When I was in Ghent, Belgium a couple of weeks back, our local guide ordered a dish which I was not familiar with. Beef Tartar- which consisted of raw beef, minced and then mixed with a raw egg, some mustard, pepper and Worchester sauce and eaten with a side of fries. I then found out that it’s a very common dish served in America too! Why Tartar, I wondered, and my research led me to very interesting facts. The Oxford Dictionary says that a Tartar is a person who is fierce and difficult to deal with... The Tartars were nomadic horsemen of Turkish- Mongol descent who controlled and terrorised a large part of Central Europe in the 13th century. They pillaged homes and spread fear. Lore has it that the name Tartar originated from the people’s cries- as they heard the trrtrr of the hooves and said that the ‘ trrtrr’ people were coming! Another version has it that its origin is the Latin word ‘Tartarus’, which means savage or barbaric.
The origin of the dish? They say that the Tartars tenderised and marinated the horse meat by placing it under their saddles. As they rode horses all day, they ate this, cutting it into small bits and adding some pepper and spices. I also read another version, which says that this was a misinterpretation: the horsemen did place the meat under their saddles, but this was to treat the horses’ sores! I am inclined to believe the first version;maybe all their aggression and power stemmed from the energy source of raw meat and spices? Reports suggest that this raw meat recipe was carried by German soldiers to their country and was the origin of hamburgers and steaks!
There’s also Tartar Sauce that we are familiar with- mayonnaise with pickled cucumber, capers, onions and Dijon Mustard, commonly served with fish. The French call it Sauce tartare- loosely translated, tartare means rough..the tartars were after all considered rough and savage!
Dishes centred on raw meat exist in almost every culture- Carpaccio and Sashimi, for example. Of course there are the inherent dangers of contamination in raw meat and to some people the very idea of ‘raw’ is nauseous. And in a totally unconnected aside. does this have any connection with the dental tartar- the salts of tartaric acid deposited on our teeth? Words..words they fascinate me!