The horsemeat lesson: always try to go direct to farmers

Head chef, Paternoster Chop House

If there’s one thing you can be sure of about the horsemeat scandal, it’s that we haven’t heard the last of it.

It’s not that we’ve been unwittingly eating horses that worries me – horse is a perfectly decent meat if treated correctly. On the continent it’s a hugely popular (and cheaper) alternative to beef. Steak frites, for example, is often horse unless it specifically says otherwise. I would happily eat it – but that’s not to say I think we should see more of it on British plates. It tends to be quite dry and tough, and while it’s leaner than beef, I don’t think it beats it on any other measure apart from price.
But the whole saga raises wider issues regarding provenance. There is a demand for information about the food we’re buying, but how much do we really know? Do free-range animals have acres of farmland to roam in all day or is the reality a bit less picturesque? Is organic food totally chemical-free and is it worth paying more for? And what on earth does “bio-dynamic” mean?

One way to know for sure what you are getting is to go direct to farmers and producers. The best ones I know have websites showing pictures and video of their animals’ environment and are happy to explain the ethos behind the way they farm if you collar them at farmers’ markets.

Granted, this may be more expensive (although not necessarily, if my local farm shop is anything to go by) but the ingredients should go further and taste much better – chicken breasts are usually fatter, bacon isn’t watery, eggs have richer, creamier yolks.

Labelling horsemeat as beef is an extreme example of customers not knowing what it is they are buying. The ongoing scandal underlines the fact that, if consumers are to get what they pay for, they have to do more than just trust the label, and that means interacting with the people who provide our food.

Horsemeat might sit happily on brasserie menus in Europe but whether or not it is a viable option for Sunday lunch, we should still know what it is we’re eating.