Saltpeter, Horse Sweat and Biltong: The origins of our national food.

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.

eben op poon.jpg
Myself, riding Poon on Stillehoogte.  Long, long time ago.


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.


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.


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 of Tartars practising 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.


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.

(c) Eben van Tonder

Note 1:

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.

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://

Szabó, C.   Hydrogen sulphide and its therapeutic potential.  Ikaria Inc., 1616 Eastlake Ave East, Suite 340, Seattle, Washington 98102, USA. e-mail: 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.