A horse butcher in Paris. Photo: AFP
SATURDAY MORNING IN Ljubljana's bustling central market and the queue for the mesar konj, the horse butcher - one of two within 50 metres of each other - is building, stretching almost out the door. As many appear to join the line as leave it.
It's a good indication of the popularity of horse in Slovenia, where it is served in many restaurants and gostilna (trattoria) and forms part of the traditional diet. The capital's main gardens even have a favourite hamburger joint, called Hot Horse, selling burgers and steak sandwiches, with plans to open new outlets next year.
Australia is one of the world's biggest exporters, with two accredited abattoirs - one in South Australia's Peterborough and the other in Caboolture, Queensland.
Farm-bred horse meat isn't peculiar to Slovenia, however. It's highly fancied across Europe, particularly northern Italy and France, the Balkans and Nordic countries, as well as parts of central Asia and South America. For the Kazakhs, horse is a staple. The Dutch eat it smoked. In Japan, the meat is served sashimi style.
Queuing for horse meat. Photo: Paul Best
Waiting to be served, there's time to study the various cuts of steak, mince, sausages and cevapcici, pates, salamis and other processed meats displayed under the glass counter. In fact, there are more than 50 items listed, as well as cooked meat to go.
Having eaten horse in restaurants twice before on trips to the central European republic, I admit a taste for it - a delicate flavour best described as slightly sweet on the back of the palate. If you didn't know, the meat could pass for beef. More than just taste, horse is leaner and less calorific than the leanest beef, reportedly providing 30 per cent more iron and 50 per cent more protein. It has also been suggested as an underused source of meat in a world growing increasingly hungry.
Like any meat, though, your impression depends on the quality and how it's prepared. As a local told me: ''If horse is cooked well, it's great, but it can be no good, if it isn't.'' True enough. My first encounter in a roadside inn some years ago disappointed - a slab of overcooked meat drowned in a gluey sauce. But since then, it's been good.
Horse hamburger van Hot Horse in Ljubljana's Tivoli Gardens. Photo: Paul Best
The previous evening, I had enjoyed a home-made pate with grated prosciutto followed by tender slices of medium-rare fillet and mustards. Strictly speaking, the pate and steak were foal (horse meat less than a year old, like veal is to beef). The prosciutto was from an older beast, up to four years of age but more likely two or three.
Standing in line, I am keen to discover more. ''Everything's popular,'' says the woman serving behind the counter when I ask. She singles out meat for goulash and steak. ''We've been here 50 years. We have an enormous number of people come here.''
Of course, taste isn't the only thing delicate about horse. The truth is horse meat remains something of a delicate subject here, as it is in other Western countries such as the US and Britain, where the idea of stomaching My Little Pony is for many still taboo. Others view it as a ''companion animal'' on par with, say, dogs.
Horse-meat products. Photo: Paul Best
In 2010, there was hue and cry when the West Australian government granted Perth butcher Vince Garreffa a licence to sell horse meat locally for human consumption, still believed to be the only one in Australia, after more than two decades lobbying. ''It went viral,'' says Garreffa from his shop in Inglewood. ''I was receiving death threats.''
He wasn't alone. In Melbourne, owner-chef Nic Poelaert was on the end of similar menacing comments to his family and staff after organising two dinners at his former restaurant, Embrasse, from meat supplied by Garreffa's Mondo di Carne.
His first dinner - featuring rump tartare with black garlic emulsion, roasted fillet and ragu with brisket - was picketed by animal-rights activists, forcing him to cancel the second. ''I received some really sick emails and letters,'' Poelaert says.
At the same time, the outrage overlooked the paradox that Australia has exported horse meat for human consumption since the 1970s. Today, we're one of the world's biggest exporters, with two accredited abattoirs - one in South Australia's Peterborough and the other in Caboolture, Queensland.
According to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, we exported 6137 tonnes in 1998-99 and 2320 in 2006-07 to 14 countries including Russia, Switzerland, Belgium and France.
The department also estimates between 30,000 and 40,000 horses are slaughtered each year, but this includes about 33 licensed knackeries butchering horses for the domestic pet-food market, including thoroughbreds, standardbreds and wild brumbies. Garreffa puts the number of horses much higher.
In comparison, Garreffa has one small abattoir supplying him horse meat (as well as beef, lamb and pork) annually from fewer than 20 animals, mostly unwanted pets.
''[The horses I use] get to be treated like kings for an extra six to 12 months before they are humanely put down,'' he says, pointing out that they also aren't pumped full of antibiotics or other drugs.
Garreffa, who labels himself ''the horse whisperer'', quietly sells about 500 kilograms each month of ''every cut in the book'' - with expensive cuts costing north of $50 a kilo - to the public and trade, including many top-flight restaurants for chef dinners and special occasions, usually held on the quiet also for fear of stirring up another storm.
Former Australian Association of Food Professionals vice-president Stewart White organised a dinner a couple of years ago ''among consenting adults'' to help educate 20 interested members.
Sydney chef Stefano Manfredi, who has joined chef friends for such dinners, knows more than most about eating the meat.
One of his earliest memories is of his mother, not long after migrating from northern Italy in the early 1960s, preparing carpaccio at home from meat she bought being sold as pet food. One of the first NSW restaurateurs to serve kangaroo in the 1980s, Manfredi says he would consider putting horse on the menu - perhaps crudo with a battuto of extra virgin olive oil, parsley and parmesan - at his restaurants Balla and Manfredi at Bells because it culturally makes sense to him, and Australians, by and large, are open to experimenting with food… but he would want a local quality supplier whose produce he could inspect.
At the same time, Manfredi believes that, at 58, ''it's time younger chefs did some of the changing of people's attitudes''. He also would want to see a grading system, as used with beef, established if it were to be accepted.
Interestingly, Poelaert would consider putting it on the menu too - and, in fact, served horse at a Taste of Melbourne event a couple of years ago to an enthusiastic crowd - but thinks there needs to be more widespread understanding first.
In the apartment in Ljubljana, I got to prepare my own horse dinner - steak, hot dogs, kransky and salami to my own small company of eager diners. There, it was very much a case of, when in Rome … or Ljubljana.
Back here, the question remains wide open: consume or don't consume? At the moment in Australia, the nays have it.
Would you eat horse? Have your say in the comments.