Biltong – a Connoiseur’s Cult Delicacy - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Biltong – a Connoiseur’s Cult Delicacy

Avatar of inke inke - 10. November 2017 - Discover Namibia

Many different biltong specialities were on offer at the 2011 Biltong Festival in Windhoek.

Take a few strips of high quality raw meat, coat it with vinegar, salt, coriander, black pepper and sugar and hang it in an airy dry space protected from flies. About two weeks later your biltong is ready. The mouths of most Namibians and South Africans water at the mere thought of well-seasoned dried meat. It’s hardly surprising that Windhoek’s annual Biltong Festival held in July attracts thousands of visitors each year. 

The art of making biltong was sophisticated over several centuries. Beef or venison such as kudu, springbok, eland, gemsbok and even ostrich is made into biltong. At this year’s festival in Windhoek pork biltong was on offer for the first time. The jealously guarded secret mixes of ingredients used for seasoning are often handed down from one generation to the next. 

Traditionally biltong is made in winter when it is cool and dry. During the hunting season in June and July ‘biltong hunters’ from South Africa flock to Namibia to stock up on enough biltong meat for the year ahead. Nowadays, however, making biltong is no longer restricted to winter or naturally cool and dry conditions. Meat can be dried wherever and whenever with the help of a biltong box. 

The biltong tradition started more than 300 years ago. In 1652 Jan van Riebeeck established a victualling station at the Cape of Good Hope to supply provisions for the ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) on their long journey to Indonesia. Soon afterwards the first settlers followed. Most of them came from the Netherlands, from Flanders and various parts of Germany. French Huguenots arrived at the end of the 17th century. Left to their own devices in an untamed country, one of the many challenges faced by the settlers was the preservation of food, particularly meat. The need for food preservation was even more pressing for the ‘trekboere’, migrant farmers who drove their herds further and further into the interior. After a successful hunt they hung strips of meat from their ox wagons, which served as family homes. The meat dried as they continued on their trek. Spices, the basic ingredient that transforms ordinary meat into tasty biltong, were not in short supply at the Cape – thanks to the East India trade.  

Britain occupied the Cape in 1795 in order to secure its trading routes to the Far East. In 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars, Britain annexed the Dutch colony. Eight years later the Netherlands ceded the Cape for good. British rule triggered the Great Trek: hundreds of Afrikaaner families, descendants of the first settlers, moved to the northeast to establish independent republics. Biltong became a staple on this arduous journey. The many biltong recipes from the pioneering days were refined over time. The name biltong has Dutch origins, ‘bill’ meaning rump and ‘tong’ meaning the tongue or a strip of something. 

More than 350 years after the first European settlers arrived at the southern tip of Africa, biltong is enjoyed by all ethnical groups in South Africa and Namibia. It is a tremendously popular snack, craved by many and therefore available in most food shops and numerous other outlets. The good news is that biltong is actually good for you: it is rich in protein, low in fat and contains many vitamins and trace elements. 

In an article published in the June 2011 issue of Go! Magazine, author Buks Barnard sings the praise of the dried meat speciality as a cure-all. If young Namibians and South Africans suffer an attack of homesickness while doing a stint abroad, a nice piece of biltong definitely works wonders, he reckons. 

“From potholes to politicians, there’s much to depress South Africans these days. Fortunately there’s one thing that cheers up the cheerless, consoles the disconsolate and saves the lost. This gift from the gods is called biltong.” (Barnard, p. 82)

Barnard claims that biltong even has a placating effect on the fans of inveterate sports rivals. The peacemaking quality of a piece of dried meat can best be observed during the heat of a rugby match between the Stormers and Blue Bulls in Newlands in Cape Town, he says. In South Africa and Namibia you have to nibble on biltong when watching a game of rugby - and you share your biltong, too... 

Biltong fanatic Buks Barnard has firm principles when it comes to buying his favourite snack. First of all you should not count your pennies, he says. The meat has to be of the highest quality and it has to be from the ‘right’ area. Being South African, Buks considers the Bushveld the ‘right area’. Next, the meat must be expertly cut: with the grain, not against it. If the salesperson wants to put biltong into a plastic bag, Buks is tempted to leave the shop immediately. He prefers a brown paper bag. Buks likes to carve his biltong with his pocketknife, piece by little piece as required, but for a trip he takes ready-cut, bite-sized pieces. Oh, and lastly, Afrikaans is the language to speak when buying biltong.

Afrikaans or no Afrikaans, tourists are also beginning to acquire a taste for biltong and have adopted the habit of packing some as a travel snack. Enjoy!

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