I’m so hungry I could eat a horse…

In a way we should be grateful for the current horse-meat scandal, shouldn’t we. It has made us think a bit more about the things we do and Horses in Dubaidon’t want to eat and just how much we are prepared to pay for good food. A lot of people have started to question the ethics surrounding this whole meat-eating melee – this dodgy sausage circus, this carnivore’s chaos, if you will… In a rather thought-provoking article on The Making Progress Blues (please see link in the Blog Roll to the right), a fellow blogger raises the interesting point that the horse-meat fiasco was pretty much inevitable following years of consumers demanding more food for less money, supermarkets driving down prices, farmers and local butchers being forced out of business and unregulated overseas providers filling the resulting ‘meat-hole’ in the market (apologies for the unpleasant turn of phrase)… What did we think was going to be in a Super-Cheap’n’Nasty-Value-Discount-Family-Sized-Lasagne costing just £1.78? Wagyu fillet steak?

Blogging pals of mine in mainland Europe (namely Englishman in Italy http://englishmaninitaly.wordpress.com/ and Multifarious Meanderings http://multifariousmeanderings.wordpress.com/ ) have written about the fact that in Italy and France horse-meat is considered to be tastier and healthier than beef; Europeans are confused and amused by the British media meltdown. Well, yes. But there is of course the moral and legal issue of the misleading labelling, and the problem that potentially dangerous chemicals and hormones could have found their way into our foods through this criminal cost-cutting…

Beef feetThe meat we choose to eat is an emotive issue. The European media have been mocking our pathetically sentimental horror of horse-meat. And let’s be honest (my frequent references to The Wind in the Willows notwithstanding) the British do tend to anthropomorphise any hapless creature that is friendly, appealing or vaguely domesticated. Just look at Jedward.

Horses are of course integral to British rural life and our relationship with them is a long and loyal one. The coat of arms for Kent, my home county, features a prancing white horse above the motto INVICTA (undefeated or unconquered); there are several huge horses carved into the ancient chalk of England’s hills; Shakespeare’s Richard III was prepared to give his “kingdom for a horse”. From Boxer’s tragic death in Animal Farm through to Michael Morpurgo’s wonderful War Horse, our equine friends are usually portrayed in literature as noble, intelligent, faithful, beautiful creatures of great worth. But the symbolism of horses in English literature is sometimes a bit more sinister… In a weird little scene that is often cut from performances of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, shortly after the bloody murder of Duncan, it is reported that the King’s horses have become cannibalistic:

ROSS: Duncan’s horses, a thing most strange and certain,Kent's Coat of Arms
Beauteous and swift, the minions of their race,
Turned wild in nature, broke their stalls, flung out,
Contending ‘gainst obedience as they would
Make war with mankind.

OLD MAN: ‘Tis said, they eat each other.

ROSS: They did so, to th’amazement of mine eyes
That looked upon’t.

Well, it’s all a far cry from My Friend Flicka, isn’t it. British writers seem to be interested in using horses to portray mankind’s darker side – our fear, our cruel and violent instincts, our madness: have a look at Peter Shaffer’s Equus or The Rain Horse by Ted Hughes… There must indeed be a strange and complex connection between horses and the British psyche; these disturbing tales just wouldn’t work if they were about goats. Or pigs.

What about pigs, I hear you cry? Pigs are clever creatures too – just a bit more… comical. Following a childhood obsession with E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Dick King Smith’s The Sheep-Pig, one might have thought that I’d never be able to stomach a bacon sandwich. Believe me, one couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, bacon can be a bit tricky to lay one’s greedy hands on over here. As it’s a Muslim country, few restaurants serve it and most shops don’t sell it; those that do are legally obliged to set aside a separate, secret part of the store as the ‘Pork Room’. I get a ridiculous little thrill as I wheel my trolley through the plastic curtains of a clandestine pork emporium.

Sheep BrainsWe have a fascinating mixture of cultures here in the UAE, and a correspondingly fascinating variety of meats available… A restaurant in the older part of town near the Creek serves camel burgers (which I imagine to be a bit tough and goaty… They may well be delicious of course. One day I will eat one and will tell you all about it. I promise), and the unexpected selection of body parts for sale in my nearby Lulu’s Hypermarket never fails to astound me. Their fridges frequently feature delicacies such as lamb’s testicles, cow’s feet, and sheep or goat brain. And people actually buy them. Willingly! Their mouths watering with anticipation! (I expect.) As you can see in this photograph – the brains are quite reasonably priced (10.80 AED is about £1.93) and could probably feed a large family… Hmmm. Perhaps the UK supermarkets should have a change of direction and start stocking some of these honestly labelled unusual animal bits, rather than persisting with their deceitful discount brands and flogging the proverbial (and not so proverbial) dead horse.

Post Script:
Little did I know when I photographed this sheep brain that the moment was more than just a meeting of minds: at a Pakistani restaurant last night, this brain and I had a date with destiny (and a rather nice daal)… Tune in next week to read about my encounter with The Sheep-Brain Curry.

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30 Comments

  1. Which photo is that then? The one above shows beef feet according to the label, unless they are having labelling issues too…

    Some French (old ‘uns?) eat all the bits too, and I’m told brain is very healthy. It may be, but mention the idea to my boys and they’ll be pretend-retching all over the sofa. I don’t remember seeing it in restaurants however.

    • Hang on… The photo should be showing up now – and very tempting it is too!! Let me know what your boys think of it 😀

  2. I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately. What makes an animal edible and another one a big no no? Do we make these decisions in a purely cultural way?
    I know I will never eat a cat or a dog (if I can help it, inshallah:) but a lamb is equally cute and I’ve never caught myself turning down a well done lamb chop in horror:(

    • Indeed – it’s a tricky one isn’t it… Lots of cultural conditioning mixed up in these unconscious decisions, no doubt. Thank you for commenting 🙂

  3. Not the first food scandal nor the last…do you remember the chicken declared not fit for human consumption treated with bleach and sold to ‘reputable’ supermarkets?

    I’m not too convinced that the only problem is the demand for cheap food….I think that behind that is the existence of big agroalimentary companies (largely bolstered by the Common Agricultural Policy in the EU) which see growth as the only option and see putting out more and more products as a way to boost growth.

    Add to that the lack of ability to cook; to be flexible about what you buy…and the big firms have the consumer over a barrel.
    Governments aren’t going to anything to educate the consumer….the lobbyists see to that.

    As to horse and the British…well, we don’t eat dog and cat either, do we. Even if the Chinese restaurants of my student days were referred to as the cat and rat.

    To me Schaffer and Hughes were forerunners of the trend for including animal cruelty, animal activity as metaphor thereof, in the mix now seen essential if a work is to be published, along with the sympathetic Jewish character,obligatory homosexual, mention of upmarket brands and a prurient look at underclass mores.

    • Lots of very good points here, Helen – thank you. The EU CAP and huge food and agricultural conglomerates certainly need to take their share of responsibility here and, yes – these food scandals come and go, don’t they. I remember the ‘Egg-wina Curry’ scandal like it was yesterday… Don’t fancy the sound of those Chinese restaurants much 🙂 The curry house I used to frequent as a student always managed to rustle up their anonymous ‘meat’ balti worryingly quickly!

  4. Great article, nicely covered. Thanks for the mention, much appreciated!
    I’m not into care-bear type tears about eating animals: meat is meat. I regularly serve up rabbit, which smells a damn sight better in a casserole than in a cage. We buy horsemeat saucisson, which gives me a treat without the overload of cholesterol you get with traditional saucisson. And as for the offal….As Sarah says, the French are big fans. I refuse to cook it, although P.F regularly bleats that he loves the stuff. Answer being: ask your mother, she started it.
    I don’t buy pre-prepared food, simply because you don’t know what’s been put in it. I couldn’t make a lasagne for the price Findus sell theirs, so it has to be full of cheap rubbish in my book…. So even if it’s cheap, I won’t be buying any- although some could say that you should never look a gift horse in the mouth 😉

    • PS: Great title!

    • Nice pun, MM – always enjoyed and appreciated here on H&H 😀 I’d be curious to try a bit of horsemeat saucisson… Does it taste beefy? Or more like venison?

      • Horse meat is sweet, it is low in cholesterol and full of iron.
        When Findus go back to making lasagne and burgers from ‘proper’ beef, it probably won’t taste as nice. 🙂

      • 😀 Sounds rather nice… Yup, they’ll end up advertising it as 100% Horse! Just to lure back the buyers 🙂

      • Pecora’s hot the nail on the head; the saucisson isn’t too salty, and has a slight venison taste to it. I reckon there’s so little meat in that rubbish, you won’t tell the difference when they switch back.

      • I thought maybe venison-esque…

      • oop. Although I’m sure our anglo-italian enjoyed seeing the word “hot” associated with his name, I actually intended to type “hit”. 😀

      • ;-D Brilliant typo.

  5. Despite spending a fairly long period in France each summer for years now, I’ve yet to bring myself to try horse-meat. Pure sentimentality, I know, especially as I’m not particularly fond of horses when they’re alive, but that’s cultural conditioning for you. I was brought up to eat offal regularly, but brains are off the menu in the UK because of BSE and scrapie in sheep, so I’ll stick to steak and kidney pie and liver and onions, I think.

    I followed you across from Multifarious Meanderings and really enjoyed this post. 😉

    • Thank you Perpetua – welcome to H&H! There are all sorts of bits we don’t really eat in the UK, aren’t there… And plenty of kids who are growing up eating lean beef mince and boneless, skinless chicken breasts, without even knowing there are other edible bits of beasts…

  6. Rick

    Different people in different parts of the world eat many different things, many of which would upset the average European just to think about it. After a life-time travelling the world (and even better being paid to travel the world) I decided very early on that I would do three things; 1) I would learn to say please and thank you in the language of the country I was visiting. 2) I would always try the food (and drink) of the country. 3) I would never compare any one country with another, believing firmly that every place has something wonderful and beautiful to offer. (To compare means that somewhere will have to be not so good as somewhere else, and that is negative, even though both places may very well have some hideously negative aspects anyway). So, in a life of visiting and working in more than 130 different countries I have knowingly eaten; Beef, horse, sheep, pig, goat, dog, rat, polar bear, camel, donkey, python, cobra, wildebeest, at least three kinds of antelope, zebra, at least two kinds of monkey but I’m not sure what species, kangaroo, crocodile, chicken, duck, turkey, pigeon, partridge, goose, guinea fowl, pheasant, and several other kinds of bird including some very small ones that could have been almost anything, sea gull (don’t try it), as many different fish as you can think of and then some, including the sea mammals whale and seal, as many different sorts of shell fish you can think of including raw limpets prised off the rocks at low tide, all sorts of crustacean including octopus, squid, crab and many, many sorts of shrimp, prawn crayfish and lobster, seaweed, deep fried chicken claws, all sorts of creepy crawlies including various grubs and assorted other bugs, frogs (legs), snails, locusts or grasshoppers, and of course not forgetting all the various innards of many of these creatures like brains, liver, kidney, stomach lining, testes, lungs, heart, skin etc.. I could go on as I’m sure there are many things I’ve missed but I expect other people would like to use some of this space as well. I should mention that only very rarely was I ever ill in my 50 years of travelling the world. I put this down to finishing every evening meal with a large glass of the strongest local alcohol available. I’m sure it killed any nasty bugs that may have got into the system with the food, not to mention the food itself. So, there’s nothing wrong with horse, just the labelling……..

    • Wowee! – rat??!! Thank you for this extraordinary list. It certainly sounds like the local hooch must have had a medicinal effect 😀

  7. A thought provoking post. I have heard people discussing this in our local shops and the problem for most seems to be the misrepresention by the food companies on the labelling. If the label says beef they expect beef. The market is saturated with cheap food and ready meals so perhaps this will provide a good enough reason for shoppers to return to the local butchers shop, which is becoming a rarity in a lot of towns.
    I do not eat meat…..:-)

    • Thank you H&P – I certainly agree that we should try to support local farmers and butchers wherever we can. And thank you for being such a tolerant veggie! (I think the pictures might have been a bit much for some readers…)

  8. A very interesting post. I absolutely agree with you that the horsemeat ‘scandal’ has come about because prices are being driven down etc, and all because the great British public wants something for almost nothing – they want to be able to feed their family of six for £2.50.
    You are very brave if you have eaten sheep’s brains – rather you than me. Bleurgh.

    • Thank you for popping by, Elaine! I did have to summon up all my courage to try the sheep brain curry 🙂 Going to write about it this week…

  9. I think there is a legitimate complaint about mislabeling and it does make you wonder what other foods might be mislabeled. Consumers have a right to know what they are putting in their bodies.

    But is eating a horse objectively any worse than eating a cow or pig? I don’t think so. It’s just that in Western tradition, a horse, like cats and dogs, play a different role than do livestock animals, so thinking about eating them seems a bit gross to us.

    Although, personally, I don’t eat ANY cute animals and I consider horses to be cute. Same goes for lambs/sheep, rabbits, squirrels, ducks, etc. I also won’t eat any cut of meat that still resembles the part of the animal it came from. It has to be nicely ground up, like mince or in a hot dog or chopped up and cooked in something else. Otherwise, I start thinking about the part of the animal it came from and whether or not the animal had a good life or a painless death and then I get all sad and my gag reflex starts to kick in and I have to leave the table. If someone snuck horse meat into a dish I was eating and didn’t tell me, I might be okay with it as long as the taste wasn’t off-putting, but if they told me beforehand, I wouldn’t be able to eat it.

    • Hi Housewife Down Under – thanks for popping by and adding your thoughts! I think your last point applies to a lot of things – the concept is often more off-putting than the reality 🙂 It is certainly odd how we perceive different creatures in different ways…

  10. I’m not sure the consumer is demanding more food for less money, I think the supermarkets control that. I think people want to stop being ripped off. I also think a lot of people are seeing the error of their ways when it comes to not shopping at the local butchers or greengrocers, because now the supermarkets literally dictate what we eat unless we take it upon ourselves to go out of the mainstream consumer arena & buy local produce again. I agree it is a bit of a wake up call, but how people will interpret it is largely based on their individual consumer habits. I think it has shown that supermarkets & big food corps do not regularly check their sources, in the same way that governments often don’t care where the money comes from 🙂

    • Hi Scottie, thanks for visiting and commenting on my post. I like the financial comparison… 🙂

  11. Please accept this award http://caveoffame.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/inspiring-blogger-award/ and thanks for making the blog world a happier place!

    Wayne

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Lucy Strange

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