Being married to a South African means I get to discover a whole other country and it’s culture by default. I have been there many times over the last decade and each time I get to see a side of real Africa, beyond the tourist Table Mountain Cable Car or Garden Route trail.
When i fell in love with my husband, it stands to reason i fell in love with Africa too as it has a lot to do with who he is. I’m convinced growing up in a warm climate has a huge affect on your attitude to life. Where it is warm and sunny optimism can’t help but shine through. It also has an affect on your quality of life being able to enjoy the great outdoors and amazing terrain, most of the time. Even their winter days are generally warmer then our summer ones.
When i met my husband I had no idea he was South African. Infact, unbelievably I don’t think i had knowingly met a South African before him. I thought he was Dutch. The loud music in the bar where we met disguised his accent and it wasn’t until he called me to arrange our first date did he mention being South African after I asked if he were Dutch. When i asked him his Surname so I could put his number in my phone, he hesitated for a second and in that second i had visions of him saying ‘De Beers’. How terribly convenient it would be to fall in love with a Diamond heir.
Alas, his name was not ‘De Beers’ but actually a more English sounding surname than my own. He was part South African, part English through his Mother’s heritage and had been living and working here a number of years.
My knowledge of South Africa at this point was i’m embarrassed to say extremely limited. I didn’t even know a great deal about their Apartheid struggle or other colossal moments in their history. I duly swotted up so as to not be a complete ignoramous or as a backstop if our first date conversation ran dry.
There are many things that South African’s hold dear. Their colourful history, their sporting achievements, their love of all things Braai, but Biltong has to be one of the first things I didnt know what to make of.
When i first visited him at the flat he shared with a male friend in Balham, South West London, it was obvious he was in need of female love & intervention. His room had a mattress on the floor (he says it was a futon) and there were clothes thrown over various clothes dryers scattered around the room. At least they had been washed i reasoned. It was here he offered me my first piece of Biltong.
Biltong, for those that are still unaware of its existence is a kind of cured meat. It’s not disimilar to jerky but it tends to be bigger in size and not as sweet. All types of meat & game can be used and are dried using herbs, seasoning and different spices. It isnt much to look at. Infact i think it can easily be confused with a dog stick.
Not wanting to offend my host or his heritage, I took a piece from the vacuum packed bag he offered, trying to disguise the sneer on my face. I really didnt want to eat it. The thought of eating dried meat that had been sitting in a plastic bag made me want to gag.
I chewed a little too enthusiastically. Surprisingly it was rather tasty and took another piece. For me I had to mentally get over the idea that it was meat before I could whole heartedly embrace it and once I did I was able to explore the many varieties that are on offer, from Ostrich to Kudu. I then progressed on to Droewors – pronounced draw-vorse which as it turns out is my favourite. It’s very much like their Boerewors which they cook on the braai which is typically a coriander seed spiced sausage but Droewors is thinner and dried like biltong.
Now unless you are South African or brought up with Biltong most people tend to have the same first reactions as me. Yet I know of no South African who doesn’t eat it. You can buy it from most places out there. They swap recipes for those that like to try their hand at their own or shops that sell the very best quality, like treasured secrets. When my husband’s family come visit they bring a huge stash for him that invariably doesn’t last long.
There is however another use for biltong which I am eternally grateful for; teething. It’s salty dried sticks are miraculous relief for sore gums and teeth that are trying to cut. With my eldest daughter’s first tooth finally arriving at 10 months whilst we were in Cape Town she was besides herself with discomfort. His family suggested i give her Biltong. Whilst I’m not sure it’s on Annabel Karmel’s top 1,000 food list to give your kids I’d take anything that would lessen her constant whining.
She chewed on these meat sticks with great gusto. Gnawing down making approving noises and chewing until the sticks were all sinewy and spent. When we would replace with another fresh one. Being a baby she didn’t question what she was eating but let her love of its taste & feeling guide her. My husband was so proud of her enjoyment in it. It was in his eyes, validation that she bore South African genes.
So it was to biltong I turned to on Bank Holiday Monday when more of Belle’s teeth were trying to cut and she was whining in pain. As soon as i mentioned the word biltong she knew exactly what it was and was virtually climbing up my leg whilst i cut her a piece off, in her haste to get her hands on it. I didn’t hear a peep from her for the next 45 minutes whilst she happily munched on it. After, her breath smelt like that of a hound, all meaty, but she was happy. Ashton & Parsons?, pahhh….biltong is by far the best solution to teething babies I’ve come across so far!
Living in the UK our girls will never know the South Africa their Father does and this makes him sad. It is his responsibility I tell him to ensure he teaches them what he can so I often hear him trying to teach them African words or songs or talk to them about places he loved to play when he were a boy.
Whether he keeps it up will make no difference as to their own love affair with Africa. Despite the many, many social & economic problems they are facing they will be hard pressed to not love their second home because as I reassure my husband, an Apple can never really fall far from its tree.