As South African as biltong

South Africans take their biltong seriously

Biltong causes strong emotions among aficianados
brinjal biltong-text.jpg

An internet search for “the best biltong” will give you 1.2 million results. Click on any of the forums and you enter a world of strong opinions and personal attacks. South Africans take their biltong seriously and will argue about anything from who makes the best biltong, to the best cut of meat and the best way to make biltong.

Some people like theirs “wet” – dried for less time, with a hint of blood. For Muslim and Jewish fans the blood has to completely drain from the meat in accordance with religious direction. There are arguments for the most basic traditional seasoning – salt, pepper, coriander and vinegar – over adding chilli. But whether you like it spicy or plain, the base ingredient has always been meat, in one form or the other – until now, that is.

Vegetarians have added a new dimension to the argument. Two companies produce biltong made with vegetables and say their mushroom and brinjal biltong is as good any traditional product. Ariella Kaplan at O’My Goodness, a Plettenberg Bay raw food company, produces a mushroom biltong that can be bought plain or with added chilli. Peter Owen of By Nature, a Cape Town natural food company, has been having trouble keeping his brinjal biltong in stock.

Owen was drying between 300 kilograms and 500 kilograms of brinjal a week to satisfy his customer’s demand. “We’re all out now and we won’t be making any until the end of November when the new harvest is brought in,” he says.

Healthier choices

These vegetarian alternatives were born out of Owen and Kaplan embracing a healthier vegetarian lifestyle. For both the one thing they missed was biltong. Kaplan explains: “So many of the ‘healthy snacks’ are sweet, and I was really looking for something salty, and chewy, and well, biltong-y. So I got myself a dehydrator and starting experimenting. Many trials and many mushrooms later, a little magic was made.”

Brinjal and mushroom biltong are both made in the same way as traditional biltong: spices, marinade and drying. Both have the same chewy texture as meat, which make them the best options as vegetarian alternatives to meat.

Owen says he set himself constraints in line with his healthy lifestyle before he began experimenting. He does not use any sugar or chutney to cure the vegetable, instead he experimented with honey and apple cider. The brinjals are peeled and treated with Himalayan rock salt, then tenderized so that the marinade can soak into the bruises. “Brinjals have a meaty texture which is good. It can be tough and chewy and versatile, which makes it ideal.”

Customers say the vegetarian options are addictive and a healthier option to red meat biltong. Brinjals have proven to be a weight loss tool and can help you stop smoking. Mushrooms, among other benefits, can help you manage your weight and improve the functioning of your immune system. Owen says: “You can eat our biltong every day in season, and all it’s going to do is make you happy.”

Cured meat

Whatever your personal preference, traditional biltong starts off as thickly sliced strips of beef or venison, though there are also chicken, fish and game variants. Covered in spices and air dried, it is a culinary legacy of the Voortrekkers, the Dutch, French and German settlers who moved inland from the Cape Colony. During their trek, for sustenance, they air dried cuts of beef, usually rump. The climate made it necessary to find a way to cure meat to preserve it.

Drying the meat, with salt, pepper and vinegar as preservatives, produced biltong. It was hard on the outside but retained the flavour of the meat on the inside. Claimed as a resourceful Voortrekker solution to a problem, biltong may be even older than that.

According to African folklore, migrating herdsmen draped strips of kudu and impala meat under their saddles. The chafing and the sweat from their horses would tenderize and flavour the meat as it dried. This, in turn, is similar to the Mongol borts (bour-tsi), the dried meat staple that allowed Genghis Khan and his army to remain mobile.

The people who make their own biltong protect their secret recipes fiercely. For some it requires marinating the meat overnight to turn raw meat into the South African delicacy. To others, the secret is in the mix of spices and herbs used in the curing of the strips of meat. But whatever the individual cook’s secret, it remains closely guarded.

Everyone has a recipe, and everyone thinks theirs is the best. Some South African biltong makers add Worcestershire sauce and brown sugar to keep it moist. Farouk Lawrence, technical consultant at Freddy Hirsch Spice Company, handles two to three queries from customers a day. Perfect biltong is down to personal taste, Lawrence says, but choosing the right cut of meat and drying it for the perfect amount of time is as important as any secret ingredient. “It’s usually the farmers who believe they have a secret ingredient and they keep it close to their chest.”

Biltong and wine pairing

Biltong has long been considered the perfect accompaniment to an afternoon of beer, braaiing and rugby. But it is slowly losing that image as winemakers and chefs embrace it as complementary to their wines and in their cooking. Stellenbosch Hills Winery, for example, runs an annual recipe contest to find a biltong recipe to supplement its wines. Worcester policeman Frik Crafford is the present champion. His marinade was judged the best match with Stellenbosch Hills Shiraz by a panel of food and wine experts.

In the kitchen, professionals and amateurs alike are using biltong in recipes for everything from salads to soup, the rich, intense taste enhancing old favourites. At Cassia restaurant on the Cape wine route, you can have a mushroom soup served with biltong cream and mosbolletjie croutons – mosbolletjie, an Afrikaans word, is best described as a sweet brioche made with grape juice. At the historic 1802 Bistro at the Oude Werf Hotel, you can enjoy a Voortrekker biltong salad, and at the Blue Water Cafe, you can try the safari pizza. Topped with springbok carpaccio, chicken, biltong, rocket, avocado and feta, it has been judged one of the best pizzas in the country.

Source: Media Club South Africa

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