Why are the British so fussy about horsemeat?
While the French huff, puff, point fingers at Romania and call for stricter controls on meat imports, there is one part of the horsemeat affair that has intrigued them even more than the scandal itself. Why are the British so revolted by eating horse flesh?
Like the Brits (and anyone, for that matter), the French expect to find beef in a beef lasagne. But unlike the Brits, the French are less bothered about exactly what kind of meat they recently discovered lurking between the layers of frozen pasta and béchamel sauce, and more about the fact that the ‘French beef’ they thought they were eating had not only made its way from Romania, but stopped off in Cyprus, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
Much like the rest of continental Europe, the French are far less prudish towards hippophagy, or “the practice of feeding on horse flesh,” than their northerly neighbours. Each year, some 30,000 tonnes of horsemeat are consumed in France.
Even in cosmopolitan Paris, horse flesh is readily available to buy on the high street. These specialist butchers might go unnoticed if not for the neighing golden horse above their shop-fronts that help hippophagous customers know they’ve come to the right place.
It’s not like you’ll find horsemeat in the frozen food section of your local supermarket however (not horsemeat that’s labelled as horsemeat anyway). It’s a meat that speaks of wartime and peasantry, and most of the young people I asked said they had only ever knowingly eaten it once or twice. But it is a healthy and affordable alternative to other meats, and according to most, tastes rather like a lean cut of beef. Which brings us back to the original question – why are the Brits quite so averse to eating it?
A number of French publications asked this same question after witnessing Britain’s horrified reaction to the horsemeat scandal. “Serving horsemeat to the English appears to be as inappropriate as serving beef to an Indian or pork to a Muslim or a Jew,” weekly Le Point observed.
A press review by free daily newspaper Metro surmised that Brits believe horsemeat is supplied only by ‘Romanian gangsters’ who deal in animal cruelty and toxic foodstuffs. But the article, entitled ‘Horse for dinner? Shock and confusion for the Brits,’ cites sensationalist tabloids The Sun and The Daily Mirror, so its findings are hardly surprising.
The authoritative national daily Le Monde, meanwhile, employed a medieval historian to explain “Why horsemeat is a taboo in Britain”. Said historian had various ideas, some dating back to the Middle Ages when Europe-conquering Christianity deemed hippophagy as plain wrong and then perfectly right, leaving the north of the continent thinking one thing and the south another. A love for horse-racing and hunting and an early end to horse labour helped to turn the beasts into a “noble creature; a friend of mankind” in Britain, he explained.
But perhaps the real clincher in modern Britain’s total revulsion for horsemeat derives from a deeper-seated attitude; a societal dining pact that rules out eating frogs’ legs, chicken’s feet, snails, tripe, liver and steak tartare.
Britons (especially young ones) don’t like to eat meat that looks like part of an animal, which is why very few of them ever set foot in a butcher’s shop. They also don’t like to eat animals they consider their friends. Rabbits, frogs, horses – these are childhood acquaintances that would be terribly disappointed to find themselves in the cooking pot.
Unfortunately for this animal-loving nation, their squeamishness has only encouraged the production of unidentifiable meats. So far removed are processed microwave dinners from the reality of a living animal, it’s a wonder they involve any meat at all.
Perhaps we should boycott supermarkets and start shopping at the horse butcher’s. At least there, we know exactly what we’re getting.