Durham University expert outlines food taboos

A lecturer at Durham University is to give a talk examining history links to the horsemeat uproar

Rowan Griffiths Mealworm spaghetti
Mealworm spaghetti

The uproar over horsemeat in supermarket products wasn’t simply about flaws in the food chain, claims a North East expert.

The reaction was also down to food taboos which stretch back centuries.

Behind the horsemeat row are deep-rooted cultural beliefs that horses for courses should not extend to the British dining table.

Dr John-Henry Clay, lecturer in early medieval history at Durham University, will be giving a talk tomorrow at 11am on food taboos at Newcastle’s Blackfriars restaurant.

it is the latest in a series of lectures jointly presented by the restaurant – itself based in a medieval building – and the university’s Institute for Medieval and Early Modern Studies which provide food for thought for diners.

Dr Clay said: “The 2013 horsemeat affair deeply upset British consumers and revealed how sensitive our society can still be about what animals we should and should not eat.”

While eating lambs is okay, animals such as horse and dog are no-go.

Dr Clay said that the horsemeat taboo goes back as far as far as the Old Testament, and it was also alien to Roman culture- although they were partial to dormouse.

“The Romans didn’t believe in eating horses but the Germanic barbarian peoples did and in early medieval times the Church tried to stamp this out,” said Dr Clay.

In 732, Pope Gregory II heard that the Germans, only recently converted to Christianity, were horse-eaters and condemned this as “filthy and abominable.”

Even today, horsemeat is a divide between French and British culture.

Dr Clay said: “Horsemeat is very lean and good for you. But they have also been seen as useful and economically valuable animals who are friends to Man.

“Eating horses or not is a cultural thing and the horsemeat row shows how deeply it is ingrained in our culture.” The same applies to eating dogs, which historically is part of some Far Eastern cultures, and insects.

“Not eating dogs is an unwritten rule for us, as is cannibalism,” said Dr Clay.

There have also been changes in which parts of animals are considered suitable for eating.

Not so long ago items like heart, brain and pigs’ trotters were on the menu, while many people ate rabbit regularly.

“We are now more choosy about what parts we eat. It is almost as if we don’t like to be reminded that we are eating what was a living creature,” said Dr Clay.

Most medieval people were largely vegetarian because meat was expensive and seldom available.

“If they came back they would be amazed at modern people eating meat every day,” said Dr Clay.

Blackfriars owner Andy Hook said: “We will be providing a medieval lunch, although horsemeat will emphatically not be in any of the dishes!”


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