Horses for main courses: a scandalously delicious meat

Once you try horse you will never go back to beef, say the family behind a horsemeat butcher shop in the Netherlands. And for curious Irish people, horse might be coming to a market near you soon

Tue, Apr 29, 2014, 01:00

Lisa Wisker (28) points to a photo of a young girl riding a horse. “That’s me with Falco when I was 11,” she says. “He was everything to me.” There are several photos of her father, Peter (65), with horses he has owned. “Some people think we must really hate horses, because we sell and eat their meat,” Wisker adds, “but no, we love them. We respect them.”

The photos hang proudly on the wall of the family business: a butcher shop in Haarlem, the Netherlands, which specialises in horsemeat. Lisa’s grandfather, Henk, opened shop in 1934 and her father, Peter, has run it since 1970. “It is a family tradition,” says Lisa. “My father was even born in the apartment upstairs.”

They prepare and sell everything, including horse mince, fillets, sausages and meat for stews. “The horse arrives from the slaughterhouse in four large parts, and we cut it up,” she says. “The best part is the tenderloin. It’s so tender, you don’t need a knife to eat it.”

In Ireland, stricter regulations following the horsemeat scandal have made it less likely that horsemeat will become an Irish standard any time soon, according to Pat Hyland, a Laois farmer who sold horsemeat skewers at the Temple Bar Saturday market in Dublin until authorities shut the practice down last year. However, he says there is definitely a market for it in Ireland.

“Most people came to my stall specifically for horse,” he say. “Every week I am asked when it is coming back. I feel like it’s a real niche market, but the laws make it really hard to do,” he says.

For the Wiskers, however, the scandal has given business a boost. “The same day the story broke in the newspapers, there were lines down to the corner of the street,” she says. “It was unbelievable.”

Wisker says media focus on horsemeat has made people curious, and perceptions of the meat are changing. “It was a cheap option during the war, and many of our customers have been of the older generation that grew up on it, but now it’s becoming more of a delicacy.”

She acknowledges that for many there is an emotional hurdle to overcome. “There is a difference between eating your pet and eating the meat in general,” she says. “We have feelings too. Many of my generation think it’s sad, that it’s not nice, but I grew up this way, so I have no problem to look at it objectively.”

‘No comparison’
Taste-wise, Wisker says there is no comparison to beef. “If people change their mindset about horsemeat, they will never go back to beef. It’s so tender, there’s more flavour. You have to first get past thinking – and when you taste it, you will be sold.”

She also points to its health benefits. “It’s full of iron, and it’s completely organic. The horses have a great life. They are well-taken-care-of, loved and petted, but if they are suffering and can’t be cured, then they are slaughtered. Until then, they are cherished.”

In Ireland, stricter regulations have meant a sharp decline in the number of horses eligible for slaughter in licensed abattoirs – from 24,363 in 2012 to 10,711 in 2013. Irish horses must now be issued a passport before they reach six months to be included in the food chain.

This has always been the case in the Netherlands, according to Lisa. “The regulations here are perfect. Every horse has a passport. Every sickness and medicine is documented, so if a horse is going to be slaughtered, there is an inspector that looks at the horse and at the passport. If something isn’t right, the horse can be slaughtered, but the meat has to be destroyed. It’s really strict.”

The Wisker family never imports its horsemeat. “People shouldn’t trust supermarkets,” she says. “That meat is processed in South America in poor conditions and shipped by boat. We sell only fresh Dutch horses. I can guarantee that if anyone eats our horsemeat, they will not miss beef.”

It costs €215 to have a horse slaughtered. “My father will get a call from someone whose horse broke his leg, for example. We arrange to collect the horse. It’s very sensitive; people have strong feelings for their horse. It’s like if you take your dog to be put down at the vet.”

Although they have sent their own horses to the slaughterhouse, they have not eaten the meat.

Wisker believes slaughtering horses is a more humane death than by injection, which was Falco’s fate after a stroke left him paralysed. “The drugs can take a long time to take effect, and some horses fight it,” she says. “At a slaughterhouse, it’s over in seconds and they do not feel a thing.”

Finding a butcher
While Ireland doesn’t have a tradition of eating horse, an estimated €5.7 million was made last year from exported Irish horsemeat for human consumption, mainly to Belgium and France. Hyland says access to horsemeat isn’t the problem, it’s finding a butcher to process it. “Everyone is afraid to go near it,” he says, “because they are afraid of being harassed, of being fined.”

There is hope for Irish people who want to taste horse for themselves. Hyland is hoping to open a cutting and processing plant soon, in full compliance with regulations, and he plans to bring horsemeat back to the market as early as next month.

“There’s a market for goat, for venison, and yes, for horse,” he says. “I want to do steaks, mince, everything. We have plans under way.”


“Our favourite way to cook horse is very simple,” Lisa Wisker says. “We like it very raw – seared and just warm on the inside.”

Here is what she suggests for cooking a 150g steak:
l Remove meat from refrigerator one hour before cooking.
l Season with salt and pepper and brush with olive oil.
l Heat a frying pan over very high heat, and fry each side of the fillet for one minute.

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