Page last updated at 08:52 GMT, Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Uruguay serves up slice of history

By Veronica Psetizki
Fray Bentos, Uruguay

Fray Bentos label
Fray Bentos: The town was once known as "Kitchen of the World"

After many years the small western Uruguayan town of Fray Bentos is once again exporting the product that gave it name recognition around the world: corned beef.

Initially manufactured for the working classes, the tinned cooked meat became a staple for many people in Britain and continental Europe.

"I was brought up on it. I remember eating corned beef until it came out of my ears," said Prince Charles during a visit to Uruguay in 1999.

Fray Bentos is the original location of the main factory of the German-British Liebig Extract of Meat Company.

Established in 1863, it produced meat extract, tinned beef and by-products.

Old advertisement
The factory exported its goods around the world

Renamed the Anglo Meatpacking plant in 1924, the factory fed generations of Europeans and allied troops during World War I and II.

Such was its importance as a food exporter that the town was once known as "The Kitchen of the World".

"Not only did our products fill European stomachs; they also got into European hearts and minds," said historian Rene Boretto, director of the Museum of the Industrial Revolution, which is on the site of the former abattoir.

"In World War I, soldiers would say 'Fray Bentos' to indicate that something was good, the same way we nowadays say OK, " Mr Boretto said.

Further proof of the product's impact, he said, was the fact that during that war, when there were only a few tanks, British soldiers named one of them "Fray Bentos" because inside it they felt like tinned meat.

Family history

Thirty years after the closure of the Anglo Meatpacking Plant, the Brazilian-owned Marfrig Group is producing corned beef in Fray Bentos once again and exporting it to Britain.


Exports to the United States were set to start at the end of October.

Julio Bonizzi, Marfrig's plant manager, said the company was already producing corned beef at its Brazilian plants but decided that Fray Bentos offered an inexpensive and simple way to expand production capacity.

"The opening of this plant has a double meaning for us," said Omar Lafluf, the local mayor.

"First, we are resuming production of a staple that made us world pioneers, and that gave global recognition to this town. Second, it provides an important source of jobs, employing more than 100 people."

Residents of this small Uruguayan town, which has a population of 23,000, are proud to have recovered the industry that put them on the world map and employed several generations of fraybentinos.

"I work in the labelling department, doing the same job my husband's grandmother did at the Anglo," said Leticia Martinez at Marfrig's plant.

The Anglo Meatpacking Plant
In its heyday, the Anglo factory employed several thousand people

Her husband, Marcelo Da Rocha, says that corned beef gave jobs to his whole family: he, his brothers, cousins, uncles and grandparents have all worked in meat processing.

Recalling his days at the Anglo, where he began work at age 14, Norberto Bordoli, now 84, said the factory attracted employees from afar.

"Workers came from almost 60 countries. My grandfather came from Italy to work here, and I worked at the plant until it closed."

The end of the WWII, coupled with both Europe's economic recovery and outdated equipment at the plant, led to the factory's closure in 1979, explains historian Rene Boretto.

Minus the moo

Although the opening of the new plant is good news for the town, it is far smaller than its predecessor, the Anglo.

In its heyday in the 1940s, 5,000 people worked in the five-storey building.

More than 200 types of tinned and processed food were produced, not only meat by-products but also vegetables, sweets and jams.

Workers at the processing factory in Fray Bentos
The new plant's Brazilian owners think Fray Bentos is an ideal location

"Every day, 1,600 cows, 6,400 lambs and hundreds of pigs and turkeys were slaughtered. The smell was very intense in the whole city," recalls Mr Bordoli.

According to Mr Boretto, "The only part of the cow that went to waste was the moo."

"Before the English arrived we only slaughtered the cow for its hide, tongue and some cuts of meat," he said.

"Then we learned that there was a market for each by-product. France bought bile stones for the perfume industry. Thick ear hair made into brushes, there were unthinkable uses."

In today's Fray Bentos, the mood is one of hope. Some people are taking advantage of a job opportunity in an industry that left its mark on the town and, for many, it is the continuation of a long family tradition they do not want to lose.

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