I am spattered with red wine. My shirt is ruined. And I can’t move. It’s the lunch crush at Pepèn, a sandwich shop in Parma where locals pack into a space smaller than a boxing ring, bellowing food orders, bantering with staff and, in one case, bumping a glass of Lambrusco across me. My attention, however, remains locked on the counter ahead. Behind it: a brick of raw horse meat.
I wave my receipt but the servers are labouring in a blur, snatching buns from the steaming oven, smearing on homemade mayo, slicing minced horse, the crimson flesh jiggling on a metal spatula until it’s slapped onto bread, followed by a spritz of lemon, a slop of olive oil, then a snowfall of salt and a slice of grilled courgette, with a spoonful of spicy sauce to finish.
“Next!” the white-haired server hollers in Italian, smoothing down his white moustache. “Everyone wants horse today! Clip-clop, clip-clop.”
I happened across Pepèn years ago. It was January 2004 and the Italian authorities had just flung a local billionaire into prison on suspicion of embezzling from his own company, Parmalat. I was a young reporter then, dispatched to the Parma courthouse for a scoop. Instead, I got hungry.
On a break, I darted into the streets of this provincial city of 200,000 people, the kind of prosperous northern Italian gem with a Romanesque baptistery that turns pinkish at dusk, church bells tolling distantly and pensioners who dress more trendily than you. A local retiree sporting Diesel jeans, Hogan sneakers and a Toscano cigar strutted past, bickering with his elderly wife, who wore golden jewellery but did not have a single silver hair.
I raised my finger. “Any idea where I could find a quick panino?” They directed me down an alley, to a scruffy stand-up bar. I squinted at a hunk of ground meat behind the counter. “What is that?”
The answer: one of the best sandwiches of my life. For years, it kept returning to mind.
But was I horrible to long for raw horse? And had it really been that good? Fourteen years later, I’m finding out.
Nowadays, gastronomy is bipolar. Ethical eaters demand local sourcing, organically raised happy animals, a low carbon footprint. Meantime, foodies jet around the world, charring meat in open fire pits, taking iPhone snapshots of their grub, consuming as decadently as possible. In this modern-day bifurcation, what of food taboos? Some dismiss them entirely; others clamour for more.
Horse has been on the menu since the Stone Age, when our ancestors hunted them in the wild. During the early medieval period, the dish declined with the spread of Christianity – horse-consumption was associated with pagan rites. The age of chivalry reinforced this, elevating the horse to the stature of noble companion.
By the early 1800s, however, horse became a dinner of last resort. Napoleon’s army used horses for rapid transport, and many died, their carcasses eyed by famished troops. The order came down: that is your dinner. Parma was part of the Napoleonic empire then, complete with its own cavalry outfit.
After Italian unification in 1861, civic-minded gentlemen promoted lowly horse meat as nourishment for the poor. Weedy youths could drop by a local butcher for a free glass of horse blood, Giancarlo Gonizzi, the eminent Parma food historian told me. Following the first world war, when the pace of life quickened, horse became a hasty lunch. The raw variety – pesto di cavallo, or caval pist in Parma dialect – developed into a city speciality, likely inspired by tartare and the lingering French influence. Today, it’s a source of local pride, with fine restaurants such as Osteria dello Zingaro advertising its equine butcher on the door and offering “Horse Three Ways” (French tartare, a slice of roasted horse and pesto di cavallo).
Professor Stefano Bentley of the University of Parma, a scholar of food culture, said pesto di cavallo has undergone a boom here in recent years, especially among the young. Yet horse meat isn’t gobbled across the country; in some regions, people cringe at the idea. “There’s not a single Italy when it comes to gastronomy, but 100,000 Italys,” he explained.
Michela Vittoria Brambilla, an animal-rights activist and former member of Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet, has led the opposition, pushing for a nationwide ban. “When it comes to the horse,” she says, “mankind is truly at its worst, betraying a 1,000-year pact that has always placed this animal by our side.”
I take my sandwich past the queue spilling from Pepèn, and eke out a little space at an alleyway window ledge, amid crumpled napkins and a rickety tower of used plates. I open the bun, inspecting what once galloped.
Disgust and pleasure regarding food are evolved responses, the brain craving calories, fats and protein, while spurning items that might contain deadly pathogens. Our ancestors, lacking the science to explain this, instead developed restrictions on what you should put in your mouth, often deeming such rules spiritual or moral law. Every culture sets food boundaries, whether rejecting pork or cow or human flesh.
But taboos can change. A couple of generations ago, raw fish on rice repulsed many Westerners. Lately, environmentalists have been trying to break taboos against eating insects, hoping their consumption would reduce the ecological damage wrought by livestock. The influential philosopher Peter Singer has articulated the secular case against meat, contending that, as animals suffer and we don’t have to consume them to survive, we cause needless suffering and should therefore stop.
Fabio Ferraroni, president of the Association for the Protection of Pesto di Cavallo, dismissed such notions when he showed me around his impeccably clean butcher’s shop, with skinned horse haunches dangling from hooks, the meat Barolo-red and the fat yellow, with ladders of white ribs. “Horse is just like beef for us,” he said, pointing out various preparations, from burgers to steaks.
He and his allies note that horse is low fat and high iron. They recommend it for growing kids, for athletes seeking muscle mass, for the obese to drop weight, for the elderly to stay sharp. In short, everyone should be eating it. Even in Britain, where the revelation in 2013 that horsemeat had found its way into frozen burgers nearly turned a nation to vegetarianism, you can now sup on pony burger. In Dartmoor, where ponies have long roamed, farmers shoot hundreds of excess foals annually and turn them into sausages and the like, contending that raising animals for meat will at least save some from an early end.
One of the owners of Pepèn, Stefano Ferrari, spreads the horse gospel by offering samples to foreigners who amble in, such as an American couple who ended up gobbling five sandwiches between them. “If you would’ve told me it was horse meat, I wouldn’t have eaten it,” said Harvey Romanoff, a 67-year-old from Vermont whose wife, Myriam, had fed him a taste. “I ate it and it was delicious,” he said. “I had no idea.”
Eating raw horse may seem animalistic, but it requires exactly the moral self-deception that marks our species. When bringing meat to my lips, I deny what it was. Or I tell myself it’s part of tradition. Before I bite into my horse sandwich, I notice that my palms are stained from that wine-spill in the queue of hungry humans. I wipe them with napkins, but the red won’t disappear, as if I’d worked a butcher’s cleaver myself. I won’t think about that. Not right now.
My teeth break the crust of toasted bun, through the creaminess of slathered mayonnaise, crunching the courgette slice, and into raw horse: silky as sashimi, saltier than beef, pungent with iron, like a dab of your own blood on the tongue.
Yes, it’s as good as I remember. And I’m probably less good than I like to think.