Welcome to Salento, Puglia. Nestled in the heel of Southern Italy, here we find an area envied by many across the country. Friendly, great weather, beautiful scenery and a history rich in home cooked food. Here, dishes such as Pezzetti di Carne al pomodoro (bits of meat in a tomato sauce) are common and celebrated. But here, the bits of meat in this dish aren’t beef, but horse meat.
The same could be said for many dishes across Italy which has seen equine food at the heart of some of the most regional delicacies for the last one hundred years. In his groundbreaking cookbook, “La scienza in cucina e l’arte di mangiar bene” (The science of cooking and the art of eating well), Pellegrino Artusi has several recipes which indicate both horse and donkey meat as suitable cuts for the dishes. “As for the taste of the dish, I can’t say many bad things, for heaven only knows how many times I’ve eaten horse and donkey meat without even knowing about it.” It’s safe to say, you’re not the only one, Pellegrino!
84% of the horse meat consumed in Italy is imported, making it the highest devouring nation of horse meat in the EU, even more than France. High in iron, low in fat and cholesterol, it’s inclusion into Italian cooking is not a mistake. Moreover, it came about predominantly in the late 1800s where it was being prescribed by doctors to cure anaemia, this continued well into the late 1990s. However, many now see horse meat as a food for young children, pregnant women and the elderly, and this speciality is slowly losing its appeal.
Currently there are over four hundred registered equine butchers in Italy, each serving up cuts from horse to donkey meats; some going as far as creating salami and prosciutto style charcuterie. In the past, these cuts would have been cheaper than both beef and pork, recently, they have become more expensive, a habit of the “exclusive market” if there were any. Now, its place as a speciality dish is slowly fading as attitudes and tastes are changing.
The recent horse meat scandal which has been in the headlines didn’t spare Italy; in fact Buitoni, a registered trademark of Nestlé has suffered. Pulling ready made tortellini and lasagne dishes from frozen food aisles across the nation. It has left many feeling worried and disillusioned for a brand that was highly respected on the peninsula. "If you can’t trust them, who can you trust!" many have been led to ask.
Since the scandal, a proposed law in protecting the consumer and animal welfare has started to take shape. Italian MP, Michela Vittoria Brambilla is now asking to stop the sale of equine meat (horse, donkey, mule and hinny). The use of horses in entertainment is being scrutinised as well as the way they are kept in stables. The proposed law reconsiders the relationship Italians have with their equine friends and is being seen by social commentators as a move towards “horses being classed as domestic pets”.
The food industry scandal is now leading to a campaign in rediscovering la vera cucina Italiana, or real Italian food. Many critics, food and culture, have been led to wonder when was the last time people around the world, if not even some Italians, had a traditional homemade lasagna, sampled tortellini or even gone to the efforts in making their own. Artisan production has unsurprisingly grown since the recent scandal, and several cooking schools scattered across the country have reported a growth in demand in fresh pasta courses, Italians outweighing foreign students.
I can’t help but feel that this is the right moment for people to reach back to their food heritage, to a time before frozen goods. When the customer had a relationship with the market vendor, knowing precisely where the food comes from and how it is grown or raised, like many Italians still do. Luckily, what seems to have changed in light of the scandal is the general attitude when it comes to key ingredients, and how to use them.
However, there could be something more to it in Italy. Perhaps "la vera cucina Italiana" (true Italian food) isn’t just about excellent local ingredients, attitude to cooking and looking to the past for
inspiration, perhaps the time has come to look ahead, to Italy’s future. Italians are experts in la buona forchetta (the good fork) and maybe, just maybe, horse meat is now seen as an ingredient belonging to the past.