Horses for courses: Why Dartmoor is eating its ponies
At the Powdermills Pottery Café, in one particularly green fold of Dartmoor’s 386sq mile national park, a freezer is attracting a lot of attention. It sits plum in the centre of the shop with shelves marked in twos: “fillet & rib eye”, “diced & sirloin”, “rump & mince”.
But rather than beef, it is full of taffety (Devonshire dialect for “delicate on the palate”), otherwise known as Dartmoor Hill pony meat sourced from the herds that have grazed these scrubby moorlands for 3,500 years.
Café owner Joss Hibbs, who has lived in Dartmoor for 18 years, has sold the controversial meat here for a little over a year alongside Devonshire cream scones, ginger cake and gluten-free apple flapjacks.
“I have one customer who leaves with two carrier bags full. Another bought four pony steaks and returned to say it’s the best meat he has ever had,” she says. “Most people start with the sausages and burgers and move on to the steaks when they’re braver. When it first launched, I assumed all my windows would be broken. Although some people don’t want to eat it and object, there is the quiet majority who don’t.”
And though, in this nation of horse-lovers, many will shudder at the thought, pony chorizo is fast becoming a staple at the smartest dinner parties and on the menus of the best restaurants throughout Dartmoor and the South West.
Chefs love it for its versatility and, according to locals, it sits on the flavour spectrum somewhere between beef and venison: sweeter than the former but with a subtle gamey flavour due to the Dartmoor Hill pony’s varied, free-range diet. At 110 calories per 100 grams, the calorie content is less than comparable volumes of minced beef steak or roasted lamb.
Chris Maynard, 50, a chef in Newton Abbot, is a proponent, pointing out that countries such as France, Italy, Spain and China have sold horse meat for years. “There is no reason you can’t have it as a roasting joint on a Sunday. It is just the same as beef. It works with some of the sweeter sauces and exceptionally well with wild berries and mushrooms. It is very low in cholesterol, high in Omega-3. As meats go, really, it is a super meat.”
DCM’s founder, Charlotte Faulkner, who runs the Dartmoor Hill Pony Association, is a reluctant proponent of the pony meat market: “It has been a very serious problem for a long while. We are hanging on by a fingernail,” she says as we zip along Dartmoor’s lanes in an ancient white Land Rover. “It has been a long-term plan. It wasn’t an overnight thing of me thinking, ‘Oh, let’s eat some ponies’. I was so scared of the reaction everyone was going to have.”