but surely, the fundamentals of the repeated use of old brines would have settled in among the Wiltshire curers. Still, the system of curing was at first not called the Irish method, but the Danish method. My guess is that the success of Tulip and the Danish marketing strategy of their bacon in the UK had much to do with this. Even if the Wiltshire curers learned the system from WH Oake in Gillingham, they could easily continue to refer to it as the Danish system due to its wholesale application in Denmark and the presence of a massive quantity of Danish bacon in England. Most certainly, Danish curers must have found employment in Wiltshire. It is a fascinating fact that this seems not to have happened in relation to the Harris operation and I suspect that Harris only acquired the technology either late in the 1800s or early in the 1900s.

– Tank Curing: The Harris Enigma

Clues to the date of the Danish adaption of the system and its subsequent transfer of technology to England come to us from newspaper reports about the only independent farmer-owned Pig Factory in Britain of that time, the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory Ltd. in Elmswell. The factory was set up in 1911. According to an article from the East Anglia Life, April 1964, they learned and practised what at first was known as the Danish method of curing bacon and later became known as tank-curing.

A person was sent from the UK to Denmark in 1910 to learn the new Danish Method. (elmswell-history.org.uk) The Danish method involved the Danish cooperative method of pork production founded by Peter Bojsen on 14 July 1887 in Horsens. (Horsensleksikon.dk. Horsens Andelssvineslagteri)

The East Anglia Life report from April 1964, talked about a “new Danish” method. The “new” aspect in 1910 and 1911 was undoubtedly the tank curing method. Another account from England puts the Danish invention of tank curing early in the 1900s. C. & T. Harris from Wiltshire, UK, switched from dry curing to the Danish method during this time. In a private communication between myself and the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre, Susan Boddington, about John Bromham who started working in the Harris factory in 1920 and became assistant to the chief engineer, she writes: “John Bromham wrote his account around 1986, but as he started in the factory in 1920 his memory went back to a time not long after Harris had switched over to this wet cure.” So, late in the 1800s or early in the 1900’s the Danes imported the Irish system and practised tank-curing which was brought to St. Edmunds around 1911. In the same way, it could have made its way to the Wiltshire curers.

It only stands to reason that the power of “old brine” must have been known from early after wet curing and needle injection of brine into meat was invented around the 1850s by Morgan. Before the bacterial mechanism behind the reduction was understood, butchers must have noted that the meat juices coming out of the meat during dry curing had special “curing power.” It was, however, the Irish who took this practical knowledge, undoubtedly combined it with the scientific knowledge of the time and created the commercial process of tank-curing which later became known as Wiltshire cure.

What we know for certain is that tank curing undoubtedly developed from the Oake Woods factory in Gillingham, Dorset and “diffused” into Wiltshire. It was probably independently incorporated into the Harris operation as was the case with the St. Edmunds Bacon Factory Ltd who both claim to have received the technology from Denmark.

So far with the historical consideration of Wiltshire cured hams and bacon!


Following the historical overview, we now turn our attention to the actual system itself.

Detailed Process Description

I quote extensively from the discussion document made public by the UK’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs entitled “Wiltshire Cured Ham, Wiltshire Cured Bacon, Wiltshire Cured Gammon product specification” found at https://www.gov.uk/protected-food-drink-names/wiltshire-cured-ham-wiltshire-cured-bacon-wiltshire-cured-gammon. I omit their section where they give the historical background due to errors in their document.

Wiltshire Cured Bacon & Wiltshire Cured Gammon

Uncooked – Moist but not wet with a dark deep red/pink cured appearance with creamy white internal fat. An iridescent colour effect may be present after slicing due to light refraction across the cut surface of the muscle. Whilst a slight mature/musty odour is normal, it must be free from any indication of spoilage or rancidity.

Cooked – The meat has a dark pink appearance that is free grey patches within the muscle which is a sign of mis-cure. External fat has a golden/ light caramelised brown colour which is darker towards the edge of the rasher. Small amounts of white exudate (‘cook out’) may be seen on the surface of the product. Wiltshire Cured Bacon & Gammon is moist and succulent with a firm but tender texture. It has a fresh clean meaty aroma and the bacteria in the live brine imparts a malty buttery flavour with hints of yogurt. Wiltshire Cured Bacon & Gammon tastes slightly more meaty and saltier than non-cured bacon & gammon.

The ham, bacon & gammon must meet the physical criteria as presented in the latest version of the British Quality Assured Pork (BQAP) Standards Ham & Cooked Pork modules and Bacon &Gammon modules including the additional criteria as follows: –

Finished product salt level:

ProductTarget (per 100g)Range (per 100g)
Ham (cooked)2.4g1.6 – 3.4g
Bacon (raw)2.6g1.5 – 3.7g
Gammon (raw)3.5g2.0 – 4.5g


Wiltshire Cured Ham, Bacon & Gammon must meet the legally permitted levels of nitrites and nitrates as laid out in relevant regulation. The limits for both nitrites and nitrates relate to the maximum residual levels permitted in finished products. (Nitrates may be present in some heat-treated meat products resulting from natural conversion of nitrites to nitrates in a low-acid environment)

ProductNameE-numberMaximum level (mg/kg)
Wiltshire Cured Ham  Potassium Nitrite Sodium NitriteE249 E250100
Sodium Nitrate Potassium NitrateE251 E252250
Wiltshire Cured Bacon and Gammon  Potassium Nitrite Sodium NitriteE249 E250175
Sodium Nitrate Potassium NitrateE251 E252250
Sodium Nitrate Potassium NitrateE251 E252250

– Production method

Wiltshire cure is a process by which pork is wet cured by pumping brine into the meat at numerous points with either a single or multi – needle injector. The meat is then immersed in a “live” brine which is maintained indefinitely to allow ongoing re-use.


  • Pork raw material
  • Injection brine
  • Live cover brine

Pork Raw Material

Only British pork material accredited to the relevant BQAP standard can be used in the production of Wiltshire Cure products. Pork raw material must be either cured on the side, as primal cut, or as individually butchered muscles. The use of ham hock incorporating primary and/or secondary hock muscle may be used. The pork may be fresh or frozen, but if frozen must be thawed before curing begins.

Fresh Injection Brine Composition

The injection brine must be fresh brine only, composed of the following ingredients:

Bacon and Gammon

IngredientTargetAcceptable Range
Sodium chloride (salt)20%18 – 22%
Sodium or potassium nitrite0.5%0.1 – 0.6%
Sodium or potassium nitrate0.1%0 – 0.2%
Water (potable)79%77– 82%
Injection liquidTarget UptakeAcceptable Range
Fresh injection brine10%8 – 12%


IngredientTargetAcceptable Range
Sodium chloride (salt)18%13 – 22%
Sodium or potassium nitrite0.5%0.1 – 0.6%
Sodium or potassium nitrate0.1%0 – 0.2%
Water80%77 – 88%
Injection liquidTarget UptakeAcceptable Range
Fresh injection brineN/A6-20%


  • Due to variance in product size some of the acceptable ranges are broad allowing for a more consistent final product.
  • Fresh brine must be used within 24 hours of preparation
  • Fresh injection brine must be maintained at 4°C, with a tolerance of 1-7°C
  • Nitrite and nitrate legal limits relate to the maximum residual levels (not added levels) permitted in finished products.
  • All percentages are expressed as weight on volume of brine solution.
  • The solutes must be evenly dispersed throughout the brine.

Live Cover Brine

In the Wiltshire-curing process, a live cover brine is continually reused and must be maintained in a stable condition with a predictable and controlled rate of conversion of nitrate to nitrite, which then goes on to become the active curing compound. However, it is recognised brines may vary in their behaviour due to differences in their microbial.

For the live cover brine to mature and stabilise the fresh batch must be used to cure other non-Wiltshire cured pork products for at least two months before it can be used to manufacture Wiltshire Cured Ham, Bacon or Gammon.

The ideal temperature for the live cover brine is +3°C but a range of +1°C to +5°C is acceptable.

The pH value of a live cover brine should stay within a range of 5.0 – 6.9 and must be measured whenever brine is being re-strengthened. Live cover brine with pH outside this range can be used providing the brine remains stable (different starter cultures can create different pH levels).

Procedures must be in place to ensure the compositional targets and tolerances (salt, nitrate, nitrite, pH and temperature) of the cover brine are maintained and, when necessary, corrective action taken.

Due to yield loss the quantity of live cover brine will deplete over time and will require “topping-up” In extreme circumstances, the creation of a new batch of live cover brine may be required. Where a “top-up” brine is used it must not exceed 25% of the mother (original) batch of live cover brine.

If a live cover brines is not in regular use it must be regularly aerated and monitored to maintain its condition.

Records must be maintained for live cover brine composition. A recorded log of cover brine history, adjustment and “top-up” must be kept verifying composition and provenance.

Use of starter culture for live cover brine:

The use of a starter culture in the production of Wiltshire-cured products is restricted to the creation of a fresh batch of cover brine after the original has been lost or has soured or spoiled.

A starter culture ensures that the right microbiological flora is present for the live brine to mature to a point where it can be self-maintaining with only the occasional additions of salt, nitrite, and nitrate to maintain its condition.

Typical numbers of microflora are a CFU count greater than 106 and are predominantly made up of large concentrations of micrococci and lactobacilli. Once the mature live cover brine has been created the brine can then be re-used without further addition of the starter culture. The unique production method of continual reuse of the live cover brine maintains an active live microbial population.

It is not necessary for a culture to be added prior to each immersion; the culture may well be present within the permittable parameters from previous use of the immersion solution. However, before you use the brine you will need to check that the live cover brines meet the requirements. If you need to add a starter culture, then this should be considered and added if there is a need.

The unique production method of continual reuse of the live cover brine maintains an active live microbial population. As a mature brine, Wiltshire brine is an environment in which microbial populations are in strong competition with each other, aiding a homeostatic environment. It should be noted that live cover brines will vary in their microbial makeup and change over time and with replenishment frequency.

The table below shows the acceptable concentrations of added ingredients in an established live cover brine which is ready for use in Wiltshire curing. To achieve the compositional requirements stated, constant monitoring and adjustment of the brine is necessary.

Method of production:

  • All prepared pork raw materials for curing must be clean, free of blood, bruising, bone splinters, dust and loose pieces of meat or glands.
  • Fresh injection brine injection may be carried out either by single or multi-needle injection. Injection brines should be at an optimal temperature of 4°C (may range between 1-7°C).
  • Pork must be fully immersed in the live cover brine for a minimum period of 3 days (72 hours). The brine should be at an optimal temperature of 3°C (may range between 1-5°C).
  • Excess surface brine drains off and the lean and fat become firmer in texture and noticeably drier. These changes are due to the gelling of the water/salt/protein complex formed within the meat during curing and a gradual hardening of the fat as the crystallizing process continues after slaughter.
  • The pork can then be used to produce bacon, gammon or ham according to producer requirements.
  • Post-cure boning, cutting, slicing and similar operations must be carried out with minimal damage to soft tissues.

Traditional Wood Smoking

Wiltshire Cured Bacon, Gammon and Ham may be smoked in a temperature-controlled smoking chamber. However, this must be carried out using natural wood smoke derived from charred and smouldered hard woods such as oak, beech or applewood. Scented or resinous wood such as conifer is not allowed due to their tendency to tar and/or taint the resulting product. Wood flavours, wood extracts or liquid smoke applications are not permitted.

The evolution of the brine played a significant role in the production process and the development of the flavour of Wiltshire-cured products. The unique production method of continual reuse of the live cover brine maintains an active live microflora and bacterial population.


The background of the legendary bacon, hams and gammons from Wiltshire is buried under mountains of information. It has been my pleasure unearthing these over the past 10 years and sharing them with the curing community. Combining the story I uncovered with the application for special protection of the name in England is particularly rewarding!

I will transform this chapter into the story format of bacon & the Art of Living at a later stage, but for now, I retain it with its more “formal” character.

Please mail me with errors of any kind that I made or any additional information you wish to share. My SA number for whatsapp is +27 71 545 3029 or you can mail me at ebenvt@gmail.com.

Further Reading

The Mother Brine

Chapter 09.01 – Mild Cured Bacon

Tank Curing Came From Ireland

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


The Bath Chronicle (Bath, Avon, England), 19 Apr 1764, Thu

The Bath Chronicle (Bath, Avon, England), 07 Oct 1790, Thu

Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 20 Apr 1892, Wed

Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Antrim, Northern Ireland), 1841


The Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland), 10 Dec 1818, Thu

Calgary Herald (Calgary, Alberta, Canada), 02 Dec 1912, Mon)

The Complete Grazier. 1830. Fifth edition. Paternoster Row. Baldwin and Cradock

Cullen, L. M..  1968.  Anglo-Irish Trade, 1660-1800.  The University Press, Manchester.

The Era (London, Greater London, England), 10 Mar 1839, Sun

The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 15 Mar 1904, Tue

The Gazette (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 20 Oct 1885, Tue

The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Tuesday, April 2, 1946

The Leeds Mercury, 1877) (The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, West Yorkshire, England), 18 Nov 1876, Sat

The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, West Yorkshire, England), 15 Dec 1877, Sat

The Leeds Mercury (Leeds, West Yorkshire, England), 06 Jul 1878, Sat

Maidenhead Cookham and Bray, Thames, Angling Association. Diprose, Bateman & Co. London. 1883.

Malcolmson, R. and Mastoris, S..  1998.  The English Pig: A History.  Hambledon Press.

The Morning Chronicle (London, Greater London, England), 20 Jun 1812, Sat

The Morning Chronicle (London, Greater London, England), 26 Apr 1814, Tue

The Morning Chronicle (London, Greater London, England), 12 Sep 1822, Thu

The Morning Post (London, Greater London, England), 02 Mar 1838, Fri

The Norfolk Virginian (Norfolk, Virginia), 15 Sep 1873, Mon

Pensacola Gazette (Pensacola, Florida), 14 Jun 1823, Sat

The Pittsburgh Gazette. (Pittsburgh, Pa.) 1866-1877, July 17, 1869

The Public Advertiser (London, Greater London, England), 12 Apr 1759, Thu

Richmond Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 21 Nov 1871, Tue

www.theshipslist.com/1847/ Emigration – To North America In 1847

www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-one-family-helped-change-the-way-we-eat-ham-21978817, article by Rachel Nuwer

Susan Boddington (SB) is the curator of the Calne Heritage Centre.  Information from private correspondence.

The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia), 14 Apr 1843, Fri

The Weekly Intelligencer (Paris, Tennessee), 30 Nov 1871, Thu

Wymann’s Commercial Encyclopedia of Leading Manufacturers of Great Britain, Wyman & Sons, 1988

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

C & T Harris: The Complete Collection

C & T Harris: The Complete Collection
By Eben van Tonder
19 June 2021

Photo from our Solheim apartment in Johannesburg. A multi-needle injector from the Harris factory.


The first article I did on C&T Harris appeared on 20 May 2015. Over the years I updated and expanded it. Susan Boddington, a historian and author from Wiltshire was the first person to become a valued collaborator. She continues to work closely with me. Mike Caswell who grew up in Calne joined the efforts with a wealth of first-hand information and sharing the results of dedicated research. There are many others from all over the world.

When I ran the Johannesburg company, Van Wyngaardt with Paul Fickling for Etienne Lotter and his Etlin International, my year and a half in Johannesburg gave me the opportunity to complete the first major draft of my book on the history of bacon, Bacon & the Art of Living. My daughter, Lauren, joined me when she was employed to manage the in-store campaigns for Van Wyngaardt and for weeks on end I would get back to our Solheim apartment where she would prepare dinner while I would write. It gave me the chance to expand this early article into several chapters in my book.

When I contracted Covid a second time in 2021, as sick as I was, I saw an opportunity for another major revision. By this weekend, still recovering, I managed to re-work all the chapters dealing with the Harris operation in Calne. In my book, I presented the story in narrative form. This style may be annoying to some but it proved to a very useful investigative technique as it forced me to think through every process in the 1st person and allowed me to see relationships between seemingly unconnected bits of technology in a completely new and holistic way. By, as it were, “living in the moment,” I gained insights I would never have seen if I simply reported the features of each system separately.

From Bacon & the Art of Living

Below is the list of chapters dealing specifically with the Harris operation for those who desire to confine their enquiry to Harris.

The Invention of the Needle Injection of Brine

One very important additional chapter must be grouped here. Chapter 10.14 Dublin and the Injection of Meat deals with the invention of stitch pumping and arterial injection in particular. Harris used this system for many years. It places the invention of using a needle to inject brine into meat in the right time when Harris started using stitch pumping which directly resulted in the invention of sweet cured bacon. In this chapter I also develops the benefits of pre-rigour meat injection in great detail. It must logically therefore be grouped with the general work on Harris bacon as it shows the invention of processes which was either pioneered by them or used, in cases where it was invented by others.

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The Complete History of Bacon.