Life is just a bowlful of biltong

Slivers of biltong hang like dark, crusty fingers of old leather from racks in Larry Susman's Newhaven shop.  It may look unappetising to the uninitiated, but this is a delicacy which is catching on among a growing band of followers in Britain.  Mr Susman's business, Susmans Best Beef Biltong Co, on the Rich industrial estate, is the only manufacturer of biltong in Britain.  It sells to Harrods and Seifridges, plus 150 smaller retailers and delicatessens, and sends its produce to 8,000 enthusiastic mail order customers.  What they all crave is the dried meat delicacy that once sustained the Boers in South Africa's Southern Cape 150 years ago.  In 1836 the pioneers embarked on the famous Great Trek to avoid the British. They crossed mountains, then the desert, before finally settling in the Transvaal where they discovered gold.  Along the way they sustained themselves by killing wild animals, eating as much of the fresh meat as they could, and then curing the remainder using salt and spices.  The dried meat, known as biltong, was light to carry and rich in protein and could be reconstituted in stews. Today it is more often eaten as a snack by South Africans in the same way other nationalities might eat sweets.  Mr Susman, who arrived in Britain from Johannesburg 18 years ago, started making it here in the late Seventies.  With £12 and a make-do production line in his living room he cured arid dried fresh meat and sold it to friends.  Now, 15 years on, with his English wife, Janet, and four part-time staff, the business turns out 2,000 lbs of biltong every week.  It also imports a container full of other favourite South African foodstuffs every six weeks to sell to customers ranging from the South African Embassy in London to ex-pat South African communities all over Britain, including Brighton, Worthing and Eastbourne.  "It's surprising how many South Africans there are just locally," Mr Susman said. "There are four or five families here in Newhaven alone."  At the time of the elections last April, the first time Mr Susman had ever voted, a conservative estimate put the number of South Africans living in the UK at 40,000. More and more of them are hearing about Susmans Best Beef Biltong and spreading the word among British friends.  Six months ago the business expanded from 500sq ft premises in the village of South Heighton near Newhaven, to its new 4,000sq ft factory in Avis Way.  "We've been growing by about 50 per cent each year for the last five or six years," Mr Susman said. "We have been lucky really; we have been one of the few businesses around that has done so."  This year Mr Susman expects to take on two full-time staff to train in biltong manufacture. 


Behind the shopfront a production line turns out the biltong from Scottish beef, lamb and venison, plus spicy sausages and the traditional Boerewors - literally, farmer's sausage. Biltong is made by leaving pieces of fresh meat in heavily salted and spiced marinade for 24 hours. It is then dried in special machines for nearly two weeks.  The slow process - done outdoors in the sun in South Africa .- ensures the traditional taste. The biltong keeps indefinitely as long as it is exposed to the air.  Susmans' Newhaven-made variety has been used on many arduous expeditions including the British expedition that conquered K2, the world's second highest mountain, and a British Indian Police Himalayan expedition in 1986. There is a postcard on the shop's wall from a trekker in Mongolia thanking the company for providing him with a tasty meal.  Mr Susman, who had never seen a terraced house before he arrived in England in 1976 aged 16, is now settled here, although his parents, brother and sister have all gone back to South Africa.  "I haven't been home since I arrived because I've always been too busy," he said. "I'm also a bit scared that if I went for a holiday, like my brother did, I might decide to stay."  "We've been growing by about 50 per cent each year for the last five or six years," Mr Susman said. "We have been lucky, really. We have been one of the few businesses around that has done so."