Saltpeter, Horse Sweat and Biltong: The origins of our national food.
By Eben van Tonder
11 August 2017
On the history and curious background of South Africa’s national food.
EARLIEST MENTION OF BILTONG
The earliest mention of biltong that I could trace is a quote dating back to 1815 when Dr Henry Lichtenstein mentions biltong in his book, “Travels in Southern Africa.” Near the Winterhoek Mountains in the Cape, his party met an old German who once worked for the East Indian Company and a veteran of the Esterhazy’s regiment who “for the greater part of the year saw no other human being but his black subjects and lived almost entirely on dried mutton and biltong.” The Guardian (London, England), 21 July 1952, page, from the article, “Biltong for the Arctic.” This is now the oldest biltong reference that I could find.
The historical facts seem to point to the following origins of Biltong.
DRIED BEEF – A DUTCH FAVOURITE
The Dutch brought with them to the new world at the Cape of Good Hope, a recipe for dried beef. A recipe book from 1664 described the process as follows. “Take of the Buttock-beef (This was called the “bil” and is the first part of the word “biltong”) of the oxe, salt it well with bay-salt four of five daies, then hang it a draining one day, then sew it up in thin cloth, and hang it up in a chimney to dry; when you would eat any of it, boil it very tender, and slice it so thin that you may almost see throrow it and eat it with a sallet”. (Hannah Woolley, The Cook’s Guide) As was the case with bacon at this time, one of the ways it was consumed was to boil it before consumption into a stew-form. Another recipe from the same time (1683) is entitled To dry Beef after the Dutch Fashion (M. H. The Young Cooks Minor). I am still trying to locate the recipe, but it seemed as if drying beef, in a variation on the recipe of Hannah Woolley, was well known by the Dutch Settlers.
The second fact from this time (1600’s), is that the use of vinegar as a preservative became very popular and the science of producing it from fermenting grapes was widespread in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Grapes were cultivated right from the start by the 1652 Dutch settlers to the Cape and vinegar would have been produced right here in the Cape, right from the founding of the refreshment station.
The production of biltong, “bil” (cut from the buttocks of the oxen) and cut into a “tong” (strips, resembling a tongue), and cured with salt, vinegar, spices and saltpetre was probably done from as early as farms were allocated to Dutch Settlers in the Cape. I am reluctant to say that this was an invention by personnel of the VOC due to the many records that exist of bacon being sent to the outposts of the VOC at the Cape as a primary meat source for the officers and men stationed at outposts such as Saldana.
THE PROBLEM OF DISTANCE AND MOVEMENT
Biltong seems to have been a progression of old Dutch recipes by the Dutch farmers at the Cape. What did they do, however, when they moved into the interior? When many of them decided to move to the north, their saltpetre and salt must have run out when they reached Smithfield. From here on they lived from the meat of abundant game they hunted and injured oxen which they killed and while on the move probably cured their meat with the sweat of their horses and hung under the wagons to dry out properly. As I found out, this was almost a universal practice at some point and solid science supports it and links horse saltpetre or sweat saltpetre with rock or cave or produced saltpetre.
Growing up, on my Grandparents farm Stillegoogte in the Fredefort district of the Orange Free State, we called white horse sweat, saltpetre. Marius (my cousin) and I spend our days riding horses and I know horse saltpetre. How it burns your inner thighs when riding without a saddle; its smell and taste. I entered the meat curing industry years later and initially wondered if people cured their meat by using horse sweat. I knew no other substance called saltpetre. I felt a bit silly when I discovered that saltpetre was the salt, sodium nitrate and kept my initial thoughts to myself. Quietly, I continued to wonder why we call horse sweat, saltpetre.
Reading through countless newspaper articles in my research on the origins of biltong, I came across a curious mention by Christina Dodwell, from her book An Explorers Handbook, in the London Times of 12 October 1984. Writing about biltong, she says that “early pioneers in Africa made biltong by putting strips of raw meat under their horses’ saddles, to be cured by the salty sweat of the horses.”
I Googled the general idea and discovered that when the Huns (3rd or 4th century AD) entered from Asia into the Roman Empire, they placed freshly killed venison, cut into thin strips, under their saddles to be cured by the horses’ sweat and tenderised it by the action of the saddle. (Altschul, A. M.; 1976: 123)
The exact same is attributed as being later Mongol Technology (AD 1206 – 94). They too, reportedly, placed meat, cut into thin strips, under the saddle of horses and the weight of the rider, the action of the saddle on the meat and the sweat of the horse tenderised and cured it. There are reports that this was common practice amongst the American Indians. They would cut buffalo meat into strips and place them under their saddle blankets to be cured by the sweat of the horse and dry the meat before eating it. (Cahners; 1969: 196)
There are references to Tartars practicing the same. A quote from Appleton’s Journal: a magazine of general literature, published in the 19th century as a weekly in New York, with its first issue dated April 3, 1869, makes mention of this. In the third of a series of articles entitled Life in Russia, published on 3 April, 1875, it is reported that “the Tartars of the plains cut the horse-meat into long strips and put them under their saddle in order to render it more tender.” (Wottrich, R.. 2012) (1)
The curious and gruesome practice starts to make sense when we consider the chemistry and functionality of sweat. Sweat, it turns out, contains nitrite along with rapid nitric oxide production. The nitrite exists as part of the well-known reduction sequence we know so well from bacon curing where saltpetre (NO3-) was used and through bacterial action, reduced to nitrite (NO2-). Sweat “contains nitrate in appreciable amounts (secreted by glands) and skin commensal bacteria” which reduce nitrate to nitrite. It has been established that under the right temperature, this reduction step can be achieved in under 4 hours. The mean concentration of nitrate in sweat has been reported to be 2.5 NO3- in day -1 or more. Skin pH is normally between 5 and 6.5. (Weller et al, 1996) This means that skin conditions are “favourable for acidified nitrite” and functionally, the nitrite and NO play and “anti-infectious role.” (L’hirondel, J., 2002: 87)
It is interesting to think about what was happening to the meat under the weight of the rider and the saddle and the sweat of the horse. Nitrate-rich sweat, constantly being replenished from the sweat glands of the horse, being exposed to the meat, being reduced to nitrite and the action of the saddle and the weight of the rider, massaging the meat and aiding in the absorption of the salts into the meat.
WHEN THE DUST SETTLED
It is easy to see how the practice was discontinued as supply lines to Cape Town and Durban was established by the Boer settlements. Salt, spices, vinegar, rock saltpetre again became the regular ingredients for biltong as we know it today, but I am sure the practice of using sweat-saltpeter resurfaced during the two Anglo-Boer wars and in general, during times of distress or want. In seeking the origins of Biltong, this fact of history is both curious and fascinating.
PULLING IT ALL TOGETHER
Upham reports on the following course of events from 1709 which may be at least some of the progressions that led to the creation of biltong. This is an extract from 28 March 1709 from a Broad Council Meeting at the Cape of Good Hope.
“Not one hardly offered himself for the supply of dried or smoked meat. Only 2,500 or 3,000 Ibs. were offered – a quantity very little among so many vessels. The necessity of supplying the ships properly is re-iterated.
Governor and flag officers inspect some meat salted 8 days ago by the contractor Husing. The lean parts were found good, but the thick parts already spoiling.
Decided that the treat should first lie some days in the brine to draw out the blood, and after that placed in new salt. That was not the idea of Husing but of his fellow-contract or Michiel Ley.
The former believed that the meat should be left in its first salt and not pickled beforehand; And was prepared to guarantee supply remaining good.
Decided, however, to adopt the plan of double salting, recommended by Ley; Husing ordered to supply in that manner; “Meervliet” having brought sufficient casks for the purpose. Ley to supply his share according to his plan. Company to supply the pepper.
Decided to take over for the Company, the meat already salted by Husing. The good portions to be distributed among the crews, & the tainted ones among the slaves …”
What is happening is that in the sweltering heat of March in Cape Town, the meat that was salted for sale to ships passing from Europe to the East-Indies were off. Michiel Ley then suggested that the meat is salted in a two-step process. In other words, salt it and let it lay for a couple of days, giving time for blood and meat juices to be drawn out. Then, give it a second salting. Whether this would suffice in heat that can reach between 35 deg C and 40 deg C in March, is doubtful and in all likelihood did not completely have the intended results.
Upham, however, offers the following additional information about Ley. Contained in this description may be the some of the answers we are looking for. Again, I give it as he published it.
“Michiel LEY [Löw] (1670-1716) (from Basel in Switzerland) – likely same person as Hans Michiel LEY born Benken BL 18 December 1670 [Loew pronounced `Ley`]), son of Ulrich Löw & Katharina Schwarz …
Arrives (1696) as soldier thereafter master butcher;
Likely biologically fathers illegitimate daughter by Company Slave Lodge matres Armozijn Claes: van de Caep, Machteld / Magdalena Ley halfslag baptized (26 August 1697) …
Marries (8 December 1697 Engeltje Breda (from Delft, Holland) daughter of Nikolaas Breda & Aagje Keisers – her mother is recorded (1690) having a kindergarten in Cape Town …
Buys (1699) house in Eerste Dwars Street from Hans Hendrik Smit … Contracts as Company’s Butcher with Company to loan a soldier to work for him; after expiry of 5-year contract, continues as free-master butcher always employing at least 1 soldier loaned from the Castle & supplying meat to public & Company by buying animals from the farmers …
Contracts (1708) with 3 others to press grapes harvested by Company’s servants on the farm “Vergelegen” (present day Somerset West) for a half share of the produce …
Deacon of Groote Kerk (1703) & Orphan Master (1707); nurses (1701) Hans Jacob Loets (from Schaffhausen) when very sick & lends money to compatriot Jan Oberholster (from Zurich) …
With Cape-born mestiço Willem Basson, compatriot Jan Oberholster & Anthony Abrahamsz: (dies 1718), contracts to supply all the meat required by the Company – price Company prescribed for purchasing animals is however so unfavourable to farmers who refuse to sell that Adam Tas collects signatures petitioning against the governor, citing also other grievances & this is sent to Holland while Van der Stel draws up a Defence which his faithfuls sign.”
Note that in 1708 he was contracted to press grapes harvested by the Company on the farm Vergelegen in Somerset West for half share of the produce. (Linder) At this time he is a free master butcher, meaning that he was free from his employment with the Dutch East Indian Company.
Let’s review what we know.
Ley was a master butcher who was working on the problem of preserving meat in the hot South African summer in March, 1709.
The beef that he was salting went off, 8 days after the process was started. Beginning with the thick parts of the cut.
He had experience with grapes since 1708. Grapes that was not properly pressed easily lead to the formation of vinegar, a known preservative.
His contract to salt the meat was with the largest employer at the Cape, the cornerstone to its existence namely to provide fresh water and provisions to ships passing southern African, en route to the East Indies and back to Europe.
He would, therefore, have been under pressure to find a solution and the pressure would have mounted in light of the fact that his first suggestion of double salting the meat would not have been completely effective. Let’s look at the dates again to reconstruct some of what was happening.
The meat that went bad happened in 1709. This was when he started coming up with alternatives. At least one we knew about. At this time, he was contracted to supply all the meat required by the Company together with Willem Basson, Jan Oberholster, and Anthony Abrahamsz. The prices offered by the Company for meat was however too low and the farmers refused to sell. One of these farmers, Adam Tas collected signatures for a petition against Van der Stel which eventually was sent to Holland. Van der Stel’s reply to this was a document drafted by him in his defense and signed by among other Ley and Oberholster. The four partners requested that the contract is canceled and it was taken over by Claas Henderiksz Diepenaar. Adam Tas was locked up in the Castle’s notorious dungeon and finally, Van der Stel was recalled in 1708. The meat contract was the issue at the heart of Van der Stel’s recall. (Linder)
There was reportedly great friction between Ley and the new governor, Von Assenburgh. The events of 1709 must have put tremendous stress on Ley. He was 39 years old. He had his own farm and produced wine. A census of that year reveals he was married with three sons and a daughter. He had two servants and fourteen slaves. Four horses and 30 heads of cattle. Three hundred sheep and two pigs. Six thousand vines and two leaguers of wine. That year he also bought the farm Welgemeent, south-east of Table Mountain. (Linder)
He could very well have been the person responsible for adding vinegar, a key ingredient to the production of biltong in order to sort the inconsistent preservation out. The fact that the large pieces spoiled first could have been his motivation to slice the legs into thin pieces, resembling the tongue. This part of the solution would have been an obvious first step.
Hanging the meat to dry out was a well known Dutch way of drying meat for preservation This may have influenced Dutch farmers to incorporate Ley’s progression of possibly adding vinegar and cutting the meat in thin slices, together with his known progression of double salting to the Dutch method of drying meat and instead of hanging it in the fireplace combining it with local tradition of hanging the meat in the sun and wind.
There have been recent claims that biltong is an old Khoe tradition of salting meat and hanging it to dry. I find no support for this. The traditions seem to originate from Schapera (1930) who writes that “when not eaten immediately, or when plenty of game has been caught and not all of it can be taken home, the meat is cut into thin strips, which are salted and dried in the air (by the Khoe). In this condition, it will last for a considerable time, and can also be eaten raw.” He speculates that “the Boer method of making “biltong” is probably derived from this old Hottentot practice.”
The question is of course if the Dutch farmers saw the salting of Bilting from the Khoe or were it the other way round? I don’t for a second believe that salt preservation of meat was something completely unfamiliar to the San and Khoe people and I am convinced that salt was generally available throughout the region, albeit as a “luxury item” and scarce in many areas. Whether one can rely on one reference from one author in the 1930’s to say that the Khoe made biltong and that this is its origin is a hard sell. I think it is far more plausible that biltong is the slight re-working of an old Dutch dish.
M. G. Upham sent me a note and referred me to the work of Anders Sparrman. He published his 1786 account entitled, “A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic Polar Circle, and Round the World: but chiefly into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffres, from the year 1772 to 1776. He writes about the Khoe, “that they absolutely detest salt.” It is a sweeping statement. I have never come across people who “absolutely detest” salt. The context of the statement refers to the use of salt in meat. If his statement means that they detest the European heavy salted meat – they would be in good company as most people, even in Europe detested this taste which is one of the reasons why sugar was added at this time in curing recipes (to break the extreme salty taste) and why even bacon was first left in fresh water to draw some of the salt out before consumed.
He says that they either eat the meat fresh or else dry it in the sun. The fresh meat is “dressed” by “broiling” it over coals. According to Sparrman, meat preservation of the Koe was sun drying without salt being added. So far, then, I can only find the statement of Schapera about salt used by the Khoe to produce a kind of biltong. More references by different authors on this matter will swing the weight of the evidence, but for now, I remain skeptical.
Michiel Lay was a close friend of the corrupt governor, Willem Adriaan van der Stel.
Biltong is a South African dish, created between the 1652 and the early 1800’s. It probably pulls together influences mainly from old Dutch recipes of drying meat for the purpose of preservation and known technology of salting. Vinegar was undoubtedly added for preservation in the hot Cape summer climate and a possible candidate for its development is the master butcher Ley.
Voortrekkers later cured biltong by hanging raw meat over the neck of their horses and placing it under the saddles. Interestingly enough, biltong is mainly sold sliced, to this day, as it was done in Hanna Wooley’s old Dutch recipe. She instructs, “slice it so thin that you may almost see throrow it and eat it with a sallet“. (Hannah Woolley)
The much-publicised notion that the recipe originates from local Khoe people is doubtful even though there may most certainly be influences in the way it is hanged to dry. Then again, the Dutch did the same with their salted meat and the influence for this may just as well be Dutch.
(c) Eben van Tonder
Burry (1911) disputes the conclusion that this was done to cure and tenderize the meat. He speculates that the Huns and the Tartars put meat under the saddles, probably to cover sores on the horse before they are saddled. He suggests that the meat itself would be unedible. (Wottrich, R.. 2012) My immediate response is that the preponderance of current evidence would point away from Burry’s objection. Wottrich believes that Burry simply could not bring himself to believe that such a vulgar practice could exist. Researching the issue will elucidate the question. The source documents must be studied and Burry’s original argument, his own background and the grounds for his objection must be scrutinised before a definite conclusion can be reached. (So many interesting avenues to investigate – so little time) 🙂 The reality is, however, that there are accounts from all over the world of the practice and that this meat was further dried and later consumed. Recent scientific facts would support the practice and establish the clear link between the sweat of horses and men alike and saltpetre.
Note 2: On the value of horse manure
In response to this post, my Uncle Jan Kok, my mom’s brother, tells the following story. I translate from Afrikaans, “I remember a time when Sannie (my mom) and I had whooping-cough. Every morning my dad (my Grandfather, Eben) took us to the horse stables and we had to smell the horses and this prevented us from bad fits of coughing.
I think the actual issue was the smelling the fresh horse manure and urine. We had to be in the stables very early in the morning before they were cleaned and the horses were taken out to the fields. I remember how my dad picked us up so that we could smell on the back of the horse where he sweated under the saddle when he was last ridden.
Grandpa had two apple-blue “skimmel” horses with the names of Moskou and Breker. They were not only riding horses, but Grandpa also had a horse buggy that was pulled by them. I was still very small when, one day, we had to go and collect a soap pot from the neighbours with the horses and buggy. Grandpa got off to open the gate and I had to hold the reigns to take the horses through. It was at that moment when they decided they want to get home fast and there they went, running with me alone on the horse buggy. Fortunately, myself, the horses and the buggy got home scot free but Grandpa had to walk home.”
I heard a similar story from a woman in Cape Town. I suffer from asthma and have been buying my medication for years from a pharmacy in the Riverside Mall in Rondebosch. One of the pharmacy assistants who, as a young girl, grew up in Cape Town, was sent to the horse stables where she had to sit between the manure with a blanket over her head to ensure that the inhalation of the gasses is maximised. According to her, she was developing asthma and after one winter of following this routine every morning between 5 and 6, she stopped showing any symptoms of asthma. Again, I suspect that low dosages of hydrogen sulphide and possibly nitric oxide may have played a role.
Several gasses are released by manure. Hydrogen sulphide, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia. In high dosages these gasses are dangerous, but in low dosages, “over the past 2 years, a number of independent groups have reported the beneficial effects of hydrogen sulphide.” One of the mechanisms identified related to it is an anti-inflammatory response.
Our study on sweat has shown the production of nitric oxide on the surface of the skin due to sweating. This explains the curious curing of meat when strips are placed under the saddle of the horse. It seems that a close link exists between its action and nitric oxide (Szabó, C. 2007), a known gas, released from the sweat of the horse through the reduction of saltpetre. Nitric Oxide and hydrogen sulphide have been shown to be the key and independent regulators of many physiological functions in mammals including in the cardiovascular, nervous, respiratory, and immune systems. (Nagpure BV and Bian JS.; 2010) The fact that they had to inhale hydrogen sulphide and possibly NO (if this was still being released, 12 hours after the horse was ridden) is interesting. If these gasses were both inhaled in low quantities, it could have been responsible for some therapeutic effects.
Note 3: Interesting biltong-dates
1973. A CSIR report warns consumers that biltong not sold in sealed plastic bags is often contaminated by bacteria that are known contributors to food poisoning. (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, 1973)
1963. Dr. Bokkenheuser from the Institute of Medical Research in Johannesburg raised the alarm about possible health hazards associated with the form that biltong was sold in (not packed in vacuum, sealed plastic pouches). (Star-Gazette, 1963)
1946. The commission on wildlife conservation in Johannesburg proposed a ban on the sale of biltong in order to prevent game from being hunted to extinction. (Daily Tribute, 3 August 1946) Gettysburg Times, 1939.
1939. A law is passed in South Africa to regulate the sale of springbok biltong to save the species from extinction.
1900. Biltong is hailed as a sure cure for seasickness given to a couple en route to England in 1898 by a man from Rosebank in Cape Town. It was plain sailing to Engeland, but It turned out to be an excellent remedy for sea sickness on a subsequent cross-Atlantic voyage. Game meat was used. (Democrat and Chronicle, 1900)
1842. The account of Captain T. C. Smith making biltong to survive an attack by Boers in Natal.
The background to the incident is that “early in 1842, Captain T. C. Smith, who was commanding a detachment of the 27th Regiment stationed on the Umgazi River in Pondoland, was ordered to march with two companies to take occupation of the Bay of Natal as a retaliatory measure against the immigrant farmers who had declared themselves an independent Republic. This force arrived in May 1842, their march being disrupted in the latter stages by the farmers under Commandant Pretorius who later demanded its evacuation.”
“After being repulsed in an unsuccessful attack on the Boer camp at Congella on 23rd May 1842, Captain Smith was besieged in the fort which he had erected until the end of June when a relief force, consisting of five companies of the 25th Regiment under the command of Lt-Col A. J. Cloete arrived to raise the siege.” (The South African Military History Society)
Smith writes about the time of the siege. “We were no longer inhabitants of the earth but of the underworld, living in subterraneous caves and caverns or sepulchral tombs.” “Our provisions now were getting very scarce, and the enemy shot most of the few cattle we had in the kraal, to keep us from living, if possible. All the oxen we now had left alive were killed immediately to make ‘biltong’ of, lest the enemy should destroy any more of us. The enemy still kept up a formidable fire every day on the camp – upwards of 100 rounds every day. We were living now on six ounces of biscuit-dust and half a pound of biltong. Our coffee and sugar were all out in like manner. This only kept the human frame from failing; and this was not all; after the biltong was all out we were obliged to feast on horse flesh.” (The Times, 1842)
In another interview, he described the events and his biltong making as followed, “”finding that the few cattle remaining at the kraal were dying either from wounds or want of sustenance, I directed that they should be killed and made into biltong reducing the issue to half a pound daily.” Later, either on the 8th or 9th of May 1842, he writes, “Upon inquiring into the state of the provisions this day, I found that only three days provisions remained. I, therefore, directed that such horses as were living might be killed and made into biltong.” They started eating the horse meat on the 22nd. (Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Dec 1842, page 4)
Altschul, A. M.. 1976. New Protein Foods: Technology, volume 2, part B. Academic Press.
Cahners. 1969. Volume Feeding Institutions, Volume 64
De Salcedo, A. M.. 2015. Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat. Penguin Random House.
L’hirondel, J. 2002. Nitrate and Man: Toxic, Harmless Or Beneficial? CABI Publishing.
Linder, A. 1997. The Swiss at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1971. Basler Afrika Bibliographien.
Nagpure BV, Bian JS. 2010. Interaction of Hydrogen Sulfide with Nitric Oxide in the Cardiovascular System. Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2016;2016:6904327. doi: 10.1155/2016/6904327. Epub 2015 Nov 10.
The South African Military History Society; Military History Journal Vol 2 No 5 – June 1973; The Imperial Garrison of Natal by R G CROSSLEY. ttp://samilitaryhistory.org/vol025rc.html
Schapera, I.. 1930. The Khoisan Peoples of South Africa, Bushman and Hottentots, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., London.
Sparrman, A. 1786. A Voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, towards the Antarctic Polar Circle, and Round the World: but chiefly into the Country of the Hottentots and Caffres, from the year 1772 to 1776. G G J and J Robinson, London
Szabó, C. Hydrogen sulphide and its therapeutic potential. Ikaria Inc., 1616 Eastlake Ave East, Suite 340, Seattle, Washington 98102, USA. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org doi:10.1038/nrd2425 Published online 19 October 2007.
The Times (London, Greater London, England) 25 October 1842, page 4.
Weller, R., Pattullo, S., Smith, L., Golden, M. Ormerod, A., Benjamin, N.. 1996. Nitric Oxide Is Generated on the Skin Surface by Reduction of Sweat Nitrate. Journal of Investigative Dermatology; Volume 107, Issue 3, September 1996, Pages 327-331
Wottrich, R.. 2012. The History of Steak Tartare. https://brasserieloustau.files.wordpress.com