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Throwback Thursday: Soutribbetjie

Tony Jackman’s soutribbetjie, photographed by candlelight during a power outage. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Salt rib. Days or even a week in the making. Cured in salt, then air-dried, then soaked and/or boiled and finally grilled over hot coals. This is not for those who want an instant meal, but if you’re a lamb or mutton fan and you have the patience of the blessed, you’re going to love it.

There are various schools of thought as to how exactly to prepare a soutribbetjie, or salt rib of lamb or mutton. Some include vinegar with the salt and spices for the fridge cure, others keep it dry. Most recipes suggest spices such as coriander and allspice, others ginger, in the mix, and others add a herb such as thyme or rosemary. A few go spartan, calling only for ribs and salt.

Yet other recipes suggest smoking it before it goes on the coals at the end of the days of preparation. And a few call for taking it straight from the salt cure to the braai and cooking it very slowly for many hours. We’re not going that route in this recipe.

This would be followed by a period of air drying, often for two days, with C Louis Leipoldt calling for as much as a week. 

Leipoldt wrote of a particularly long method of preparing it. The old gourmand, writer and sometime Cape rebel (in his early newspaper days in Cape Town) wrote of soutribbetjie: “Choose the whole rib of a lamb or part of that of a full-grown sheep. Trim it, and rub it well with a mixture of one part salt and one part saltpetre, coriander seed, pepper and ginger mixed. Lay it on a layer of this mixture in a cool place, and continue rubbing in the salt the next day. Allow it to hang in a draught, and rub in more of the mixture each day for several days, adding to the salt mixture on the second day an equal part of moist brown sugar. In a week’s time it will be ready for cooking.”

Leipoldt being Leipoldt, inevitably there will be a glass of wine somewhere, and true to form: “You can then grill it whole on the gridiron or, if you prefer it, you can remove the rib bones, cut the meat into pieces and, after parboiling it in wine, shallow-fry it in a pan or again roast it. The meat should have a fine pink colour, and should be salty and spicy without being too much so.”

I wouldn’t cook lamb in wine; I find that it ruins the meat’s flavour; rather leave wine to beef, with which it goes superbly.

Talking of Leipoldt’s “in a week’s time”: cooking and writing recipes is sometimes influenced by happenstance or even error, or what might seem like error. Which is how one aspect of my recipe came about. I prepared the cure mix for my whole lamb rib, including salt, pepper, toasted coriander, allspice, thyme, saltpetre, brown sugar and brown vinegar, doused the rib in it and put it in the fridge.

And forgot about it.

For a week.

Somebody hand me a facepalm emoji.

But. All was not lost. Far from it. The meat after six days (actually it was six, not quite a week) was perfectly fine and certainly not lacking in salty, herby flavour. I rinsed it off at that point because the cure ingredients had done more than their fair share of the work.

After rinsing it off I hung it in a biltong dryer for two days. In earlier times it was often hung in the kitchen chimney to dry and then to cook, or from the rafters in a cool, airy room; perhaps a garage, shed or outhouse of some sort such as a farm store room, salt rib being very much a product of the platteland farm and of course the Voortrekker days when meat had to be kept for future use with no refrigeration.

I followed the air-dry period (luckily I didn’t forget about it again) with the old-fashioned method of soaking it in water for a few hours, followed by about 45 minutes of boiling (not too violently) and finally the step that makes a bit of magic with a salted rib: the finishing over coals on the braai grid to crisp up the fat and render it down at the same time. So the coals should not be too hot or the grid too low; it needs time and patience, just as the entire recipe does.

The old recipes tended to use mutton for soutribbetjie, lamb having become more popular in our times. This puzzles many sheep farmers, who know that mutton has by far the richer flavour, even if it does require longer cooking. Many sheep farmers even braai mutton chops rather than lamb. 

So a soutribbetjie is for those for whom cooking is a slow-release act that brings joy and makes for a perfectly lazy day. Set one aside (and some days beforehand) to try this:

Ingredients

1 lamb rib rack or part of a mutton rib rack, bones cut through (your butcher can help) but the whole rib intact

100 g salt

2 ml saltpetre

2.5 ml white pepper

2 ml ground coriander

2 ml ground allspice

2 ml dried thyme

3 ml brown sugar

125 ml brown vinegar

Method

Toast the coriander seeds and crush them.

Score the fat of the whole rib crosswise.

Mix the salt, spices, thyme, salpetre, and brown sugar together in a bowl and rub it into the meat all over, pour vinegar over and refrigerate for two days, turning once a day.

Or six days if you’re forgetful.

Remove, rinse, pat dry and leave in a suitable place to hang, such as a biltong dryer, the rafters of a coolish room such as a garage or shed, in the kitchen chimney if you’re old-fashioned like me, or “behind the fridge”, to quote the late Lannice Snyman. Two days should be enough, or you could go the Leipoldt route, but I don’t recommend it. You’re not making lamb biltong.

Put it in a pot and pour water over to cover, and leave it for three or four hours. Drain it and replace with fresh water.

Bring it to a boil and cook for about 45 minutes, not too briskly.

Drain it, pat dry with clean kitchen towels to mop up all excess water, then leave it to dry in an airy spot while you prepare your braai coals.

Finish it on lowish coals, starting fat side down, so that the fat will render and become beautifully crisp. Serve with pap or rustic chunky bread. Have a glass of wine with it and another for Leipoldt. DM/TGIFood 

Tony Jackman’s book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.

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