Photographs by Brandon de Kock
In my hand is a hunk of biltong as big as my calf muscle. It’s rosy inside and clean tasting – just meat and salt – and technically you might say it’s cured, not dried. The point is, there are few places you can split beef silverside in half and get this result out of something that size. The Karoo is one of them, and standing in the cold room on Nieuwefontein farm near Richmond, I finally understand why.
I landed there because I’d heard springbok makes superior biltong, and I’d heard of Annatjie Reynolds. When the Meat Board still existed, it employed her to give butchery demos to farmers, which is how she met her husband, Kobus. Now she shares her expertise giving venison courses under the name Kom Kook En Kuier In Die Karoo or, loosely translated, ‘Come cook and hang out in the Karoo’. So that’s what I did. And Annatjie had a springbok ready for my edification.
Earlier this year, when City Press ran scandalous headlines announcing that what we take to be kudu biltong may well be kangaroo, I couldn’t help asking: if we can’t tell what’s in it, do we even know what good biltong is?
As a food and travel specialist, going ‘back to source’ is what I do. And in my world of food research, I’ve discovered a simple truth: the only way to get to grips with something is to travel to where it’s made.
When I pulled up at the Reynolds homestead on Nieuwefontein, it looked deserted. The door was open, so I crossed the threshold calling out for Annatjie and noticed a wall plaque with the bible verse, ‘Love is patient, Love is kind…’ The smell of something meaty cooking in an Aga permeated the hallway, and when Annatjie came around the corner I instinctively knew this was the woman to help me understand my subject.
‘Let me show you where I was,’ she said, taking my arm with the combined poise and earthiness that speaks of inherent good breeding and a life lived in the Karoo. We passed two smokers and entered an out-house with sturdy wooden beams – the cold room and butchery, where Annatjie makes biltong and droëwors from May through to August, and where I find myself admiring that impressive piece of cured beef.
‘By now I’m already looking forward to summer,’ she tells me, ‘when I can prune my roses, harvest fruit and make jam.’ And so it dawns on me: biltong-making is a winter sport.
In hot weather, meat spoils before it’s properly dried and there’s the unpleasant reality of keeping brommers (bluebottle flies) at bay. Just as I’m wondering how I missed the obvious, Kobus interrupts. ‘I’m going to see if I can find anything,’ he says, holding a rifle, ‘would you like to come?’
It’s a buck he’s after, for Annatjie’s upcoming cookery class. So I go along for the ride, and spend most of it surreptitiously hugging knees to chest, terrified the gun that’s casually deposited at my feet will accidentally take off one of my toes. For a career farmer in a region that demands a fighting spirit Kobus has a sensitivity that takes me by surprise. ‘I don’t really like hunting animals,’ he admits as we scan the horizon, ‘I only do it because Annatjie needs the meat.’
It’s kind of like my man swinging by Woolies after work to pick up chicken fillets. Kind of … except the effort is greater and the odds of success lower. We return empty-handed. It immediately contextualises why we make biltong in the first place; it’s a preservation method, a means of prolonging the feast for when times are lean. And if you can lend protein longevity through desiccation, braaing a fillet for one night’s sustenance seems positively indulgent.
As I learn from Annatjie the following day, that’s the butcher’s dilemma: steak or biltong – because both come from the prime cuts. It explains why good biltong is a precious luxury and why one springbok yields so little – about two kilograms if you’re lucky. Those prime cuts are traditionally the striploin (a choice section down the length of the spine), the fillet (also called the oumens or ‘old people’s’ biltong because it’s so tender) and, from the leg quarter, the topside and silverside.
The silverside is her preferred cut for beef biltong too. It’s insulated by fat, which slows drying, and it’s clean, meaning there’s no connective tissue or sinew, something Annatjie is fastidious about. Which is why she passes over the shoulder, ‘Men who only have one or two bokkies like to take their little biltongkies out here…’ she says, releasing it from the forequarter, ‘I prefer to use it for mince, boerewors or droëwors.’
Aah… another learning: biltong and droëwors are brothers in arms. The prime cuts become biltong and the trimmings are turned into wors (fresh or dried), effectively processing the entire carcass. As Annatjie cuts meat from the bones, everything not destined for biltong – neck, rib, flank – is collected in an enamel tub to be cubed, seasoned, minced and stuffed into casings. And that’s when I learn the real secret to droëwors: fat-tailed sheep.
‘I like snappy droëwors,’ says Annatjie, ‘not too fatty and made with the correct fat.’ That is the oily fat from the tail of a Persian or Afrikaner sheep, which stays soft long after the sausage has dried. Ever had droëwors leave a waxy film on your palate? It’s the wrong fat – beef or pork, which quickly turns rancid. When I pick up a block of tail fat for closer inspection, there’s an obvious sheen where my fingertips have been. Later Kobus shows me ‘Annatjie’s sheep’, their Afrikaners, which look like they’re wearing flokati rugs – with the corners flopped over their bottoms.
We return to the task at hand – biltong – and a warm fragrance floods the air as toasted coriander seeds crack under a pestle; Annatjie believes in doing things properly: best meat, best cuts, and blending spices from scratch.
Still, I venture the question, could she recommend a commercial spice mix? ‘For me, that would be like eating Nik Naks,’ she replies, ‘why would you take good-quality organic meat and put MSG all over it?’ Enough said.
Her method is simple: salt preserves and creates brine, brown sugar softens – essential for venison, which hardens quickly – and vinegar tenderises and preserves. Saltpetre, used sparingly, is permissible for keeping beef pink, and bicarb discourages mould – no risk of that in the Karoo. And while coriander is the only ‘flavouring’, freshly-ground black pepper is also acceptable.
Her process shows a deep respect for what nature has provided and through our kuier I realise her relationship with biltong is different. It’s part of the ebb and ow of life; an ingredient kept in reserve, stored whole, cut only when needed and used according to style.
Shavings of dry venison peeling off a slicing wheel on the kitchen counter are collected in a repurposed family heirloom – the silver-plated sugar pot from Kobus’s mother – and passed around for covering buttered farm bread. An even drier piece is pounded to a fine powder to give scrambled eggs a savoury kick.
Here people know to store biltong in a fabric bag (in the past it was pillowcases) to let it air. It’s a culture far removed from the pre-sliced, vacuum-packed urban snack I know, grabbed while filling up with petrol. In the city we’re supposedly more sophisticated, but it’s farming types who are discerning in the same way an Italian might be about Parma ham or, as a more direct comparison, bresoala (air-dried beef). Being at Nieuwefontein is a lesson in biltong appreciation.
Before leaving I revisit the cold room, where strings of droëwors sway above my head in the slight, steady breeze coming through mesh-covered windows. A butcher once told me good biltong is all in the air; it must be cold and extremely dry. Standing there, I feel it. I’m acutely aware it’s between five and seven degrees Celsius and after 48 hours in the Karoo my hair is static and my lips chapped – optimal conditions, maybe not for me, but definitely for biltong.
I’m sent off with a bunch of home-grown daffodils, a bright signal in the middle of the brown, frostbitten Karoo that the end of biltong season is in sight, and waving good-bye I remember our conversation the night before.
I’d asked the Reynolds’ advice to anyone in wet, more humid climates wanting to make biltong. Their answer: find a contact for Karoo biltong… or come to the Karoo and make it yourself.
‘So they shouldn’t even attempt it then?’ I pressed, ‘Not even with a biltong maker?’ I knew I was broaching the controversial; connoisseurs prefer natural wind drying and dismiss heated biltong boxes for leaving an unmistakeable ‘cooked’ taste. ‘Well,’ answered Kobus, in his gentle way, ‘we don’t try to grow bananas here, do we?’
Published in the November 2013 issue of Getaway magazine.