Russians’ love of horse has one chef cringing
Italian chef Valentino Bontempi, who owns a restaurant in Moscow, said horse meat is leaner than beef and more healthful, with higher iron content.
The New York Times
MOSCOW — Uryuk, a chain of Uzbek teahouse restaurants with a dozen locations in Moscow, offers two types of horse sausage on its appetizer menu.
Kostanay, a Kazakh restaurant in the city center, serves beshbarmak, a horse stew with noodles, potatoes and onions that is a beloved dish throughout Central Asia, as well as boiled horse filet and horse and potato baked on an iron skillet.
Safa, which calls itself a “meat-ware factory,” supplies halal horse meat to many of Moscow’s biggest supermarkets, including sausages and cuts for smoking, boiling or baking. It is also easy in Russia to find canned horse meat.
All of this is a bit of an outrage to Valentino Bontempi, an Italian chef who runs a restaurant on an island in the Moscow River, across a footbridge from the Kremlin. This is not because he agrees with the recent uproar in Europe over horse meat; quite the contrary: Russians, he said, have no clue about cooking horse and could be enjoying it so much more.
“In Russia, they don’t know the parts, in which place they have to cut,” Bontempi said in an interview, with a note of exasperation. “They don’t have the culture,” he said. “In Russia, it is impossible.”
The first item on the chalkboard by the door to Bontempi’s restaurant is a horse filet grilled on coals, a steak so tender, rich and delicious that a jury of avowed meat lovers could easily mistake for a porterhouse.
Bontempi, who varies his menu to keep guests guessing, also regularly prepares horse tartare — presented as two gently sculptured brown-red lumps of raw meat that spread butterlike on toast-points — and bruschetta sprinkled with garlic, melted cheese and dried, grated horse jerky, each thread providing a deep meaty burst of flavor.
While the controversy has piqued new interest in horse meat in Europe, with some butcher shops in France and Germany reporting a recent spike in sales, Bontempi, 45, has always served horse dishes, a reflection of his love for the meat developed as a child growing up in Lombardy.
“When I was little, my mother — three times a week she prepared horse meat for me,” he said.
Once started on the topic, Bontempi could barely take a breath. “It is wonderful on top of pizza,” he said. “Hamburger with horse is wonderful.”
Among his favorites: bresaola from horse; a horse tagliata — the slices of rare meat topped with salad greens and Parmesan; stracotto, a stew cooked simply with red wine and cinnamon; a hanger steak made from horse diaphragm; horse salami, and tortellini filled with horse meat.
Bontempi said horse meat is leaner than beef and more healthful, with higher iron content — evidenced by a mineral quality far more intense than beef.
Despite horse meat being commonly available in Moscow, the recent outcry that began in Ireland over horse mixed with meat labeled beef has spread to Russia.
Russian authorities banned meat imports from Austria after detecting horse DNA in Austrian-made hot dogs.
Last week, Ikea, the furniture giant also known for its restaurants, said it had found horse meat in sausages in all 14 of its stores in Russia. Ikea had previously detected traces of horse in meatballs in the Czech Republic. Food safety officials said the sausages were made by a Russian company called Remit.
In parts of Russia and throughout Central Asia, horse is a central feature in traditional cuisine and is considered almost mandatory on special occasions.
Expert butchers leave no part of a horse unused, and while they might disagree with Bontempi on whose horse cooking is tastier, they readily agree with his view that horse is healthier than other meats.
Rafael Nasyrov, the owner of Safa, the halal “meat-ware factory,” said he sells horse, lamb, beef and poultry but that he likes horse meat best.
“Horse meat is more useful for health, it has a lower cholesterol content,” he said, adding that it also has a lower fat content and is more easily and quickly digested than beef.
Nasyrov, who is of Kazakh ancestry, said some Central Asians attribute Genghis Khan’s military successes to horse meat because eating horse meant never needing to slow down.
Nasyrov said he has customers from as far away as London who buy his halal horse meat because it cannot be found elsewhere.
The relatively lower price of horse, he said, most likely provided motivation for some producers to mix horse with beef.
But even as a fan of horse meat, he found the dishonesty in labeling unforgivable, he said.
Russia is heavily dependent on meat imports from Europe, and officials in Moscow said they have stepped up inspection efforts in response to the horse meat controversy. Some officials have suggested the European horse meat could contain traces of carcinogenic drugs.
Nasyrov buys much of his horse meat from trusted producers in Tatarstan, the heavily Muslim region east of Moscow where, he said, residents ascribe even greater attributes to eating horse.
“Horse meat,” he said, “is the Tatar’s Viagra.”