10 top tips to judge good biltong
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. A mouthful of good biltong is salve for a fragile frame of mind. It broadens your humanity. As long has you have a piece of biltong to chew on, it’s fun to travel.
So, in the interest of road safety, tourism, good taste, nation building and world peace, buy some biltong. But do it right. Here’s how:
Money is no object.
It’s just not the done thing to ask how much biltong costs. If you want it, buy it; if you don’t want it, don’t.
Choose the right region
The first indication of quality, pedigreed biltong is the region of origin. The Highveld and the Free State are safe; the Bushveld is true biltong country; but in the Cape you have to be wary.
These people don’t have the biltongmaking experience of the Great Trek. Their speciality is bokkoms. This has nothing to do with provincialism; I wouldn’t recommend bokkoms cured in the Bushveld.
Pick the outlet with care
Buy biltong at a butchery or a biltong shop. Don’t go for a packet of suffocated sticks at a café or convenience store, no matter how desperate you are.
That stuff is not biltong. It’s scraps and sinew conveyor-belted through a drying kiln in a factory. You might as well chew on a horse’s harness.
Also, the more major the highway and the closer the shop to the highway, the worse the taste the biltong transaction will leave in your mouth.
Some of these merchants rely on the fact that their customers are in a hurry and will be far away by the time they realise they’ve been had. There are exceptions to this rule, but they’re few and far between.
To be safe, look for a butcher that sells to the same people every day – he can’t afford to alienate his customers.
If the butchery or biltong shop has an English name, rather give it a miss. The English language doesn’t even have a word for biltong.
On the other hand, if I wanted cucumber sandwiches or Yorkshire pudding I wouldn’t go look for it at Die Bosveld Biltong Koning.
Service with a smile
Try to distinguish the nature of the person behind the counter in the biltong shop.
Research involving extensive legwork and analysis has proven that buying biltong from someone who is unfriendly, humourless, apathetic or rude tends to spoil the product. Biltong that’s no fun to buy just doesn’t taste right.
Check out the premises
I wouldn’t buy chilli bites from a butchery with a pile of jackal skins in the back yard. Sniff around. If flies are tolerated in the butchery, I wouldn’t put the biltong in my mouth.
If the butcher allows you to touch the merchandise with bare hands, any dirty scoundrel could have laid his paws on it.
Does the butcher know his stuff?
The best beef biltong is made from C-grade meat. If you say “C-grade” and the butcher reacts as if someone zapped him with a stun gun, go find another butcher.
C-grade is specially bred to make biltong with that thick yellow strip of fat. And if the butcher tries to put your biltong in a plastic bag, cancel the transaction right there and go spend your money somewhere else.
Biltong belongs in a brown paper bag, or a cloth bag like they used in the old days.
Look at the biltong
An experienced biltong maker will make the right cuts and remove any sinews and strings for his dog. Using the best quality meat, he will slice elegant, generous strips.
Look closely: If a strip of biltong has a sinew or a membrane down the middle, the biltong maker will probably try to cheat you out of your change, too.
The best game biltong is the shiniest, darkest, smoothest piece that is not too thick, except if it’s chine biltong, which is made of tenderloin.
Game biltong has to be dry – the dryer the better. It has to be dry enough to break it. Beef biltong, on the other hand, can be moist; a thin slice held against the light should glow red.
If you can’t find beef biltong with thick yellow fat, look for the darkest biltong with the smoothest texture, but don’t be fooled into buying a pink piece or a piece with white fat.
White fat is feedlot fat. It comes from agitated cattle squeezed into small spaces and force-fed stuff to fatten them in the shortest possible time. It doesn’t taste right and it’s not good for you.
The story that yellow fat is unhealthy is nonsense. (And pipe tobacco and mampoer, for that matter.) Diseases are caused by stress, stress is caused by anxiety, and anxiety is caused by politicians. Don’t blame biltong.
The best way to slice beef biltong is with a sharp pocket knife, but it can be tricky if you need a hand to hold the steering wheel.
That’s when you ask the butcher to slice the biltong for you. Most times the poor piece of biltong is forced through a noisy machine. If the machine is old and the blade dull, it won’t slice the biltong properly. It will tear off the fat and hack up the biltong.
Put your hand in the bag before you leave the shop. Take a slice and pick it up. If the slices are separate, give a friendly nod and say thanks. If you pick up a single mangled string, make a fuss.
If the place has a screen door, as every good butchery should, slam it behind you when you leave. You owe it to other biltong buyers.
The taste test
You don’t get a proper taste while you’re standing in the shop. You need to savour your biltong slowly to determine its true bouquet.
Smell it: Detect the sweet red grass of good Bushveld grazing.
Taste it: It has to have just enough seasoning to preserve the meaty flavour. One thing you can’t argue about is that decent biltong should be salty. Not briny, just well seasoned, the way biltong should be.
Chew it: Enjoy the texture and flavours.
Suddenly the drab old world becomes colourful again. The injustices you have suffered become trivial. The potholed road becomes a smooth highway. All is well with the world.