Biltong – an explanation of sorts

If you live in the UK at least (I don’t know how this works elsewhere), you will be familiar with a page featuring many tick-boxes asking to affirm your ethnicity – it is attached to just about every bureaucratic form available. When faced with the plethora of choices I forgo the temptation to list some randomly chosen cocktail of races. This is what I put down:

White African.

White Africans from Southern Africa can be divided into two groups – English and Afrikaans. This divide is stronger than most realise, harking back to at least the 1820’s when tensions between Boers and English first began to fester – the power-grabbing tendencies of the latter inevitably giving rise to the inland migration of the former. Even today there is a distinct cultural difference and rivalry between the two.

I have no Afrikaner blood, my ancestry is a British blend of English and Scottish with a smattering of Irish. Nevertheless my father saw fit to raise me from a young age (I take this to be ‘whenever the infant can handle solids’) on a meaty snack of Afrikaaner origins that you will no doubt have heard of: Biltong.

Biltong can be made of beef or any kind of venison (ostrich, kudu, gemsbok, eland, sprinkbok, zebra, etc) and originated, legend would have it, as a way of preserving meat during The Great Trek.

I would so love to tell you about The Great Trek… Hmm, on second thoughts, having been schooled during the Apartheid era, and taught (indoctrinated) in History class about the inner workings and details of The Great Trek for FOUR YEARS in a row I just can’t bring myself to do it. If you’re that desperate – Google and Wiki are your friends.

For all I know the Boers learned this neat preserving trick from the indigenous San people, many of whom were their slaves, or they may have brought the knowledge with them from the Motherlands of France, Holland and Germany.

Anyhow, the long and short of it is that people needed to find ways of preserving food whilst moving their wagons and cattle into the ‘binneland’ (inland). This, by the way, started happening around the 1830-40’s.

Given the proliferation of vineyards in the Cape there was easy access to wine vinegar. As I have learned during my own charcuterie adventures, a vinegar bath (for the meat, not the charcutière) is a most useful deterrent against unwanted bacterial growth on dry cured meat – these Boers were on to something.

I won’t pretend that Biltong is a highly refined foodstuff, but the love I have for it is deeply ingrained. I think of it as the rough and ready cousin of sophisticated Bresaola.

Here follows an imagined Voortrekker Biltong recipe.

Step 1: First catch your antelope (with apologies to Ms. Glasse).

Step 2: Cut the animal up into manageable strips – nowadays we can buy a kilogram or two of meat to suit our needs. Imagine, just IMAGINE for one second having to deal with a whole animal, no refrigerator and searing African sun. A cow or eland is not a small beast and weighs anything from half a ton upwards!

Step 3: Marinate your strips of meat for a time in salt, vinegar and spices – coriander seems to be the most authentic one (Thank goodness for the Dutch East India Company’s spice trade monopoly eh?).

looks appetizing doesn't it?

Step 4: Hang out to dry in the sun. Have a fly swatter at the ready. Acacia thorns must have made handy butchers hooks.

This is how we do it back home.

Photo by Susan Todd

Step 5: Wait a couple of days if you like wet Biltong, or up to a week if you like it dry and splintery, then enjoy with a cool brew… Oh, those poor, poor Voortrekkers. NO COLD BEER. NO FRIDGES!

Once cured there are two main ways to eat Biltong. The more genteel way is to slice it against the grain into thin slivers and serve in a bowl or on a platter (wannabe Bresaola – nothing wrong with that).

Photo by South African Biltong

The second is to just gnaw on a whole stick of biltong as though you are a dog enjoying a raw-hide treat. No prizes for guessing which version this rough and ready author favours.


6 responses to “Biltong – an explanation of sorts

  • mosaica

    Lovely looking biltong, Ruth. Must make one of these days.

  • Helen

    This is ace, I’ve been meaning to try making biltong for yonks but never got around to it and was also a bit confused about how to start. Will give this a go!

  • saffron and salt

    Hi Helen,

    You should give it a go. I’ll try and post a proper recipe one of these days – it is super easy though and low-risk charcuterie.

  • saffron and salt

    Hey Iliana how are you? I am just glad to finally get back into doing some charcuterie after a few months break. It has flown by!

  • Cathy

    What a fascinating post, Ruth! I’d never heard of biltong til Charcutepalooza and now I’d love to make some. See you in a week and a half!! how thrilling! Cathy

  • cynthia

    Hi Ruth
    Loved this blog and here I am to wish you Happy Birthday! Probably not the right social media place but then I’m old enough not to care about these niceties.
    Have a great day and year ahead. I hope Colin reads this and then he can pick up his birthday wishes at the same time.
    Love from

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