In the classic 1865 Jules Verne novel, From the Earth to the Moon, meat broth “prepared from the best parts of the ruminants of the Pampas” was served for breakfast to the astronauts on their way to the moon. Made from a new process for concentrated beef extract, it was produced in a factory in Fray Bentos, Uruguay. To a British person of a certain age, the words Fray Bentos conjure memories, not of beef extract or a town in Uruguay, but of corned beef and steak and kidney pie in a tin. Both were ubiquitous during my childhood.
Invented by a German scientist called Justus von Liebig in 1847, the concentrated beef extract was produced by breaking down beef into small pieces before being boiled in liquid. The end product was a highly concentrated beef paste that was supposed to be a nutritious and cheap meat substitute. The problem was that it took around 30 kg of meat to make a single kilogram of the paste. In Europe the process was far from cheap, and this revolutionary new technique for feeding the masses never got off the ground.
Until, that is, someone realised that the process could be economical if it was done in South America. Already a place with many more cows than people, the region had a thriving leather industry. The problem was that cows were killed just for the leather, the rest of the carcass was often wasted. In a world without refrigeration, the meat from the carcasses could now be used by the new process and be shipped around the world in glass pots.
This was traded under a brand name that would go on to become a household name in many parts of the world, Oxo. In 1911, another invention would allow Oxo to be sold in small bouillon cubes, which are still manufactured today, although no longer in the Fray Bentos factory on the banks of the Rio del Plata. In an era of industrial change, Liebig’s meat process changed the world and made a lot of money in the process. London’s Oxo Tower was bought by Liebig’s company in the 1920s as a cold store.
The Liebig Extract of Meat Company began manufacturing in 1865 and soon had a global market. Initially it was German owned and British financed. This led to the odd situation during World War I that the factory provided food to both the British and German armies. That changed between the wars when it became fully British owned as the Frigorífico Anglo Del Uruguay. Anglo, as it was better known, produced around 200 animal and vegetable products, and every day 1,600 cows, 6,400 lambs and hundreds of pigs and turkeys were slaughtered.
El Anglo’s productivity hit an all-time high during World War II. The factory had 5,000 employees from over 50 countries, and cattle were being slaughtered at the alarming rate of 400 per hour to meet demand for corned beef and bouillon cubes. Millions of famed trapezoidal-shaped cans of corned beef were exported to Europe yearly to feed civilians and soldiers alike. They used to say that the only part of the cow Anglo didn’t use was the moo.
The Anglo Meat Packing Plant was more than just a factory, it was an entire community known as the Barrio Anglo. You drive past its English-style cottages on the way to the UNESCO World Heritage industrial complex that was once said to be the “kitchen of the world”. Filled with machinery imported from the industrial cities of England – even the coal to power them was imported from England – it is a glorious reminder of the historic links between Europe and South America.
So important was the factory that it houses Uruguay’s first electricity plant, evidence that the workers and managers of Fray Bentos had electricity long before the citizens of Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. Our tour around the plant was guided by two new guides from the local town and was fascinating. One of them even recalled a visit to the plant as a child on a school trip, her overriding memory was of the smell – given the vast scale of slaughter, it’s a surprising place for a school trip.
The modern tour takes you on the route that tens of millions of doomed cattle, sheep and pigs would have travelled on their one-way journey towards a metal can. It sounds a bit grim, but is an eye-opening place to visit for its international social history. There are original photos of the working factory illustrating the functions of the buildings. You end the tour in the vast slaughter house before visiting the entrance to the even vaster refrigerator building, lined with Portuguese cork for insulation. On a roasting hot day you can still feel the cold coming from inside.
It was absolutely brilliant and, for me, this should be a must see on everyone’s South American itinerary. We loved it so much we lugged a souvenir tin of corned beef around Argentina and then back to the Netherlands. It now sits proudly in the kitchen cupboard.