So hungry I could eat horse meat

by Forager on October 19, 2010

The location was a closely guarded secret, the small guest list carefully canvassed and the topic discussed in hushed tones whilst surreptitiously checking for eavesdroppers. All the secrecy is for good reason as I was invited to a private 4 course dinner and the star ingredient is a topical and controversial one. On the menu is cavallo, or horse meat.

The controversial topic hit Australian headlines in July when Perth butcher, Vince Garreffa of Mondo di Carne, received the first license to sell horse meat for human consumption in Australia. He expected the topic to be sensitive, but was unprepared by the degree of passionate outcry that did ensue, certainly having never anticipated death threats, and how mediaworthy the issue was. Vince is not the only target of death threats. A Melbourne restaurant also received threats and with them a crowd of protesters when they announced a horse meat degustation.

It might surprise people to know that Australia has had a thriving horse meat export industry since the 1970s. The Dept of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) reports that currently up to 40,000 horses are processed for human and pet consumption and exported to overseas markets and about 20% of these horses are feral horses or brumbies captured in northern regions of Australia. The rest is made up of retired or failed race horses. No horses are farmed for horse meat. The main export market is Europe with about half the exported horse meat going to Russia, and smaller quantities to Switzerland, Belgium, France and Japan. In these countries and others across Europe, South America, Central and East Asia, it is a more commonly accepted, mainstream source of protein without the social taboos we perceive about horse meat. The Co-pilot has even spotted a horse meat burger chain called “Hot Horse” in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital. It is also widely consumed in China and a conversation with another girl of Chinese heritage at the dinner, confirmed this. Having grown up in China, she said it was readily available and the consumption of it was not questioned in the slightest.

However, here in Australia, and to a degree most of the other westernised super powers, we eat a remarkably small portion of the available animal produce. What the vast majority of Australians are comfortable eating could probably be counted on one hand: the animals we’ve successfully domesticated being chicken, beef, lamb and pork and to a lesser degree duck and turkey. Of the “wild animals”, we really only eat fish regularly. We’re selective because we can afford to be, and because it’s “socially acceptable” within the current social norms of our community. We, along with other English speaking countries, find the consumption of horse meat offensive as the horse is perceived as a companion and sport animal. I don’t intend to debate the question of animal ethics here, but for those interested, Michael Pollan has a thought provoking argument in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, where he discusses the two sides of animal ethics and different facets of the argument from sustainability to animal intelligence.

So in a bid to understand the history of horse meat consumption and the controversy behind it, I found myself at a private educational dinner for AAFP members where a few horse meat dishes will be prepared in a number of traditional ways and paired with matching wines.

We start with a number of horse meat cold cuts: on offer is a horse meat salumi and a mortadella – both paired with a chilled verdelho.

Horsemeat smallgoods

Stuzzichini: "salumi misti" - horsemeat smallgoods

I try the salumi first, which is artfully arranged into a horse shoe shape and find it lean, slightly chewy but on the whole fairly mild and non-descript in flavour. It could have been made from pork for all I know and I realise then that I had preconceptions that the flavour of horse meat would be strong and gamey. The mildness comes as a real surprise.

Horse salami arranged into a horseshoe shape

Horse salami arranged into a horseshoe shape

The mortadella is more flavourful and rich even though the horse meat content is lower (it contained only 35% horse meat as  evidenced by the lighter colour of the meat).

Horse mortadella

Mortadella containing 35% horse

The official start of the evening and the courses to come is heralded with an introduction to the controversial topic of horse meat and a recount of the recent media attention. I wasn’t surprised that horse meat is a lean meat, much leaner than beef with only a quarter of the fat- but I am surprised to learn that from a nutritional perspective, horse meat has more protein and happens to have twice as much iron as beef. This accounts for the dark red colour of horse meat (this is related to the amount of oxyhaemoglobin in the blood). We are fortunate to have two leading Italian chefs (who will remain unnamed) preparing the four courses that evening – before each course they talked through the preparation and ingredients, and provided some fascinating annecdotes about how horse meat has featured in their family upbringing.

The first of the courses was our starter and placed before me was a delicate arrangement of horse meat tartare with garlic chips and beetroot puree, and horse carpaccio with pecorino.

Horse tartare and carpaccio

Antipasto: Horse tartare with beetroot and garlic and horse carpaccio with herbs and pecorino toscano

Horse carpaccio

Closeup of the carpaccio, herbs and pecorino toscano

The horse tartare was seasoned with salt, pepper, capers, and evidently lots of oil as the dark strips are silky smooth and slipped down my throat without the slightest protest. Again, the flavour is mild and the piquany of the capers and garlic chips complimentary. The horse carpaccio was just seared on the surface and tender within. Like the tartare, it was mild and delicious, slightly sweet like venision and the savoury umami notes of the pecorino carried and lifted the subtle flavour of the horse meat. Paired with a light, chilled rosé, this course made a perfect conversation starter – everyone compared notes about the flavours and their preconceptions of what they expected to taste.

For our primo course we were served a hearty pasta.

Orechiette ragu di cavallo

Primo: Orechiette with ragu di cavallo

But as you can imagine, it wasn’t just any old pasta dish. A hand cut horse meat ragu was stewed for 5 hours till the fibres in the meat broke down to an almost creamy, paste like consistency. The ragu was appropriately paired with orecchiette, literally “little ears” in Italian as the little curves in the shells are perfect for holding the thick ragu and the pasta is topped with a thick Italian sheep’s milk cheese chosen for its stringy qualities. I found the ragu more flavoursome than the starters we’ve had. It is sweet with a detectable gameyness hidden amongst the tomato and cheese, with almost an astringent aftertaste. Given the strong flavour, the matching wine is appropriately a very robust shiraz blend.

The secondo course consisted of a steak topped with melted lardons, served on a mound of creamy polenta and drizzled with olive oil, authentic 25 year old balsamic vinegar, and accompanied by roast potatoes and a fennel and radicchio salad.

Authentic aged balsamic vinegar

Authentic aged 25 year old balsamic vinegar from Modena

Horse rump steak

Tagliata di cavallo con polenta e aceto tradizionale - Horse rump steak with polenta and aged balsamic vinegar

It was immediately clear to me that we seemed to be skimming down the flavour spectrum from mild to intense. We were told the steak is from the rump of the horse and was very strong in flavour. It makes sense that different cuts of the animal have differing degrees of flavour and evidently, rump is on the stronger end of that scale. The steak was noticeably lean and like venison or kangaroo has been just seared on the exterior, leaving it very rare within. This seems to be the divisive dish as some diners find the gameyness too strong to stomach, others finding it divine and eating every last morsel. Personally the strong flavour of the rump was exactly the flavour I’d expected to attribute to horse meat and I found the flavour quite pleasantly enjoyable. The course is paired with a lighter red, a sangiovese, in a nod to the Italian theme to all the dishes.

Finally we came to dessert. We were presented with a glass of a type of dessert style Italian barbera and a shot of a vinsanto-style dessert wine, a light, apricot coloured liquor . And no, they weren’t skimping on the dessert red – I was just watching how much I drank!

Dessert wines

Dessert wines - a vinsanto style wine and a dessert style Italian barbera wine

Our dessert was a chocolate salumi and cantucci (cantucci is a type of biscotti since “biscotti” means biscuit in Italian). Our host is coy about what is in the chocolate salumi, however, one prod of the chocolate slice and I was more than certain it contained horse blood as the dark colour, the moist blood sausage or morcilla-like texture and sweet iron scented aftertaste are all dead giveaways. We enjoyed the cantucci dunked in the vinsanto which once soaked though surprisingly seemed to increase my perceived strength of the wine from strong to rocket fuel.

Chocolate salami dessert

Salame di cioccolato and cantucci - Chocolate salami and cantucci

Soaking cantucci

Soaking the cantucci in vinsanto wine

At the conclusion of the dinner all the diners were in agreement that we found horse quite surprisingly palatable and enjoyed the learning experience. No one present at the dinner thought horse meat was going mainstream anytime soon and wouldn’t expect to find horse in the local butcher sitting side by side with the sirloin steak or nestled against the prosciutto in the local deli. Not any old butcher or deli anyway. There are a few brave artisanal producers in Australia bucking the trend and creating the horse meat products that hark back to their childhood and a culture where horse is consumed.

The Italian theme running through the evening prompted me to check in with my Nonno and ask whether he’d eaten horse before. Unsurprisingly, like the other Italian-born representatives at the dinner, it turns out he too had eaten horse meat before. His uncle was a butcher and he recalls that though horse wasn’t considered part of the staple diet, it was available as a special treat a few times each year with the fillet steak being the most prized cut. It was also considered to be so healthy that it was recommended for people with ailments. But, he added, it was a little too sweet for his liking.

Personally, though I’ve not had horse meat before this occasion, perhaps it’s my heritage, but I am probably desensitized to the consumption of various animal meats. Before I was old enough to understand, my parents all manner of weird, and when one thinks carefully about it, less than wonderful things. Have I mentioned that they made me eat my pet duck when I was 5? Yes, I probably have and I really should seek therapy about that one day. When I spoke to my father about the diet he endured during the Communist revolution in China and the persecution of capitalist roadies like himself and his family, he cheerfully counts off all the stomach turning rodents, bugs and arachnids he’d barbecued for food. As my pallor grew whiter and my whimpers louder, so his stories became more animated, graphic and vivid. Funny how famine and the need to save your family from starvation gives you a different perspective on what is “edible”. My parents were very keen on ensuring I had a wide and varied palette – you could say I was brought up in the school of unidentifiable food stuffs. Either way, the consumption of horse meat held less controversy for me than it would for others. But whilst I have few reservations about meat, through slow and persistent coaxing from the Co-pilot, I only converted to smelly and mould-ridden cheeses in the last 5 years. Before that, I couldn’t fathom the idea of how and why someone could voluntarily eat something so mouldy and visually offensive. Irrational perhaps to you, but that was a product of my upbringing and shaped the things I considered inedible.

Whether or not you choose to consume horse meat is a matter of personal choice, and whilst emotions, upbringing and values are likely to impact on your decision,  it’s worthwhile also taking the background, the history and the details into account to make an educated choice. It’s a popular source of protein around the world, considered a delicacy even in some countries, and by and large the aversion to it in Westernised, English-speaking countries might be contributed to it being a social taboo. Who knows, if you try it, you might even like it.

So, would you try it?

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Richard Elliot October 19, 2010 at 1:53 pm

Great blog post. It’s interesting to hear that horse meat is being sold here in Australia and its’ profile is being raised (albeit subtly).

I’ve had horse meat once, to my knowledge, in France. I was sking with my dad in the French Alps and we stopped in a restaurant one lunch time. We were initially given French menus and I noticed horse on the menu. When the waitress realised we were English, she brought over translated menus. Much to my surprise the ‘horse’ and morphed into ‘beef’ in the translation from French to English. I decided I had to order the horse steak. I wouldn’t be put off ordering it again, but it wasn’t overly memorabe.
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2 angie October 19, 2010 at 3:34 pm

Oh wow, interesting write up! It is strange how one society can have a different view on what is ‘normal’ compared to another when it all comes down to different upbringings and circumstances and really what is ‘normal’?. My bf has tried horse meat while he was in Japan, me on the other hand… not entirely sure yet but I did try crocodile not that long ago (at a Jap place here in Sydney) and was pleasantly suprised at how tasty it was.
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3 penny aka jeroxie October 19, 2010 at 11:23 pm

I have been trying to source horse meat in Victoria but unfortunately, I get death stares when I ask about it here. A very good informative post and great experience that you shared.
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4 OohLookBel October 19, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Again, you raise some excellent points on why we do and don’t eat certain foods. My French partner is always going on about how they always eat horsemeat in France, so it’s probably like our approach to kangaroo – too weird to contemplate for some, or not open-minded enough.
Loved your story on your father’s experience in China – maybe we’re too cossetted in this day and age?

5 john@heneedsfood October 20, 2010 at 7:24 am

Great write-up. So the delicious horse ragu and horse sausage I ate in Italy last year could have originated in Australia then. I’ve always been intrigued by horse meat for as long as I can remember when my dad told me about him eating it in Croatia when he was young. I see absolutely nothing wrong with it
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6 Celeste @ Berrytravels October 20, 2010 at 3:11 pm

I’d love to try it. My parents brought me up on the typical asian diet of which anything goes. We’ve had such different things on the table before , though I refused to eat snake.

The way you have described it, I can’t imagine the taste being offensive to anybody. And to be quite honest, I also do not see why people are making such a huge fuss over the consumption of horse meat. If they are already feeding it to the dogs, then what’s so wrong about humans eating it?
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7 Corinne @ Gourmantic October 20, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Probably. It looks appetising enough to try. Out of everything on the menu, the mortadella cubes look the least appealing.
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8 Howard October 20, 2010 at 6:10 pm

I’ve had horse meat sashimi in Tokyo before and I didn’t mind it at all. In fact, if no one told me it was horse meat I wouldn’t even bat an eye lid.

Personally I don’t see any issues with horse meat, ethically or whatever. For the people who have concerns, do they have the same concerns on how foi gras is produced ?

Horses for courses *boom tish* 😛
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9 mademoiselle délicieuse October 21, 2010 at 12:00 am

Friends recently tried horse meat sashimi in Japan and found that whatever cut was used tasted similar to beef.

I would try it if given a chance, partly out of curiosity and partly, like yourself, of being brought up on an “unusual” yet typical Asian diet.
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10 Conor @ HoldtheBeef October 21, 2010 at 12:40 am

I have to admit I was quite alarmed when one of the first Swedish words I was taught was the word for horsemeat, so that I didn’t make any mistakes when at the supermarket when I was living there. Since then I’ve become somewhat more desensitized to the idea, and now I think it is quite hypocritical to say that we should not eat them. If it’s a matter of intelligence, then we should stop eating pigs before we stop eating horse! Having said this though, I haven’t tried it myself. Not yet, anyway.

I don’t like far from Vince Garreffa’s shop though!
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11 Bonnibella October 21, 2010 at 8:22 pm

I can understand how western countries can afford to be selective, for example bugs are a regular part of other countries’ diet. I think your introduction is very well written and a great way for people like me to understand the mentally of horse meat.
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12 Sara (Belly Rumbles) October 23, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Loved your post and I knew that we have been strongly exporting horse meat for years.

Personally I can’t do it. Having grown up riding horses, having a relationship with one like you do with a dog or cat, and just my plain love of them, I just can’t do it. I have come across it in France but have not eaten it.

Saying that I have no objections to anybody else eating it. Would not pass judgement or go on a rant if out to dinner and a friend ordered it. It saddens me that Vince received death threats and that restaurants offering it on their menu also received hostile approaches.
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13 Baogirl October 24, 2010 at 12:11 pm

I’ve had horse meat in Japan in various styles – sashimi, bbq, seared – and all different parts as far as I understood from the translation and hand gestures … it was all delicious. Particularly memorable was the sashimi, which was meltingly buttery and smooth. Superior to any wagyu beef I’ve ever tasted.

14 Brett @ October 25, 2010 at 1:51 pm

I had horse meat at a Japanese business banquet. It was called “ba-sasashi” (sometimes euphemistically called ‘Cherry Blossom Sushi’) . I don’t remember a lot about the taste, I was drunk and I was ordered to eat it by Kumamoto-san,
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15 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella October 25, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Really interesting blog post! Hmm I don’t know, I know that I’m not interested in eating whale and I dislike horse racing but I would be curious. Questions questions….
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16 Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella October 29, 2010 at 12:41 am

Congratulations on your award T! How very, very exciting and I’m sure you must be over the moon! :)
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17 Adrian in Food Rehab November 1, 2010 at 12:29 pm

I’d defintely taste horse meat. The way you’ve described it – it sounds great. I’ve had all sorts of meat growing up in a household where goat was often tied to a tree in the backyard and soup made out of it during festivities.

Thanks for sharing your father’s story. Very nice post.
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18 Maria@TheGourmetChallenge November 3, 2010 at 2:17 pm

I’ve tried horse meat before, years ago in Italy I had horse meat mortadella. I must admit that I found it tastier compared to normal mortadella. As for the ethics of eating horse meat, well I’ll leave that to personal decision.

Great post, thought provoking and definitely interesting!
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19 Forager November 6, 2010 at 10:04 am

Hey Richard – that’s so cheeky to serve you horse as “beef”! Perhaps they served one of the fillet cuts if you found it “uninspiring”. I thought the same for the first few horse dishes we tried

Hey angle – thanks! Crocodile is quite popular on Chinese menus too – my mum uses it (not surprisingly) in soups to ward off coughs..

Hey penny- yes I can imagine the response from normal butchers wouldn’t be too positive. With the current environment still not being too favorable I think we need to tread carefully with horse meat

Hey ooh lookbel – I agree with you. I think we’re too cosseted today. The co-pilot claims to not eat the less desirable cuts because we’re no longer in famine and we don’t need to. I think we’re too spoilt!

Hey John – we need more open minded people like you I think!

Hey Celeste – great point. We already feed it to dogs so feeding it to humans is actually more respectful to the horse right?

Hey Corinne – I think I concur. They were my least favorite

Hey Howard – a great point. There’s definitely much less fuss and certainly no death threats about fois-gras that I know about but it’s arguably even more ethically contentious..

Hey mademoiselle delicieuse – I think we sometimes have to thank our parents for raising us to be some open minded!

Hey Conor – absolutely! Pigs and octopi should be off menus if it’s a matter of intelligence. Maybe you should pop in to Vince’s- I’m sure he’d be happy to chat about the topic.

Hey Bonnibella – absolutely! We’re spoilt by our excess of food!

Hey Sara- what a great attitude. The world would be a better place if we could all have a similar attitude to all contentious issues. Not saying I’m like that at all – I could definitely learn a lesson from you!

Hey baogirl – you make it sound delicious! I’d love to try the sashimi!

Hey Brett – you leave the most amusing comments :) makes me wish I’d been drinking with Kumamoto San too

Hey Lorraine – I think it’s absolutely fair to have your own values and opinions on the topic. I’m not sure about whales either given the way they are captured. And thank you! It was a very unexpected award!

Hey Adrian – wow! Your house sounds fun! I want a goat in the backyard too. And whilst my dad’s story is interesting it’s certainly not unique. Unfortunately it was all too common

Hey Maria – I agree. Personal decisions, an open mind and tolerance.

20 Obesbaby December 10, 2010 at 10:20 am

wow I didn’t know there is such a market for Horse, I probably will try. It reminds me of kangaroo meat thou…
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21 Kelly April 23, 2012 at 8:09 am

Awful, DISGUSTING, post.

These are the most majestical mammals out there. They’re not meant to be on your dinner table.
You should be ashamed of yourself and your readers for being a proponent of horse slaughters.

22 Forager April 23, 2012 at 9:59 am

Hey Obesbaby – it was a little like kangaroo meat actually. Given the controversy surrounding horse meat consumption though, I don’t think it’ll be readily available anytime soon.

Hey Kelly – I’m sorry you feel that way but I understand this is a very sensitive subject for many, especially horse owners and lovers.
However, it’s a bit subjective to say that horses shouldn’t be eaten because they’re “majestic”, yet it’s ok to eat other “non-majestic” animals. Pigs and octopi are probably the most intelligent animals on our menus, but because they’re not considered so majestic they don’t really evoke emotive responses. These selective responses raise very interesting animal ethics issues (I’m guilty of it too as I object to the slaughter of some other animals), however, I’m not going to discuss these issues here as I am an omnivore and haven’t quite resolved my hypocrisy between eating one animal and objecting to another. I think it’s a matter of cultural taboos. I’m not ashamed of the experience, hence the publication of my post – but I am very sorry if it has caused you discomfort. Also – I recommend reading the Omnivore’s Dilemma for an interesting take on animal ethics.

23 tom April 28, 2014 at 12:48 pm

that looks good how do u get sam

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