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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?