As a Dutch chef, I have been raised to believe that there is nothing wrong with horse meat, but it turns out that I know nothing about the proper way to handle it, from the slaughterhouse to our plates.
According to Jolina Murris, owner of paardenarts.nl, [a practical website by equine veterinarians for horse owners,] it all starts with the horse - well, with the horse's owners. After the horse has (ideally) lived happily for a number of years, suffered an accident, or is simply becoming too old, the owner has a few options. The first is to let the animal pass away naturally. The second is euthanasia, in which a vet will assist in putting it to sleep, followed by cremation. This option costs anywhere between $525 and $1875.
And since those prices can become quite costly, some people choose a third option, the slaughterhouse, where there are many rules and regulations for butchering a horse. To being, the animal can't have any major injuries, have ingested things that could cause public health problems, and it needs a valid passport with an approval from a veterinarian that states that it is fit for slaughter. Once all of these boxes are checked, the horse's owner gets 200 to 300 euros, depending on the weight, condition, and age of the horse in exchange for the body.
According to research from [animal rights organization] Wakker Dier, in 2014, the average Dutch person consumed 168 pounds of meat that year. Of those proteins, only 3.5 ounces was horse. There used to be more butcher shops specializing in selling horse meat, but these days, almost all of the meat is shipped abroad to Belgium and France, where it's greatly appreciated.
I wanted to understand the process of what it takes to butcher a horse, so I recently visited a slaughterhouse in Van de Veen in Nijkerk, which exclusively slaughters horses, and then paid a visit to horse butcher Van Beek in Utrecht to see what the entire process—from the assessment of the living horse to slaughter and dividing the meat—looks like.
Slaughterhouse owner Jan van de Veen greets us outside before we enter the slaughterhouse through a back door. The photographer and I both notice a strange smell: a combination of horses, blood, and something else I can't really put my finger on.
"Coffee?" Jan offers.
He also wants us to put on white coats to protect us from blood splatter. He's has a point, because the coats we're given are already covered in red stains.
Downstairs, the horses enter a metal cage, one by one. They are assessed before they are moved to be slaughtered, which is usually about a week in advance. "We could have had seven today, but I had to deny three. They didn't meet all the requirements", Jan explains.
Jan then enters with the third horse of the day; a 35-year-old senior. Two ponies hang in the refrigerator, which had been freshly slaughtered earlier this morning. The process begins with a bolt that's fired into the horse's head. This freaks me out. The bolt is supposed to destroy brain activity, which is marked by the 600 pounds that suddenly crash onto the concrete floor.
Then, the horse is pulled up by one of its legs and brought into the next space. Jos, one of the artisanal horse butchers, will cut the carotid artery and catch the warm blood in a big black tub, which will be later picked up by a company that specializes in animal waste. Shortly after, a second horse (which is only about a year and a half old) is brought in, calmed down, and killed.
Once drained of the blood, the horse's legs and head are removed. Small incisions are made into the skin so it can be slowly, but artfully, removed. "Nothing goes to waste," Jan explains. "The skin is sold for a few euros and they make expensive shoes out of it. I own a pair myself. They cost me 300 euros, but they are incredibly comfortable."
The legs are used by aspiring farriers and the parts that aren't fit for human consumption will end up in animal feed. All of the organs are also used. Today, the slaughterhouse also has two visitors from a university who are currently researching a certain kind of worm that lives in horses' bowels.
Once the head, intestines, and legs are removed, the second butcher, Harnold, starts sawing the carcass in half while Jos strips the head of its skin. All of a sudden, it's much easier to watch them work. I'm no longer looking at a horse, but at meat, the way it's displayed at the butcher shop.
Once the carcass is in two pieces, it joins the two ponies that were slaughtered earlier this morning in the refrigerator.
I ask Jan if there is a difference in taste between an old horse and a younger one. "Absolutely," he says. "Old horses are a bit tougher and their meat goes much better with a glass of red wine. The horses we slaughtered today will stay here over the weekend to rest. After that, they will go to the butcher shop." Every week, he takes about two horses to Van Beek in Utrecht, but "Sometimes only one and a half," because it depends on the size of the horses.
Jan has slaughtered animals his entire life. He started with pigs and cows, but has specialized in horses for the past 25 years. He takes care of an average of ten to 14 horses a week.
"I used to slaughter on site when that was still allowed. If a farmer wanted to get a pig or cow slaughtered, I would stop by. For a pig, I charged 25 guilders [approximately $14], but a cow was more work, so I'd get paid more for slaughtering one", explains Jan. "It was good money. Those were the golden days of slaughtering, but they're over now."
A week has passed, and the photographer and I are inside horse butcher Van Beek's shop in Utrecht. The sign with a horse's head for a logo on it makes the small store easy to locate between the Turkish and Moroccan shops in the diverse neighborhood, Lombok. The storefront windows are fogged up, so we enter to take a look. An elderly couple is ordering one of the shops most popular products: smoked horse sausage.
"Would you like a slice of sausage?" Anneke, one of the owners, asks.
It's seems quite busy for a Friday morning, but we're told that people will come in from neighboring towns and beyond for the fresh horse sausages, which weigh more than 2.2 pounds a piece. "It's really busy on Saturday's, with people standing in line for the first sausages to come out of the pot", says Anneke.
While she's cutting steaks, Anneke tells us that the butcher shop is celebrating its 79 year anniversary this month. After she's done, she shows us the different kinds of meat in the case. Darker meat comes from an older horse, while the light meat is from a younger one. They use all of the meat they buy, and the pieces that aren't fit for regular sale are ground and put into the sausages. The other parts are made into ossenworst [a type of raw sausage], burgers, or steak tartare.
After tasting the smoked horse sausage, I don't understand why we don't eat more horse meat. The slaughterers and the owners of Van Beek, one of the few remaining horse butcher shops in the country, agree that horse meat is the best free range meat you can buy in The Netherlands, since no horse in the entire country is bred or kept for human consumption. Most people just aren't as familiar with horse meat, or are too scared to try it. Too bad.