Feeling like a little horse? Alan Hope knows just the place
In 2014, a scandal erupted when it was found that certain supermarket ready-meals like lasagne had been “adulterated” with horsemeat instead of the beef everyone was expecting. The scandal assumed Europe-wide proportions. While the problem, it seemed, was one of labelling rather than of noxious content, some of us were reminded that there’s a place in Vilvoorde, near Brussels, where people actually queue down the street to be allowed to come in and eat horsemeat. It’s called Restaurant De Kuiper, and you should, if you get the chance, give it a try.
A little bit of history: the people of Vilvoorde, a city of about 43,000 inhabitants which nowadays reaches up to the very city limits of Brussels, have traditionally been known as pjeirefretters, or eaters of horse-meat (the name is even more impolite, in a way that’s hard to translate). That comes from the presence, for as long as anyone can remember, of a horse market – live horses, mind you.
In earlier times, poor people ate horsemeat, though the horse has never been farmed for its flesh. Until 1896, in fact, Vilvoorde didn’t have an officially licensed slaughterhouse of any kind, but when it did, part of its trade was in horsemeat. Before that, though, in 1859, Jan Marcel De Becker and his wife, Sidonie Zegers, opened a restaurant in Vissersstraat, known as De Kuiper (The Cooper) because Jan’s father was a barrel-maker.
The house passed into other hands just after World War Two, several times over, until today. Now the restaurant is run by Alfons Gulickx and Lieve Gewillig, and it’s going stronger than ever.
You arrive without a reservation, because reservations are only accepted if you’re coming at noon or at 18.00. Otherwise just show up and wait for a table. While you wait you can order a drink. We recommend something from the gueuze list, for which the nearby town of Beersel is famous (with its Drie Fonteinen brewery). The list includes Oude Geuze from Hanssens, Drie Fonteinen and a Kriek from Boon.
As preparation for this article, I bought a horse steak from a local supermarket and cooked it at home. The meat isn’t too difficult to come by in Belgium, mainly from market traders if you know where to find one. The steak is rich red and remarkably lean. I cooked it rare and let it rest the requisite amount of time, and it was tasty and beautifully tender, the flavour more intensely meaty than beef.
When you get to the table at De Kuiper, you’re almost obliged to eat horse, and there are two preparations: grilled or fried. The normal portion for both is 200g, but there are also portions in 300g and 400g format, and a smaller version for children – yes, there are children who will eat a 120g horse steak in Belgium.
For the absolute experience, choose the fried version, which is cooked in a shallow bath of melted horse fat, which takes the flavour of the meat, adds the flavour of the fat, and somehow manages to make something which is ultimately more than the sum of its parts, and then some more. This was a whole world away from the steak I’d cooked at home.
It’s not only about the horse. The restaurant has maintained its old-fashioned look without turning into a museum piece. The staff bustle around in long aprons, efficient and unobtrusive. The fries are hand-cut and cooked to perfection, crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The mayonnaise is made back there in the kitchen, not in some chemicals plant.
On one occasion I had the temerity to order a starter, a sort of head-cheese – homemade of course – with mustard sauce. Deliciously unctuous, but it took the edge off my appetite. Far better to get straight to the meat of the matter, so to speak, and fill up on those great frieten if you have to. Other starters include Russian egg, herring fillet, soup of the day and tomato stuffed with grey shrimp.
I can’t imagine what you’d be doing here if not to eat horsemeat, but let’s suppose for the sake of argument that’s not what you want. If that’s the case, you could choose a pork chop, a tournedos of beef or a filet américain, which many an American has discovered to his horror to be a plate of raw ground beef mixed with onion, capers, cornichons and raw egg. I wouldn’t doubt for a second that those dishes are all perfectly prepared, each in its own way, but there’s no way I’ll ever find out for sure.
For the absolute experience, choose the fried version, cooked in a shallow bath of melted horse fat
The restaurant has maintained its old-fashioned look without turning into a museum piece