When did we stop eating horse?
It's a question which, in the middle of all the current 'shock / horror' news stories of horse meat being found in burgers / lasagnes / moussakas (other TV dinners are available), with grim faced reporters reciting doom-laden statistics and members of the public expressing their outrage, as if they'd just found badger, dog or human meat in their favourite economy-microwaveinthreeminutes-gourmet-delight (other gourmet delights are available), has started to bother me, especially as no one seems to know the answer.
I can tell you when I definitely stopped eating horse: November 1993, the month I went vegetarian (unless, of course, they prove that there's horse
DNA in Quorn, in which case I was probably eating it last night in my
chilli). A perfectly viable (and apparently utterly edible) meat, horse is, by all
accounts, far better for you than cow. Muscular, tender (apparently) and far
less fatty than other farmyard meat products (and only occasionally pumped full
of steroids), horse is, so the TV experts are assuring us, better than pig or
So what's the problem?
The question of "why not horse?" first arose in my mind two summers ago, way before the news story of contaminated lasagnes (other contaminated ready meals are available) broke, during the excavation of an Iron Age settlement on the chalkland of southern
Here, at the bottom of a series of 2,000 year old storage pits, horse bone was
found in relatively large amounts; most of it showing evidence of butchery and
processing. Our pre Roman ancestors were partial, so it would seem, to more than just a bit of
horse in their diet. England
Not only that, but they also liked to play 'mix it up' a bit, a number of pits containing (to our minds) a surreal composite of horse and cow; horse skulls being found together with cow jaws (and vice versa); cow spines with horse legs (and vice versa); horse heads with cow ribs (and vice versa). Such strange reassembly of dismembered remains in the base of disused pits suggests that either our Iron Age inhabitants had a complex series of deities to appease (to ensure the long term survival of the clan group and fertility of the herd) or they were extremely bored (and cowhorse jigsaw puzzles helped pass the time).
Whatever the case, it was intriguing to note that, despite living within spitting distance of the English Channel (other distances are available), the one thing our two thousand year old friends appear to have studiously avoided consuming was sea food; no fish or mollusc remains being found anywhere on site. Whilst I think this makes perfect sense (why eat a particularly smelly, oily meat dredged, with some difficulty, from the depths of the cold, dark (and salty) ocean when you can eat one of the jumpy, frolicy, horsey things that live (jump and frolic) on the land surface quite close to your house?), it does emphasise the different needs, preferences and (quire possibly) religious and social taboos that defined both their (and our) existence.
To be fair, a clue to the diet of the Iron Age tribe may be found in their coins, which depict a variety of equine quadrupeds disassembling into their constituent parts: an exploding horse, if you will.
Possibly the shock expressed by the northern European public today is a combination of, as one news reporter put it, not wanting to eat 'friendly animals' (although if you've ever found yourself alone in a field with a shire horse the one word you would NOT use to describe the meeting is 'friendly') and labelling. Perhaps it's just simply that the great British public feel cheated; that their 99p bargain Beef lasagne actually contains no beef. Findus / Nestle / Asda (other economy food producing companies are available) 'Horse Lasagne' would have been a more accurate label, but would it have been any more popular? Perhaps if it had been accompanied by the advertising tag: "I'm so hungry I could eat a....."?
Perhaps, simply, it's just the name and the lack of any form of euphemism to disguise the (literally) unpalatable truth that the meat in food comes from a specific type of farmyard animal that is the real issue here. Changing the name helps hide the source, hence Pig is pork or ham (or sometimes bacon) and Cow is beef whereas Horse is, well, just 'horse'. No polite disguise, no euphemism. If we (as a society) are to continue to eat horse (or at least find it in everything) perhaps a solution would be to simply change the name of the meaty product. How about 'Porse' or 'Berse'?; 'Hork' or 'Heef'?
Mmmmmmm 'Findus Heef Lasagne'.....as a vegetarian, even I'm tempted by that.