Cooking horse meat for the first time was an interesting affair. It went down well, but was quite sweet. Probably had a bit too much Shergar. No. No! The puns have to stop. Post horse-meat scandal, Britain has made a swift transition from shock, to humour. Now it's time for begrudging acceptance. People eat horse now. Or rather, horses. So you may as well learn how to cook with it, too.
Hoping to assist those whose curiosity has been piqued during this turbulent time for the British food industry is The Horsemeat Cookbook. Published last week (good timing, right?), the book is a collection of around 40 traditional recipes, from bourguignon de cheval to Kazakhstani horse on noodles. It serves as a worthy reminder that most of the world quite happily tucks into horse without making a fuss about it.
Of course, much of it comes down to our cultural history. "We tend to elevate horses above other animals," explains Chris Windle, who wrote the introduction to the book and has eaten horse meat from a young age, often while on holiday in France. "We relate them to heroic military deeds, horse racing and rustic scenes of men in flatcaps riding carts. It was always eaten as a cheap substitute meat, but it wasn't accepted in the way it was in France.
"During the siege of Paris, at the time of the Franco-Prussian war, horse had to be eaten by all strata of society and it became a very accepted meat. We've never had that moment of everyone eating it, all in it together, and gaining a communal acceptance."
That is, until the horse-meat scandal. Now horse meat has gained our atention and is increasingly sought after by restaurants, retailers, some independent butchers and even individuals, such as myself.
Cookbook in hand and resisting the temptation to do away with fine dining and just cook a lasagne, the recipe I choose to follow for my first foray into horse meat is Laham taz-Ziemel, or Maltese stallion in wine sauce. Though cooking it seemed relatively straightforward, finding a stockist of diced horse steak – perhaps the most vital ingredient of the dish – was a little harder.
After struggling to find a London-based butcher that sells it, I turn to the veritable meat market that is the internet. Within minutes I've placed my order with exotic meat supplier Kezie Foods. As it transpires, I hadn't been the first to do so.
"We've been doing horse meat now for quite a few years," says owner Walter Murray. "Horse was always there, but since the horse-meat scandal it's moved up in popularity quite substantially. Sales have gone up several 100 per cent."
And, according to Murray, this is not just down to one-off sales to curious cooks. "We've been monitoring purchases and we thought it would be very much a one-off novelty factor, but it's not. Obviously people buy stuff from us every now and again for something different, but since the horse-meat scandal people have been coming to us for a regular supply of horse meat. All these meats are kind of niche, but I think most people would be surprised at the amount of horse meat and alternative meats that are being eaten."
The next day, a package arrives containing two vacuum-sealed bags labelled "horse". It was my horse! It was difficult to establish what was more exciting; having meat arrive in the post, or the fact that on that very evening I would be eating it.
Leaving the meat to marinate in salt and red wine, I fry up the onion and garlic with orange and lemon rind and a mix of spices in a large pot. The meat and marinade is then poured into the pot to stew for a couple of hours, leaving rich, citrusy aromas to waft through my flat, the scent of which eventually beckons my housemates down into the kitchen for dinner.
The obligatory horse jokes eventually give way to discerning humming sounds of approval. The overall opinion is that it's pretty tasty. One friend even declares it better than beef, promising to cook more of it in the future. I found it slightly drier than beef, though that may be more a reflection of my cooking ability than the meat itself.
Horse meat is very lean, slightly gamey and certainly much more nutritious than lamb or beef. It is very high in iron – which you can really taste – and has twice as much Vitamin B12 as your usual sirloin. When compared to the price of premium beef and lamb, it is cheaper, too.
One person who really knows how to cook horse meat is Gillan Kingstree, head chef at Oliver Peyton's National Dining Rooms. He was persuaded by his proprietor to prepare a horse- meat feast in March.
"To be honest, I thought we'd struggle to get people to come and eat it," says Kingstree, who admits his first reaction to the suggestion was to laugh. "Originally we were meant to do it as a small event for a few bloggers and journalists, but it turned out to be one of the biggest we've done down there. We had just under a hundred people and we had to stop booking people as we didn't have enough space in the restaurant."
Importing enough horse meat was a "nightmare," he says. "At the time, the demand had gone through the roof. The first company I called up for horse meat asked me if this was a joke. Eventually they got back to me and said, 'look I've asked everybody and your best bet is to go to Tesco's.'"
Eventually he got hold of sufficient quantities to put together the menu of horse tartare with hay smoked eggs, roast horse sirloin and carrot cake iced to look like sugar cubes. Kingstree's tartare recipe, along with one by Anna del Conte for Pastissada de Caval are two recipes included in the cookbook by well-known chefs.
However, Kingstree is unsure whether horse really is set to become a mainstream food. "I don't think more chefs will put it on their menus," he says. "There's a couple of places that do it, but it's more restricted to French bistro-type places, serving dishes you might find on the Continent. We did try to put it on the menu for a Sunday roast once – a whole rump of horse. But when the waiters told the customers they just laughed. We didn't sell one portion."
"I would cook it again, but because I work in a British restaurant and am passionate about British food I would like to see it raised and slaughtered in the UK. I would like to see some kind of free-range British horse on the menu at some point."
For Murray, who's happy to enjoy the boost in business the horse-meat scandal has brought Kezie Foods for the time being, horse meat, as with any unusual food, will remain niche unless it becomes stocked by the major supermarkets. And as we know, the last time that happened, it ended pretty badly.
The Horsemeat Cookbook, published by Square Peg, is available for £8.99. keziefoods.co.uk
Laham taz-Ziemel – Maltese Stallion in Wine Sauce
500g stewing horse meat, cubed
200ml red wine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion sliced
1 garlic clove, crushed
Small bunch of basil leaves
2 teaspoon marjoram, finely chopped (or 1 teaspoon dried marjoram)
Half a teaspoon paprika
Zest of quarter lemon
Zest of quarter orange
1 tablespoon tomato purée
Half a teaspoon of salt
Freshy crusty bread, to serve
First hurdle: sprinkle the meat with salt, place in a bowl and pour over the red wine. Leave to marinate for a couple of hours.
Second hurdle: heat the olive oil in a heavy-based casserole pan over a medium heat, then gently fry the onion and garlic until translucent. Add the herbs, spices, lemon and orange zest and gently fry for a few minutes, until fragrant.
Final furlong: add the meat and its marinade to the pan and stir in the tomato puree. Cover and cook on a low heat for 1-2 hours or until the meat is very tender. Serve with plenty of fresh bread to soak up the rich sauce