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18 June 2015updated 30 Jun 2021 11:59am

Call me a jerk, but I can’t get enough of biltong (and all the other stiff meat that’s been hung out to dry)

I happened to walk into a shop near Richmond Park and found scores if not hundreds of withered and skinny dicks dangling from the ceiling.

By Will Self

It’s time to talk jerky! For too long now this column has pussyfooted around the issues and refused to give it to you, the reader, straight. The buck stops here. From now on we’ll call a spade like this: “Hey! Spade!” And when it comes we’ll use it to beat every cliché in the vicinity to death.

Yes, yes – I know we haven’t exactly shied away from discussing the sexual aspects of food, yet there’s always been a metaphoric cast to it. Some foods might be aphrodisiacs, just as others (if you squint at them or sniff them in a certain way), might seem like genitals. I was listening to Jay Rayner’s Kitchen Cabinet on the radio the other day when he observed – apropos of caviar – that there are hardly any foods that aren’t held to be either detumescent or arousing. With the possible exception of Shreddies.

I once asked the almond-eyed heiress of the Caviar House chain what was the best way to eat caviar and she obliged by digging a silver spoon into the glistening anthracite cylinder of a kilo of Beluga she’d just de-tinned; then, neatly depositing a fifty-quid dollop on the perfume-testing (or razor-slashing) portion of her wrist, she invited me to suck it up, while purring: “It must be eaten off nothing but bare skin.” Setting aside the grotesque idea there “has” to be a way of eating the entire ovarian production of a creature belonging to a species on the verge of extinction, this was mos’ def’ an aphrodisiac.

But if there’s one food that incites me to impure thoughts more than any other, it has to be dried or cured meat. If you cast your mind back to the Falklands war, not the least of our anxieties during those late spring months of 1982 was the absence of a prêt-à-porter meat snack in British corner shops and petrol stations. That deficiency ended shortly after our forces achieved victory, when a shipment of the comestibles was mistakenly rerouted from Germany and Peperami arrived on our shores. The pork sausage may be marketed with a portmanteau of “salami” and “pepperoni”, but it bears scant likeness to either of these foods, resembling instead a particularly long, thin and stiff . . . penis. OK, OK, I realise this is pretty crass (after all, what sausage isn’t phallic?), but there’s a distinction, surely, between encountering a phallic object where you expect to – at a butcher’s, say, or in your trousers – and coming across one dangling next to the Twixes and Mars Bars.

The penile aspect of Peperami is only enhanced by its packaging: not just the one thin, polythene condom, but also an outer prophylaxis of gaudily foiled cellophane. Nor does the snack’s long-running advertising slogan (“It’s a Bit of an Animal”) detract from its sexualised aura.

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Looking back, it seems strange that Peperami ever caught on – after all, the late Eighties were typified by a Thatcherite return to Victorian values, so table legs were presumably being covered up even as we unsheathed our skinny pork swords. Now, of course, you can barely move in the average newsagent without running up against one meaty treat or another: packets of beef jerky rustle next to Slim Jims, Mattessons Reduced Fat Smoked Pork Sausage (yum-yum!) and Bundu Biltong.

On the subject of biltong – which often comes, Peperami-like, as a long, thin sausage – I was barely aware of this Southern African meaty snack, until five years ago when I happened to walk into a shop near Richmond Park, looking for a bottle of water, and found instead a sort of enchanted biltong forest, with scores if not hundreds of withered and skinny dicks dangling from the ceiling.

Biltong St Marcus – as it’s called – is still open for business, so if you fancy a beefy bite flavoured with anything from chilli and cumin to crack cocaine (OK, I made the last one up) then hie thee thither. Not that you’ll necessarily have to go that far; biltong is now available from a stall in London Bridge Station, and I dare say there are plenty of other outlets offering trail food to commuters. Because that’s what all these snacks have in common: they are designed to preserve protein for long periods so it can be easily consumed by travellers. It is said that back in the day a cowboy would cure beef by cutting a steak from a newly slain steer and slipping it under his saddle – but I have my doubts about that.

So why should foods designed for trans­humant pastoralists and hunter-gatherers come to occupy such a capacious niche in the diet of sedentary ­information-processors? I suppose the explanation Unilever (the current owner of the Peperami brand) might offer is that these are convenience foods – but surely, the convenience they embody is that of globalised supply lines: easy to pack and ship, while requiring less refrigeration both en route and on display, dried and cured meat snacks extend the range of products that corner shops can stock. At the same time, they further blur the distinction between sit-down meals and grazing on the hoof (if you’ll forgive the interspecific and cannibalistic metaphor). There’s that, but there is also the phallic argument: flaccid and impotent, the British office worker seeks to put some lead in his own pencil by sucking on one of these hunger-erasers. Poor fool! You are what you eat, after all, and anyone who eats a Peperami is, by definition, a sad little prick. At any rate, that’s how I feel every time I do so.

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