This story was originally published in Dutch on MUNCHIES NL.
There are so many reasons to avoid eating horse meat. Horses are regal animals and they were indispensable to humans before the steam engine was invented. You can also spend days combing and brushing horses, and braiding their manes the way my sisters used to when they were younger. Some people feel worse eating horses than they would eating other animals, and worse eating them than cremating them, which is what happens to farm animals that aren't fit for consumption after they die.
There are also many reasons to be in favor of eating horse meat. Horses aren't bred to end up on a plate, so their meat is high quality and free of antibiotics. Most horses have had a long life on their respective farms, and their meat is lean and contains a lot of iron. You could argue that eating one horse steak a month is better than eating an organic beef steak each week.
Last month, a pop-up restaurant in Eindhoven called The Fat Pony gave diners the chance to give horse meat an honest try. The Fat Pony offered items like dry sausage and pastrami, pulled horse sandwiches with spicy cucumber salad on a bun made with horse milk, and tagliatelle with horse meat ragu and trefoil (a plant in the pea family that resembles a shamrock).
For dessert, there were oatcakes, a piece of chocolate shaped like a horse turd, carrot cake, and coffee served with horse milk upon request. When they first entered, guests might have thought they mistakenly stepped into a slaughterhouse for horses. The tables were arranged as they would at a horse show, the beer served was BrewDog's Dead Pony Club, and there was a horse-themed playlist, which included songs from Patti Smith's album Horses, Tom Waits' Pony, and Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones.
"We did a lot of brainstorming, came up with plenty of horse puns while we were out drinking, and did research, both on farms and at butcher shops selling horse meat," said artist Woody Veneman. "A lot of people immediately think of the horse meat scandal. Why does horse meat have such a bad rep? That's what we wanted to figure out."
For the past two months, Veneman developed the idea along with his co-founders Josine Beugels, Margriet Craens, and Lucas Maassen, and 14 students at ArtCoDe, as part of Dutch Design Week. One student, Sophie Kleuskens, created horse-meat extract in her dorm room by putting pieces of horse meat in bottles of vodka. With this extract, she made several kinds of soft candy from scratch.
A week before the opening of the restaurant, a small group went to the horse slaughterhouse in the town of Best to witness the slaughter of the horse they would be serving in the restaurant. "The man who runs the slaughterhouse said, 'I wouldn't do this. You'll experience all kinds of backlash,'" Veneman recalled. "He remembers the days when activists would be posted outside of the market where he used to buy his horses. Both he and his son, who is a butcher, think it's very cool that we're doing this, because nobody eats horse meat anymore. And if people eat it, it's always either steak or sausage." The aim of the artists was to really put the horse on the map in its entirety.
Beugels and Craens, who run a catering company and have been cooking together at festivals for the past ten years, created the menu. Ultimately, the restaurant served a little bit more than one whole horse.
"Working with horse meat is similar to working with beef, though [the meat] has more of an iron flavor to it", said Beugels. "You need to balance that out with different flavors, like appelstroop" (a Dutch version of apple butter). Perfecting the pulled horse meat was the most difficult task. "Horse meat is a lot less fatty than pork, so if you only put it in the oven, it becomes very tough" Beugels said. A week and a half before the restaurant opened, she had a moment of clarity. "I was at Effenaar (a rock venue in the town of Eindhoven) and Josine came in with a piece of silver foil and said, 'I did it!'" Veneman said. The solution was sous vide: slowly cooking it for about 12 hours, so the moisture doesn't escape.
The real reason the restaurant came into being can be found on Beugels' own forehead. She has bangs, and the Dutch word for bangs is 'pony.' "When you're cooking, the hair on your forehead gets all greasy because of the fumes," she said. "We thought Fat Pony would be a fun name for a restaurant. And with a name like that, we had to cook with horse meat."
The fact that an entire restaurant was started because of a hair joke keeps the atmosphere light, and that's exactly what the group is aiming for. "What we're trying to avoid is being moralistic," Veneman said. "Horse meat is healthy, and yet nobody eats it. Why would you eat a cow, but not a horse? Once you have eaten here, you can decide for yourself."
We shared the pulled horse and the charcuterie plate to start, and for a main course I chose the Italian stew. The meat was a little chewy, which is actually not bad. When I went to the restroom, I caught Veneman lighting a candle in front of a polaroid picture of the horse, which sits on a small shelf in the bathroom stall. "This is (our horse) Ademo," Venema said. I greeted the horse, and felt at peace.