Until the latter years of the twentieth century, bacon followed a parallel path to the rest of the pig sector, taking its share of knocks on the way. Processors could sell as many loins of bacon as they could get their hands on, but they were held back by a balancing act, otherwise known as balancing the carcase.
The common sense, sturdy construction of this wooden egg crate and thousands like it ensured that once the eggs had been wrapped with a layer of crepe paper, they were good for journeys across Europe. France, Holland and Denmark all exported eggs to England in the latter half of the 19th century and on into the 20th.
Meet Tollund man, whose body was recovered from a peat bog in Denmark in 1950. His face is one of a handful to have survived down the centuries from an age when finding food in Europe was a constant struggle. The cadaver was so well preserved in the sphagnum moss that scientists have had an opportunity to investigate Tollund man’s last meal.
This was a rough gruel made from seeds and grain, including barley, flax and common knotweed. There is no way of knowing whether Tollund man ate as frequently as once a day, but every last morsel of food came from his immediate surroundings.
There was no question of exotic or imported food reaching such a humble soul. This may strike us as strange since we live in a world where foods of all descriptions travel halfway round the world. We need to recognise that Tollund man had marginal existence rather than a sustainable diet. How he survived is a mystery to us in the twenty first century, but we are about to relearn the skill set or perish in the attempt. The plants Tollund man harvested can still be found at certain times during the year and these harvests will reclaim their relevance to our times, probably within our lifetimes.
We should not think of Tollund man as a survivor in a hostile environment that has long since been domesticated but recognise that this former denizen of the wild prehistoric lowlands has a lesson for us. Regardless of how he met his end, Tollund man lived by foraging and had skills that we are likely to need once more.
The first shipment of Danish bacon arrived in October 1847. Through the nineteenth century, Denmark used to export wheat to Britain, but North America’s railway network reached the east coast in the 1840s and generated a tidal wave of cheap grain across Europe. Like the rest of its European neighbours, Denmark was unable to compete with transatlantic prices and turned instead to converting American grain into eggs, dairy products and bacon. At this time, the whey left over from cheesemaking was fed to pigs, who can put on 100 grams a day to their body weight.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Danish agriculture underwent a transformation in which livestock cooperatives flourished, especially those raising pigs. In 1887, Germany banned imports of Danish pigs and bacon, which pushed the cooperatives to increase the volumes of bacon shipped to the UK. It is worth remembering that without universal refrigeration, pigmeat had to travel as salt pork or bacon.