Ever wondered what biltong is or where it originated from? The next couple of posts will aim to answer some if not all of the questions you might have.
The word biltong is derived from two Dutch words - "Bil" meaning buttock and "Tong" meaning either strip or tongue. Now buttock might seem like a strange starting point, but (no pun intented) the best cuts of biltong would have been made from the rump of the animal. Most biltong today is made from either a silverside or topside cut of beef. The "Tong" part refers to how the meat was cut. Usually along the grain of the meat and in long strips.
Throughout the ages there has been a need to preserve all kinds of food and meat is no exception. Biltong as we know it today started with this need to have a reliable source of protein when Dutch speaking settlers wanted to escape the then British rule of the early Cape colony in South Africa. Meat preservation using salt or brine was no new concept but thank goodness these early explorers and settlers thought to add vinegar, pepper, and coriander to the mix. It is this glorious blend of spices that form the base of most biltong recipes today.
Sure, the addition of vinegar wasn't just for taste. To prevent nasty bacteria and other foodborne toxins from forming, these clever biltong masters had to draw on the power of nature and science to ensure the safety of the end product. Vinegar and its low pH along with salt forms the base for a natural yet potent preserving mix. Certain studies have also indicated that coriander oil in mild concentrations will aid in providing some antimicrobial fighting power.
With this knowledge our Dutch speaking friends had the ability to preserve the abundance of game available during the migration into mainland South Africa. Meat would be cut into strips sprinkled with vinegar and marinated in available spices. Refrigeration or even ice boxes had not been invented so the meat was simply hung on the back of the wagons used to travel. Here it would hang for the next two weeks to dry. Cloth bags were used to store the biltong. This was another important preserving step. Without the ability to "breath" the biltong would go mouldy. The cloth bags allowed air circulation around the pieces of biltong thus preventing mould from forming.
In the next post we will look at how biltong has evolved (sneak peak - it hasn't that much) to what you are buying from us today.