Parma Food: From Delectable Gelato to Delicious Horse Meat
When I first moved to Parma, I thought I’d died and gone to food heaven. It was unbelievable. I stuffed my face with torta fritta (fried bread) and prosciutto ham. I drowned pasta in parmesan cheese. I devoured countless kinds of gelato, gorged on tiramisu, sloshed glass after glass of red wine down my neck, skipped glibly from restaurant to restaurant to sample new pasta combinations. I was in part ecstatic, in part thankful that I don’t own weighing scales. No food was left untried. Except one.
“Oh yes, it’s delicious!” they beamed at me, practically salivating.
Whilst I knew Parma was famous for its ham and cheese, I definitely didn’t know that one of the region’s speciality dishes is cavallo: horse meat. It’s not eaten in many regions in Italy, but is particularly popular here. Nose wrinkled in confusion and not quite believing everyone, I asked some of my students for confirmation. They perked up at the subject.
“Oh yes, it’s delicious!” they beamed at me, practically salivating. “It’s best chopped up raw, with a bit of salt and lemon”.
A bowl of minced up, uncooked horse didn’t exactly make me want to go running to try it–even if it did come with salt and lemon. (This is apparently the selling point, mentioned tantalisingly by everyone I asked. Oh yum.) I was quite unconvinced, but I did feel I should try it at some point: sampling the culture, trying something new and all that. A lot of expats also told me how it was actually, surprisingly delicious. And I’m quite scared of horses anyway.
Despite all this, it took me a really, really long time to try it.
But what’s considered shocking in one culture is considered the norm in another.
In English culture, it’s just not considered right to eat horse. The general consensus of the idea is that of horror (even if Tesco doesn’t seem to particularly mind). Horses are considered a pet, and certainly not something to eat–even with a bit of salt and lemon.
Even in Parma, there are some ethical conflicts; whilst a lot of locals enjoy eating it, there is a growing number of people opposed to the idea. Because of this, horse can only be sold in special butchers “Carne Equina,” separate from all other meats.
But what’s considered shocking in one culture is considered the norm in another. And I felt a little hypocritical gorging away on all kinds of pork products, when I couldn’t even consider trying this. So I decided to be brave.
I went to Pepen: a famous sandwich bar in Parma, and particularly renowned for its horse. Venturing inside felt like stepping into an old-fashioned New York bar: people were perched on bar stools or milling about on the polished wooden floor, devouring sandwiches, clinking glasses of wine, and chatting amongst themselves. The sandwich man looked like he meant business: attired in a striped apron, white moustache perfectly curled and a cleaver in one hand, he appeared to be the expert in all things meat. He smiled at me knowingly when I nervously placed my order. I clearly don’t sound Italian, no matter how hard I try.
I was so surprised, I stopped eating for a moment. The meat was soft and succulent, and spiced perfectly.
When it appeared on a shiny white plate, I was still unsure. The meat was so bright and red, spiced with herbs, complete with salt, lemon and a piece of toasted bread cut into four quarters. I’d ordered it with a Coca Cola; horse and Coca Cola sounded strange to order, but nonetheless. I took a deep breath, and sampled my first bite.
It was actually delicious.
I was so surprised, I stopped eating for a moment. The meat was soft and succulent, and spiced perfectly. It didn’t feel raw, or taste particularly different from beef. I almost felt guilty that it tasted good. I ate it all and washed it down with the Coca Cola. When I finished, I almost expected some kind of epiphany moment. But I felt like the same person as before. Just a little fuller.
I’m happy I tried something different (and even happier it turned out to taste good. Phew). But I still feel slightly strange–and a little guilty–in admitting that I ate horse. My cultural ideas of eating are still very much ingrained in my mind, and no matter how scared I am of horses, it’s difficult to consider it as a meat. My students were impressed I tried it, at least.
It’s always good to try something new, and to try to understand part of a culture. Whilst I’m undecided about trying it again, I’m happy that I tried it at all. Part of travel is pushing your personal boundaries, and I definitely did so here. And I felt happy that in doing so, I learnt more about a unique part of Parmesan culture.
Complete with salt and lemon.
Parma Food: From Delectable Gelato to Delicious Horse Meat top photo by Unsplash.