WE don’t say we ‘want’ biltong, we say we ‘need’ biltong,” says Neeleen Strauss, co-owner and sommelier of High Timber, the steak and wine restaurant facing Tate Modern. The “we” in this context is South Africans, and biltong, if you don’t know already, is the dried beef the country prides itself on and which can be found done not very well and with lots of additives in plastic packets at newsagents here.
Strauss recalls how as a baby she was given biltong instead of a dummy to chew on. I may not have been raised on it, but, like many people, I do like a good salty beef snack. Chewing dry-cured animal is one of the most satisfying things to do on earth. But until now, most of my exposure to biltong has been the stuff in crummy, chemical-loaded packs.
At High Timber, though, I had a chance to have the very best and try it matched with good, gutsy South African red wine – its natural bedfellow. Originating during the Great Trek of the 1830s and 1840s, when the mainly Dutch settlers moved north-east across modern-day South Africa away from British control, biltong was the result of the need to preserve meat on the move.
Shepherded by Strauss – who didn’t find a satisfactory UK purveyor of biltong for six months (EU regulations prevent its import) – we tried beef, kudu (a South African antelope-like creature) and ostrich biltong, along with dried beef and springbok sausage (droe wors).
Beef came in several forms: dry, wet (slightly moister than bone-dry), Bushman’s delight (a different blend of spices) and chilli. All were great: nothing artificial, full of meaty heft and savour, and – unlike Strauss’s rejects – “elegant”. Chilli was simply to die for: it ticked every box the savoury-seeker could ever desire, the fire emerging subtly more with every bite. We washed all this down with two wines: Jordan Cobblers Hill (Merlot and Cabernet) and Southern Wright Pinotage, both red, of course, and both South African. The Cobblers Hill was big and aromatic, matching the beef perfectly, while the Pinotage packed an even bigger punch and proved an uncannily good bedmate for the chilli beef and game.
The game was the kudu, ostrich and springbok: all with a more minerally, tough-guy flavour and texture. Whether you prefer beef (like me) or the game, be sure you take your biltong with red wine: a recent study has showed that its tannins enhance red meat flavours. It certainly seemed to work well. Biltong tastings on request. Full tasting is £15 per person, one variety is £6 per person. High Timber, 8 High Timber St, EC4V 3PA, tel: 020 7248 1777.