If you had asked me 6 months ago is there anything I wouldn’t eat... one of those would have been horse. However recently my gastronomic curiosity got the better of me and decided to overcame my initial fear and indulge my epicurious palate.
With a few other equally interested food media and food industry professionals, I signed up to the 'secret' Australian Association of Food Professionals 'Horse Whisperers' dinner to understand what all the fuss was about. Though why the secrecy?
Although Australia has been exporting horsemeat since the 70's with over 50,000 horse carcasses exported per year to countries like Central Asia, Japan, Switzerland, Belgium, France and Italy, Europe.......... not everyone is as appreciative of its gastronomic qualities. Since it was legally approved for sale here in June at Mondo de Carne it has caused considerable controversy and outraged animal liberationists. Mondo’s owner Vince Garreffa started to receive death threats.
Embrasse restaurant in Melbourne had to cancel the first ever horse tasting dinner, (which sold out in half a day) as the chef also received death threats and protesters outside the restaurant. So to prevent a frenzy and protect attendees the location of the event was held at a secret inner west Sydney location, the location only released just prior to the day, with the menu created by two of Sydney's leading Italian chefs (who shall still be kept a secret) showcasing the versatility of horsemeat.
On arrival we were introduced to Mortadella & salumi matched with a marsanne 'Wiggly Tail' from Piggs Peake wines. Although these smallgoods contained only 50% horsemeat and 50% pork, the addition of the horsemeat gave the mortadella a much deeper pink hue and the salami was darker red than your standard salami and seemed to greater depth and meatier flavour. Horsemeat is actually quite a purple red coloured meat due its high iron content so no wonder the colour of the smallgoods changed.
On that nutritional note Horsemeat is quite a healthy meat, not only due to its high iron but is also low in fat and cholesterol and high in Vitamin B12 and Omega 3. Although I was once a dietitian, tonight my desires were purely sensory.
Following our first introduction to horse, our next course was an assiette of horse served as tartare with beetroot & garlic tapenade and carpaccio with herbs and pecorino toscano. Eating horsemeat raw gave me the best indication of how delicate the texture and flavour horsemeat is. It seemed to melt in the mouth with a gentle, sweet meatiness less stronger in flavour than beef or veal.
Our next course orecchiette with 'ragu di cavallo' was made from hand cut horse chuck and served with grated salted ricotta. Although the meat tender I found this dish a little disappointing, the pasta was perfectly al dente but the flavour of the ragu was a little out of balance. The chef had added some pork lardons too add a little more fat to the dish as horsemeat is very lean, however for me it overpowered the subtlety of the horsemeat, leaving quite a rich and fatty pork taint. Thankfully the Piggs Peak 'Wolfie' Zinfandel tantalized my mouth. A rich deep coloured wine made from zinfandel and shiraz that had plenty of rich berry notes and also cut through the fattiness of the pork.
We were then treated to 'Tagliata di cavallo con polenta e aceto tradizionale' pan-seared horse rump steak on soft polenta with aged balsamic. The steak was quickly seared and served quite rare, topped with lardons and served with a sangiovese. The polenta was soft and creamy, however after my experience with the ragu I removed the lardons as I wanted to taste the horsemeat.
Traditionally I like my beef steak rare, however with horse eating it rare the texture was little too soft so the juxtaposition between the crustier outside and the rare meat wasn't quite to my liking. One of the attendees, a well respected food writer who shall remain nameless, asked the chef to cook the some of the rump a little longer to medium rare. This is how she remembered eating it in France and supposedly gives the best flavour and texture for steak. I have to agree. The meat was still tender however the flavour developed giving it more concentrated 'meatier' taste and deepened the caramelisation on the outside.
Of course the dinner wouldn't be quite right without dessert - chocolate salami with cantuccini matched with two of Piggs Peake's wines either the foritfied vin santo like wine 'Oui Oui Oui', which is made from barberra and riesling brandy, or my favourite, "The Suckling Pig" a dessert Zinfandel that was like rich berry jam with a delicious naughty kick!
So now I have satisfied my curiosity about horsemeat will I eat it again? Indeed.
Hopefully it won't be too long before a brave, yet ingenuitive, restaurant serves it up in Sydney or a butcher stocks it, then I can undertake a cavallo adventure in my own kitchen.