When Brittney Brothers first tried the South African staple known as biltong, she was surprised by the way it didn’t taste. It looks salty, tough, and chewy, like jerky and other cured meats. But biltong was more delicate. “The seasonings compliment the natural flavor of the beef,” she says. “And it was very tender, unlike anything I’ve tasted before.” For her, it became a point of fascination. And now, it’s a career.
Brothers and her partner, Camran St. Luce, are the founders of New York Biltong, a new shop in Greenwich Village that sells, yes, biltong, another dried meat known as droëwors, and a full range of South African foods, beers, and ciders. The couple says their new store is the first biltong-specific grocery in lower Manhattan, and the only standing biltong storefront in the Northeast.
“I mean, New York is the mecca for everything,” Brothers says. “Creating something that doesn’t exist in New York — that doesn’t ever really happen. So this is exciting for us.”
It should be exciting for New Yorkers, too. At a time when restaurant openings have understandably slowed to a crawl, New York Biltong offers the city something truly unique — and potentially something a bit unexpected in an era that’s been defined by daily sameness.
Just over 110,000 South Africans live in the United States, and many call NYC home. Still, St. Luce noted that the South African immigrant community isn’t as concentrated as some of the other immigrant communities are in the city. St. Luce is hoping that their store can be one way to bring the community together, or help new people discover the country’s culture through its food. In fact, neither Brothers nor St. Luce are South African, but they say they feel a strong connection, in part due to St. Luce’s longtime work in the biltong industry. He previously ran a biltong business with his former partner, who is from South Africa, and has since worked with South African suppliers to develop South African delicacies for Americans (while also ensuring that the South Africans who are creating the products are fairly paid and acknowledged). They have high hopes for biltong’s potential in New York.
The dried meat was first created by indigenous peoples of South Africa who developed advanced meat preservation techniques; when European colonists came to South Africa, they added vinegar and spices such as clover, pepper, and coriander. Deriving from the Dutch words “bil” meaning “meat,” and “tong” meaning “strip,” the popular snack is made from beef that’s seasoned and hung to dry and age.
Even though the store is called New York Biltong, it offers a range of foods and products that will be exciting for homesick South Africans, as well as New Yorkers who might not be familiar with the country’s cuisine and want to try something new: homemade meat pies, filled with hearty pepper steak or fiery lamb curry; sausage rolls served with sugary Mrs. Ball’s Chutney (bottles of which are also available to purchase); plenty of teas; and homemade pastries, such as South African milk tarts laced with cinnamon, and puddings made fresh every Saturday morning. Rusk biscuits, chocolates, and South African craft beer and hard cider line the store and encourage newcomers who may not be as familiar with South African food to give it a try.
“It’s not just New York that doesn’t have a South African place that people can go to you,” Brothers says, pointing out that New York Biltong ships its products around the country. “It’s really all of America — there are just so few places where South Africans can get their product from. So we’re making it available to ship wherever we can.”
Opened in August, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the couple has benefited from their business’s grocery-store model, as opposed to a restaurant or café setup. “It is hard to surprise New Yorkers and give them something they haven’t had or seen before, let alone even heard about,” Brothers explains, “so our hope is that they walk away from our store feeling like they learned something new.”