Saturday, 12 November 2011

My culinary experiences (Part three)

(click here for part two of my culinary experiences)
South Africans like biltong (if at this point you find yourself asking, “What is biltong??” then click here). It may be a broad generalisation but I believe it to be true. It is especially true in Australia, or for that matter in any country where the South African expat may find himself. I will venture that even those who may rate themselves low on the biltong-lover scale will start to develop a desire for the traditional delicacy - for the simple reason that it is not easily obtained here, and it’s a well-known fact that you generally want that which you cannot have, right? So what are you to do when you find yourself in Australia and the biltong is in South Africa? There are four options:

Option 1: Go without. No wait… that’s not an option. So really then there is only three options.

Option 1: Fly to South Africa to get some. Problem: WAY too expensive. And besides, you can’t exactly hop on a flight 30 minutes before the Boks kick off and expect to be back in time for the game. No, scrap that idea too.

Option 2: Go visit your friendly people at Springbok Foods. They have come to the aid of many a desperate Saffer with their supplies of Mrs Balls Chutney, Ouma Rusks and, yep you guessed it, biltong. This is an easy and effective option, but lacks a little in the challenge department. No, I believe that biltong just tastes that much better if you have made it yourself (or at least that’s what I thought), which brings me to:

Option 3: Make our own. Eureka! Shortly after this brain wave hit me I jumped into the car, together with my accomplice, confidant and son, Herman and headed towards the nearest Bunnings Warehouse to get some supplies because, “Today we are going to build a biltong dryer!”

We walked in with an idea in my head, ‘n plan in my hand and loads of courage, and walked out with a trolley - why I always have to pick the one with wheel alignment like that of a Putco bus I will never know but that’s a story for another day - that groaned under the weight of wood, drill bits, screws, hinges, varnish, sandpaper and brushes. Back home I transformed the play room into a makeshift workshop and summoned my eager little helpers.

I got the plan for this dryer somewhere on the internet and it works like this: You start by building a square box of about 1m high by 600cm wide and 600cm deep. Then you drill holes of about 3cm in the side panels – apparently to aid with the ventilation. How many holes, I hear someone ask? Let me tell you, it doesn’t look like a lot when you mark it out on the board but once you start drilling you quickly realise that it is not a trivial exercise! A total of fifty eight holes! After you drilled the twenty-third one it’s not fun anymore. And when you really start to become fed up with it all and your muscles ache and you wife gives you that look and your kids go into hiding and your neighbour’s irate wife glares at you from across the fence, then you know you’re about half way there. Depending on where the dryer will do it’s drying, it may be advisable to cover the holes with a fine mesh, to keep out the unwanted ones. In my case it would be kept indoors so I didn’t bother with that for now.

When the drilling finally stops (or so I thought), you fix a light fitting at the bottom. About 30cm above this comes another board, and this one also requires a number of holes to be drilled to allow the warm air to flow through. When that is done you drill the last eight holes, four on the top left panel and four on the top right. You then push four rods through these holes, to form rails from which the meat will be hung. To help with moving it around attach some wheels to the bottom. After some sawing, way too much drilling and much “help” from the little Munchkins the dryer started to take form.

Next step: varnish. It simply cannot be considered “finished” while remaining in that pale pine tint. I decided my dryer will be Golden Oak, or was it Cherry? I forget. Either way, before long I had it look like a true collector’s item. I covered the floor in about 14 layers of old newspapers before I started, which must have been Divine Guidance, because I was about half way through the ‘depinefication’ process when I kicked the varnish tin with the elegance of someone high on varnish fumes. You just saw arms and legs fly as I tried to salvage what I could, but all that remained in the tin was a film of varnish as thin as Julia Gillard’s Carbon Tax promises - the rest was spreading itself out on the newspaper at an alarming rate.

All I could do was to continue varnishing, albeit at a slightly quicker pace or at least as quick a pace as my delayed reactions allowed. With the last whiff of varnish that I managed to scrape off Kevin Rudd’s face (who now had a remarkable resemblance to the Aboriginals that he was addressing) the dryer was finished - I just made it. I still wonder how I managed to get it done because shortly after the first coat I felt myself floating between yellow daisies and whistling a Bob Dylan tune. I vaguely recall hearing Christa’s voice in the distance saying something about taking it outside and varnish fumes and kids getting high. Three days later the varnish had dried and I managed to walk straight again after an interesting experience that I can almost recommend.

As with most of my little “projects”, I totally underestimated the work involved. “No luv, won’t take long, by tonight the biltong will be hanging!” Yea right. Turns out it took almost forty days and forty nights of hard labour before I had the pleasure of seeing the first strips hanging. Something about “by the sweat of your brow you will make your biltong” comes to mind. The eager expectation of the best biltong ever kept me going and now I was ready to start the first batch. The hooks and biltong spice that I ordered from Perth arrived and before long I was walking out of Coles with a pound or two silverside under the arm. The time had come and I was ready!

Let me tell you, it’s hard work to make biltong, cutting the meat into strips, dipping it in vinegar followed by biltong spices and coarse salt. When the last strip was hung I thought to myself, “Self, not a bad job, not bad at all!” I couldn’t wait for the time to go by so that I could sink my teeth into it, checking on them every few minutes to the point of bordering on an obsession.

The big day finally came and I prepared myself for the occasion. I selected a strip and cut off a piece. It was carefully inspected. Not too much spice, the colour is right, not too dry. Perfect. I sat down and made myself comfortable, the lights were dimmed and soft music was playing. My breathing rhythmic and calm… I was at peace with the world. I closed my eyes like they do in those Cadbury commercials and took the first bite. Unfortunately the moment didn’t last very long. No, what had to be a moment of bliss quickly took on nightmarish characteristics. What I never realised, but found out soon enough, was that I had bought “corned” silverside. For those of you who, like me, have no idea what corned silverside is, it means that the meat has already been salted. 

With that single bite I probably took in five times my RDI of salt. With eyes wide with fright and surprised terror I jumped up with the biltong flying in one direction and I in the other, in search for the nearest tap. Kids tried to get out my way and the neighbour looked over the wall again, shaking her head with sad resignation. I guess that’s how you learn. Later that evening I threw out all the biltong I had made and silently wiped a tear.

It was difficult, but apparently winners get up and try again. I made the next batch with unsalted beef and this time it went a little better. The next batch wasn’t quite right either but almost edible. I guess practice makes perfect. But take it from me, this is hard work! Option number two is starting to sound much more tempting and until such time as I have mastered the art of biltong making (which by even the best estimate will be a while) I will rather pay a visit to the friendly people at the South African shop in Oxenford to stock up on biltong and droëwors. Speaking of droëwors, they simply have the best chilli droëwors that I have ever tasted, and judging by my track record with the salt, making chilli droëwors is something that is best left to the experts…

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