The Great Nitrate Debate….


One of the questions I get asked most often is wether or not I use nitrates in the curing of my meats. It is a very controversial subject and I will try to put as many facts together in this post so you can decide for yourself. One gentleman who shall remain nameless decided to debate the issue with me on a Sunday night via SMS and he clearly was far more interested in fighting than listening which might be due to the fact that he had no facts to back up his statements. He would not reveal his identity but I managed to track him down , posted some articles of interest and since then he has gone quiet.


What is it and why do we use it…….

Centuries ago the preservation of meat was found to be improved with the addition of saltpetre (potassium nitrate). This most likely occurred by accident and the exact events are unknown however since Roman times nitrates have been added to cured meats to prevent bacterial spoilage, control rancidity and preserve the colour of the meat (3). Today we use sodium nitrate and nitrite and it goes by many names – pink salt, Prague powder, Quick Cure or Quick Red. To give you an idea of the amounts used for 1000g of meat we use 0,08g of nitrate and 0,08g of nitrite. These amounts are too small to accurately weigh out and so the nitrates are combined with normal table salt. The name pink salt derives from the colour as a red dye is added to the salt to prevent it being mistaken for ordinary salt.

How does it work…..

I'm not a scientist nor a food technologist so here is a lay man explaining the process: The added nitrites are converted to nitric oxide. Nitric oxide combines with the myoglobin found in the meat to form nitric oxide myoglobin which is a deep red colour (1). Any added nitrates are converted to nitrites by bacteria and then are converted to nitric oxide. For products with a long curing time, adding nitrates and nitrites is recommended as the nitrates convert to nitrites over time and provide a longer lasting supply of nitrites. At the same time salt (sodium chloride) is added to the meat to dry out the moisture that many bacteria require to thrive.


So why the bad rap…..

Three reasons. Firstly in the 1950s in America infants fed formula from contaminated water were found to have methemoglobinemia (blue baby syndrome) and cyanosis. In essence their blood was unable to carry oxygen. The high levels of nitrates in the water was thought to have caused this and as a result the EPA reduced the recommended intake of nitrates. Subsequently it was discovered that the wells were contaminated with fecal matter and that was more likely to be the cause of the methemoglobinemia. (4)

The second reason is that nitrites can under certain conditions be converted to nitrosamines which can be carcinogenic. These conditions require that secondary amines are present in the meat, the pH is nearly neutral and the product temperature is above 130C as would be the case when frying bacon at high heat. The studies on nitrosamines were conducted on animals and the effects on humans is uncertain due to the high levels and specific amines used. Nitrates and nitrites on their own have not been proven to be carcinogenic. (4)

The third reason are the findings of Jiang et al (6,7,8) regarding the consumption of cured meats and the link to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. They have associated the nitrites in cured meats with damage to the lung without considering that most nitrites ingested come from vegetables and drinking water and additionally the subjects with a higher risk had a higher total energy intake, lower physical activity, higher BMI and higher exposure to smoking.

However did you know….

Vegetable are estimated to contribute 80% of the nitrites we ingest (3)

Plants absorb nitrates from fertiliser

Spinach, celery, radish and beets contain far higher levels of nitrates that cured meats (3)

Saliva converts nitrates to nitrites and this is how we get most of our nitrites

Nitrites help open arteries and can lower blood pressure (4)

“Nitrate free” cured meats usually contain celery juice which provides an alternative source of nitrates

To ingest a fatal dose of nitrites a 60kg human would have to eat over 30kg of cured meat in one go (1)

The nitrate debate is intense. We don't have definitive answers and most of the research calls for further reasearch particularly using human subject instead of animals. In addition causal studies need to be conducted rather than associative studies which are often affected by other factors. Nitrates clearly have benefits and are also toxic in extremely large doses. As with all things moderation is recommended even if you believe they are harmless.

I have listed the articles I used to prepare this post below if you wish to read them. Please feel free to debate the topic further with myself but bear in mind I am not a scientist. If I have misinterpreted the articles please let me know. If you do have a strong opinion please have the decency to include your scientific references in the debate.

1. Nitrite in Meat – Richard J. Epley, Paul B. Addis and Joseph J. Warthesen, University of Minnesota 2012

2. Food sources of nitrates and nitrites: the physiologic context for potential health benefits – Hord NG, Tang Y, Bryan NS, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009

3. Human safety controversies surrounding nitrate and nitrite in the diet – Jeffrey J. Sindelar, Andrew L. Milkowski, University of Wisconsin 2012

4. Nitrate in foods: harmful or healthy? – Martijn B Katan, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2009

5. When does nitrate become a risk for humans? – Powlson DS, Addiscott TM, Benjamin N, Cassman KG, de Kok TM, van Grinsven H, L'Hirondel JL, Avery AA, van Kessel C, Journal of Environmental Quality 2008

6. Consumption of cured meats and prospective risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in women – Jiang R, Camargo CA Jr, Varraso R, Paik DC, Willet WC, Barr RG, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2008

7. Cured meat consumption, lung function and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease among United States adults – Jiang R, Paik DC, Hankinson JL, Barr RG, American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care 2007

8. Prospective study of cured meats consumption and risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in men – Vaqrraso R, Jiang R, Barr RG, Willett WC, Camargo CA Jr, American Journal of Epidemiology 2007


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A Castles Secrets……


I have a cooking cousin, Claudia Cabri aka Miss Lunch who lives in Paris (the French one) and runs a cooking school, restaurant, writes cookbooks and is also an artist. She has Sundays off too, would you believe unless she is collecting capers on the island of Pantelleria which she cures at home. She recently visited us in Cape Town to celebrate my father's 80th and not one to miss an opportunity, she and I agreed to cook a SecretEats dinner last week. For those who do not know what a SecretEats is please follow the link but in essence it is a dinner party you attend without knowing where to go or the menu until the actual day. It is a lot of fun and you meet interesting people. Organiser Greg Zeleny has a slick team that make the job a lot easier and enjoyable.

Claude at the Castle

This particular dinner was an honor to cater for as the venue was the Castle of Good Hope. A long table that can accommodate up to 100 people was made available and it felt as though we were in an alternate version of an episode of Downton Abbey. The Castle has an endearing mixture of preserved history and run down shabbiness and one kept expecting to hear the ghostly sounds of cannons, soldiers and horses. Fortunately the kitchen is huge and prep was easy even though we were on a different level to the dining area. It is also just across from the torture chamber but I believe that is just coincidental.

To make things more interesting cousin Claude and I gave each other 3 ingredients and we each had to design a course around the key ingredient. I gave her smoked trout, pancetta and chocolate. In return she gave me pomegranate, aubergine and berries.


The full menu went as follows:

* Cool Carrot Salad with Smoked Trout and Horseradish Cream

* Wagyu Bresaola with Labneh and Pomegranate

* Grilled Aubergine and Halloumi Stack with Mint Pesto

* Braised Rabbit stuffed with Pancetta and served with Salsa Verde

* Mixed Berry Sabayon

* Almond, Limoncello and White Chocolate Cake with Meringue

It was a lot of hard work and thanks to all the helpers including my wife Justine, Claude, Greg and his team and all the guests who had no idea what they were in for. Claude alas is back in Paris but we are planning our first cookbook together.

Photography courtesy of Samantha Du Toit


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My favourite show in the calendar is soon upon us. The Food Wine Design will be held this year from the 7th to 10th November at Hyde Park Shopping Centre. Organiser Ross Douglas, ably assisted by a team of super organised staff put together a showcase of art, design, top wine estates and some delicious food offerings.


This year the show sponsors, Sanlam, have featured some of the participants and a couple of weeks ago a film crew came to my charcuterie and put together a short clip of us in action. Don't be fooled by the slick oratory skills as my dialogue took several minutes to prepare, um…. If you would like to have a peek it is here

This year at the show we plan to offer some new and exciting products as well as lots of tasty food to eat at the show. Please pop in and say hi and remember that if you cycle to the show entrance is half price.

Everything has it's beauty but not everyone sees it – um Confucius


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Of course…

Two exciting pieces of news dear friends…..

If you are too busy, lazy or frustrated to physically venture into the bricks and mortar world of food shopping you can now get charcuterie delivered to your door. Wild Organics are now offering my products online and have a pick up or home delivery option.


After numerous requests to hold a charcuterie course in Cape Town, I have decided to host a one day course on the 22nd November. If you are interested please contact me for more details.




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Value is the new black…

I have just returned from a wonderful, relaxing honeymoon in Thailand. Consistent hot weather, warm seas, delicious food, friendly service, plentiful public transport and lots and lots of shopping. Whilst our trip was brief and we only experienced a small sliver of Thai life, it was fascinating and thought provoking.

Koh Samui sunset

Koh Samui sunset

Some facts about Thailand:

  • It is approximately the size of France
  • The largest exporter of rice in the world
  • Tourism accounts for just 7% of GDP
  • Exports account for 60% of GDP
  • There are more pictures of the Queen per capita than any other monarchy
  • The population is 65 million of which 94% are Buddhists
  • 7 million people live in Bangkok
  • Thailand was never colonised by a European country
  • There is no decent producer of bacon in the country
  • The Chinese think that the Thai people are lazy

While travelling back on the 11 hour flight to OR Tambo International Airport I found myself contemplating the concept of value. You can buy just about anything you want in Thailand (except decent bacon) and the price of everything is negotiable. The scale of the markets and the volume of merchandise is hard to comprehend and one can become so caught up in the haggle that you lose sight of the value of an item. On one occasion I refused to purchase an item of clothing as I felt the going rate was less than the vendor was asking. Possibly I was right, possibly not but I ended up arguing whether the price for a t-shirt should be R70 or R80 which in retrospect seems ridiculous and a waste of energy.


Having grown up in a third world country with a fairly weak currency relative to Europe and America, Thailand offers seemingly fantastic value. Eating out in a restaurant costs half what it would in Cape Town as does accommodation. We spent 4 nights, literally on a beach in the honeymoon suite with excellent food, service and a beautiful coral reef to snorkel on for the same price as the City Lodge in Pinelands. I know that the t-shirt I bought for R70 won’t last forever but I don’t expect it to. So what is my value equation and how do I relate it back to my day to day life. Why does the chicken satay pictured above cost R25 in Thailand and R60 in Cape Town. Am I prepared to buy an item of clothing that will not last forever but is cheap. How do I feed my family if I only have R50 a day to spend on food? What am I prepared to compromise on in terms of quality in order to come out at the end of each month?

For me I think the most important thing is understanding the compromise you are making. If you know that the item of clothing is most likely going to require repairs, or the colour will fade or it will shrink but the price is low then your expectation is likely to be met and you won’t feel as though you have been ripped off. It is a lot harder to measure when it comes to food however as there are so many variable and the effects could be felt years after the actual consumption. What is the impact on your body after eating that burger or drinking that high fructose corn syrup carbonated beverage?

Pinelands City Lodge

Pinelands City Lodge

At least with a t-shirt you can discard it and wear another one. Not so easy with your pancreas or liver but how do you know what compromises you are making when it comes to your food? There is so much information, much of it contradictory and more importantly – what information has been left out?

An idea, to be suggestive, must come to the individual with the force of revelation – William James

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Wagyuing the Dog……

While I had every intention of posting this week, this blog post was ensured by the strike, march and protest action currently taking place in Du Noon. A lack of service delivery has finally sparked this disruption and access to my premises has been denied to me and my staff. The constant extremes we are exposed to on a daily basis in this country are often difficult to process and the fancy cars, luxury malls and big houses contrast greatly with the way the majority of people live. There will be no winners today. Strikers will lose a days wages, employers will lose a days production and all those inconvenienced by the marchers will feel frustrated, irritated and less likely to feel compassion.

A perfect example of extremes in the food world can be illustrated by the humble or not so humble burger. I won't mention any fast food chains, you can pick your favourite one but be honest, that grayish brown thingy in the middle of the bun is fairly homogenous across each outlet. Made from feedlot beef, possible containing mechanically deboned meat, probably containing flavour enhancers and phosphates and definitely not opulent or luxurious.

At the same time, in the same town, on the same day you can order a Wagyu burger. For those who don't know about Wagyu let me give you some background:

– Wa (Japanese style) gyu (cow) is the name given to 4 breeds of cow that originated in Japan

– Kobe beef is Wagyu beef that comes from the Kobe region and is governed by several rules and regulations in a similar way to Champagne and Parma ham

– The meat is higher in omega3 and omega6 fatty acids and lower in cholesterol than commercial beef

– The meat has a large amount of marbling and the fat has a lower melting point which results in a wonderful texture and flavour

– The legend goes that the farmers in Kobe feed the cows beer, massage them with sake daily and play them classical music but this is more likely to be myth than truth

Wagyu are being bred in South Africa and local restaurants, butcheries and customers are discovering the joy of this amazing beef. You have to treat it slightly differently as the fat will melt away if cooked for too long. It is also extremely rich and a little goes a long way. I first tried a Wagyu burger at the Food Wine Design show at Hyde Park thanks to Caroline from Braeside Butchery. She served them on a plain bun and the best way to describe the taste is to imagine a grass fed beef patty mixed with butter. It melted on the tongue and needed no sauce or condiments.

Of course due to the nature of the product, the care and time taken to breed the animals and the scarcity of the meat it comes at a significant premium. You could pay up to R500 for a Wagyu steak in a top restaurant which is possibly the monthly food bill bill for some of todays marchers. Curious, and after a visit to Neil Jewell I decided to try curing some Wagyu. Fortunately I can use cheaper cuts and settled on topside to be turned into Breasaola. It really is something you should try at least once. Topside is not too fatty, has more flavour and the texture is soft but doesn't fall apart. It pairs beautifully with soft goats cheese, peppery olive oil and a twist of black pepper.

I added some avo, micro greens, a random caper or two and cherry tomatoes to make a simple but delicious lunch dish which has become a regular feature in our house.

I you wish to try the bresaola you can find it at Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants on Kloof Street.

“Our lives teach us who we are” – Salmon Rushdie


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New Kids on the Block….

Things have been rather busy of late and my creative writing endeavours have taken a back seat behind the back seat of an old Morris Minor. ¬†Apologies if you have been waiting with anticipation for a post and unfortunately this one is unlikely win any literary awards. I have just emerged from reading “Cooked” by Michael Pollan and the house is a mini microbial experiment much to Commander J’s disgust. Strange smells are emanating from our larder and I look forward to telling you all about my latest fermentations in due course (did you know that salami undergoes a natural fermentation process?).



The reason for this post however is to welcome my latest customers into the fold and to let you know who they are:

Pulp Kitchen and Deli in the Gardens Centre

Wellness Warehouse

Stormsvlei Farmstall, Swellendam

Please support them if you are passing by and I wish them every success.

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