In contradiction to the horse burger neigh-sayers
A pitch for a TV series, a primetime ITV, Saturday night sort of show – “Eat a Pet”: contestants with a beloved family pet are offered an all-expenses paid holiday in an exotic foreign locale where the kind of animal that’s their best friend is that country’s dinner time delicacy – so guinea pig lovers get to go Peru, while dog people can visit Korea. The only catch is that while on their holiday of a lifetime the family have to dine on nothing but the same sort of animal as they keep as a pet back home. Will they be able to look their fluffy bunny pal in the eye after a week of dining on rabbit stew?
What, you may well be asking, is the point of bringing this idea up now (apart from to suggest that I may be almost psychopathically unhinged enough to be a real TV commissioning editor)? Well because it’s symptomatic of the British obsession with pets and animals above and beyond that of any other county that what over here is considered a lovable companion, most other places is considered dinner. Case in point – horses. Horse meat is cheaper, leaner and greener than beef, for example, yet the eating of it remains largely taboo in the UK (although this concern for horse welfare stops at the equally popular British love of racing them – essentially it’s OK for horses to die as part of entertainment, not OK for nutritional or culinary reasons).
The meat adulteration scandal, in which various minced beef products from frozen lasagnes to ready-made burgers were found to contain “up to 100% horsemeat”, has probably been 2013’s biggest food story. While the quantities of horse being passed off as beef raise major concerns about the health risks of meat not intended for human consumption, people with religious objections to certain foods accidentally consuming them and the whole nature of the government’s unregulated free market economic model, it’s been impressive how much of the negative reaction has been sentimental. For some people in this country horse is just a meat too far, although for others it’s just an excuse for an endless barrage of puns (particularly enjoyable ones being “low in fat, high in Shergar” and “My Lidl Pony”).
By now all of the major retailers have withdrawn any product that potentially contained more than the FSA threshold for horsemeat and, as it turns out, many of them didn’t contain horse at all. Anybody wanting to see what horse burgers would really taste like, then, and how they compare with beef burgers would have to make their own. So that’s what I did. You may remember last week when I said it was easier to get hold of zebra meat than it was peacock. Well, if it’s easy to get zebra online, horse presents very little problem at all.
It’s still a small market, but it is, slightly surprisingly, a growing one. While the cultural taboo on horse as a food in Britain has thus far prevented British farmers from rearing horse themselves, Kezie Foods, the website that sells horse meat reared in France, has actually reported a significant rise in sales to people like me whose curiosity has been piqued by all the media coverage. Given the high shipping costs of online meat ordering, though, the cost benefits of eating horse meat appear more hypothetical than actual. Kezie offer a great variety of horse products including steak, sausages and burgers. Although it’s burgers that I want to try, I figured it would be putting in an inadequate amount of effort to buy a ready prepared horse burger. I wanted to make my own, so I bought some of their horse mince instead and set about building a burger from the ground up.
There is plenty of discussion out there about what are the essential elements of a good burger, but it seems there’s a general consensus that the key elements are a juicy, flavoursome meat patty, soft bun topped with seeds, melty stringy cheese and a tomato relish. I started with the bun, making a simple bread dough with olive oil, finishing with an egg wash to which I could attach sesame seeds.
While the bread was rising, I could then think about the other elements. Kezie’s horse burgers are made with red wine and mustard and suggest serving with peppery rocket and a chutney to match with the horse meat’s flavour, slightly sweeter and gamier than beef. Taking this as my starting point, I decide on combining the slight sweetness of the meat with warm spiciness from chilli and Worcester sauce. French cookery bible Larousse Gastronomique suggests the addition of eggs, onion and parsley, to which breadcrumbs are often also added. Combining all of these tips I came up with a burger I hoped would work with the taste of horse.
I like mozzarella as a cheese for burgers as it is at its best when melty and stringy. In order to get the best texture from the cheese in conjunction with the burger meat, I sealed the mozzarella inside my horse meat patties.
With Kezie suggesting their horse burgers are best served with chutney and rocket, that’s exactly what I went for when producing relish for my version. Given the sweet and spicy combination already present in the burger, I made a sugary tomato chutney flavoured with ginger and red chillies, amongst other things. I served the horse burgers in my sesame seed buns, with the tomato chutney and rocket on top and some chips on the side. For my chips I used the increasingly popular triple-cooking method, but I’ll come on to the subject of chips more thoroughly in a couple of weeks.
So, that’s my spin on the My Lidl Pony burger. How did it compare with the more conventional kind? Well, the horsemeat itself is not hugely different from beef. As expected it turned out to be slightly leaner, slightly sweeter. In all it seemed a little more like veal in flavour than beef, but certainly quite tasty. As for the recipe element, the Worcester sauce and chilli did a good job of complimenting the flavour of the meat, but the sugar and spice tomato chutney was perhaps too strong a flavour to go with it. In all, though, I enjoyed my first equine burger and it’s certainly not something that I would rule out having again. Others may be inclined to disagree, but I guess it’s just horses for courses.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: It’s probably a good thing that though my girlhood horsey phase included reading a lot of Saddleclub books and drawing a lot of wild stallions, it didn’t extend to actually wanting to own one of the biting, kicking, towering-over-me beasts (I was scared of pretty much all animals). It was almost impossible to distinguish between horse mince and beef. I’d like to try a horse steak next to see if that makes a difference. I have half a suspicion that horse might actually be nicer.