In 2013, meat eaters across Europe were in uproar. A series of undercover investigations had unearthed a shocking secret at the heart of the meat industry. To the horror of unsuspecting customers, it quickly became clear that much of what we had assumed was beef was in fact contaminated with horse. In some cases, as much as 100 per cent of a mislabelled product was made from equine flesh. The scandal affected businesses ranging from Waitrose to Burger King. Everyone was stunned to realise that there was suddenly more to their frozen lasagne than met the eye.
In Britain, the near-universal reaction to the news was blind panic. In the days when Twitter was at its peak, disgusted shoppers were quick to tell anyone who would listen how horrified they were to discover that they may have been inadvertently eating last year’s National winner. News broadcasts were full of wild-eyed home cooks trying to come to terms with the fact that they’d accidentally found a Gold Cup finalist delicious. The nation was at the point of full psychological meltdown.
Britain is not the only country that has had a major horse freak-out. At around the same time as Europeans were realising that Black Beauty was edible, several American restaurants attempted to do something seriously daring and, ultimately, disastrous. Spurred on by the uncontrollable spread of wild horses across the West, eateries like Italian institution Monsu in Philadelphia shocked diners by announcing that they would be including horse on the menu. The result was death threats, protests, visits from the FDA and a hasty retraction.
These two stories tell us a strange fact about our relationship with horses. Unlike cows, pigs, sheep and almost every other furry, four-legged animal, many of us feel uncharacteristically squeamish about the idea of cooking something that we usually see racing around on TV. In addition to the UK and America, countries as diverse as Australia, Ireland, Israel and Brazil all regard horse as one of the ultimate forms of edible taboo. Though the reasons for this are manifold, the reality is that many nations remain united by their distrust of horsemeat.
For those of us who’ve grown up with the attitude that a horse is something to be ridden and not roasted, the reasons for our apparent disgust rarely elicit further consideration. “Why do we not eat horses? We just don’t.” However, once you begin to look objectively at what it means to cook horse meat, our reluctance starts to make less and less sense. As many cultures and cooks around the world have proven, horse can be just as delicious as anything else on the menu.
Take Sicily, for example. Along the picturesque Via Plebiscito in the bustling backstreets of Catania, mafioso-looking men tend grills and barbecues, flogging sizzling horse steaks and sausages to passersby. Everything from chops, to burgers, to kebabs are on offer. Far from being a guilty secret, horse meat is proudly promoted as a local delicacy. Ask anyone who has eaten there and they will be quick to tell you that one would struggle to take issue with the taste.
Sicilians aren’t alone in their predilection for mixing dressage and dinner. In Central Asia, where the arid climate and rugged steppes make it difficult to raise cattle and other livestock, horse is not just a delicacy, but an integral part of everyday eating. In Japan, “horse sashimi”, known as sakura, is a typical dish at popular izakaya bars and is often served with soy and ginger, while in Tonga, horse meat is believed to have spiritual connotations and can only be eaten on special occasions. In fact, on every continent on earth, you can find dozens of different cultures who incorporate the meat into their diet.
Once the scale of horse meat consumption becomes apparent, our arguments for not including it on our own menus feel less convincing. Things get even more complicated once you examine the nutrition. One hundred grammes of horse meat contains nearly 100 calories fewer than the same weight of beef, about a third of the fat and a quarter of the saturated fat. In Mongolia, locals actually change from a diet of beef and mutton in winter to horse due to the meat’s low levels of cholesterol. If you’re trying to argue against eating somebody’s steed, definitely don’t point to health.
Given all the evidence for horse being both delicious and relatively good for us, the real question becomes why do so many of us have a hissy fit when we find out that it’s been snuck into our sausages? Obviously, no one wants to be told that they’ve bought one thing, only to discover that they’re actually eating something else. But there seems to be something disproportionate about our reaction to horses versus almost anything else.
Maybe the answer lies in the weird cultural nether-zone that horses occupy. Most of us wouldn’t say that they have the same companionable, loving nature as a cat or a dog. But neither are they like the rest of the homogeneous masses of livestock that we rear for our table. This awkwardness means that they can be simultaneously seen as both food and friends.
It therefore becomes slightly easier to understand why we might feel a bit odd about seeing a horse on a supermarket shelf. But, given how undoubtedly delicious and mundane it is for many people, we probably shouldn’t all be quite so quick to panic the next time the situation arises.