Falling at the first

How an attempt at the Langham hotel to convince the British of the merits of horse meat met with a determined ‘nay’

Words: Tom Hughes

When the Langham Hotel opened on Portland Place in 1865, it was proclaimed to be the largest and most modern establishment in London. Nearly a century and a half later the Langham remains one of the truly iconic grand hotels in the city. The names on the hotel register read from King Edward VII to Princess Diana, Churchill to de Gaulle, Oscar Wilde to Noel Coward.

One of the more memorable evenings in the annals of the hotel was 6th February 1868, when a select group of gentlemen sat down to the Banquet Hippophagique or, what the cynics insisted on calling the Great Horse Dinner. England had just come through another of those periodic outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease, similar to that of 2001, and the beef industry had been badly affected. The wealthy were always able to find safe viands for their table but the supply of edible and affordable beef for the poor had nearly disappeared. This gave rise to a campaign for the English to set aside their prejudices and eat horse meat. What better way to educate the English palate to the delights of hippophagy than to put on a grand meal in the finest dining room in London?

The Langham’s spectacular Salle à Manger was some 140 feet long by 40 feet wide, beneath a 24- foot ceiling supported by faux Carrara marble columns. The kitchen staff below moved plates to the dining room via a small tram that served several small lifts. The workings of the Langham kitchen produced “expressions of wonderment” to all who had the chance to visit. On this occasion, the noble room above was set for 150; the cost of the meal was a guinea-and-a-half. The guests included numerous MPs, leading medical men, scientists, and journalists (who, of course, will never look a gift horse in the mouth).

When all had been seated, Algernon Sidney Bicknell, the principal organiser, cheerfully acknowledged the wags and punsters who were present. He had heard all the jokes before, he warned them, “straight from the horse’s mouth”.

Serious purpose
But Bicknell asserted there was a serious purpose for the gathering. With so much poverty and hunger in London, it was simply wrong that 75,000 horses a year were knackered and all that good meat wasted. Prejudices were to blame. Pigs were vile creatures and England loved its pork. Horses, on the other hoof, were quite fastidious eaters. The point of the banquet was to make clear that horse meat tastes good and, at less than three-pence a pound, was quite affordable.

Enough talk, the diners were chomping at the bit. The menus were handed out. They’d been written almost entirely in French, so it helped to know that the French word for horse is ‘cheval’. There were to be 10 courses in total, with several options available for each course. The soup was ‘le consommé du cheval’. The hors d’oeuvres included “les saucisses de cheval aux Pistaches Syriaques”. The main courses were carried into the room with great solemnity as a Beefeater (ironically) played the Roast Beef of Old England on his cornet.

Placed before the multitude were “le filet de Pegase roti aux pomme de terre a la crème”, “la culotte de cheval draisee aux chevaux-des-frise” and, lastly, “kromeskya a la Gladiateur”. (The latter was a croquette of horse meat that had been named for the reigning turf champion of the day. Happily for Gladiateur himself, the steed was still running at the time and later lived out a long and happy life in stud.) Those diners who had an appetite for afters were then tempted with such delights as “la gelee de pieds de cheval au marasquin” or “les zephirs sautes a l’huile chevaleresque”.

Mr Bicknell graciously conceded that anything would taste good when prepared in a fine kitchen, served well-sauced and accompanied by excellent wines. But to prove that horse meat was also an affordable and practical meal for the poor, the gentlemen were urged to sample the buffet, where cheaper cuts of horse meat had been prepared without any fussy Gallic cooking techniques. There was plainly no need to Frenchify the buffet for the masses: the selection was limited to “collared horse head, a roast of Baron, and boiled withers”.

Victorian oddball
You could not have held such a meal in London without the presence of Frank Buckland. One of those true Victorian oddballs, Buckland was trained as a doctor, but became England’s foremost naturalist. Today he would most likely be starring in some kind of reality show on Channel 4. He was also a zoöphagist—an eater of exotic animals. His father, a country cleric, had fed the children battered mice and squirrel, and from those culinary beginnings Frank had set out to eat the entire animal kingdom. In his home near Regent’s Park, he set up a test kitchen to feed his wary guests anything from eland to stewed mole.

Plainly, Buckland’s verdict on horse meat was going to be vital to the effort and the hippophagists waited with as much trepidation as modern restaurateurs cross their ladles in the hope of a kind word from AA Gill or Fay Maschler. Alas, Buckland crushed them. Perhaps once you have enjoyed the ambrosia of a stewed mole, horse flesh seems rather a step down. But Buckland insisted that he had sampled everything on the menu and, with no offence meant to the efforts of the Langham’s excellent kitchen, he couldn’t abide any of it. “The meat is nasty,” he wrote in a public letter, with “an unwanted and peculiar taste that could be disagreeably recognised.”

The whole room smelled, he said, of a hard-ridden horse put up in a stall. During the dinner, he stood up to look around at his fellow diners. He thought most of them seemed to take their fork in hand with a shudder. Each bite was quickly washed down with a quaff of the plentiful champagne kindly made available by the Langham. Buckland noted that while all the bottles went back empty, very few of the plates were clean. He declared that horse meat should be left for starving travellers, hunters, and “cavalry troops separated from their commissariat”.

Suffered tortures
Buckland was not alone. A writer who attended on behalf of an American publication disclosed that the after-effects of the dinner were most unpleasant, “I confess that I suffered tortures over which I will draw a veil.” But, generally speaking, the reviews were at least polite. The reporter from the Penny Illustrated Paper informed his readers: “It is quite possible to dine off horse, even your first meal, without nausea.”

The attendee from the Medical Times found everything served at the main table to be quite palatable. However, he sampled a cut of the “roast of Baron” off the buffet and found that it “left a pungency on the palate that is not agreeable and stays with the diner for some time.” Such neigh-sayers, if you’ll pardon the expression, did not ruin the evening. The organisers had done their own sampling of opinions among the tables and boasted that the far more widely held opinion was that horseflesh is “fine in texture, tender in quality and unimpeachable in flavour”.

The Hippophagic enthusiasm was soon an all but forgotten dietary crank. The English just never could get the taste for it. Some blamed the proponents for over-selling their case. They should have set out to prove only that horse meat is better than no meat at all, not that it rivals beef or pork. Horse meat found its way to very few English sideboards –knowingly, at least. Less scrupulous butchers were always out there and customers were warned to be wary of “sausage makers of hippophagic tendencies”.