In England the crazy biltong
craving makes our larry rich
By GRAHAM WATTS
IF LARRY Susman wanted to explain to an Englishman what it was he was trying to sell to him, he him. would be unlikely to employ the dictionary definition Conservative in their eating habits, the English can not be expected to take immediately to the habit of gnawing on strips of dried ox buttock.
But to South Africans, including expatriate ones living in England, the biltong habit is something of an addiction, and Mr. Susman stands to make a mint out of it.
Like Marmite to the expatriate Englishman or bagels to the New Yorker, biltong is to South Africans the one thing from home they will tell you they miss most.
When asked, they will gently screw up their eyes, forget for a moment about trying to conceal their accent, and whisper reverently: "Biltong",
The South African, Embassy reckons there are about 30000 South Africans living in the London area alone, so the North London based Susman's Beef biltong Company has a ready market.
And. in just a year of commercial operation, Mr. Susman is single-handedly making, packaging and delivering 20Okg of biltong a month which, at R6,50 per half kilo, gives him a turnover of over R2 500 a month.
At 21, Mr. Susman has a business career ahead of him,
Born and brought up in . Johannesburg, Mr. Susman came to Britain with his father and English mother when he was 15.
He completed his schooling in London and started to make biltong to satisfy his father's craving and to occupy him while he was waiting to go to college to study architecture.
There's more room in the UK economy for biltong makers than architects these days, so he stuck with the beef buttocks.
It hasn't all been a matter of God-given opportunity
Mr. Susman's is not the first attempt at commercial biltong-making in England, but it is the only surviving one.
So the others must have done something wrong.
"What I believe I'm doing right," says Mr. Susman, "is acting on the craving. When someone who knows and loves biltong says he wants some, he's got to have it right then. There is no sense delivering a week later."
So when someone with the craving telephones Mr. Susman,he gets it that day or in the earliest post if he's outside London.
For years South Africans have been getting their biltong brought over illegally by friends and family.
Once you've got it, you stash it away to bring out at midnight.
Nobody shares biltong.
And if you're sent some that has to be divided up between friends, you get out the kitchen scales and later never feel sorry for someone who finished his share first and looks on with misty eyes.
In the end, the proof of the biltong is in the eating, and the fact that Mr. Susman has a regular weekly order of between eight and 10kg from South Africa House in Trafalgar Square is some evidence of its quality.
The Ambassador, Mr. Marais Steyn, is reliably reported to eat Susman's biltong and embassy officials I spoke to who have a regular order with Mr. Susman "enjoy it very much".
Any reserve is associated with the time-honoured South. African tradition of saying you prefer game biltong, even if you haven't had any.
It preserves the earthy image.
Mr. Susman makes his biltong from Scotch beef which he orders through a London-based wholesaler. "Everyone is expert on biltong" says Mr. Susman. "It's like an Englishman with his beer. There's no arguing. "Some people like their biltong in hunks, others like it sliced with more spice, more fat, less salty. I simply oblige."
Reserving 'one's instinctual judgment on the quality of biltong is perhaps every South African's birthright.
And while everyone has uncle who makes his own on a farm somewhere in the Karoo, knowing how biltong-to make it one's self is rare and always has been.
In a country where it is illegal to import biltong - unless at great expense your farming area; abattoir dry and packaging has been designated free of foot-and- mouth disease by the British health authorities - knowing how to make it and sell it successfully meant Mr. Susman wasn't about to give away his trade secrets.
Some of those are to do with the right spice mixture.
The UK branch of a South African company (he wouldn't say which) prepares his spice mixture for him. Coriander, ginger, salt, black pepper, cloves and vinegar go into it.
But, because of the moisture in the English air, the key lies with the one ingredient not needed in biltong- making in sunny South and always has been. Africa - a preservative in addition to saltpeter.
The spiced, stripped beef is processed in special biltong cabinets that can dry about 2kg each in three to four days
In South Africa, the sun does it in a week. However, commercial biltong-making in South Africa accounts for most of the market in that country, and thousands of kilos of it are mass-produced in two-to-three-hour processing ,in massive drying cabinets. "Like crisps," says Mr. Susman, almost as if he were one of the last great authentic biltong makers.
Ironically, the winter is the best time in England to make biltong.
The drying depends on a circulation of air, best when it is warm inside and cold out.
Mr. Susman sees no ceiling to his prospects.
He has only just begun to tap the vast market of South Africans and converted Britons, most of whom had been introduced to biltong on trips to South Africa or Zimbabwe.
He has depended almost entirely on word-of-mouth promotion and the odd pass-on from the embassy which occasionally receives desperate phone calls.
He also supplies a number of butchers in North London where there is a large South African expatriate community.
He frequently receives orders from people in South Africa and Zimbabwe to deliver as gifts to friends in Britain.