Horse meat is the culinary name for meat cut from a horse. It is slightly sweet, tender, low in fat, and high in protein. It is nutritious and free of transmissible disease problems such as B.S.E., scrapie and E. coli which are being detected with increasing frequency in other types of commonly eaten meat. For the majority of mankind’s early existence wild horses were hunted as a bulk source of protein. With the rise of civilization mankind found new purposes for the horse, as a companion and a worker; these historical associations, as well as ritual and religion played a part in the development of the aversion to the consumption of horse meat. The horse is now given pet status by many in the western world, which further entrenches the taboo on eating its flesh. The avoidance of eating horse meat (or indeed a taste for it), is relatively modern, with a complex historical and cultural origins.
France dates its taste for horse meat to the Revolution. With the fall of aristocracy, its auxiliaries had to find other ways. Just as hairdressers and tailors oriented themselves to serve commoners, the horses maintained by aristocracy as a sign of prestige ended alleviating the hunger of lower classes. It was during the Napoleonic campaigns when the surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon's Grand Army, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, advised the starving troops to eat the flesh of horses. At the siege of Alexandria, the meat of young Arab horses relieved an epidemic of scurvy. At the battle of Eylau in 1807, Larrey served horse as soup and bœuf à la mode. In Aspern-Essling (1809), cut from the supply lines, the cavalry used the horses' breastplates as cooking pots and gunpowder as seasoning, and thus founded a tradition. Horse meat gained widespread acceptance in French cuisine during the later years of the Second French Empire. The high cost of living in Paris prevented many working-class citizens from buying meat such as pork or beef, so in 1866 the French government legalized the eating of horse meat and the first butcher's shop specializing in horse meat opened in eastern Paris, providing quality meat at lower prices. During the Siege of 1870-71, horse meat was eaten by anyone who could afford it, partly because of a shortage of fresh meat in the blockaded city, and also because horses were eating grain which was needed by the human populace. Many Parisians gained a taste for horse meat during the siege, and after the war ended, horse meat remained popular.
In many Muslim countries horse meat is generally forbidden or considered makruh, meaning it is not forbidden, but close to being such as 'detestable'. One reason given for its prohibition is the need for horses in military and other uses, and as such, considering the decline in usage of horses as in ages past, some consider its consumption permissible. Horse meat is eaten in some Muslim Central Asian countries with a tradition of nomadic pastoralism, e.g., Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. In other majority-Muslim countries there have been many instances, especially wars and famine, when horses were slaughtered and eaten.
Horse meat is forbidden by Jewish dietary laws because horses do not have cloven hooves and they are not ruminants. It has been suggested that this holds a practical purpose as horses were used as a means of transportation and did work.
In the eighth century, Popes Gregory III and Zachary instructed Saint Boniface, missionary to the Germans, to forbid the eating of horse flesh to those he converted, due to its association with Germanic pagan ceremonies. The people of Iceland allegedly expressed reluctance to embrace Christianity for some time, largely over the issue of giving up horse meat. The culturally close people of Sweden still have an ambivalent attitude to horsemeat, said to stem from this time.
According to the anthropologist Marvin Harris, London, some cultures class horsemeat as taboo because the horse converts grass into meat less efficiently than ruminants. When breeding cattle for meat, a cow or a sheep will produce more meat than a horse if fed with the same amount of grass. However, these cattle (apart from the ox) cannot be used as working animals, and this argument does not address the issue of meat wastage.
There is also an element of sentimentality, as horses have long enjoyed a close relationship with many humans, on a similar level to household pets – this can be seen projected in such Anglophone popular culture icons as Black Beauty or even My Little Pony. Compare with the anthropomorphic pigs in Babe and Charlotte's Web.
Totemistic taboo is also a possible reason for refusal to eat horsemeat as an everyday food, but did not necessarily preclude ritual slaughter and consumption. Roman sources state that the goddess Epona was widely worshipped in Gaul and southern Britain. Epona, a triple aspect goddess, was the protectress of the horse and horse keepers, and horses were sacrificed to her ; she was paralleled by the Irish Macha and Welsh Rhiannon. The Uffington White Horse is probable evidence of ancient horse worship. The ancient Indian Brahmins engaged in horse sacrifice, as recorded in the Vedas. In 1913, the Finnic Mari people of the Volga region were observed to practice a horse sacrifice..
In ancient Scandinavia, the horse was very important, as a living, working creature, as a sign of the owner's status, and symbolically within the old Norse religion. Horses were slaughtered as a sacrifice to the gods and the meat was eaten by the people taking part in the religious feasts. When the Nordic countries were Christianized, eating horsemeat was regarded as a sign of paganism and prohibited. A slight skepticism against eating horsemeat is still common as a reminder of this in these countries even today.
It is notable that, despite horses having been bred in England since pre-Roman times, the English language has no widely used term for horse meat, as opposed to four for pig meat (pork, bacon, ham, gammon), three for sheep meat (lamb, hogget and mutton), two for cow meat (beef and veal), and so on. English speaking countries, however, have sometimes marketed horsemeat under the euphemism "cheval meat" (cheval being the French for horse). Also, note that the words pork, bacon, mutton, veal, and beef all derive from an old version of French, because of the class structure of England after the Norman Conquest in 1066 CE: the poor (Saxons) tended the animals, while the rich (French-speaking Normans) ate the meat.
As horses are relatively poor converters of grass and grain to flesh compared to cattle, they are not usually bred or raised specifically for their meat. Instead, horses are slaughtered when their other value as riding or work animals is low, as for example in the routine export of the southern English ponies from the New Forest, Exmoor, and Dartmoor.. British law requires the use of "equine passports" even for semi-wild horses to enable traceability (also known as "provenance"), so most slaughtering is done in the UK before the meat is exported.
Ex-racehorses, riding horses, and other horses sold at auction may also enter the food chain; sometimes these animals have been stolen or purchased under false pretenses. Even famous horses may end up in the slaughterhouse; the 1986 Kentucky Derby winner and 1987 Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year winner, Ferdinand, is believed to have been slaughtered in Japan, probably for pet food.
In 2005, the eight principal horsemeat producing countries produced over 700,000 tonnes of this product.
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The British newspaper The Daily Mail reports that every year, 100,000 live horses are transported into and around the European Union for human consumption, mainly to Italy but also to France and Belgium.
Meat from horses that veterinarians have put down with a lethal injection is not consumed, as the toxin remains in the meat; the carcasses of such animals are cremated (all other means of disposal are problematic, due to the toxin).
Horse meat has a slightly sweet taste reminiscent of a combination of beef and venison. Meat from younger horses tends to be lighter in color while older horses produce richer color and flavor, as with most mammals. Horse meat can be used to replace beef, pork, mutton, and any other meat in virtually any recipe.
Horse leberkäse is available and quite popular at various hot dog stands. Dumplings can also be prepared with horse meat, spinach or Tyrolean Graukäse (a sour milk cheese). They are occasionally eaten on their own, in a soup, or as a side-dish.
It is widely believed that traditional Belgian fried potatoes (pommes frites) were cooked in horse fat, but in fact ox fat (suet) was used, although for health reasons this has been supplanted by nut oil (considered inferior by many).
In Japanese cuisine, raw horse meat is called sakura (桜) or sakuraniku (桜肉, sakura means cherry blossom, niku means meat) because of its pink colour. It can be served raw as very chewy sashimi in thin slices dipped in soy sauce, often with ginger and onions added. In this case, it is called basashi (馬刺し). Fat, typically from the neck, is also found as basashi, though it is white, not pink. Horse meat is also sometimes found on menus for yakiniku (a type of barbecue), where it is called baniku (馬肉, literally, "horse meat") or bagushi ("skewered horse"); thin slices of raw horse meat are sometimes served wrapped in a shiso leaf. Kumamoto, Matsumoto and Ōita are famous for basashi, and it is common in the Tohoku region as well. There is also a dessert made from horse meat called basashi ice cream. The company that makes it is known for its unusual ice cream flavors, many of which have limited popularity.
In the Netherlands, smoked horse meat (paardenrookvlees) is sold as sliced meat and eaten on bread. There are also beef-based variants. Horse meat is also used in sausages (paardenworst). The popularity of both varies regionally.
In the United Kingdom the slaughter, preparation and consumption of horses for food is not against the law, although in practice it has been out of fashion since the 1930s and there is a strong taboo against it (see above). It was eaten when other meats were scarce, such as during times of war (as was whale meat, never popular and now also taboo). The sale of horse meat in supermarkets and butchers is minimal, and most of the horse meat consumed in the UK is imported from Europe, predominantly the South of France, where it is more widely available.
Horse meat may be consumed inadvertently. A Food Standards Agency 2003 investigation revealed that salami sometimes contains horse meat, without this ingredient being listed. Listing is legally required.
In 1951, Time magazine reported from Portland, Ore.: “Horsemeat, hitherto eaten as a stunt or only as a last resort, was becoming an important item on Portland tables. Now there were three times as many horse butchers, selling three times as much meat.” Noting that “people who used to pretend it was for the dog now came right out and said it was going on the table,” and providing tips for cooking pot roast of horse and equine fillets. A similar situation unfolded in 1973, when inflation raised the cost of traditional meats. Time reported that “Carlson’s, a butcher shop in Westbrook, Conn., that recently converted to horsemeat exclusively, now sells about 6,000 pounds of the stuff a day.” The shop produced a 28-page guide called “Carlson’s Horsemeat Cook Book,” with recipes for chili con carne, German meatballs, beery horsemeat, and more.