In today’s world of murky meat morality, one Fleisch reigns among Berlin’s enlightened carnivores. The lean and tender meat tastes great, proves healthier than beef, chicken, lamb or pork and is tended to by a diminishing number of artisan butchers far removed from the grotesque realities of factory farming. Time to transcend outdated sentimentality and socio-cultural taboos and embrace your new karma-happy Lebensmittel, horse!
A practicing butcher for over 40 years, Norbert Hansel has been preaching the virtues of horse meat (Pferdefleisch) to Berlin from his roving white and purple stall since 2008. Like a friar in a lab jacket, this twinkle-eyed Falkenseer is an eighth-generation butcher whose clientele ranges from GDR dinosaurs eating horse since they were youngsters to curious-bellied youths and bio-bent shoppers at the markets he tours.
Under the glass front windows of his shop lie cherry-red fillets and steaks, Pferdebraten (€12/kg), roulade (€10/kg), goulash (€10/kg), salami (€7.90), hot and cold dark wieners (€1), Bouletten in bread (€2.20), Krakauer (€2.20), Bockwurst (€2.20) and Knacker (€2) sourced from Berlin-Brandenburg farms and slaughterhouses.
While the culinary delights of equine flesh have been appreciated globally since the late Palaeolithic era, a declining German market has persevered. Enjoying more popularity and longevity in the former-East, horse was not only more expensive in the west, but also damningly un-chic.
Like the pork lung offal that Hansel stocks for Ostalgie (looking not dissimilar to a jar of grey mashed banana) – dishes rise and fall, subject to the same fickle waves of fashion as anything else. Unlike, say, lobster, horse has never recovered from its war grub associations of poverty and famine. Perhaps this explains why many of Berlin’s post-millennial vestiges of horse butchery are found in working-class exburbs like Marzahn or Hellersdorf.
As factory-farming practices only increase, hope for future generations of Berlin hippophagists (yep, hippophagy = “the art or practice of feeding on horseflesh”) lies with specialist butchers, but Hansel is self-admittedly part of “a dying breed”.
“The producers have fallen significantly,” continues Hansel, who has no young apprentices learning the trade. “In the 1950s, there were maybe 800 general butchers in Berlin. Now there are around 40. There are very few people left who sell horse, maybe three or four. No one will replace horse butchers.”
In support stand a small number of Berlin chefs, like Bruno Salvador who helms Tempelhof restaurant Bruno. His daily-changing menu often features horse meat in north Italian-style steaks, pizzas and salami.
“Horse was a luxury when I was a child,” he says.
“I love the taste, but it’s very important to me where the horse comes from, that it’s transported ethically,” adds Salvador, who sources the meat from Brandenburg via Alfred Bredel, a Spandau butcher. “You really need to treat your horse, and animals in general, like women – otherwise they don’t taste nice,” he muses.
No wonder Europe’s most notorious womanisers are also inveterate horse eaters: the Italians (who annually consume 900g of horse meat per capita against Germany’s 50g) and the French, who eat 70,000 horses a year (compared to Germany’s 15,000).
“The healthiest of meats”
At 2-4 percent, horse has less than half the fat of beef, and a third of that of pork; “It is the healthiest of meats!” says Hansel, justifying its marginally higher price tag. “If you’re boiling sausages, a horse sausage sinks, while a pork sausage will float because it has such a high fat content.”
Among the wonder-meat’s merits, horse is lower in calories, almost cholesterol-free, protein-heavy (20g per 100g), a rich source of vitamins, zinc and magnesium, low in sodium, almost double the iron of beef with 4-5mg per 100g, three times the calcium, and is recommended by doctors to fight arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and cardiovascular diseases.
Hansel continues, “If you put a handful of sand in a pig’s food, the pig will eat it. The same happens with a cow. If you put sand in a horse’s oats though, it won’t eat. Horses are picky animals.” Converts like Spandau’s Hans Joachim Faust – a regular at Hansel’s van – choose to chow down on horse every one to two weeks. It is a “clean, pure animal,” he says; “It has that different, richer taste of a wild animal.”
No country for old horse
Horses in Germany are not raised for slaughter and, thanks to their relatively poor conversion rate of grass and grain to meat, probably never will be. That means that unlike their steroid-pumped livestock alternatives, horses enjoy an indubitably better existence, averaging a lifespan of 25-30 years, a world away from the horror of battery cages or Love Parade-like transport conditions.
Most horses in Germany are killed in specialised, family-run slaughterhouses, like the DVSP-honoured (German Association for Horse Protection) Pferdemetzgerei Beerwart in the Baden-Württemberg town of Waiblingen, whose horses – typically mature riding horses with sports injuries, respiratory problems or various muscular-skeletal defects – come from neighbouring stables.
At Beerwart, which can take in only 8-10 horses a week, devoted owners may escort their horse through its final moments. Horses are typically rendered unconscious by a captive bolt stunner (the weapon favoured by Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men), then executed through controlled bleeding out (exsanguination), generally by inserting a knife behind the jaw of the incapacitated animal, before the carcass is finally examined and approved by a veterinarian.
Of the stringently EU-regulated process, Eric Vigoureux, vice president of the French Fédération de la Boucherie Hippophagique says, “The animal feels no fear, nor suffering.”
My little pony?
While terms like veal place a consolatory psychic distance between your schnitzel and its baby-cow origin, ‘horse meat’ is vulgarly frank. Yet this is meat for the all-too-informed ‘flexitarian’ who ethically weighs dinner’s pre-filet existence.
The hypocrisy of happily munching on a factory-farmed rasher of tortured bacon while denouncing hippophagy should be clear to anyone who’s even flirted with the back cover of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, as should be the flawed anthropomorphism at the heart of many people’s righteous reactions to the suggestion of eating horse.
All animals can be seen as beautiful creatures with innate dignity and the right to minimal suffering. With our increasing consciousness of our planet’s dwindling resources, doesn’t it make more sense to honour a horse by turning it into a protein-rich meal than a pot of glue?