Something to biltong

The delights of dried meat are lost on most nations, but South African LARRY SUSMAN is doing big business shifting cartloads of the stuff to homesick ex-pats. Jeanine Gomes went in search of biltong in the UK

GNAWING ON DRIED meat holds significance in few countries' cultures but it is as close to South Africans' hearts as beers and braais and no sporting event would be complete without it. It tells of a long tradition of cattle farming and is synonymous with long haul treks across the hinterland. Along with duty free cigarettes it tops the wish list of any ex-pat with a friend coming back into the UK. Now thanks to Larry Susman's Best Beef Biltong Company, South Africans can get their supply from about 80 shops around London. Larry Susman knows well the trials of leaving the mother country and has taken responsibility for easing all those homesick cravings. Having left South Africa with his parents in 1976, he found the initial adjustment difficult : "it was a nightmare when I first came over; nobody could understand me for a start, I had to lose my accent. I had to re-sit all my 'O' Levels and do 18 different exams in about three weeks" then of course there were the permanent longings for sun, sea and blue sky that could only partly be helped by a move to Brighton. "I was waiting to go to university to study architecture in Brighton and doing a lot of surfing," he says. "You can't compare it with back home though, it's bloody freezing." Given the British fear of foot and mouth disease and the strict regulations on importing, the one thing he couldn't find here at all was biltong and so he started making it himself for his family and friends. "It never really struck me as a lucrative business venture, I just drifted into it as a way of making some money. "Then I got married and it wasn't until I had kids that I had to really knuckle down and make money." With the growing number of South Africans in London, the demand for the snack increased says Larry "I was making it for more and more people and supplying a couple of shops in London" Strangely enough, he had never made it in South Africa and only began once he was in the UK using an old family recipe. "We use an old family recipe, but it's not our family recipe. It is about 120 years old and it belonged to a friend of my Dad's who passed it on to us" The Susman's Best Biltong Company is based in the harbour town of Newhaven, 90 minutes from London. It employs a small workforce of eight people who operate from the factory that is pilled high with a wide variety of products.

The shop front has only been open for the last five years and used to be a showroom for trade. Stepping inside is an experience to make any South African homesick, surrounded as you are by products ranging from Safari dried fruits, Ouma rusks, Romany Creams, Rooibos Tea, Peppermint Crisps, Willards chips, All Gold Jams, Pronutro Cereals and a collection of fine wines. "The cravings for these things comes from nostalgia," Larry comments. "It's what people tend to miss from home that we sell." As the old adage goes one man's meat is another's poison, and, unsurprisingly, the British have taken some time to acquire the taste for this unusual product. Those individuals who can't appreciate biltong for the cultural tradition behind it tend to give it a wide berth and it is not easy convert them from perceiving it as nothing more than raw meat left to dry. "If you give them some bil-tong to try and you let them eat it before you tell them what it is, they love it, but if you tell them what it is while they are eating it, they spit it out and say 'I feel ill'," says Susman. Fortunately for his business, the British have gradually become more adventurous, as Larry explains: "Going back to 21 years ago, when I first start-ed, they didn't want to try any-thing and all our business was purely South African ex-pats. "But now a lot more have gone over there on holiday and a lot of people who know South Africans have heard about the stuff." "They are eating stuff from all around the world," he points out. "The most popular dish in the UK is curry."

The Best Biltong Company has found markets in countries as diverse as Portugal, Australia and the US and most of the business comes via its website. "The Internet is great you can be a fairly small country and have an international presence," says Larry. They set up their site over six years ago and were one of the first to go online. "In the last 18 months people have really hooked up and hits on site have gone up in the last six months to a year. We get 600,000 hits a month and 10 per cent of our busi-ness comes from the website." His goal for the future includes a website that is more like a club with current news, competitions and other attractions. The existing site is in the fig-uration of an African village where visitors can shop and browse. The beauty of it is that is it's open 24 hours a day and Larry says, "it tends to be new customers, not existing customers, that are using the web." The web address is printed on the brochures and leaflets that get distributed at various rugby matches and visitors may also find the site through links on other web pages. The main competition comes from small butcher shops, but Susman's is the only EC-licensed manufacturer in the world. Together with the trade over the Internet Larry thinks that's "what keeps us ahead of everyone else". The US is the only country that offers something similar to biltong, which is jerky, a very thinly-cut meat spiced with garlic and pepper. Susman's have diversified a bit and now manufacture jerky as well, supplying mainly to duty free shops. A large assortment of wine is imported. "We have the best and biggest collection of wines in stock in Europe the stocks we hold here are huge. We run a wine club now, which costs a nominal £10 a year, offering a 10 per cent dis-count, free delivery with two or more cases of wine and the opportunity to do tastings." Larry Susman has a clear vision for the future of the business: "I want to build this up so that I can sit on the beach." His business was self-financed all along the way. "We never got any financial backing and reinvested money back into the busi-ness," he says.

Ideally he would like to keep the business in the family but says, "my children want to do other things be footballers or showjumpers, and so we will just have to see. "I didn't go out to make a fortune surfing all the time didn't need a lot of money. Maybe I should have done, maybe I should have gone into it a lot earlier in a bigger way." Yet he appears utterly content in his house on the hill overlooking the bay perhaps the closest he will get to the natural beauty he hankers after until his next trip to South Africa.