Originally published on July 9, 2009
Much like nibbling on seal, tucking into a tenderloin of horse meat divides diners: some appreciate its delicate taste and others are disgusted at the thought. Cute little lambs and bunny rabbits may induce squeamishness, but the question of chomping on cheval has long divided Canada’s carnivores into two solitudes. There’s a minority of typically francophone Quebecers who see horse as a delicious source of protein. In Montreal, butcher shops such as the Boucherie Chevaline Prince are named and known for their fine cuts of black beauty. And then, keeping pace with English-speakers the world over, there are those who believe it’s taboo. In fact, horse is conflict-ridden wherever you look: considered exotica in Japan, it’s prohibited for Muslims and Jews and was once banned by a pope.
But lately, this controversial flesh, with the added bonus of a good health profile, a distinctly sweet taste and reasonable price tag, is becoming a trendy feature in top restaurants. Grant van Gameren, chef of the Black Hoof and a young wizard with charcuterie whose regulars include Toronto’s top toques, is an unapologetic fan. “I call horsemeat cotton candy,” he says. “It melts in the mouth.” He lists at least three horsemeat dishes on his brief menu of mostly meaty items. There’s a pâté, bresaola—a dry-cured salami—and a raw tenderloin sandwich, seasoned with olive oil and salt and served with a side of hot sauce. “It’s a mellow meat, not gamey at all, and it doesn’t need all that seasoning,” he says.
At the tony Toronto eatery Pangaea, chef Martin Kouprie added horse to his menu both as a pan-seared tenderloin, served with Saskatoon berries, and as tartare. (Horsemeat was the original tartare in France, not beef.) “From a health standpoint, it has everything you want: all the flavour without the fat.” He offered samples of the tartare. “Everybody loved it, but I wouldn’t tell them what it was until after they had tasted it. Some were shocked. A lot of people have horses as pets, so it’s like eating your dog.”
Yet horsemeat is a distinctly Canadian business, especially now that it is illegal as a commercial product in the U.S. (You can raise it there for your own consumption but in 2007, the last horsemeat abattoir was closed.) Most of the meat Canada exports goes to high-demand countries like Belgium and France. (In 2006, our second-biggest agricultural trade export to France after crustaceans was horsemeat, at a value of $26.7 million.)
Kouprie sees two big drawbacks in getting horsemeat accepted here. “First, there’s no other name for it, like beef or pork. It’s just plain horse.” But there’s another issue. Adventurous eaters who might take a risk on something like horse would like to know where it comes from. But it’s hard to know the source of the meat. That’s because horses generally enter the food chain not from farms, like pigs or other livestock, but when they are no longer wanted: racehorses no longer winning, workhorses too old to pull their weight. Chefs get the meat from companies such as La Ferme Black River Game Farm in Pfefferlaw, Ont., which in turn get it from slaughterhouses. “Horse is more of a commodity,” explains La Ferme owner Elaine Atlin.
Worse, the industry is proving notorious for bad news. The CBC produced a shocking investigation last year about horse-slaughter practices at a Canadian company, and a recent article from Canadian Press circulated about sick and abused animals from the U.S. being auctioned to so-called “kill buyers” who then sold them to slaughterhouses such as Viandes Richelieu in Quebec. One American breeder was charged with animal cruelty. These issues are part of why the U.S. shuttered its slaughtering facilities, though in reality the country remains a major exporter of the animals.
On the other hand, a growing movement, supported by the American Association of Veterinary Medicine, is advocating for selling the animals into slaughter rather than leaving them living and unwanted. And some argue it’s wasteful not to eat a perfectly good source of protein, especially given the environmental costs of raising livestock.
Van Gameren is in favour of “repurposing” horse as food, but he, like Kouprie, wants more information about the source. “I don’t have that one-to-one connection, like I do with my foie gras supplier, Aux Champs Elysees. I went to their farm and they educated me about what they do and how they do it. I wish I could do that with horsemeat. We all need to know more, and that means the public too.”