Braised or roasted, sir?
France is shocked by the news that a man has been caught eating his dogs. But why are we so horrified by the idea of cooking our pets? Matthew Fort investigates
Friday 26 May 2000
Earlier this week Jean-Louis Lacoste was fined £300 in France for eating an unknown number of the dogs in his care. Sadly, the reports in the newspapers here told us nothing about how he cooked them. Did he, for example, braise them with soy sauce, sugar, fermented bean curd, dried bean curd, water and rice wine to make the classic Chinese dish of hon tsao go zo (red cooked dog)? Or did he favour the Hawaiian style of spatchcocking them and grilling them on the barbecue with sweet potatoes?
Of course, it could never happen here. In a country where a large number of people will take direct action on behalf of veal calves and mink (although not for the less appealing battery chickens or farmed salmon), Lacoste would probably have been lynched by a mob of Barbara Cartland lookalikes long before he got to court.
It’s many years since dog and cat have been on the menu in the western world, with the exception of aberrations such as the Swiss gedörrtes hundefleisch (dried dog meat) and the Spanish recipe caldo de gato Extremadura (Estremaduran cat stew in which the feline is cooked in white wine with bay leaves and thyme and served with broad beans, carrots, turnips, potatoes and onions). But this wasn’t always the case.
At the same time that the Greeks were debating the shape of political institutions and the transmigration of souls, they were also partial to a spot of dog. Indeed, Hippocrates recommended dog or puppy flesh as part of a health-giving diet. But subsequently their position as our most favoured domestic companions, frequently with human qualities ascribed to them, has created a taboo against eating them almost as powerful as that of cannibalism.
There has never been the same prohibition in other parts of the world against eating dog or cat. The Mexican hairless dog was a prime food source for the Aztecs. In his landmark work, Unmentionable Cuisine, Calvin W Schwabe lists 10 recipes for dog and four for cat, covering China, Ghana, Hawaii, Burma and the Philippines, as well as those from Switzerland and Spain already described. He fails to mention Korea, where there is a fine tradition for eating dog (indeed, there is said to be a Korean restaurant in New Malden where you may be served dog if you ask for it politely), and he only touches briefly on the Filipino passion for dog, which is so great that the government had to control the consumption after several people contracted rabies as a result of eating rabid animals.
Generally speaking, Europeans have only turned to eating dog flesh in extremis. During the siege of Paris in 1870, a contemporary calculated that Parisians ate 1,200 dogs, 5,000 cats and 65,000 horses before they turned to rats and the contents of the Paris zoo with the same enthusiasm and ingenuity that they reserve for more conventional foods.
No doubt in similar circumstances we British would eventually take to the same course of action, albeit with rather more soul-searching. “I had a slice of spaniel the other day,” wrote the English journalist and member of parliament, Henry Labouchere, in a report from Paris during the siege, adding that “it made me feel like a cannibal”. Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expedition team to the Antarctic, trapped in the polar ice, also managed to stomach man’s best friend rather than face starvation.
There has never been quite the same revulsion at the thought of eating horse meat as there has been for dog and cat. The demand may be declining now, but it is still vigorous in Belgium, Italy and France. The tradition goes back to the Romans, who would eat just about anything including door mice. Subsequently eating horse meat fell from grace because the Roman Catholic church frowned on it, associating it with pagan practices.
However, it is said that demand for this old favourite was rekindled after the Battle of Eylau when Baron Larrey, military surgeon to the First Empire, advised the exhausted French troops to eat the flesh of the dead horses, braised in the cavalry breast plates and seasoned with gunpowder, because it was a ready source of protein. La Grande Armée developed rather a taste for it, and French soldiers demanded horse meat whenever they returned home .
While we have looked to the French for so much of our culinary culture, it might be thought that we haven’t shared this particular passion for equine gastronomy. However, we haven’t always been quite so squeamish about eating horse meat.
The first serious attempt to get the British to eat chevaline occurred in 1867. Following the success of Banquet Hippographique in Paris in 1865, which included consommé de cheval, cheval bouilli aux choux, cheval à la mode and côte de cheval braise, a dinner was organised by the Society for the Propagation of Horse Flesh at the Langham Hotel, following a sharp rise in the price of beef as a result of an epidemic among cattle – a familiar enough tale.
At the time it was reported that several shops were doing a roaring trade in horse meat, no doubt helped by the fact that it was considerably cheaper than beef.
In spite of this early success horse did not become the meat of choice, but its consumption in parts of the country survived until relatively recently. In particular, Yorkshire used to be a hotbed of equine gourmets, the last butcher devoted to the preparation of horse meat closing in Bradford in 1938. And now there are persistent rumours about horse butchery making a surreptitious return to the meat counter. It is said that there’s a butcher selling horse meat in Birmingham and of another in Brixton market.
At the beginning of the BSE disaster some authorities in this country saw horse meat as a ready substitute for beef, pointing out that it had the additional advantages of being extremely healthy. It is low in fat and free of any form of prophylactic antibiotics. There was even a proposal that the anthem of the television cowboy Roy Rogers to his horse Trigger could be adapted as an advertising jingle, along the lines of: “A four-legged friend, a four-legged friend, he’ll never let you down. Tender and tasty right up to the end, that wonderful one, two, three, four-legged friend.”
Not surprisingly this solution did not catch on, in part because the horses that once might have fulfilled the specifications are too much in demand for leisure. By the time they’ve seen out their days as mounts for Thelwell kids, their meat is fit only for dogs or cats, a neat irony.
In case you’re wondering what you’re missing by not tucking into dog, the food writer Paul Levy, who really is the man who has eaten everything, says that the braised dog that he was served in Hong Kong “was quite fatty and looked like pork” and “was chewy, and had a very strong, though not disagreeable, flavour, like mutton, venison or goat”.