And for the next course, horse
Gina Mallet
Saturday Post

In a small, friendly bistro in downtown Toronto called La Palette, I ask for chevaline, and the cheery waiter, Andrew, nods. How about Quack and Track, a leg of duck and a strip of horse loin? Hi-ho Silver.

How delicious my bronzed strip of horse is: pink and tender and fatless. The minerally taste takes me back to the beefless days of London after the Second World War when my family sat down to a rump steak of horse. It was grilled rare, stroked with olive oil and garlic, served with a mélange of mustards, cut on the bias, and we loved it. When belatedly my mother learned she had been buying horse, the meat fell from our forks. The taboo.

"The noblest conquest man ever made" was not for eating in the Anglo culture, which revered the horse as idol and as companion animal, and sometimes -- you know the Anglos -- as significant other. Even though I hadn't much liked my pony, Patsy, the thought of eating her was one jump too high.

"Any problems with stroppy horse lovers?" I asked the chef, Mark Harrington, who has been serving horse for the past year.

Not really. One customer said sorrowfully that a horse was like a friend to him, and another asked sarcastically, "When are you going to start serving dog?" Otherwise Harrington reports, "Cheval sells well. It's legal here, and we are a French restaurant, and horse is a delicacy in France."

And, of course, in Quebec, where plastic-wrapped horse is sold alongside beef in the supermarkets, and where restaurants like Le Parigot in Montreal promote bavette chevaline avec sauce au poivre. The Japanese too love horse, and in Vancouver, Yoshi advertises basashi, horse sashimi. The large Italian population of Toronto eats horse too, but even so, care must be taken, and horse is not on the printed menu. Only if you ask will you hear about it. Harrington says, "We do it by word of mouth and then we can explain to every table what it's like."

Harrington, like several butchers and chefs to whom I spoke, cannot say enough good things about the quality of horse meat: "Horse is one of the most beautiful pieces of meat. It melts in your mouth. It's much more tender than beef. It's a lighter meat, it's very lean, there's no marbling of fat."

Jean-Marc Ridel of La Ferme, a distributor of delicacies like fresh foie gras and horse, says that "99% of the steak tartare served in France is horsemeat, because it's so lean."

Horses are also clean. They don't get diseases like mad cow and foot-and-mouth. Horsemeat is a cholesterol-beater. It contains half the amount of fat of beef and yet has comparable nutritional value.

And, says Claude Bouvry, Canada's largest horse packer in Calgary, "Horse fat is ideal for cooking french fries. It's got a low melting point." (That means the fat doesn't seep into the food.)

Bouvry buys his horses mostly in the United States: "There are millions of horses, old race horses, saddle horses, all kinds of horses, stray horses. We buy them everywhere -- from ranchers, at auction."

He doesn't like to talk too much about the business. Over the border, animal activists have burned down an American horsepacker, but Canadian activists are not violent.

When I checked with the Toronto Animal Rights office, I learned that eating horse is regarded as no worse than eating any animal, and that in fact horses are considered to be treated less cruelly than pigs, cows and chickens, the poster animals for human cruelty.

Horsemeat is a brisk export business. The total horse consumption round the world is 400 million portions a week, and Bouvry Meats exports 20 million of them. Every country has its own taste preferences. The Japanese like big fat work horses, while the French fancy thoroughbreds, and it is said that the British, who do eat horse, but discreetly, prefer ponies from Brittany.

In Ontario, Chris Stoiou, the general manager of Superior Exports, emphasizes that horsemeat is stringently scrutinized not only at the plant, but by the Canadian health authorities, and no Canadian-processed horse has been returned as bad or diseased.

Most of the meat from the 600 horses killed each week goes to Europe, where the appetite for horse rose sharply after mad cow disease. Once beef fell under suspicion, the horsemeat market in Paris, after years of decline due to rising prices and animal activist Brigitte Bardot's aggro, was revived. The boutiques hippophaghiques, chic little shops with marble counters, blood-red exteriors and golden horseheads over the door, now had customers falling over themselves.

There were even cases of wild pony rustling in the sacred New Forest in England, and a similar scandal in Italy where local macellerie equine were fast running out of stock for the esteemed picula de caval.

The Italians eat the most horsemeat, but it was the French who put eating horse on the map. As the demand for meat protein rose in the 19th century, the French, who lagged behind the British in beef breeding, turned to horse. A panel of experts, including philosophers as well as gastronomes, gave the thumbs-up to a banquet of Rosinante-oil mayonnaise, roast filet of Pegasus and patties of Bucephalus-marrow, declaring that horse was ever so much tastier than beef. The British only turned up their noses.

None of those in the horse business expects that horse-idolatrous Anglo-Canada will embrace horse as food -- at least overnight.

Augi de Oliveira of World Meats in Mississauga, which supplied the strip loin I ate at La Palette, says interest in exotic meats is on the rise. Ostrich, emu, bison are all put forward as beef substitutes. One customer is begging for kangaroo, but it hasn't yet been approved for import. But horse? "I've put horse in a few restaurants in Toronto, and it's tried as a special," says De Oliveira, "but a lot of people are terrified, and they don't want to lose their clientele."

Jean-Marc Ridel is similarly doubtful, even though La Ferme is supplying the horsemeat that is appearing on the menu of The Fifth this month. The Fifth is one of Toronto's most up-market restaurants and the chef, Marc Thuet, expects that its cosmopolitan customers will take horse in their stride and lap up his médaillons chevalines avec sauce aux cerises.

"Customers have asked about horse," Thuet says. He describes the flavour as a cross between beef and caribou. A decade ago, he put caribou on the menu of the restaurant where he was then working and people laughed at him, "What, you're going to eat Rudolf?" Now, of course, caribou is everywhere. When Thuet suggested horse to Libell Geddes, the owner of The Fifth, she didn't miss a beat: "I think that's a terrific idea."

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