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Biltong from A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Biltong from A to Z: 26 Things to Know

Discover the "meat strips or tongues" from South Africa made of dried meat added with vinegar and spices. Did you know its impressive nutritional chart?

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Ancient. The art of drying meat for preservation and future consumption is as ancient as humanity itself. Especially in South Africa where the Khoikhoi (a tribe belonging to the Khoisan ethnic group together with the San or Bushmen) used to cut the meat into strips and air-dry it after salting: vinegar and spices (imported by the East India Company, comprising pepper, coriander and cloves) and saltpetre were introduced at a later date by the settlers to improve both its quality and health safety.

Bille+thonge. "Biltong" literally means "meat strips or tongues" and derives from the combination of two nouns originating from Middle Dutch (widely spoken between 1150 and 1550): "bille" (further contracted to "bil"), which indicates a hind quarter cut of beef corresponding to the rump and "tonghe" (later shortened to "tong") which stands for "tongue" in the sense of "strip".

Coriander. This is the most characteristic flavour of biltong and generally comes over stronger than pepper: tradition has it that in the preparation of biltong, the spice is slightly roasted and then roughly pounded, rather than minced.

Droëwors. Not to be confused with biltong, even though it is similar in many ways: in fact, these are small thin beef sausages with the addition of a very small amount of beef fat (no more than 5%), salted and spiced (black pepper and coriander as in the biltong recipe but also nutmeg and cloves), as well as malt vinegar and brandy (optional). Once marinated, the tiny sausages are hung up to dry completely when they can be snapped apart quite easily.

Economy. According to a study carried out by the South African Institute "Trees" the biltong trade is worth 2.5 billion rand (around 178 million dollars).

"Fish biltong". Fish biltong, also known as "bokkoms", is an ancient speciality (dating back to the mid XVII century) typical of the western coasts of the Cape province: it is made from young mullet of the Liza richardsonii species (also known as “harders”) which is salted and dried. In South Africa, there is also a “fish biltong” capital: the town of Velddrif (situated about 145 km north of Cape Town). Standing on the estuary of the Berg river, it is not far away from the Saldanha Bay, the coastal area where the first “bokkoms” in the history of South Africa were made.

Globetrotter. The popularity of biltong has spread far beyond the African borders, mainly thanks to South African immigrants: in fact, it is enjoyed at various latitudes, from Canada to Australia, from the USA to Ireland, from Germany to the UK, passing through New Zealand, South Korea and India.

Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The importation of biltong to Great Britain is not permitted, according to the legislation regulating the importation and sale of meat and meat products, on the grounds of their origin: as a consequence, British biltong can only be produced locally. This legislative provision has inevitably disappointed Her Majesty’s subjects of South African origin who, in theory, may no longer bring home a taste of… home!

Ingredients. Coriander, black pepper, vinegar, brown sugar and cooking salt are the ingredients used in the traditional recipe for biltong. However, on today’s market, there are a number of other versions in varying degrees of piquancy (with paprika or chilli pepper) or spiciness (nutmeg or BBQ mixes), marinated with different vinegars (balsamic or malt) and the addition of lemon juice or Worcester sauce.

JAN. This is the name of a restaurant that opened in Nice in 2013, run by Jan Hendrik van der Westhuizen, the first South African chef ever to have obtained a Michelin star. The young chef from Middelburg (Mpumalanga), author of the recipe book "The French Affair: Tables of Love", has risen to fame for having introduced some of the flavours typical of his homeland. One of these is biltong (strictly prepared by the house) which appears, for instance, in the venue’s salad of grilled strawberries served with a misticanza of tender young salad leaves and balsamic vinegar.

Kudu. Biltong is also made from the meat of kudu, a majestic antelope populating the forests of East and South Africa: it has a somewhat sweetish flavour compared to beef. It may also be made from other meats such as impala, springbok, buffalo, zebra, oryx, eland or ostrich.

Lekker. Meaning "delicious" in Afrikaans (pronounced: lekk-irr, with a rolled ‘r’): no South African would define biltong as being anything but simply… lekker!

Matt Kalil. In a cooking programme called "D is for Dinner-All In A Day", every month the Canadian radio broadcaster CBC offers one of its listeners the chance to challenge the chefs of Ottawa: on one such occasion in 2016, the South African Matt Kalil, who was born in Johannesburg but emigrated to Canada in 1989, presented the chefs with the tough task of having to create a dish containing biltong: this led to a recipe for noodles in broth and a most original "churro yo-yo".

Natural and nutritious. When properly made according to the authentic traditional recipe, biltong contains no additives or preservatives and boasts an impressive nutritional chart: as well as being a fantastic source of protein (up to 67%, all highly digestible), it is also rich in iron, vitamin B12, zinc and creatine. However, it does tend to be rather high in calories: a 100 g portion of biltong is equivalent to an intake of 300 kcal.

Okahandja. A town in central Nambia, to the north of Windhoek: here stands the headquarters of one of the country’s best known producers of biltong, the "Closwa Biltong".

Powder. When reduced to powder form, biltong is ideal for giving a punch to some refined recipes: sauces and salad dressings, sandwiches and canapés, but also for adding an extra something to savoury muffins, flans and pan-baked breads.

Quality. "Wet", "medium" and "dry" are the three types of biltong on sale: it ranges from the soft wet version to one that is harder and drier. The finished product also comes in different cuts; it may be sold loose or in vacuum packs while it is available in whole sides of beef for cutting with a sharp knife or in the form of sticks or chips.

Record. At the "Windhoek Biltong Festival" in Namibia, one of the most long-awaited events is the longest biltong contest: at the last edition, the longest “side” of biltong measured 48 metres and weighed 85 kg!

Stokkies. Also known as "snapsticks", this product is harder and drier than traditional biltong (which, owing to the fact that it comes in larger pieces, tends to remain more tender towards the centre), and is obtained by drying whole thin strips of meat after marinating and spicing them according to the traditional recipe or, alternatively, by adding ground chilli pepper, spice mixes and herbs.

Tradition. The traditional recipe – the simplest of all – requires the meat (cut into strips at least 5 cm wide) to be placed in a container with wine vinegar. Then, after about half an hour, it is removed from the liquid and massaged with a mixture of cooking salt, brown sugar, coriander and black pepper. The meat is then left to marinate for 12-24 hours. Some choose to soak the meat again in vinegar, remove the excess salt to prevent it from becoming too salty and repeat the operation with the spice mix. Finally the pieces of meat are strained of their liquid and hung to dry for 4-5 days in rooms that are very dry, well aired but not at all warm.

Unique. Biltong is quite unique and has no equal. It is a mistake to confuse it with jerky, dried meat made in USA. In fact, there are some considerable differences between the two products. First of all, biltong is not smoked while jerky is; then the recipe for biltong always requires vinegar along with salt and spices but vinegar is never used in jerky. Prior to curing, the meat is also cut differently: large cuts are used to make biltong and then, if required, they may be cut into thin strips; on the other hand, jerky starts out as thin strips which are then cured and smoked. Finally, the fat content is different: very lean meat cuts are used for jerky while the percentage of fat in biltong may even be as high as 30% of the total weight.

Voortrekkers. The widespread use of biltong in South Africa dates back to the Great Trek from the Cape of Good Hope towards the North and North-Eastern areas of South Africa which was made by the settlers who decided to break free of British rule: the practice of drying meat in order to have an easily available and vital source of nutrition became a question of survival.

Windhoek Biltong Festival. The capital of Namibia celebrates this particular dry-cured and spiced meat with a special festival, which first got off the ground in 1992 as a parish activity promoted by the Dutch Reformed Church but soon became a highly popular event throughout the nation: this year, it took place on the two days of 30 June and 1 July.

XVII Century. The earliest version of biltong made its appearance in South Africa in the XVII century, to be precise in what was then the Cape Colony, as a variation of a Dutch recipe for meat cut into strips and marinated with vinegar, spices and salt: the need to preserve it in hot climates led to the process being varied with the introduction of a subsequent drying phase away from the heat.

Youtube. From the meat cut (the most suitable being "silverside") to the dry-curing ingredients, as well as all the useful tips for addressing the not so difficult task of making it at home: you will find all you need to know on the popular web platform.

Zimbabwe. Here biltong is also called "chimukuyu" which is the key ingredient of a popular recipe: "chimukuyu chinedovi", also known as biltong in peanut sauce.

 

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