Saturday, August 3, 2013

Biltong man

Maurice shouldering a lamb
Long-time readers will know that this is not my first post on biltong--for about five years it's been a major form of sustenance on my annual two-and-a-half-week camping trip in the Smokies, and thus something of an obsession.  But new readers may not even know what it is: in brief, it's gourmet beef jerky.  How is it different?  Jerky is cut in small pieces across the grain and dried at relatively high heat.  Biltong (Afrikans for "rump") is cut in large pieces with the grain and dried with little or no heat.  These may sound like trivial differences, but once you've tried real biltong, there's no going back to jerky.  To borrow a phrase from the old Diet Coke ads, people eat biltong just for the taste of it, whereas only a hardened hayseed would nosh on jerky outside of a camping trip.  At its finest, biltong is to beef what prosciutto is to pork.

My most recent biltong adventure began when I found a "Biltong King" minivan near the beach and got to chatting with the proprietor, a sinewy fellow whose Afrikans accent was so thick I had some trouble understanding him.  He encouraged me to take pictures, but apologized for having low inventory and urged me to visit the factory for more information.

"They don't have biltong where you stay?" he asked incredulously.  "You gotta visit our factory I'm telling you, Maurice and Sandor will help you out."

"When can I come?"

"Any time, man.  Any time."

Kudu on the rack
Sandor cutting kudu

I was pretty dubious about his directions--he'd uttered that fateful phrase, "you can't miss it"--but with the help of my tour guide, I found my way to the "factory," which turned out to be a kind of glorified garage at the back of a modest house.  (It was Paul, my guide, who started referring to this excursion as "biltong man," which I'm sticking with, because it's comically suggestive of "Piltdown Man" or the like.)

Maurice greets me with a blood-soaked bullet he's extracted from a kudu carcass, and I realize I'm in over my head.  Nearly every flat surface is covered in slabs of meat, and the floor is slippery with blood.  My home sausage-making with friends looks almost vegetarian next to this.
Salting and spicing
"I can't teach you to make biltong," Maurice says.  "It's a process, and it depends on the weather, and all sorts of other things."  His inner generosity almost gets the better of his outer brusqueness.  After giving me a brief tour and encouraging me to take photos, he settles back into work and gets distracted from me.  Fortunately, Sandor gets interested, asking me what I'm doing here, what I do at home, and so on.  He's far from loquacious either, but the more I talk to him, the more information he lets slip.  I tell him I make sausage at home, which impresses him, and he almost embarrasses my memory with detailed questions.  "Maybe you can teach us a few things," he says.

Sausage and kudu drrying
Jerky is awful, Sandor says predictably.  I tell Maurice that heat is used to cure it, and he's disgusted: "You can't cook it."  I agree, but their operation seems to have no concern at all for hygiene.  Nobody can shake my hand because theirs are all bloody, and they go from cutting raw kudu to grabbing raw lamb to breaking off pieces of curing sausage for me to taste to smoking to working scales and opening doors without any thought of washing.  Blood is smeared all over the floor.  When I return the second day, though, they've finished butchering and the women are scrupulously cleaning everything. 

"It's a shit job," Sandor says, and I can see what he means.  Several dressed-out kudus came in yesterday or today whole or in quarters, and it will take more than a day to cut them all up; only then can the seasoning and drying begin.  Each step of the process must be done on a huge scale--and carefully coordinated.  No more meat could be hung until what was currently drying came out, yet several hundred pounds were in process in the cutting room, and several hundred more--maybe into tons--at various stages in a walk-in and several chest freezers.

Sawing a kudu
While I was there--an hour or so--half a dozen people (mostly men) came in separately to buy all sorts of different parts and pieces of meat.  Maurice, and occasionally Sandor, as well as their black assistant, had to keep interrupting their butchering to give these guys what they wanted--most of it involved Maurice making whole lamb and other carcasses into chops and the like with a standing band-saw, working fast enough and with his hands close enough to the blade to make me nervous, smoking all the while.

Maurice is 5'9" at best and wiry, with silver hair and long-handled mustache; he almost disappears under his railroad-like black cap and denim apron.  Sandor is a big burly guy with a lot of tattoos, a bald head, and a dark goatee, flesh overflowing his neon yellow t-shirt, shorts, and white apron.  They couldn't look more different, so I was taken aback when Sandor referred to Maurice as "my father."  Two cute towheaded boys of less than 10 let me in initially when I asked for Maurice and another blonde girl of maybe 8 in pink track suit, who calls Sandor "Dad" and holds her ears when inside the factory, could be Dutch or Swedish.

All hands on deck
"Why don't you come back tomorrow?" Sandor says.  "We'll give you a knife, and you can see how it really works."

"You're late," he says when I return the next day at the same time.  "We're all finished."  I must look crushed, because he continues in a much softer tone, "Come on in anyway.  I've got a special tray you can watch me season."

Almost done
By the time I leave the second time, I'm not sure how much I've learned, but it's been thrilling to see the real deal of biltong-making--especially on this almost industrial scale.  I showed Sandor a picture of my own attempts at biltong and he approved: "That looks great."  But almost every question I put to him was answered either "it doesn't matter" or "you've just got to experiment."  Nonetheless, I'm amazed at his generosity in letting me stick my camera in all corners of his operation.  I remember the time I asked the sword-seller in Toledo, Spain if I could visit his factory and he got irate: "You think I want to give away all my secrets?" as if a common tourist is likely to pirate a sword factory.  Or the time I recognized Otavalo weavings at a booth in the Pike Place Market in Seattle and asked the proprietor how hard it was to import them; he suggested I pay him for any further information.  Biltong is so ordinary to South Africans that it would never occur to them to get protective. 
The finished product


  1. What is a kudu, and what does it taste like? Does lamb biltong taste discernibly like lamb?

  2. Sounds grossly awesome. In Gordon we trust, to find and expose the saltiest, goriest corners of the world!

  3. Maybe I can become a vegetarian after all. I've always known that if I had to kill and prepare my own meat, I'd turn to broccoli in a flash. But more to the point, I found this post extra interesting, really good . . . dare I say "journalism" --maybe because the humans and their way of life are your subject as much as the meat (or flora).

  4. Kudu is one of the largest African herbivores, with distinctive striped flanks and tall curved horns. It tastes "gamey" in no particular way. The lamb was for cooking, not biltong.

    Thanks for stopping by, Chad. Hope to hear from you more often.

    Biltong, being a rural Afrikaans tradition, is a very different side of South Africa from the urban black townships. Glad to hear some of the culture came through.