The old grey mare
Gordon Ramsay caused controversy with it, Karl Lagerfeld claimed to have lost 40 kilogrammes on a diet of it, and the US is in the midst of trying to ban it. What is it? One of the most ancient yet seemingly most controversial foodstuffs known to man: horse meat.
On the face of it, horse meat should have pride of place in the shopping baskets of those who care about what they eat. It’s high in iron, calcium, zinc and vitamin B12, and low in fat, calories and cholesterol. Also, horses raised for meat are generally allowed to graze naturally in a semi-wild state, eating a natural diet of grass, perhaps with supplements in winter.
Evidence suggests that in prehistoric times wild horses were a valuable food source for humans. And although the popularity of horse as a course has gone up and down, it is still accepted as a legitimate and tasty protein source throughout the world. Indeed, it seems to be just the Anglophone countries such as Britain, Australia and the US whose natives have a wholesale aversion to dining on equine dishes. However, this distaste might be a modern luxury—it’s said horse and donkey meat was eaten in the north of England as recently as the Thirties.
One of the most enthusiastic of the horse consuming countries is France. The story goes that the French first got a taste for the meat when Napoleonic soldiers were told to eat horses killed in action—a case of waste not, want not. Necessity was again the mother of affection when the poor of Paris were offered horse meat as an alternative to too-pricey pork and beef in the 1860s. It wasn’t just the poor going hungry during the siege of Paris in 1870-71, so a taste for horseflesh spread throughout the general population and never really left. Neighbouring Belgium is fond of horse meat tartare. In Germanic countries, horse meat was a vital part of their pagan rituals, and it’s still a delicacy there today; Austria has a traditional horsemeat stew, kare. Sweden eats more horse meat than lamb—it’s particularly popular in smoked form. One of Europe’s biggest consumers is Italy. Horse is eaten throughout the country, in its many regional cuisines, as charcuterie, in pasta sauces and as various cuts of fresh meat.
For a country that’s not particularly squeamish about its foodstuffs, or sentimental about its animals, surprisingly Spain doesn’t seem as enthusiastic about the delights of horse meat. The consumption of horse is traditionally confined to the northern part of the country. Perhaps this is due to the proximity to filet-de-cheval-loving France, or simply because it has a more horse-suitable landscape and climate.
The first specialist horse butcher opened in Figueres in 1910, and business quickly grew throughout Girona and Barcelona. Sales of horse meat reached their peak in the years of hardship during the Civil War and the Second World War, but began a steady decline as economic conditions in the country improved. In recent years, the horse-meat market has received a slight boost from the ‘mad cow disease’ scares, increased consumer interest in healthy eating and more natural food products.
Catalunya was a horse meat pioneer, and it is still the country’s largest producer, supplying meat mainly from the Hispano-Breton breed. Like Navarra’s Jaca Navarra and Burguete horsebreeds, these were originally used as working animals on farms, but after the mechanisation of farming, they have become less useful as brute force and more useful as providing work for the butcher.
Horse meat is either sold as potro—foal meat—or carne de caballo—from older animals. The tender white flesh of the potro more resembles veal, whereas the caballo meat is a rich dark red. This is the result of one of horse meat’s most important properties, its extremely high iron content. The older animal gives a more flavourful, if slightly less tender meat. But don’t think it’s tough; the popular image of the stringy, chewy old nag isn’t true. The tenderness depends on the cut of meat and the age of the animal, as it does with beef. In fact, it doesn’t need the hanging time that beef requires. On the contrary, horse meat needs a swift and controlled transfer from slaughterhouse to market as it can spoil easily. So it should be bought on the day you want to eat it, and kept in the fridge, for best results.
The cuts are more or less the same as beef and are treated in much the same way. Some people describe the taste as a cross between venison and beef and it does indeed have a sweet, fairly intense, slightly gamey flavour. Fillets and entrecotes are good for grilling, tougher cuts will be used in stews or ground up for burgers. In Castilla y Leon, they make a cecina of horse, just like their cecina of beef. The most famous is the cold cured ‘horse ham of Villarramiel’, a traditional delicacy made according to methods handed down over 200 years.
Horse meat is often recommended to athletes, who appreciate its high-protein, low-fat content, and those with delicate appetites, such as the old, young children, the sick and infirm. It’s also a great addition to a woman’s diet: as Loli, proprietor of a carniceria that sells horse (as well as other meats) in Gràcia’s Mercado del Abaceria, explained: “What do women lose every month? Iron. And what do they lose as they get older? Calcium. And they may also need vitamin B12. Horse meat has all of these things.”
Loli’s stall is one of the few places one can buy horse meat regularly. There are also stalls in the Boqueria, such as Carnes Serrano’s shop near the car park at the rear of the market, where the motto is: “Prueba nuestra potro y caballo y veras como galopas!” (“Try our foal and horse meat and see how you’ll gallop!”), and Carnes Pemar at stall 280-281. Carniceria Xavier, in Santa Caterina market, is also a supplier.
However, more and more attention is being paid to horse meat, and traditional horse-rearing areas, such as Puigcerdà and the Camprodon, have been organising fairs and gastronomic events to promote this meat to the consumer. Top chefs have even been getting in on the act and including horse on their menus. Catalan chef Sergi Arola suggests making a confit of loin of foal by cooking it for 40 minutes in a 110ºC oven, then browning it on the grill. Serve with skinned and seeded cherry tomatoes stuffed with black olive tapenade and a creamy potato mash. But if you’re feeling a little less adventurous, buy a couple of burgers and bung them in a bun with sauteed shallots and your favourite relish.
You’ll never pass a gift horse without putting it in your mouth again.