Putting the horse(meat) before the carte
With the horse meat scandal giving diners from Aberdeen to Zurich cause to reflect on what actually constitutes ‘beef’ these days, Greedy Girl has recalled some of the more surprising and, on occasion, distasteful morsels she’s been exposed to over the years. She can’t help but think, though, that the issue wasn’t necessarily one of flavour (most times) but rather of awareness.
Many diners lucky enough to have snared a spot at Copenhagen’s Noma, and rubbed it in Greedy Girl’s face by writing about it, have commented that they baulked at one of Rene Redzepi’s signature dishes – a live shrimp. There’s something about popping something still wriggling in one’s mouth that evokes a visceral response; given this is the ‘best restaurant in the world’, chances are the taste is sublime but logical thought processes play no part. Apparently Rene has also served up live ants with a dab of creme fraiche. It’s said to be stunning, but I digress …
What passes for gastronomy in various parts of the world, is definitely in the eye of the beholder rather than necessarily the taste buds. From the intensely ‘ripe-smelling’ Durian fruit in Singapore to Antonio Carluccio sitting down with Italian shepherds to tuck into maggot-infested cheese (also likely to be very ripe smelling), lots of ‘treats’ abound that take a considerable amount of courage to consume.
Australia is no slouch when it comes to cooking and eating what others would consider exotic produce. We are, possibly, the only populace that eats its national symbols, specifically kangaroo and emu – the two animals that feature on our coat of arms. Greedy Girl has devoured several fillets of ‘skippy’, usually accompanied by a robust red wine jus. She’s yet to eat emu but apparently it has an iron content two to three times greater than beef, is low in fat and calories and is said to be delicious. Certainly, seeing it on a menu would give Greedy Girl no reason to cringe or hesitate, being an avowed carnivore, but would an American heartily tuck into a dish of ‘bald eagle’ or a Japanese person roast a crane?
But it is said that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Horse meat apparently is a delicacy in Kazakhstan. Dog meat is still on the menu in Korea. Having travelled to Seoul, Greedy Girl can’t be sure if pooch featured in the stir fry. If she’d eaten it unawares, chances are she may have enjoyed it. Ignorance, however, doesn’t always mean gastronomic bliss.
On her first international trip, Greedy Girl found herself guest of honour at a banquet in Hong Kong. The first course looked like a transparent noodle, cut into small lengths. They were exceptionally slimy and picking them up with chopsticks was tricky but having successfully transported it from bowl to mouth, Greedy Girl’s tastebuds were assaulted. Simply, it was the most putrid mouthful ever – period. It was jellyfish. Note to self: never again.
So, should it be a gastronomic mantra to try everything once and the good things twice? Kids continually aggravate their parents by pronouncing ‘they don’t like’ a particular food – when they’ve never tried it. Are we just as frustrating if we claim to be foodies yet refuse to try something our intellect tells us should be a ‘no-go’ zone?
Greedy Girl grew up enjoying a Saturday morning breakfast treat – pan-fried black pudding. She then discovered what it was made from and promptly refused another bite, until last year’s visit to the amazing Steirereck in Vienna, where a roll from the bread trolley was studded with it. Heavy, potent and very tasty.
Another rare treat as a child was crumbed sweetbreads. Again, they went off the menu for decades when it was helpfully pointed out (by an older brother, naturally) that they were the thymus and/or pancreas of a calf (usually) or lamb. In several wonderful meals they have been the main event, or dotted on the plate like little crunchy counterpoints to a soft fillet. Absolutely delicious.
For most of her life, Greedy Girl refused to eat such things as sushi or liver – the very idea provoked a mental block. Introduced to sushi through the ubiquitous hand roll, it was a delightfully slippery slope and Greedy Girl now prefers her salmon and tuna in their sashimi state.
Gluttonous husband was particularly delighted, in the early years of our food odyssey, to eat Greedy Girl’s share of foie gras whenever it presented on a tasting menu. That was until a trip to France in 2007 and lunch at the amazing Le Train Bleu at the Gare de Lyon in Paris. A seared ‘steak’ (too big to be a slice) of foie gras was served on a bed of rocket and slices of warmed pear – it was the standard starter at the time for the ‘express’ menu.
Greedy Girl decided not to repeat her personal mantra of: ‘I don’t like liver’, and give it a try. Gluttonous husband wolfed his plate down, expecting a double helping – but he was disappointed. The buttery softness combined exceptionally well with the peppery rocket and the sweetness of the pear – it was a revelation to Greedy Girl that ingredients she had previously rejected in isolation were very different in the hands of a chef who knew how to create a dish. The same went for eel – until it was presented with crunchy spring beets and the softest bone marrow at the Royal Mail Hotel in Dunkeld, about four hour’s drive from Melbourne. A culinary destination if ever there was one.
More recently, Greedy Girl twice put her hand up for duck’s tongues at Loam on the Bellarine Peninsula, about an hour-and-a-half from Melbourne. While Loam’s menu is highly seasonal, they were on offer on both visits, in July and September. These were not masked by other ingredients in terms of their appearance. They were dotted on the plate looking like, well, very thin, rather long tongues – each one quite small. Not for the faint-hearted in terms of visual appeal they were, in fact, delicious. Sadly, Loam announced in early May 2013 that it was closing its doors.
Substituting horse meat for beef, is clearly not on. Everyone deserves to know what they’re eating and, if the ingredient is exotic or esoteric, to make an informed decision as to whether to trust the chef’s skills and palate and give it a go. If Greedy Girl ever finds herself in Kazakhstan, would she taste horse meat as part of a local delicacy? It would depend on how the dish is prepared, but would not be an unequivocal ‘no’. Jellyfish, on the other hand …