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Fray Bentos corned beef slice of rich Uruguay past

In this story:

Astronaut food

Footprints of the English

FRAY BENTOS, Uruguay (Reuters) -- Amid the fanfare of his visit to Uruguay last year, British heir to the throne Prince Charles reminisced about being weaned on Fray Bentos corned beef, along with legions of other adolescents and soldiers who dined on products from the El Anglo meatpacking plant.

"I was brought up on it, I remember eating corned beef until it came out of my ears," Charles told local businessmen.

Fray Bentos, a riverside city 193 miles (309 km) northwest of capital Montevideo, now is little more than the largest city in a province with 22 percent unemployment, nearly twice the national average.

But in its heyday during the two world wars it was a symbol of British and U.S. economic might in the River Plate region. The enormous five-story meat house that began operating in 1920 helped create Uruguay's "epoch of the fat cows" while feeding the Allied effort in World War II.

The Fray Bentos brand name still survives in Europe, but the days of unprecedented prosperity are gone. El Anglo now houses a few small firms, but most of its space is taken up by a museum shabbily maintained by the local government.

Astronaut food

In his book "From the Earth to the Moon," 19th century French writer Jules Verne wrote of astronauts relying on beef extract because it lasted more than a year and was highly concentrated with nutrients.

If so, Verne's product would have had a good chance of coming from the port of Fray Bentos, which was chosen in 1862 as an ideal location for the development of a beef extract plant on the site of a former meat salting facility.

The molasses-like black spread, invented by German engineer Justus von Liebig, continued to be produced there after 1920 when the English moved in and created El Anglo, which specialized in corned beef.

Then as now, the small coastal nation had millions more cows than humans -- plenty of raw material to feed the plant. One kilogram of beef extract came from 30 kilos of ground beef.

The food became a staple in middle class European households and in the packs of soldiers from the end of the 19th century through 1945. The two world wars in particular put Uruguay on the map as the country "of fat cows" because of its foodstuff exports to a Europe in conflict. The boom caused Uruguay's currency to become more valuable than the U.S. dollar.

Immigrants attracted by the job market poured in to create the overseas roots evident in today's population of 3.2 million. The small country of rolling green hills sandwiched between Argentina and Brazil was praised as a "Switzerland of the Americas" because of its early-1900s advanced social reforms.

During its peak period, El Anglo had 5,000 workers whose ranks included English, Belgians, Russians, Spanish and Italians. It finally closed in 1979 after Europe and the United States had cut back their purchases from Latin America.

"It (Fray Bentos) never got over the closure of El Anglo," a local government official said.

Uruguay's meat exports continue serving as its cash cow, with more than 250,000 tons flowing out of its ports each year, and more than 10 million cattle graze in its pastures.

Footprints of the English

Small brick houses with thick walls running along the river's edge in Fray Bentos form the "Barrio Anglo," a city-within-a-city where meatpacking workers lived that featured a hospital, a school, a social club and a football squad.

"In the social club there were dances and get-togethers with up to 1,000 people from the town, the majority of whom were employees of El Anglo," said Juan Marquez, 88, a former plant worker whose hands are deformed by gout that came from eating too much meat.

In its prime El Anglo processed 400 cows an hour, 2,000 sheep per day, and put out up to 200 animal and vegetable products. "The only thing from the cow that was not taken advantage of was the 'moo,"' said El Anglo expert Diana Cerrilla, evoking a popular refrain from the period.

The blood was used in fertilizers, feet were converted into oil used to preserve wood for years and hoofs were used to make cement. Sheep hair was diffused into selected products.

The plant processed an animal every five minutes via its complex system of elevated floors, chutes and pulleys that were advanced for the age. "It is said that the industrial revolution in Latin America began here," Cerrilla said.

Evidence supporting that is an Edison lamp dating back to 1883 -- the first in Uruguay only three years after the electric light was invented.

Other oddities lurk in the dusty, cavernous, old building, such as the two-headed calf kept in formaldehyde in an old office fully furnished in turn-of-the-century English style.

Still seen beneath one desk there are deep ruts left by a nervous Englishman who worked in the same spot for years, scraping his feet along the wooden floor.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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