Shortly before Christmas we went to the ghastly Excel Stadium in South London to see Adrenaline, a horse show directed by my exuberant and uncompromisingly French friend Roland Bréand. My wife Jo and I are horse agnostics, but we went with her sister Lucy who is a brilliant horsewoman. Roland gave us ‘VIP’ tickets, which meant that we had the right to arrive early, sit in a tacky enclosure in the airport-like foyer, and have a free glass of Cava and some of the most disgusting food I’ve ever tasted, food which must originally have been cooked several years before, the kind of food where you find yourself calculating the probability of ending up alive after eating it. Bits of solid material (meat?) served with jam, mushy fish with mushy chips and mushy peas... The other ‘VIP’s looked entirely content with all this horrible stuff. Considering that they had paid an eye-watering £145 each for their tickets, this showed remarkable forbearance on their part. I thought we were supposed to be a nation of whingers.
The show itself was rather good, if a bit repetitive. The final, and most memorable act consisted of a handsome Frenchman galloping around the stadium with one foot on the back of each of two horses, with another dozen horses under his command – amazing. The 16-year-old girl sitting next to us was shaking with excitement throughout, occasionally letting out a sound which was so like someone having an orgasm that we found ourselves continually turning round to check.
Afterwards we went backstage to look at the horses, which were mesmerizingly beautiful and dignified.
So it was a bit of shock when a couple of weeks later my son Daniel and his girlfriend Ramona turned up at our house, having offered to cook dinner for us, with a slab of horsemeat that they had brought back from Northern Italy where Ramona’s parents Frederico and Tiziana live. Tiziana is highly emotional (she has a habit of kissing the computer screen when talking on Skype) and highly generous; she had loaded them up with a groaning bag of local produce including a salami made of Parma Ham, some brilliantly simple cheeses, and this horsemeat – as we all now know, a completely commonplace ingredient in Italy, where over half of the horses slaughtered in Europe are eaten.
It was a cheap cut, from the flank, griddled very rare and cut into thin slices (called sfilacci apparently) as part of a meal with grilled asparagus, grilled fennel, new potatoes and salsa verde. After a lot of squeaking, prevarication and ineffectual analysis of our consciences, Jo and I tucked in, and it was one of the best things I have ever eaten – very like fillet steak but with a fuller, more exciting taste nearer to venison. The butcher marks with a line the direction in which you’re supposed to cut it, because if you cut it on the cross it’s apparently extremely tough.
Predictably the conversation turned to the relationship between people and horses – the physical closeness, the whispering, the mutual dependency - much deeper and more emotional than our relationship with sheep or cattle or pigs. (Is it that horses and dogs are valued for what they can do for us, sheep, cattle and pigs only for what they can provide us?) And yet Italians cook and eat horses without qualm.
Ramona noticed our severe qualm attack and sympathetically offered us an alternative meat for our next Northern Italian extravaganza – manzo. What’s manzo? Three-year-old castrated bull. Heck.
We’ve published a book of Orlando’s recipes full of similar tales. For more about Orlando Gough Recipe Journal click here.