Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Raw History of Steak Tartare

Interesting and disgusting all at the same time...from the New York Times News Service.


Thirty years ago in Normandy, a Frenchwoman with whom I was boarding insisted on feeding me raw horsemeat every Wednesday as a restorative for what she regarded as my weak constitution.

She would buy the meat, finely ground, from a butcher shop with a golden horse head hanging over the door - the sign of butchers who sell horsemeat in France - and mix it with salt, pepper, mustard, chopped shallots, parsley and a raw egg. I ate it with fries and a piece of baguette. I went on to work that summer on a horse farm and have not eaten one of those animals since, but the primordial appeal of uncooked meat stayed with me...

My horsemeat experience had led me to believe the widely repeated myth that steak tartare was a horsemeat dish that originated with the horse-eating Mongols of Central Asia who swept across Central Europe 800 years ago. The most common tale is that Tatar horsemen would place a slice of horsemeat beneath their saddle in the morning and retrieve it, tenderized by the pounding, to eat raw for dinner. They supposedly left their raw-meat-eating habit behind, and, according to one version of the story, it was carried by German sailors to Hamburg, where the taste for ground beef begat both hamburgers and steak tartare.

But as with many good tales, a little research suggests it's not true: "The Cambridge Medieval History" of 1924 says the story was started by early chroniclers who saw Mongol horsemen putting thin slices of raw meat beneath their saddles, but that the meat was meant to help heal the horses' sores rather than fill the men's stomachs. The book notes that the meat would have been impregnated with sweat and inedible by the end of the day.

The dish may have started out as horsemeat, and, if so, Germans did play a role, but not by bringing the Tatars' horsemeat-eating habits to France. The Roman Catholic Church banned the consumption of horsemeat in Europe in medieval times, and France developed a taste for the noble steed only when beef ran short in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war.

Boucheries chevalines have been around ever since, and because of a relative lack of parasites in the meat and a belief in its therapeutic powers, raw horsemeat became a kind of health food that is still eaten by some people today, though it has rarely appeared in restaurants.

Raw chopped beefsteak first appeared on menus in France's grand hotels at the turn of the 20th century, when expanding European tourism fueled a period of culinary cross-pollination. Here is where Soulier may be right: The dish was originally called "beefsteack a l'Americaine."

"It was an epoque of internationalism in restaurants," explains Patrick Rambourg, the French food historian, though he says it's not clear why the dish was associated with America. In any case the dish did not become popular until later in the century.

"The vogue for steak tartare really started after the Second World War, in the 1950s," he said.

Beefsteack a l'Americaine (as it was spelled at the time) was served with a raw egg yolk atop the raw ground meat and with capers, chopped onion and chopped parsley on the side. Steak tartare was originally a derivative dish, named not for raw-meat-eating Tatars, but for the tartar sauce that was served with it.

Tartar sauce had appeared earlier in the century and anything served with it was known as "a la tartare." Alexandre Dumas mentioned "goat a la tartare" in his 1846 novel, "The Count of Monte Cristo" and Honore de Balzac wrote about "eel a la tartare" four years later, around the time of his death.

The sauce bore little resemblance to the glutinous pickle-dotted muddle Americans eat with their fish sticks today [our bland and greasy tartar sauce -- yuck], but was a subtler melange of pureed hard-boiled egg yolks, vinegar, chives and oil...

The whole raw tale [sorry, I couldn't resist] can be read at The Raw Truth: Don't Blame the Mongols (or their horses) by Craig S. Smith

May. 19, 2005 12:00 AM

1 comment:

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