Not For Vegans or Equine Lovers: Dining on Horse meat in Italy
(Warning: this post discusses eating horse meat, so apologies to my horse-lover and vegan friends, but you may want to skip this one.)
Respect for Local Culture
I do my best to avoid “travel shaming”... making the distinction between being a “traveler” and a “tourist”, and making others feel bad about the way they choose to travel. Whatever works for you is fine with me…the thing is to travel. That being said however, I do believe that when we travel we need to respect the culture of the place we’re visiting even if we don’t always agree with it. We are guests in their country, and a little respect goes a long way - respect for their traditions and views, the foods they choose to eat, the clothes they choose to wear or not wear, and so on.
Food in particular is one of the most defining aspects of a culture, and part of the fun of traveling is enjoying what’s unique and customary about a certain place. We travel to see what's different - don’t we? - not to bring our culture to them. Otherwise, we'd stay close to home. And forgive me, my fellow Americans, but we’re all too fond of doing just that. I bristle whenever I hear an American outside the country say things like “why don’t they have this?” or “why they don’t do that?” Because they don’t. Deal with it. Enjoy it. You’ll be home soon enough and can have it however you want it.
Bologna is a Foodie's Paradise
On my first trip to Bologna, Italy, my mouth was watering the very first day I walked out in the city streets. I love the food in southern Italy but the Emilia Romagna region of Italy is known as the food capital of Italy - even amongst Italians - and for good reason. It’s the heart of agriculture and food production for much of Italy and southern Europe. Three regional specialties and some of the most common Italian foods are only made here: prosciutto, balsamic, and parmigiano reggiano cheese. Nowhere else in the world. In recent years, one of the world’s most celebrated chefs, Mario Batali, has taught Americans all about the importance of this region and how the food of Emilia Romagna differs from other parts of the world.
On our first day out, we headed to the local Mercato delle Erbe, an indoor market popular with locals, that’s been in Bologna since the end of WWII. We browsed the fabulous locally grown fruits and vegetables, olive oil, and of course balsamic from Modena. Stall after market stall carried unique items different from the next - dried cured meats, pickled vegetables, nuts of all kinds, and then came the cavallo stall. Way off by itself at the end of the aisle, in the far corner of the market, this meat stall had no visitors at that time of day and the butcher truly looked lonely. So I wandered over. It took a moment until I remembered my limited Italian and figured out I was at the horse stall.
Yes, my friends, Italy is an equine fan but not in the way you might imagine - and they’re not alone. In Europe and Japan, horse meat is a staple and in Sweden it out-sells mutton and lamb combined. Residents of Germany, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Netherlands, Chile, Malta, Mongolia, China, France, Iceland, Slovenia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Norway, Poland, and Switzerland all consume horse meat. Locals in Italy have been dining on it since the late 1800s, even though the Roman Catholic Church prohibited eating it in the 8th century.
Attitudes surrounding it started to change about 20 years ago but Italy still remains the highest consuming nation of horse meat in the EU. Though demand may have waned, some Italians still enjoy eating it. It’s high in iron, relatively low in cost, and also low in fat and cholesterol. We talked to several locals who described its appeal as a generational thing that has sort of skipped a generation or two. With the current food movement afoot in Bologna and around the world, young chefs who emphasize fresh, local ingredients are putting their twist back on traditional foods - and like it or not, horse meat is a fresh, local, and traditional food that’s back on the menu.
I think I had known and then forgotten that parts of Italy still served horse meat. Maybe I’d blocked it out, I don’t know. It’s not that I’m a horse lover and can’t fathom eating them. It’s just not something I’ve ever thought of dining on. Until now.
And because I love to immerse myself in the cultures I visit, I made a mental note to be on the lookout for some place to try it. It wasn’t until the last leg of our trip in the Cinque Terre that I had my chance.
We’d been dying to try Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola, and fortunately we’d chosen to base ourselves there, in the second of the ‘five lands’ on Italy’s Ligurian coast. Plus, the host of our Airbnb just happened to be dating the chef at the restaurant. When we told her it was our anniversary and we wanted to celebrate our last night at dal Billy, she helped us score a coveted outside table overlooking the sea.
And headlining the menu of the area’s hottest restaurant was Bresaola di cavallo con rucola e parmigiano - air-dried horse with arugula and parmigiano cheese. First thing on the menu at the top of the Starters.
I admit, when it arrived, their presentation could have used a bit more greenery since the meat covered the arugula salad completely. It arrived at the table looking like this:
So how was it?
The horse meat was served bresaola-style (air-dried raw). Super lean and tender, with a very mild almost non-distinct taste. As usual with meat this rare, arugula and shaved parmigiano cheese were the perfect accompaniment. Had you not known you were eating horse meat, you may have thought it was rare grass-fed beef (I don’t know if that hurts or helps your imagination here).
Our last meal in Italy was certainly adventurous with the addition of our horse meat appetizer. The handmade tagliatelle with lobster right from the sea was outstanding and of course, the view from that table made the whole evening that much more special.
I doubt I’ll have horse meat again any time soon simply given my childhood upbringing with ponies and friends who are horse lovers. But first and foremost, I consider myself a traveler and a student of the world. I’m glad I tried it while I was there. For us to demand that the whole world adopt our sensibilities and soft spots for certain animals over others is a luxury - one that many countries can’t afford, or simply don’t want to. That’s their choice. Barring hunting a species to the point of endangerment or extinction, or culling certain parts of the animal and discarding the rest - as is the case with shark fin soup in parts of Asia - it’s not for me to judge the right or wrong of eating it.
To me, experiencing the culture of the places we travel just isn’t the same without becoming part of it for the short time we’re there.
What's the most adventurous food you've eaten? Would you ever try eating horse meat? Share your thoughts, I'd love to hear them.