In the nineteenth century, vets, scientists, doctors, social campaigners, animal-welfare advocates and other prominent figures in Europe and America decreed that horsemeat was just the stuff for the working classes to eat. The proletariat lacked red meat, it was argued, and yet city streets were filled with horses that, once their working life came to an end, could provide nourishing food for humans instead of being turned into petfood. This would also be better for the horses, they argued, because the animals would be treated kindly and well fed if they were being considered for the table. The only obstacle was “superstition”, and this, the distinguished gentlemen believed, could be overcome if a good example was set.
And so the gentlemen threw elaborate banquets and invited journalists and still more distinguished men to attend and tuck into horseflesh. I’ve written more about the intentions and effects of these banquets in The Age of the Horse, but I wanted to share one of the menus in detail because they’re quite fascinating to take apart.
Firstly, they are classic, high-Victorian feasts, with more courses and dishes than we 21st-century folk can contemplate without rummaging through the nearest bathroom cabinet for antacids. Secondly, they are typically full of puns. As these hippophagic meals are always for male dinner guests alone, I guess the puns are at least partly a reflection of somewhat schoolboyish amusements in gentlemen’s clubs. They mock the modish obsession with French restaurants and also make it clear that they are all sophisticated enough to translate and enjoy the in-jokes. I’d guess also that the puns are meant to defray the anxiety involved in eating horseflesh. There’s something of the ogre’s feast to it as a result.
This meal, cooked at the Langham Hotel in London for 160 guests in February 1868, was prepared by the chef of Emile Decroix, a military veterinary surgeon who became one of France’s pioneering hippophagists. There is an obsessive – or is it hysterical – quality to the exhaustiveness of the menu. A cake made with horse oil instead of butter? Lobster dressed with horse? Hoof jelly? Could they really have thought that ordinary working people on little money and with little time or facilities for cooking would have gotten excited at the thought of all this fancy French stuff?
Horses eaten: three geldings (age 4, 20 and 22), two of them cart horses, one a carriage horse who’d drawn a brougham (a rather trendy and racy mode of transport) – a lot of horse but perhaps not when you’ve invited 160 guests.
Consommé de cheval (clear horse broth)
Purée de destrier (puréed warhorse soup)
Served with Amontillado
Saumon à la sauce arabe (salmon in Arab sauce)
Filets de soles à l’huile hippophagique (soles served in horse oil)
Served with vin du Rhin
Terrines de foie maigre chevaline (potted horse liver with “the strong and unmistakable flavour of horse sweat”, according to The Field. Am guessing the fact that the horse liver is “maigre” or “lean” is a joke on the foie gras or “fat” liver of the goose)
Saucisson de cheval aux pistaches syriaques (dry horse sausage with Syrian pistachios)
Served with Xérès
Filet de Pégase rôti aux pommes de terre à la crême (roast Pegasus filet with potatoes in cream)
Dinde aux châtaignes (turkey with chestnuts, which have the same horsey double meaning in French as both a coat colour and those little vestigial nubs on the inside of horses’ legs)
Aloyau de cheval farci à la centaure et aux choux de Bruxelles (horse sirloin stuffed “centaur style” and served with brussels sprouts)
Culotte de cheval braisée aux Chevaux de Frise (horse rump – although this is a pun, as “culotte de cheval” means “riding breeches” – braised over a “Friesian horse” – another pun referring to a spiky medieval defence used against cavalry. Dutch or Friesian horses were thought slow, hence the stationary “Friesian horses” as a defence. What it means here I’m not sure – braised on a spit of some kind?)
Served with dry champagne
Petits pâtés à la moëlle-Bucéphale (shortcrust pastry topped with marrowbone and hardboiled eggs, “Bucephalus style”)
Kromeskys à la gladiateur (minced horsemeat rolled in bacon and fried. The French racehorse Gladiateur won the English triple crown in 1865)
Poulets garnis à l’hippogriffe (I’ve searched for this but can only come up with a notion of some kind of seasoned or spiced chicken “hippogriff style”)
Langues de cheval à la troyenne (Trojan horse tongues)
Served with Château peurayne
Lobster mayonnaise with Rosinante oil (probably not actually made out of Don Quixote’s old nag)
Peas à la Française, cauliflowers in parmesan
Served with Volney
Entremets (desserts, in English)
Gelée de pieds de cheval au marasquin (horse hoof jelly with cherry liqueur)
Zéphirs sautés à l’huile chevaleresque (I believe these are “Zefirs“, which seem to be somewhere between a marshmallow and a meringue. Tossed in horse oil?)
Gâteaux vétérinaire à la Decroix (cake made with horse oil instead of butter; named for Decroix himself)
Feuillantines aux pommes des Hespérides (tarts with apples from the Hesperides, nymphs of Greek mythology who tended the goddess Hera’s golden orchard)
Served with Saint-Peray
Crême aux truffes (truffle cream)
Sorbets contre-préjugés (sorbets against prejudice)
Served with liqueurs
Marmalade au kirsch
Gâteau d’Italie au fromage Chester, etc.
Served with fine Bordeaux wines, Madeira and coffee
Buffet (in case you were still hungry)
Collared horse-head (another pun, I believe. I think to “collar” a piece of meat meant to pot it, although the pun on “horse collar” was doubtless relished)
Baron of horse (sirloin and legs. Carried in by four men and accompanied by “Roast Beef of England”. It weighed 280lbs)
Boiled withers (definitely not hungry now)