Fray Bentos. For many British people, these words bring to mind meatballs in tomato sauce, the comforting aroma of pie, maybe corned beef sandwiches. The precursor to microwave dinners, Britain started cracking open the now legendary canned steak and kidney pies and meat products in the 1960s, and both celebrity chefs and time-poor cooks are still eating them today.
The Fray Bentos story begins in 1863 in the eponymous town, located not in global beef powerhouse Argentina but in tiny neighbour Uruguay.
Despite closing the business 116 years later, the Frigorífico Anglo Del Uruguay meatpacker—not just a factory but an entire complex nicknamed the "Anglo" neighbourhood—in its current guise as the Paisaje Industrial Fray Bentos (Fray Bentos Industrial Landscape) made the coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site list earlier this month.
Victorian machinery and warehouses, dilapidated docks, a lofty red-brick chimney straight out of 19th century Manchester, and cottages that housed 4000 employees in its heyday still populate the banks of the River Uruguay.
That's why I crossed Libertador General San Martín Bridge from Argentina to check out the recently accoladed plant, whose numerous meaty wares fed tinkers, tailors, soldiers, and sailors, rich men, poor men—and probably some thieves by slaughtering up to 1600 heads of cattle or 4800 ovines a day for more than a century.
"The only thing we didn't sell was the moo," says René Boretto, who sits on Anglo's international conservation committee.
But the meat giant would have canned the bovine bellow if it could have, given that it used every other component. Blood was resurrected as organic fertiliser, offal made its way to the neighbourhood butcher, tongue and cheek were standalone delicacies, and everything else made it as beef extract.
And let's not forget corned mutton and brined turkey. By the 1920s, the Frigorífico Anglo Del Uruguay sold around 200 products, including frozen wares from 1924. Goods were shipped all around the world from the meatpackers' very own dock.
I say "meatpacker" but in the early days before refrigeration was a thing, Liebig Extract of Meat Company, as it was known in 1863, produced exactly that. In a bid to create a meat substitute, Justus von Liebig, a savvy German chemist and the firm's first director, boiled down average quality cuts in water to create a liquid extract. He also had the foresight to patent it and voilà, liquid became solid and the Oxo cube was born.
A decade on and business really started to boom when Liebig came up with another magical meat solution: corned beef. Referred to by Uruguayans as "corné beef," this second product cemented Fray Bentos' place in industrial history and once again, Liebig slapped a brand patent on the town's name—a patent still used by Baxters (owner since 2011) on pies and and puddings today. Breeding its own livestock on 3 million hectares of prairie, the plant upped the breed quality to slaughter 1600 Hereford and Shorthorn a day, each cow offering up between 450 and 500 kilograms of meat.
That meant one head of cattle produced 1470 cans of corned beef totalling 2.35 million cans a day, with a single, 340-gram, trapezoidal-shaped tin feeding one Allied soldier four C-rations during World War II. However, the circular flat pie we know today didn't reach the market until 1961.
While Germans initially ran Liebig Extract of Meat Company, British cash financed it and the first generation of employees was paid in pounds up until 1920: the firm also constructed London's South Bank Oxo Tower that decade. The town of Fray Bentos bloomed and El Anglo was its oxygen: husbands herded cattle, brothers stirred enormous vats of meaty broth, sisters diligently labelled cans, and uncles manned the phone lines, selling wares as fast as the operator could connect them. When El Anglo whistle sounded, the whole town knew it was lunch time. This was very much a family show, and happy lucrative days for Anglo employees.
"It was a wonderful time," says Teresa Grasso, who worked in the labelling and tripery departments for four years until Anglo's 1979 closure. "My dad worked on the cattle ranch while one of my uncles was an electrician. We lived in the Anglo neighbourhood and would watch games at the bowling green. There was always a lot going on."
Her husband, Jorge Juanicotena, recalls the benefits of dating an Anglo girl.
"I'd drop by in the morning and Teresa's dad would be cooking offal for breakfast. Once, he gave me a side of beef for my birthday. It was as big as that," he says, pointing at a rug adorning his living room floor.
But the upside was followed by the down when Anglo's 1968 Brooke Bond merger sounded the beginning of the end.
"It was horrible when Anglo closed," says Grasso. "People moved to other cities or to Argentina to find work. I really missed it."
The intervening years showed the factory little love, with a stream of local mayors failing to find a cohesive afterlife for this white elephant. While workers may have considered a possible takeover, it never came to fruition. In addition, Uruguay, like other South American nations at the time, was subject to a 12-year military dictatorship until 1985 and resuscitating Anglo was never part of the game plan.
While previous generations used to devour corned beef, consumption naturally dropped when El Anglo closed. Besides its physical presence occupying 263 hectares of now protected land whose crowning glory is a 43-metre-high chimney (a storm shaved off three of its original 46 metres), the trapezoidal-shaped cans served as a distant memory of more prosperous times. Until now.
Besides the prestigious UNESCO status, local business chamber leader Nelson Rosas has kicked off an initiative to put Fray Bentos-produced corned beef back on the map. He has bought 1000 cans from local Brazilian-owned meatpacker Marfrig for self-branding and coerced local restaurateurs to put the wartime staple on menus. The cherry tomato, hard cheese, bell pepper, rocket and corned beef salad I try at local eatery La Juventud is most palatable.
Grasso may wish for El Anglo to return to its glory days and her angler husband has high hopes for a fishing club, the truth is that corned beef and Oxo cube production really are more of a distant memory.