"Hold on, let me wash my hands quickly," says Appie Botter when I catch him by phone. "I was up to my elbows in horse."
At Ernste, a horse butcher shop in Arnhem, Netherlands, it's been much busier than usual over the last few days. The shop, which has been around since 1899, was recently placed into the Dutch media spotlight when newspaper Volkskrant food writer Mac Dinther wrote about his concern over the possibility that the shop—one of the last horse butchers in our country—might have to close its doors.
Luckily, Botter—a cook turned horse butcher apprentice—wants to take over the reins from retiring butcher William Brugman. But such an acquisition costs a few hundred thousand euros. "Banks think that investing their money into a horse butcher is a huge risk," says Botter. "They think that the craft is dying in to the last few years, since lots of horse butchers have disappeared due to the meat [being] eaten less and less."
But according to Botter, that's complete nonsense. "The nice thing about this area is that there are many people who have been coming here for years for the horse sausage, which we are really famous for," he says. "I have customers who come all the way from Didam and Heereveen specifically for the sausage."
Meanwhile, the neighborhood that the shop lives within, Klarendal, is changing. After the violence and prostitution of the 80s, it transformed from a typical bad Dutch neighborhood into a collection of boutique clothing stores and ateliers in the Arnhem Fashion District. "These new inhabitants are really into buying organic and artisanal foods, but this new group is curious about horse meat and the story behind it," says Botter.
The campaign "Red paardenslager Ernste!"—which means "save Ernste horse butcher shop"—might be a case of being at right place the right time. Traditionally, horse butchers have thrived in working-class neighborhoods because the meat has historical connotations as a poor man's food. And like other large cities throughout the Netherlands, gentrification has invaded these areas to replace cornerstone shops with trendy coffee bars and clothing stores.
Gastropub Sugar Hill, for example, which hosts hip-hop parties during the weekends, opened three years ago, just a few hundred yards down the street from the butcher. Chef and owner Werry van Leeuwen is an ambassador of the horsemeat cause. Van Leeuwen is known for cooking with organs, unusual cuts of meat, and forgotten vegetables like parsnips, but has never cooked with any of the horse meat from his neighbor. Given the recent media coverage, van Leeuwen is helping to support Ernste by running a restaurant campaign called "Horse On the Menu."
In the process of coming up with a tasty dish at his restaurant for the campaign, van Leeuwen flipped through some classic cookbooks for inspiration. "I found a lot of recipes for steak tartare made with horse meat, and I don't like goody-goody dishes, so I thought we'd serve it raw. That fits in with the ethos of my restaurant." Yet working with horse meat was totally new to him. "Nowhere that I have cooked or worked have I learned how to work with this; not even in the Michelin-starred kitchens I worked in as an intern or at cooking school. It's kind of ridiculous."
Now he's used to it, just like the rest of his staff—save for two girls to whom van Leeuwen refers as "horse-girls" because they dislike the meat altogether. "They don't even want to try a tiny taste because they have too much emotion involved."
Even though the chef does not recognize the complicated and emotionally charged relationship that some people have with eating horse, items like his horse steak tartare sell well on his menu. According to van Leeuwen, the demand for horse meat is an emerging trend, but one that is already an integrated part of culinary culture in revolutionary international restaurants like Le Chateaubriand in Paris. "Horse meat is somewhat softer and sweeter than beef. Everyone who eats it finds it delicious. It is not industrial flesh, but very pure, Dutch meat. There are many factories that do dirty stuff with imported horse meat, but this meat is simply coming from riding school—horses that retire or die," he tells me.
And that's the same reason that people like restaurant critic and food writer Mac van Dinther, a Slow Food supporter, takes the campaign so seriously. According to the journalist, culinary heritage is lost as butcher shops are forced to close. In the Netherlands, you can count the surviving horse butchers on one hand.
The horse meat that's sold at Ernste comes from Dutch riding school horses that are too old or injured. "There is no water added to the meat and the horses were given zero antibiotics during their lifetimes," explains Botter. "It really is the most organic meat that you can have." As for depreciated horses that are pumped full of steroids, we need not be afraid. Each horse that comes through Dutch slaughterhouses is inspected, and if there are any traces of drugs discovered, the meat is not used for human consumption.
These days, Ernste is processing up to two horses a week, making meatballs, steak, and their famous sausage, among other things. That's six hundred pounds of meat, which is considered a lot for a small business. "A horse enters our shop in four parts, without guts or the head. As a chef, you can remove the bones of a small animal, but a horse is a different story." Brugman, the retired butcher, is an expert in cutting horse into usable parts. Eighteen months ago, when Brugman was looking for a successor, there was one important skill that the apprentice must have: "someone who can hold a knife, because I can can teach them the rest."
Although Botter is currently juggling two jobs for the moment—between cooking and butchering—he was glad that there has been recent attention on the subject of horse meat so that he can try to reach young eaters along with the help from chefs like van Leeuwen. The more people that now come to appreciate horse butchers, the better his chance of becoming a successful butcher will take place. "I spoke with a horse butcher yesterday in Utrecht and also noticed that it has become busier over there," he explains. "Horse meat will not become scarce so quickly," he replies when I ask him if the attention might disappear with the recent media coverage. In the Netherlands, no horses are bred for consumption, but apparently, we've got enough horses to feed lots of mouths. There's even a surplus: According to activists, a large part of Dutch horse meat is destroyed in incinerators because there is no market for it.
Whether the rescue operation will succeed is still unclear. Botter's business plan now involves a potential investor along with a petition that's been signed by nearly three hundred people, so there is still some work to be done. While the world continues to change around the culture of horse butchery, the sausages will always remain the same.
Oh, and of course Werry van Leeuwen, who will never make a tartare with beef again.