In search of better Biltong

Fu says:

If you don't get excited at the mention of the word Biltong, then you're missing a vital food experience. Granted, the idea of salted, dried meat as a delicacy probably doesn't turn many heads - but it's an institution in South Africa.

Biltong, for those unfamiliar with the subject, has its origins from the days when my great, great grandmother and her parents trekked across SA in the 1820s (No, I'm not kidding - my family really did come here with the '1820 settlers'). Many pioneers around the world at the time were using various pickling, salting and drying techniques to preserve meat.

Somewhere along the line, somebody obviously got tired of rehydrating and cooking the preserved meat and just decided to eat the bloody stuff as it was. As proof of how stubborn my ancestors were, the salty, tough plank-o-cow did not dampen their spirits or cause them to surrender and go back to rehydrating it. No, they just decided there had to be a way to make it more palatable. Thus biltong was born.

Now some people may tell you that it is just dried meat, others will say it is like American jerky, but they are oh so wrong. Well-made biltong is as delicious and delectable as parma ham or smoked salmon.

The problem is that with the rising price of meat - and the growing greed of some producers - this staple of the SA weekend braai (barbeque) is now incredibly pricy. Average prices are now sitting at anywhere between R150 to R250 per kilogram (15.25 - 25 British pounds per kilogram, $11 - $18 per pound).

For me, that's now way out of my price league and for years I've been grumbling about how easy it would be to make my own biltong. Being deprived of this treat for a few months was enough to spur me on to do something about it.

After reading an article in Popular Mechanics describing how to make a simple biltong drying cabinet, I scrounged around the house and discovered I had the hardware to make a tiny drying box. I figured that starting small would be good, so I could learn as I went along and apply that at a later stage to a much bigger project.

I used a sealable plastic bin (roughly 20 litres capacity), window frame cornice, a 12v PC cooling fan and a transformer that converts 250 volts AC to 9 Volts DC.

The assembly is relatively simple: Cut a hole for the fan in the lid of the bin and afix the fan with self-tapping screws. Cut lengths of the window frame wood (dowels can also be used, but then holes must be drilled in the container sides) and fix in place with self-tapping screws. Drill some holes in the side of the bin for ventilation and wire the PC fan to the transformer. Voila!

It took me all of thirty minutes to make and is robust enough to withstand repeated use, but simple enough so that I didn't excessive waste time or money on it. I couldn't tell you what it cost, because the materials were all either bought months ago, or scrounged for free from friends.

Nonetheless, I was really chuffed with the results and was now more determined than ever to make my own biltong.

In the next installment ... Making the good stuff.

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