In the world of cured meat there are two products that stick out like dry, salty thumbs. While salamis and hams persist in the soft, delicate form we know and love, these two meaty anomalies delight and sustain us in equal measure. These difficult characters are biltong and jerky. Both are essentially intensely dried and seasoned beef, but this is where the similarities end. We are often asked the difference between the two, so here goes –
Rather romantically, jerky comes from the Spanish “charqui”, which means ‘to burn meat’. Not that the Spaniards invented jerky mind you; this was their interpretation of a unique Caribbean meat preservation method which cooked meat over a long period of time, thereby removing moisture and making it safe to eat. This became essential sailors (and pirates) food as it kept for months on end. Jerky production appears to have spread widely, particularly in North America, where beef began to be used extensively in making meaty snacks. It’s longevity, as well as its health benefits, meant it became synonymous with cowboys making their way West across the fledgling United States.
In order to make Jerky these days, the beef (or any other kind of red meat) is sliced, the fat is removed and the strips are salted and marinated then left to dry in an oven at a temperature of no more than 70 degrees C. The intense, salty (and sometimes sweet) result is very high in protein, providing long lasting energy to the lucky chewer. Yeeehaaa.
Translated directly from Dutch, biltong literally means ’rump strip’. European settlers in South Africa in the early 17th century used a mixture of vinegar and salt petre to preserve their meats, which were primarily beef or native game such as kudu, springbok or wildebeest. Like the intrepid men of the wild west, Voortrekkers on their great journey across South Africa (away from British Imperial rule) chomped on biltong for sustenance.
Biltong is always much thicker than Jerky as it is made from fillets of meat rather than pre sliced strips. The fillets are brined in vinegar, salted and then also herbs and spices are added. Typically these would be a blend of ground coriander seed, black pepper and cloves. Nowadays producers experiment with many flavourings, with chilli being particularly well suited. The final stage of getting your biltong fix is slicing the dried fillets of beef and tucking right in! Lekker!
So, there you have it. Both biltong and jerky pack a flavoursome and protein laden punch and are achieving a greater gastronomic reputation than ever before. While they hail from different corners of the globe, their stories are similar; borne out of hard times and necessity, they served to energise those who dared to expand their geographical horizons. Happily we can now snack on both of these delicious products closer to home, with producers using British beef to emulate their South African and American cousins.
Try it for yourself at www.cannonandcannon.com/shop or at one of our many market stalls.