Boris Johnson, whom posterity will regard as the greatest statesman of this or any other age, has been wondering about the
sauce source of the British taboo against the eating of horseflesh, while le cheval is quite de rigeur on the continong.
For those not up with the news, there have been quite a few reports of processed meat products labelled as beef containing significant amounts of horse. The latest shock revelation to assail mes yeux is that some frozen beef products – burgers, lasagne, that sort of thing – contain more horse than can be dismissed as a mere contaminant of the may-contain-nuts variety. These products allegedly contain 100% horse. Pure, unadulterated dobbin, with no added
source SARS sauce tzores appears to be Romania, where new regulations forbid horse-drawn vehicles on certain highways. The result is that dear old Neddy (or equivalent in Romanian) has gone on a one-way trip to the knackers, and the price of horsemeat has fallen. Notwithstanding inasmuch as which some of Neddy’s parts have made their way by various means (excluding gypsy caravan or covered waggon) to meat-processing plants in France that are supplied by abattoirs in Romania, whose products then end up in freezer cabinets in the U. of K.
The issue isn’t one of taste, however. It is simply one of fraud. Someone, somewhere, has sold horsemeat on the pretext that it’s something else. Which is wrong.
However, were products honestly labelled as horsemeat, would they sell in Britain? And if not, why not? According to Boris it’s all a matter of cultural identity. We Brits would as soon eat horse as observant Jews would eat surf’n'turf, Hindus eat beef; or Moslems and Jews eat pork. As Boris points out, such dietary preferences vary hugely. For example, Moslems would never eat dogs, whereas dogs are bred for the table in Korea, and – believe it or not – some people eat teh kittehs.
When I was in China in 2010, I ate (and saw for sale) all sorts of things that would be uncommon table items in Britain, except only in Chinese restaurants catering to a Chinese clientèle – chicken’s feet, sea cucumber, and, I confess, donkey. I remember my hosts quizzing me about the last, expecting me to be revolted once the identity of the delicacy been made clear (I wasn’t.) My hosts, however, came from North China, and were revolted by some of the items regularly eaten in South China – snakes, monkey brains and so on.
I do wonder, however, whether taboos can change. Perhaps people these days can be a bit too picky. Brits once were less squeamish about horsemeat than they are now. Back in the 1960s, J. Peasemould Gruntfuttock, that memorable character in the radio comedy series Round The Horne, got his visions while outside the “‘orsemeat shop in the Balls Pond Road”. The context was that horsemeat, while eaten, was generally regarded as déclassé, something eaten by poor people, presumably because it was cheap. Posh people, in contrast, regarded horses more as companion animals than meat or beasts of burden. Brits once ate horse, but for one reason or another, it slipped off the menu.
I see this as part of a trend, something not discussed by Boris, in which attitudes to food have as much to do with social class as taboo. In the old days, brown bread was seen as a poor man’s staple, and white bread was a mark of prosperity. Once upon a time people weren’t picky about eating offal such as tripe – nowadays something people generally feed to their dogs. Everyone remembers the scene in A Christmas Carol in which Bob Cratchit’s Christmas table is graced by a goose – with the wish that one day they’d be rich enough to afford the luxury of turkey. Now, everyone aspires to eat turkey, so much so that attitudes have reversed, and goose is nowadays regarded as superior – in the same way that wholemeal bread is seen as posher than the sliced white loaf.
In an earlier age, the choice of having meat at all was restricted to the upper classes. Meat was such a luxury item that most people would only expect to eat it at Christmas and during major festivals. If they had meat, they’d raise it themselves – fattening up pigs and geese in the backyard for annual slaughter – and would be aware of the costs and travails of so doing. (Aside: the Maison des Girrafes was originally built as public housing, and the covenant, or agreement of occupancy, specifically prohibits the keeping of pigs in the backyard.)
In which case I see the current ‘scandal’ about horsemeat as snobbery tinged with hypocrisy. If people expect to have what were once luxury food items made generally available at a low price, they should not be surprised that compromises are made – and if a lot of cheap horsemeat comes on to the market, food producers who are expected to
meat meet demands for luxury food (beef) on a narrow profit margin will exploit that source while it lasts.
There is also a more global perspective. When I was an undergraduate in Leeds in the 1980s, dining at cheap curry houses, meat dishes were labelled as ‘meat’ with no species specified. We never asked the source of the meat – to a penurious student, what was important was the price. And in Africa today, I believe that the specific or generic identities of the wild animals for sale as bushmeat – an important source of protein to some people – aren’t always widely advertised.
So, I should suggest that those who cry
fowl foul about the inclusion of horsemeat in cheap food should reflect on the fact that the real cost of food, that is, food that’s locally raised, organically fed and honestly sourced, is enormous – I remember a modestly sized Chrismas goose from our local family butcher costing £44. For sure, we are entitled to know the provenance of all or any food we buy anywhere, at any price. But perhaps we should be more honest in our expectations. The old adage is that you get what you pay for, and that applies to food as to anything else.
UPDATE: At the suggestion of Dr R. P. G. of Rotherhithe I wrote another piece on this subject – though from a different angle – for a Corner of Teh Grauniad that is Forever Occam’s.