Ask any South African what he or she is most likely to get arrested for trying to smuggle into England and I can bet you the majority of the answers will be the same: biltong. The Americans have their jerky, the Spanish have their bacalao, the Italians have their bresaola – it seems that every nation has a particular type of protein it likes to salt and dry. But the king of all these is surely biltong. Man, we grow up eating the stuff – some companies even make low-salt teething biltong for babies – and it seems word is spreading.
My favourite baby & biltong story, though, concerns my friends who gave their firstborn son a stick of biltong to chew on while he was teething. Said firstborn was sitting on the lawn playing nicely and gumming on his biltong while their Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy was keeping an eye on things. Mom turned her back to pour some tea and turned around just in time to witness the baby companionably letting the puppy have a gnaw of the biltong before popping it back between his own gums. Mom suppressed the urge to banish the puppy – she reasoned that her son’s immune system would be stronger for the experience – but clearly she kept a closer watch on things after that!!
So what is this biltong that we Southern Africans are apparently weaned on and never get out of our system? Well, simply put, it is cured, spiced, air-dried meat. The name comes from bil, (from Middle Dutch bille) meaning buttock/rump + tong, (from Middle Dutch tonghe) meaning tongue. The name is descriptive – biltong literally means strips (or tongues) of meat from the animal’s rump which are spiced, cured and air dried. Biltong was developed as a means of preserving meat so that there would be meat available during the lean hunting season (and in fact many African tribes still use a version of biltong in this context), as well as to provide a non-perishable source of meat to early pioneers as they travelled inland. Traditionally, the whole beef carcass was used to make biltong, although today silverside, topside and flank are most commonly used. Superior quality biltong can be made from the “rugstring” – the strips of muscle running either side of the animals’ spine – or from the fillet. Although beef is the meat most commonly used, it is also not unusual to see ostrich and various types of game (kudu, springbok, blesbok and impala being some of the varieties available here). Pork and lamb/mutton are not used as far as I know, but I have seen both chicken and tuna biltong (both look a little strange and because of the smaller cuts of meat used, they tend to be really dry).
To make biltong, the meat is cured using salt, then washed with vinegar and finally seasoned with spices (usually salt, pepper, sugar and coriander) – the exact ingredients and their ratio is often a closely guarded family or professional secret! After this, an S-shaped hook is hooked through one end of the meat strip and it is hung up to dry somewhere dry, breezy and well-lit (but not in direct sun). Traditionally, this might have been along the beams of a roof or even along wires strung between tree branches, but for the modern day home biltong chef, it is usually in a home-made biltong box (basically a box with solid of mesh sides, a rail for hanging the meat and a light source) or in a commercially made drying cabinet. The slower the meat is dried, the more tender the texture, so no need to rush it! How dry you want your meat is also a matter of personal preference – I like mine very “wet”, rather like prosciutto, while my husband prefers his harder and dryer – apparently with practice, one need only squeeze the outside of a stick of biltong to be able to determine how moist it is on the inside! In any event, the process will take a few days so don’t be in a hurry!
But what do you say to people who tell you “oh, biltong is nothing special – it’s just beef jerky under another name”? Well, I’ve done my practical research and that’s simply not true! Jerky was developed by the native American tribes and called “charqui” – jerky seems to be a corruption of this word – because of a similar need to preserve meat in the absence of refrigeration. But there the similarity ends. For a start, take a look at what the Epicurious definition of biltong says:
“Though its keeping properties are the same, it is a finer form of jerked meat than American jerky. The best biltong has been compared to the Prosciutto of Italy.”
OK, now I don’t want to start any intercontinental dried-meat rivalry, but that does make me rather proud of our biltong!! Seriously though, I’ve tried biltong, jerky in the US and carne seca in Mexico, and as far as I can see, the main differences between the three are that:
*Jerky usually involves some sort of smoking process (the native Americans would smoke it in their tents over the cooking fire) or the addition of smoke essence, whereas neither biltong nor carne seca use smoke.
* With jerky (or at least all the jerky I tried in the States), the meat is first sliced before being flavoured and dried, whereas with biltong the meat is dried in fairly substantial 30cm+ (12”+) strips and then sliced. As a greater percentage of the meat’s surface area is exposed to air in the case of jerky, this makes for a far dryer product and explainsthe more moist, prosciutto-like texture of the biltong. For carne seca the meat is almost shaved – that’s how the slices are – and the after drying they verge on the crispy.
* The use of spices – while biltong keeps it simple with vinegar, salt and coriander being the basics, jerky can involve any and all of teriyaki sauce, Worcestershire sauce, onion powder, garlic powder, chilli powder, soy sauce and corn syrup. The smaller pieces of meat (see above) also mean that there is a greater spice to meat ratio with jerky, so often all you can taste is the smoke essence or spices, as opposed to the meat itself. Carne seca also goes for simplicity, with the slivers of meat being marinated in lime juice, garlic and salt before being dried. Small packets of chile sauce are often sold with carne seca as the flavour is beefy with little trace of anything else.
So although they are similar, they are not identical (and I leave it to the individual to decide which he/she likes better!)
Now that I have you all in the mood for biltong, where can you get some? Well, there are some excellent sites available telling you everything you need to know about making your own – from meat selection to spices to biltong box making. In particular, 3 Men tells you absolutely everything you need to know about biltong, but be sure also to check out Biltongbox, Shebeen and Mark Blumberg, all of which include recipes and tips. You can also check out Kitsch’nZinc’s post and see his recipe as well as his really novel use of an old computer! For the more timid among us (like me!!), you could also buy the stuff ready-made. If you are lucky enough to be in South Africa, every butcher, supermarket and corner café will have some, but you would do well to search out a specialist biltong store as the quality is usually better. My favourite places to buy biltong are at the biltong shop in the Petroport at Storms River Bridge on the N2 highway between Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay – always worth a stop – and a biltong shop near the Tourist Info kiosk in Oudtshoorn – no idea of the name I’m afraid! I tend to prefer sliced biltong or biltong nuggets while hubby prefers the while sticks which he can then slice himself or gnaw on, as the mood takes him.
If you are not fortunate enough to be in SA, fear not: biltong is readily available on the Net at places like the Vis en Vleis Kombuis (“The Fish and Meat Kitchen”) in the US or Biltong2u in the UK, Satooz in Australia and Janssen’s Continental in New Zealand.
And if you are in the UK, you will find that there are a number of budding biltong entrepreneurs who are more than happy to satisfy your biltong craving with their well-hung products (so to speak…). Here are some of the top manufacturers:
* Bare Earth biltong is the brainchild of Thomo Leteane from Botswana but now living in Yorkshire. Her Bare Earth biltong is stocked in Waitrose as well as being supplied via the website.
* Cruga Biltong is based in Milton Keynes and sells through various South African Shops – excellent and probably the most widely available brand of biltong in London.
* Susmans biltong is based in Sussex and has many outlets throughout Britain – including Harrods! Larry Susman has been in this business since his twenties and knows his biltong – and his audience.
* R Web Butchers in Southfields, London do great biltong (and btw their boerewors is the best I have tasted in this country)
And now, apparently, biltong is set to take over the British supermarkets too as a new biltong snack hits the shelves of an ASDA near you. As a low fat, low carb alternative to crisps, it seems that international fame beckons for this most South African of snacks.
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