A restaurant called L'Escargot Bleu in Edinburgh was much in the news last week for putting horse on their menu. This decision caused predictable outrage on the morning radio phone-in shows, while South Kensington was said to be empty of French ex-pats as they jumped into their CVs and roared off towards Scotland.
Those disturbed by this might want to strike Kazakhstan off their holiday list. I'd been aware that this was a "horse culture" as, until fairly recently, Kazakhs had been a nomadic people wandering the vast steppes with their mounts.
My first hint that their attachment to these might stretch to the dining table was while wandering around the Green Bazaar in Almaty. In its food hall, huge signs hung from the ceiling with illustrations of whatever animal meat was on sale below. There were areas for sheep and cows, but the largest by far was under a drawing of a horse. Fearsome-looking babushkas stood behind racks and racks of the stuff and it appeared that every single part of the animal was for sale. I was pretty confident that, should the desire take me, I could rebuild an entire stallion in a Damien Hirst-type manner from the products piled up in front of me.
That night, I headed off to a local eaterie where I came face to face with the menu from hell. I perused my choices. Boiled Kazy – "horsemeat with spicery in coat", the menu added helpfully. Warm Horsemeat Dainties was another enticing option. My favourite, however, was Horse Liver Shish Kebab ("with fatty tail"). I tried to work out how to leave without eating anything and not offending my hosts. It was impossible. They were already busy ordering for me.
I knew what was coming. A beaming waitress plonked a huge plate down in front of me. These were the Warm Horse Dainties, thick, fatty slabs plonked on some slimy white material that could either have been a type of noodle or cartilage. It was impossible to tell.
I'm not normally that squeamish and will pretty much try anything, but this both looked and smelled utterly disgusting. I forked a piece of meat and put it gingerly into my mouth. A wave of nausea hit me and I struggled to swallow the gristly item while trying to force a smile. It was truly repulsive.
I started to have a little panic attack as seemingly every part of my body got together to hold a violent demonstration at this sudden and unwanted intrusion. Then a drink was brought to the table and I was poured a large glass. This was kumis – mare's milk – another local delicacy that was rumoured to cure tuberculosis and, like every curious drink all over the world, have aphrodisiac qualities. I took a sip.
This was becoming a little like an episode of Fear Factor in which contestants have to down terrible things to win the prize. At that moment, my only prize was going to be leaving the restaurant alive. My companions raised their glasses of kumis and I followed suit. They downed their glasses and I left mine hanging in the air as though savouring the special moment.
I took another sip: it was like warm vomit. My life started to flash before me. There was my horse, Tosca, from when I was a kid. She was staring at me in a very disappointed manner. I tried to flick the film forwards but it was stuck on Tosca and her big, sad eyes. I started to wonder whether kumis might have hallucinatory qualities?
Another bowl was brought to the table. "Fatty Horse Sausages," beamed my host as he spooned some on to my plate. I made a mental note: my next holiday is going to be in Devon or Dorset.Reuse content