The Origins of Biltong

Indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, such as the Khoikhoi, preserved meat by slicing it into strips. Curing each strip with salt, and hanging it up to dry.

After European settlers (Dutch, German and French) arrived in southern Africa in the early 17th century, they improved the curing process by using vinegar, saltpetre and spices including pepper, coriander and cloves, which have antimicrobial properties to kill deadly bacteria and prevent moulding.  The word biltong is from the Dutch bil (“buttock”) and tong (“strip” or “tongue”).

Meat preservation as a survival technique dates back to ancient times. European seafarers preserved meat for their long journeys by curing meat in salt or brine. The need for food preservation in South Africa was pressing. Building up herds of livestock took a long time, but with game in abundance in South Africa, traditional methods were called upon to preserve the meat of large African animals, such as the eland, in the warm climate. Biltong as it is today evolved from the dried meat carried by wagon-travelling Voortrekkers, who needed stocks of durable food as they migrated from the Cape Colony north and north-eastward (away from British rule) into the interior of Southern Africa during the Great Trek. The meat was prepared with vinegar and spices then hung to be air-dried for a fortnight during the winter, when the colder temperatures further inhibited bacterial and fungal growth. Once suitably dried the biltong was ready for packing in cloth bags which allowed air circulation to help prevent mould.

Having been teethed and brought up on this most healthy protein product, it’s no wonder that biltong is loved and craved by South Africans worldwide as their go to daily snack.