Wine festival toasts South Africa tonight

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OK — please don't read this as a look at the V.I.P. dinner I got to go to that you didn't, nanny nanny boo boo-type posting. (Besides ... I traded that tired chant long ago for fresher and more direct antagonizing phrases like "Dig this fool sucka's" and "Hey stupid faces — look what you missed.")

Table cloth not actually made from zebra hide
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Table cloth not actually made from zebra hide

BUT ... I was fortunate enough to receive an invite to last night's Wine Festival dinner held in the FAC's Deco Lounge with this year's guest presenters from South Africa, England and New York.

Studies have shown that eating under Chihuly glass improves digestion
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Studies have shown that eating under Chihuly glass improves digestion

Together, we enjoyed six lovely courses prepared by the Picnic Basket (including rock lobster, wild boar chops, pheasant breast, and veal and antelope medallions) paired with a handful of South African wines — the best among them a 2004 Niels Verburg Shiraz (retailing for $38 at Coaltrain).

HOWEVER ... There is something that I took away from this fine affair that those absent can share in. And that's the knowledge of a food item that was entirely new to me: Biltong. As a food critic, I must admit that I was hesitant to point to the word on my menu and ask our server what it meant. But she was gracious in informing me without a sneer or jeer that it is basically a South African form of jerky. (Read the Wiki page I linked to above for a detailed rundown of how the prep and drying methods differentiate the two.)

That bacon-looking strip atop the veal is Biltong, offering a salty, chewy blast of flavor atop the milder protein
  • Matthew Schniper
  • That bacon-looking strip atop the veal is Biltong, offering a salty, chewy blast of flavor atop the milder protein
Our South African guests were also kind enough to explain that Biltong is the type of staple food that would be offered to you as a guest in just about everyone's home, probably as an appetizer or snack over a couple of beers. Or — you'd be likely to find it as finger food during rugby match viewings.

I spoke with Picnic Basket's Michelle Talarico (a one-time employer of mine) briefly to find out how she and her chefs managed the traditional treat in their kitchen. Rather than using one of the game meats common to South Africa, they marinated flank steak strips and turned their ovens on a very low setting to sort of act as dehydrators (while in South Africa they're often hung to dry in open air). Talarico was tickled to have one of the South Africans compliment her on her Biltong version, which she wrapped around the veal medallion course next to a crisp crabmeat hash.

REMEMBER ... tonight's Wine Festival grand tasting and auction begins at 7 in the Broadmoor's International Center. Tickets are $75 for non members ($40 tax deductible) and $65 for museum members. This buys access to samples of more than 300 wines plus food treats. The event is also the largest fundraising effort put on by the FAC annually, so this is a great way to support the arts while getting a lot in return for your contribution.

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