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A barnstorming idea for budding entrepreneurs to chew on


A MAN from Cosira called not long ago to advise how the village shop might make a profit. Cosira is the Council for Small Industries in Rural Areas, an arm of a little regarded statutory body called the Development Commission " Industry " is stretching the term some what, and even commerce would err on the generous side. Nevertheless, he was trying to help. His main point, though this is incidental to what follows, was that we were greatly overstocked with some £2,000 worth of stuff on the shelves. If an item is not sold in three months, he said, it ought not to have been bought. When one thinks, for example, of the cricket bats bought in 1979 and still awaiting purchasers one sees the advantage of taking expert advice. Being otherwise occupied I could not attend the entire interview and therefore had no chance to ask his opinion about what to do with a large barn which adjoins the house. It seems ideal for a small industry in a rural area, and was once so used. It was where the coffins were built before funeral arrangements became centralised. Under its tin roof the barn now stands empty except for junk. But when the man had gone I recalled a project I had previously entertained for it. A profile which appeared last week of the new South African minister of law and order vived the idea yet again. It appears that the minister, Mar Adriaan Vlok is very fond of his biltong. Now I have learned enough, I hope, not to snake unorthodox comments about South Africa more than once a year.

Suffice to say that not everything of Afrikaner origin is to be spurned and that biltong is a discovery, or invention, which the world has neglected to its grievous loss. The literature is unhelpful about biltong The Oxford Dictionary's first mention of it is in 1815 but it does not explains and should not be expected to, how it is made. Larousse Gastronomique, on the other hand, which purports to be the world authority on food, does not mention it at all. You may say that Larousse purports to be an authority only on French cuisine. But is that so? It has entries for Yorkshire pudding and Cheshire cheese. It also has an entry for pemmican, the north American Indian preparation with which biltong is sometimes mistakenly identified. Pemmican is dried meat, as is biltong, but there the similarity ends. It is pounded and mixed into a cake, which biltong is not. Biltong is essentially meat dried in one piece to a dense consistency such that it can be chewed for hours without seeming to diminish in size. II does gradually dissolve, though. Until the final morsel of insoluble gristle has to be swallowed it is sold in the long strips in which it was cut from the carcass and from which it gets its name: i.e. bil, buttock: tong, tongue. One can try, as I know from experiment to produce a biltong substitute by leaving a piece of meat in a very slow oven for many hours until its moisture has evaporated, but this yields no more than a weak imitation of the real thing. Why should that be? What I propose is that a ready market would be found here for biltong if someone had the enterprise to make it. Having no venture capital to spare, and not wishing to go cap in hand to the bank, I am precluded from following the course about to be suggested. That is a pity, because I'm sure it would bring in large sums of money and all the other circumstances are propitious.

Biltong is almost entirely protein or fibre. It is a substitute for a meal. It is cheap. It cannot be imported, except expensively in small jars, because of some hygiene regulation or other, even if this were the appropriate time to advocate increased trade with South Africa. (But see Botswana below. Now it is not possible to find in the British isles the warm, dry plains at an attitude of 5,000 feet which are the enviroment in which biltong is prepared. Altitude is just as important as dryness because part of the secret of biltong, so it seems, is its absorption of ultra-violet light which is filtered away by the lower layers of the atmosphere. What we must do, therefore, is to simulate those conditions. This will require meat to be hung in an air-conditioned chamber, subject to a moderate breeze, and with an artificial source of ultra-violet light. Moreover the quantity of saltpetre added to the meat before drying needs careful experiment. It is used both as a preservative and to enhance the colour, and I dare say a few subtle aromatics are used as well. These are secrets which the Boers are unlikely to want to share, least of all in the present disputatious climate. Look what happened to the Milk Marketing Board when, in the early stages of making Lymeswold old cheese, it sent out scons to the Brie country. To say that the farmers of Crecy-ef- Brie were less than forthcoming with their technology would be an understatement. The first thing required, therefore, is a pilot plant which need be no bigger than five foot by three with the appropriate air conditioning and light sources and a plastic dome through which the drying process can be observed. When it comes to a working prototype however, we're talking about money, which is why I am disinclined to pursue the project beyond the theoretical stage. It may be objected that people are turning away from meat rather than finding new uses for it. Indeed it will be so objected. The bank manager would have that high on his list of objections, for banks are not normally in business to encourage innovation. It can be pointed out in reply, however, that the current excitement about meat may be a passing fashion which in any case applies mainly to red meat. Another objection, not from the bank but from other quarters, might be that after ethnic cuisine we are trying to introduce a racist cuisine. Both objections can be disposed of at one go. South Africa's neighbour Botswana is no slouch in biltong consumption and much of the biltong there is made from ostrich flesh. It is not as good, in most estimations, as antelope, buffalo, or beef and possible British substitute for ostrich is not as obvious as the substitute for antelope Pigeon might serve. The white fronted goose almost certainly would, but the goose has a dedicated lobby working for it and any project to use it in this way would stir up more ecological trouble than it was worth. To take account of all conscientious scruples what we ideally need is a vegetarian biltong, and given a serious proposition I would be willing to rent the barn for trials towards its synthesis. But I am not hopeful. We might manage without the heat, the drying wind and the altitude, but I should think the project would fall at the soya bean or tofu stage. It might be worth a mention, even so, if anyone else should come this way to launch us on a moneymaking spree.