The Great Horse Hunt

While I was away on the vin chaud and raclette trail back in January, I had an email from the Food Programme, asking me for my thoughts on the hot potato of horsemeat. Turns out the ever-helpful Tim Hayward had recommended me as a world expert on the subject thanks to a little something I’d written for his most excellent magazine Fire & Knives back in 2010 (yes, sometimes it does get lonely being this far ahead of the pack).

Sadly I was too busy falling over to share my wisdom with the masses (although they did somehow manage to put together a couple of pretty great programmes without me), but I thought it would be interesting to dig out the piece anyway, just in case anyone still cares about horse, what with Katie Price pregnant again. 

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Me communing with a nearly-horse.

The Great Horse Hunt, taken from Fire & Knives issue 5 (?)

Doubt set in as soon as the waitress turned away. “Do you think she understood me?” I hissed, picking nervously at the bread. If only I’d done the mime, I thought, looking around for her – but she’d disappeared, presumably to communicate our order to the kitchen. Crammed into a corner table in a tiny trattoria, flustered from a frantic dash through the deserted midday streets, I was beginning to feel the southern Italian heat. High hopes were resting on this meal – what if I’d fallen at the first hurdle?

Occupying the front room of an undistinguished house on a dusty street some way from the city centre, Lecce’s Cucina Casareccia doesn’t bother with anything as bourgeois as menus: with this brand of cucina povera, you get what you’re given. ‘Dishes firmly rooted in Salento tradition,’ the Slow Food guidebook had chirruped temptingly. ‘Seasonal produce from the surrounding fields and vegetable gardens… for a main course, try the horsemeat stew’.

I’d never tried horse before. In fact, I’d only ever had drive-by glimpses of the stuff in joyless northern French towns unlucky enough to lie on the Route Nationale to Calais. Suddenly, I was aware of a gaping hole in my culinary education, right between hors d’oeuvres and horse mackerel – and I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to fill it with stew. We were going to get a table at this place, even if meant breaking into a light sweat to secure it.

Once safely seated, I was startled to hear that we appeared to have a choice of secondi, including what sounded like a mixed grill which – grazie a dio! – included a horse steak in salsa piccante that sounded infinitely more appealing than nag stew. Before our waitress could explain the other options, I’d ordered. Unfortunately my Italian wasn’t up to further stressing the slightly crazed nature of my desire, and as she retreated, my anxiety increased. What if she thought I meant I wanted everything but the horse?

When the grill arrived, more than one thing seemed to have been lost in translation: not only was it a single piece of meat, but that meat looked suspiciously like beef to my untrained eye. It tasted quite a lot like it too. “Ask her,” my boyfriend urged, as the waitress swept past with a dish of fritto misto. I shook my head – better to go on believing it might have been horse than to have my disappointment confirmed once and for all.

It wouldn’t be quite true to say that the next 12 months were devoted to bagging my first gee-gee, but somehow, the following summer, I found myself drawn to Le Pré Salé. A white-tiled temple to seafood in Brussels’ former fishing district, it was rumoured to serve some of the finest moules in this mussel-mad city. More importantly, as a proper Belgian restaurant, the menu also found room for horse and chips. Black Beauty, I announced to my sceptical companions, tasted quite a lot like beef. A bit sweeter, and definitely leaner, but nonetheless, a fair ringer for rump.

I enjoyed my steak de cheval – despite the near-constant whinnying from the rest of the table – but I didn’t feel compelled to seek it out again until this spring when, showing off on a ski lift, I rashly promised a friend a horse grill in return for a helping of her special steamed chicken feet. Back in London, I quickly regretted my bravado: bent yellow claws are 50p a pound in Chinatown, but horsemeat isn’t available for love nor money, wherever you look. The editor of this publication confirmed my suspicions: ‘I too have sought the stuff with no luck,’ he emailed. ‘In the end I bought some zebra from a place in Borough.’

Non-Londoners may be pleased to hear that zebra is also available, along with crocodile, locust and rattlesnake, from numerous sources online. The meat of their homegrown cousins, however, seems to be on a par with beagle burgers and siamese sausages on this side of the Channel. It’s little wonder that no one dares market horse: when Gordon Ramsay suggested Britons gave it a try, animal rights activists dumped a tonne of manure outside Claridges. God knows what they’d do to any poor butcher who managed to actually get hold of some.

My search for current retailers may have been fruitless, but I did happen upon a nostalgic online discussion of the former horsemeat butchers of Sheffield: ‘Used to be [one] at Darnall Terminus, often sent there for meat … perhaps that’s why I galloped everywhere’ noted one contributor waggishly. These reminiscences suggest there were once quite a few such businesses in the city, giving lie to the idea that the British had never eaten horsemeat – that ‘it’s not part of our food culture,’ as Marcus Wareing priggishly observed to the Mail after Gordon’s proposal.

A morning probing the darkest recesses of the British Library’s catalogue suggests, however, that horsemeat is not a subject of particular interest to many people. I eventually strike lucky with a little pamphlet entitled The Horse Traffic in England by one Patrick Keatley, Special Correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. Published in 1952, it’s mainly concerned with the abuse rife in the meat trade – ‘Even as you read this,’ Keatley writes, ‘you can reckon that somewhere in England there may be a fresh consignment of Irish horses loaded into lorries, or puzzled ponies swaying against the sides of a truck as they bump along a narrow Welsh road’ – but it also provides a fascinating glimpse of the post-war appetite for the stuff.

‘On the rough figures available, English people ate the meat of over 53,000 horses last year …’ he says. London, according to Keatley, is the epicentre of consumption, accounting for three-quarters of the entire trade (a study of taboo foods published in the 1980s claims that ‘The one area where it is at all commonly eaten today is Yorkshire, where it is known as ‘kicker’, and ‘kicker-eater’ is a derogatory term for a Yorkshireman outside that county.’ I can find no one who has ever heard of either term, which makes me suspect someone was pulling the – Californian – author’s fetlock on this particular point. The Sheffield messageboard suggests the last vendor there closed in the 1960s.)

In the course of his investigations, Keatley talks to sanitary inspectors who tell him that ‘horses have been slaughtered in recent years on Sundays, Good Friday, August Bank Holiday, Boxing Day and even Christmas morning. Such is the demand for horsemeat in England to-day and such is the eagerness of the trade to satisfy it’. A dealer claims to him, in an expansive moment, to have ‘cleaned out half of Ireland’.

‘It may well be asked,’ Keatley admits, ‘leaving aside common sentiment for the moment, what is wrong … with the humane slaughter of horses in a country that is still critically short of meat? I have talked with medical officers of health in the half-dozen boroughs where most of England’s horse-meat is eaten, and they all speak highly of it as a good. It is nutritious, it is usually delivered very fresh to the shops, and it comes from an animal that is far less subject than cattle to tuberculosis and other diseases.’ Yet despite all this, within ten years, the trade was dead.

The fact that horsemeat had to be sold in special (‘Continental’) butchers shops, and marked clearly as such on restaurant menus must have contributed to the sense that it was a second-rate meat – indeed, it seems telling that Keatley ‘in several weeks of travelling [could not] find such a restaurant, and sanitary inspectors in London boroughs where notoriously horseflesh is consumed were unable to direct me to one.’ Clearly, horse was not the kind of thing people wanted to be seen eating in public, which might explain why, once food supplies were restored after the war, it disappeared from our increasingly aspirational national diet.

In fact, the further I looked into the subject, the more it seemed that horsemeat has always been a foodstuff of necessity, rather than choice – in modern times, at least. In the ancient world, wherever people lived cheek by jowl with their horses, they were also eaten (further south, where grazing was scarcer, a horse would have been more valuable, which may explain why the ancient Greeks and Romans found the idea so distasteful).

For some such peoples, including the Angle tribe of East Anglian fame, the horse was also sacred – yet feasting habitually followed their ritual sacrifice. In fact, this practice was so common amongst northern peoples that horse-eating, or hippophagy, came to be regarded as a cornerstone of heathen culture by the Church. In the eighth century, the Devon-born St Boniface, who had been instructed by the Pope himself to ‘suppress … [this] filthy and abominable custom’ amongst the faithful of Germany, wrote back to say that the ban was proving a serious barrier to conversion.

Yet despite ecclesiastical efforts, the habit lingered on throughout Europe. Icelanders were so attached to their horsemeat that the Church was eventually forced to grant them a special exemption from the rule, while a 16th-century traveller claimed the meat was commonly sold in southern Spain under the name ‘red deer’. The severity of the sentence given to a Frenchman executed in 1629 for eating horse during Lent suggests that he was being punished for more than just breaking the fast.

As the power of the Church declined, and European populations became increasingly urban, food shortages pushed horsemeat back on to the menu. Despite numerous laws prohibiting its sale, horse was freely available in Paris during the lean times of the Revolution, and when one of Napoleon’s generals fed his hungry troops on horse bouillon, he was widely applauded for his ingenuity.

Those concerned with the problem of nourishing the poor began to gather behind horse as a cheap and nutritionally sound solution to Europe’s growing appetite, but they had a hard job convincing their intended beneficiaries that the meat was safe to eat. In Paris, the Horsemeat Committee resorted to handing it out free to deserving families, and encouraging priests to take it too, in the hope of convincing the lower classes that the meat was not only healthy, but downright holy.

In fact, despite its later popularity there, France was one of the last countries in western Europe to legalise the sale of horsemeat – by the time it did so in 1866, it was some years behind Austria, Belgian, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and many of the German states. Even Britain followed suit – rising beef prices led to the formation of the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh as an Article of Food in 1868, and the law was amended a few years later. To encourage take-up, enthusiasts gave public lectures in praise of equine flesh, and numerous hippophagic banquets were held around the country, including one memorable feast at Langham’s in London. The menu from that night shows an admirable commitment to nose to tail eating, from jellied hooves to boiled withers; even the innocuous-sounding sole fillets were dressed with lashings of ‘horse oil’.  Photographs of the three beasts who had been sacrificed to this magnificent spread, two cart horses aged four and 29, and a carriage horse who ‘in his prime had been worth 700 guineas’, were circulated around the diners, one of whom reported:

‘I devoutly wished I had the talent of a Hogarth to be able to record the various expressions … there seemed to be a dubious and inquisitive cast spread over the features of most who were present … A very pleasant party at our end of the table, but the meat simply horrible.’

The Great British public were none too keen either: ‘chevaline’ butchers opened in London (note the reluctance to call a spade a spade on this side of the Channel), but a contemporary commentator reports that not only had these swiftly gone out of business, but the entire campaign to popularise horse had been a failure here. Perhaps if we’d been under attack, things would have been different – the French horsemeat trade was undoubtedly given a boost by the Paris siege, which forced it on to the tables of even the highest echelons of society. Despite these trying circumstances, the population showed a commendable commitment to gastro-snobbery: ‘Gourmets maintained,’ according to Baldick, ‘that a slice from a cab horse was preferable to the finest cut from a pampered racehorse’ as the latter’s flesh was invariably tough, whereas the cab-horse was ‘deliciously tender – as was only to be expected, seeing that it had been beaten for years.’

Although the bourgeoisie may have gone gratefully back to beef once the siege was lifted, a taboo had been broken, and by 1910, France was the horseflesh capital of the western world. Indeed, thanks to a highly successful marketing campaign based around its supposed health benefits, the meat continued to be served in schools and hospitals until a small, but highly publicised outbreak of salmonella in the late 1960s put people off.

Although the Gallic embrace of chevaline could be attributed to a less sentimental attitude towards animals in general, it should be noted that the taste is by no means universal. Instead, it’s always been a food for the poor, with consumption largely concentrated in the north of the country, and in isolated pockets further south in cities such as Toulouse and Marseilles. Daniel W. Gade, the author of a comprehensive 1976 study of the subject in the – hitherto unknown to me – journal, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, claims that in 1965, the average annual consumption was 1.46kg a head, but notes that ‘as only a third of the population actually consume it … the real figure is much higher’. Nearly half a century later, thanks to a barrage of negative publicity from the likes of the Fondation Brigitte Bardot, as well as the falling price of other meats, horse accounts for less than one per cent of the market, with consumption falling 12 per cent in the past two years alone. Both the Italians and the Argentinians eat twice as much as the French, while in China, the figure is ten times higher.

As horsemeat is generally reckoned to improve with age (gastronomes prefer animals over the age of three), farming is not really economically viable – instead, former work animals form the bulk of the trade, which these days is divided between the Americas and Eastern Europe. One has to trust that the transport and slaughter is as strictly controlled as for any other animal destined for human consumption; yet there is still no way of getting hold of any in the UK. Horsemeat is never going to be a mainstream choice in this country, but at the moment, it’s not even an option. [Unless you fancy a Findus lasagne of course.]

Calvin W Schwabe, a distinguished veterinarian and author of the fascinating study of taboo foods, Unmentionable Cuisine, which contains numerous recipes for horse, likens the western prejudice against horsemeat to that of Hindus against beef, or Muslims and Jews against pork. I’d argue that these at least have some basis in religious teachings. Our squeamishness, however, has none.

Postscript: In the course of writing this piece, the news broke that a French restaurant in Edinburgh had put horsemeat on the menu (‘We am totally outraged and disgusted that this restaurant has been allowed to open! Horses are mans best friend and this is the same as eating your pet dog!’ frothed one commenter online)  – but when I contact their supplier, who sources the meat direct from Paris, to find out whether they would be willing to deliver to individuals, they never get back to me. I can’t say I blame them; nor would I be surprised to hear that they’d been intimidated into terminating their arrangement.

(If you enjoyed this, think about subscribing to Fire & Knives – a good, meaty read without a week-night supper in sight.)

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Great Horse Hunt

  1. svensvenson

    I used to enrage my daughter back in the ’80s by singing: “My Little Pony, tastes like baloney.”

  2. I love horses and used to own two and yet I also think horse meat is fantastic and definitely should be utilized more (when not containing drugs…) rather than sending it to the continent. It is so silly for people to have a bias against it. At least it is a herbivore so it is not like comparing it to eating dog, which I strongly agree should not be eaten. Sadly in Vietnam, where I live, dog remains rather popular and is sold at the market rather horrifically whole.

    If you ever go to Iceland you must try horse there – I had a delightful fillet that was rather like venison which I suppose makes sense seeing as the horses there are semi feral, grazing on rough mountainous land. I do hope the scandal means we re-address our opinions of eating horse meat. I hope it becomes available at butchers soon!

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