British beef about raw meat

If it's cricket it has to be cucumber sandwiches and when watching tennis the food must obviously include strawberries and cream. But with weeks of world class rugby now under way the Five Nations, then the World Cup - what simple, tasty snack should a serious fan tuck into as the mud flies? Larry Susman has the answer. It is biltong. Huh? Well, Larry manufactures this foreign delicacy and he knows that no self-respecting South African -who are the World Cup hosts after all - would call it a real game without their favourite match food combo: a bag of naartjies. a pack of biltong. The naartjies part is easy to understand: it's just an Afrikaans word for clementines, which are in season when South African club rugby begins. Expats invariably grab the fruit wherever in the world they happen to be as the first whistle shrills. Rumour has it, incidentally, that if they don't like what they see, the naartjies can fulfill a secondary function. But biltong? Who in Britain knows much about this quintessentially African food oddity? So take a trip to Newhaven in Sussex. Turn left by the tatty sign which says 'Carpet World". drive through the shabby industrial estate until you reach Kwik Fit. Look round. And likely as not you will find yourself staring through a shop front at Larry himself. Behind him, you will see the answer to a Springbok's prayer. Mound upon mound of biltong: flaked, sliced, powdered, chunked. spiced, peppered. with garlic, loose or in a pack. Larry, a 33-year. old South African who came over with his parents 17 years ago, claims to be the only specialist biltong manufacturer in Britain: and of his Newhaven centre be says: Nicholas Roe tries a snack that comes top of the league with sentimental South Africans ''It is a South African Mecca." The place is packed with that country's top 100 favourite foods, be it Mrs Ball's Chutney, Ouma Rusks or gorgeous, sweet Koeksisters doughnuts, rich in honey. syrup and cholesterol. 'South Africans come here from as far away as Wales and Suffolk." says Larry. "They take one look and go bananas Bananas being one of the few things he doesn't sell.

But as this is Susman's Best Beef Biltong Company, the staple trade is in the crusty stuff hanging on hooks behind the counter and piled into bowls under glass. It looks dreadful, yet this snack food lies close to a people's heart, with a Sentimental attachment that goes back to the Boers (who invented it). It is more closely associated with the nation than, say. France and snails, America and hamburgers. Biltong is making inroads into the British larder -Good Housekeeping magazine recently recommended it as an alternative to crisps - hot slowly because of the nature of the material. It is raw meat. Usually beef but also venison, ostrich and virtually any wild animal which stayed still long enough to get shot. Traditionally cut from the hind leg or shoulder, the flesh is marinated in salt and spices (coriander especially) for 24 hours then dried for up to a fortnight. That's it. It is munched raw and this is apparently the crux of British distrust. ''You say to most people in England. 'Do you want to try this raw meat?', and they are..." Larry searches for a polite word, "conservative in their reactions.'' They have been getting better lately, he concedes, but 90 per cent of sales are to expatriates, of whom there are many: in the 1991 British census. 68,059 people gave South Africa as their place of birth, Larry uses 2,000 lb of Scottish beef a week for his trade, which is rising by 30 per cent a year, possibly because South Africans are happier to openly recognise their own culture nowadays. Customers include individuals. the South African Embassy, retailers such as Harrods and Selfridges. and smaller shops. I f that sounds impressive, the journey wasn't always easy. Larry began making biltong as a London student, cobbling up a drying box out of cardboard and light-bulbs, and supplying friends. When hopes of a career in architecture disintegrated with failed maths exams, he turned professional - if that is the term for someone who made his first deliveries on a Honda motorcycle. These were sharpish days for South Africans abroad thanks to apartheid - "We had a shop window smashed," he recalls - and for a long time his advertisements stressed the use of all British produce, For years it remained a kitchen table operation which Larry is uncomfortable to detail nowadays. ('It was very hush-hush.") but nine years back he moved to a small business unit in the Sussex village of South Heighton and six months ago expanded massively into the current Newhaven premises, It is a risk but sales are still climbing. Larry's own two children teethed on hunks of biltong, rather like dogs with chewy play-bones, and in South Africa that is not unusual. As they grow they will, have the stuff cut fine to look delicate when snacking, or might even use It in powdered form to make biltong sandwiches (seriously). But they will certainly go on eating the stuff. Try it and the sensation is between flavoured bacon and lightly boiled rubber. Which is not to say it Isn't nice, It is. I tried garlic biltong. peri-peri (with peppers) and plain ordinary biltong. and would happily eat any of these instead of crisps or nuts any day. Trouble is. prices range from £9 to £12 a pound, which is quite a barrier to overcome unless you really like meat - which South Africans do. The depressing point is that Larry remains, convinced Britons will never give biltong a clear run at the table, through prejudice: the raw bit. Yet other countries have their equivalent. America has jerky. which Larry also makes. and which differs from biltong only in the spicing and the fact that it is smoked. Smoked salmon appeals to almost is everyone and that is raw. Perhaps overcoming this food squeamishness would be something for the national spirit. We might enjoy it. We might even win the rugby. Susmans Best Beef Company provides A Mail order service: Unit A Rich industrial estate Avis way Newhaven BN9 0DS (01273) 516160