“I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” How many of us heard this saying growing up, and yet many of us probably never actually considered really eating horse meat. Even if you are not a vegetarian, you may draw the line at eating horse meat. Yet in Italy it was once commonly consumed and actually strongly recommended by medical professionals for anyone with low iron levels. Mothers were encouraged by paediatricians to supplement their children’s diet with horse meat, and during its popularity, it was common to see Equine butchers throughout Italy. (Equine indicates horse & donkey). Some of these butchers only sold equine meat, and this was due to a law passed in 1928, introduced by Benito Mussolini that only specialist butchers could sell equine meat and they were not permitted to stock other meat cuts.
Horse meat has been a delicacy in Italy since Roman times and although there has been talk over the years to see it abolished, it still remains a common type of meat to eat in some regions of Italy. It is interesting to learn that during the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory III described the consumption of horse meat as “abominable” and called for it to be shunned. This request though was obviously ignored by hungry peasants. Equine meat is high in iron, low in fat and cholesterol. In the late 1800s it was often prescribed by doctors to cure anaemia. To this day in Italy nobody would be surprised to have a doctor recommend horse meat be included in their diet. If you talk to an Italian, especially the elderly generation, they will rave of the benefits gained by eating horse meat.
Today Italy imports over 80% of the horse meat it consumes, and in the EU, Italy wins the prize for being the nation that eats the highest amount of equine meat. While eating horse meat is taboo in many countries, there are regions in Italy where it is deeply part of the culinary history and traditions. It is said that in Puglia, there are just as many chicken rotisserie shops as there are equine butchers. In the northern regions it is just as popular and you can easily find equine butchers in Veneto and also Emilia-Romagna.
I am from Australia where the idea of eating horse meat is definitely taboo, and although I have lived in Italy for over 20 years, I have never bought or cooked horse meat. I am not a vegetarian and pride myself on eating everything. I’m also a fan of the traditional Italian offal dishes, but horse meat was just something I could never really bring myself to eat. Having said that, I rarely came across anybody selling equine meat or perhaps I just wasn’t looking for it. The image of my childhood horse riding lessons always comes to mind although I do remember being shocked when I first saw a little sign tucked away in the corner of a local butcher advertising he also sold carne equina horse meat. Before living in Italy, I had never considered anybody ate horse meat. I had always thought of it as a dying tradition, especially amongst the younger generation of Italians. I discovered though on a recent trip to Parma just how wrong I was.
In a little back alley there is a small eatery specialising in street food. Pepèn is a historic and well-known address amongst locals and you’d be mistaken if you walked past and thought it was an ordinary ‘paninoteca’ sandwich shop. There are few places to sit inside and as we arrived during the lunch rush, it was not only crowded inside, but there was a long line going out the door. The line was mostly made up of university students, and I was surprised they were all there to eat a panino filled with the specialty – horse tartare! While you can also choose to have the more common panino of roast beef, sausage, cotechino or cotoletta, most people seemed to be ordering the house specialty; Pesto di Cavallo Crudo! They call it pesto, but it is a Tartare of horse meat, mixed with olive oil, lemon juice and salt. It is then served with their special mayonnaise. I decided I had to try this, especially in a place that was famous for this ‘delicacy’ for want of a better word. I think eating it raw is a better way to appreciate the flavour of the meat. I tasted a small amount on a little square of bread, and I was surprised how delicate the flavour was, almost sweet. I had imagined it would have a strong gamey flavour and I have to admit, it was delicious.
Apparently, there are still over 400 registered equine butchers in Italy who not only sell various cuts of horse and donkey meats, but also sell salami and cured, prosciutto style equine meats. A change has happened though, and one which we have seen with the once ‘peasant’ cheaper offal cuts too, and that is that where once upon a time these cuts of meat would have been the cheap and inexpensive option for dinner, now they have become more of a specialty and the price often reflects this.
So, while I was pleasantly surprised by the delicious flavour of horse meat, I doubt I’ll be searching for the equine butchers here in Rome. I certainly wouldn’t rule out never eating it again, but I will probably save that for the next time it’s presented as a specialty or delicacy, and someone else has prepared it for me.