Horse for Dinner – Yea or Neigh?

I arrived in Bilegno, Italy – a hamlet of 70 people in the picturesque Appenine mountain range – for my first day as a stage at the well-known Italian restaurant, La Palta. A welcome lunch was prepared using local ingredients, and, trying out my elementary Italian, I inquired about the filling of the stuffed pasta, asino (donkey) and the meat of the tartare, cavallo (horse). With every bite, the chef and her family watched, assessing my appetite and thus, my character.  The horse tartare was deep red, glistening with extra virgin olive oil; it tasted sweet and tender, reminiscent of venison. While I worked at La Palta, one of the most popular dishes was seared tenderloin of horse, with grilled endive, lime zest and a sweet pomegranate reduction.

Historical record suggests horse has been eaten in Italy since 5th century Verona when a savage battle between King Odoric and his usurper Theodoric resulted in a mass of dead horses. Where some may have seen a mess, Theodoric saw a meal and the tradition of fresh and cured horsemeat began. In modern day Italy you are likely to see cavallo baby food at the grocery store.  Many parents give their children horse because it is lean, high in unsaturated fatty acids and is a good source of iron.

I ate horse frequently while in Italy. On my return to Canada, many of my friends were horrified and disgusted to hear my tales of eating horse tenderloin. What is commonplace in Italy is controversial in Canada. Apart from Quebec, we do not have a strong traditional relationship with horsemeat; it is taboo, repeatedly compared to eating a pet. In Toronto, horse is often on the menu at the stylish Black Hoof, and mainstays like La Palette and Beerbistro. The rise of charcuterie restaurants, like Black Hoof, serving offal and alternative meats illustrates that Torontonians are adventurous eaters, but many still have a philosophical aversion to horse.

Bill C-544 has been raised in the House of Commons to ban horse slaughter for human consumption. Last month, animal rights protestors rallied at horse abattoirs, butcher shops and restaurants that serve horsemeat. Protestors cite inhumane treatment, and that horses are not bred for consumption, given medicine humans should not be inadvertently ingesting. Horrific videos of horses being slaughtered on YouTube are surfacing to bolster the claims.

Consumers of meat are increasingly mindful about origin, medicinal inputs and ethical treatment.  Animal welfare standards are essential, but it remains to be seen if governments are competent to decide the gastronomic choices of society? 

Cavallo at La Palta
Cavallo baby food


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