On holiday in France the other week, we spent a morning wandering round the weekly market in Chablis. There was a little butcher’s van there, a chevaline boucher, a horse meat specialist.
I bought a small piece of faux fillet for a couple of Euros, took it home, seasoned it and cooked it. The meat was sweet, very tender and tasty. It had a slightly game like edge to it. Different to beef, but not that dissimilar. Very palatable, actually.
If I lived in France, I’d eat more.
Now, I realise at this point, there may be people – there will be people – who feel completely revolted by the very idea of eating a horse. It simply isn’t the done thing in Britain and most of the English-speaking world. It’s so far beyond ‘not the done thing’ that it’s verging on taboo.
Standing back from this and looking at it logically and dispassionately, the horror generated at the thought of eating horse doesn’t make sense when stacked against the British love of beef, pork, and – in particular – lamb.
Why is horse different?
It’s so different that we don’t even have a proper derivative word for it in the way that cow meat is beef or sheep meat is lamb or mutton. Where it has been sold or marketed in English-speaking countries in the past, it’s been done so under the name ‘cheval meat’, from the French.
There’s some history and culture to this, as well as a dash of religion.
Pope Gregory III forbade the eating of horse meat in the eighth century, in response to the ritual slaughter and feasting practiced by Germanic and Celtic tribes in Northern Europe. Iceland refused to convert to Christianity until the Catholic church bent the rules slightly and gave them a pass-out on the ‘no horse’ rule.
Despite this, horse meat seems to have just fell out of favour. Legend has it that the French tradition of horse consumption dates from the Battle of Elyoa in 1807, when officers encouraged starving troops to eat their dead battle horses to ease their hunger. Horse meat was roasted on cavalry breastplates in the middle of a devastated battlefield. There’s also evidence that Napoleon’s surgeon general, a man called Baron Dominic-Jean Larrey encouraged the eating of horse meat among troops as a way of avoiding scurvy. The troops got a taste for it, and the practice continued.
Horse became part of, and persists in the French national cuisine, in a way that it hasn’t on this side of the Channel. It isn’t true to say that the British have never eaten it., though.
It was never particularly popular, but horse meat was widespread into the thirties and later. It wasn’t rationed during the war, which helped to keep demand for it steady.
Yorkshire was the last outpost of horse meat-eating, with a butcher in Doncaster trading until 1955. The journalist Matthew Fort writes about this on his blog…note the reference to ‘cheval’ in the butcher’s window.
Fort suggests in a separate piece that horse consumption fell out of favour in Britain because of the rise of the engine, which effectively replaced the horse and reduced the commonness of horses, and the parallel rise of riding as a leisure pursuit. This led to the development of a sentimental angle to things…horses started to be seen as pets, and the ingrained British sentimentality towards pets of any description started to take over, and eating horses slipped quietly from unfashionable to taboo.
It’s a cultural issue for the British, and there’s nothing wrong with that – cultural and societal things like this don’t need to make sense. They just are, and that’s enough.
That’s not to say that these things can’t be challenged, and this is certainly one of those things that should be.
Horse meat is very, very good, and it deserves a greater audience in the UK.
Whether we’ll ever see it on a supermarket shelf in this country again is a different matter…
Have you ever tried horse meat? Would you?