Horsemeat scandal: Noble animal at centre of Romanian life

A man rides on a horse and cart

Romania has been accused of supplying horsemeat sold as beef - although this has been vehemently denied by the country's government. Nick Thorpe learns about the country's relationship with horses and visits a slaughterhouse.

Sometime after midnight, at the Tihuta Pass, high in the Carpathians, from Transylvania into Bukovina, the temperature touched -17C.

Hallucinating from the cold, and the tiredness of a 19-hour drive, we imagined grey wolves watching us from among the pine trees, and brown bears grumbling through the ruins of a souvenir shop.

A mock Dracula castle soared up out of a small village, blood-red in the snow, with a giant illuminated cross to match.

Then a shooting star crossed the sky. If all three of us had not seen it, all at once, we might have dismissed it as another phantom of the Transylvanian night.

We stopped to sleep for a few hours in Vatra Dornei, where the snow was shoulder-high and frozen so hard you could carve steps in it - then pressed on, always eastwards, into the winter sunrise.

We saw the goat somewhere after that, white and bearded and beady-eyed as a Chinese sage, perched on the back of a low-slung cart pulled by two horses. A Romanian scapegoat, perhaps.

This is a country where every household has an animal or two. Where milk is collected each morning in the mountains in churns by horse and cart, and where men gather at the Sunday horse markets, to buy or sell - or just for the joy of being among such marvellous, ancient creatures.

The steam from the horses' nostrils heats village squares. Cigarettes look puny in the big, calloused hands of the peasants. Smoke streams from their nostrils, as though imitating the horses.

Clover for the animals protrudes from beneath the blankets in every cart.

Sometimes you see carts piled to heaven with hay, ambling down the road, with an urchin balanced on the very top, holding it all in place with the power of his or her gap-toothed grin.

We were welcomed with open arms at the slaughterhouse in Botosani.

I have no secrets, swore Mr Cazacuts, the owner - so we had to visit every part of his super-modern facility.

There were moments of tenderness even for me, a vegetarian of 37 years.

The moment the cow being led to the slaughter, stopped to be nuzzled by another through the bars - kissed on the nose I nearly said - in a motherly farewell.

Up to 4,000 horses are slaughtered here a year, the director told us - all for export. Who is to say which animal is nobler than another as it enters the final stall?

I watched the stun-gun fell beast after beast, watched them roll, watched them hauled to the roof, witnessed the knife to the throat and the gush of blood, the final spasms, the stripping of the skin, the entrails.

The only bit I missed was the beheading, but not from cowardice.

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Media captionWatch Nick Thorpe's report from a Romanian abattoir

After several hours of this, learning the difference between a four-day-old horse and a cow carcass - the colour, smell, and muscle tone - the kind lady who showed us round, led us to a warm room where we could remove our hair nets and overalls and take comfort in a bowl of vegetable soup. This had been specially laid on for me, while the others ate steaming steaks only a few hours old, as it were, from the halls below.

"We've never had anyone here who turned down meat before," said the cook. But she rose magnificently to the occasion.

We relived every moment of the slaughterhouse in the TV edit room and censored out the pictures which would turn the stomachs of even the brashest British carnivores - then ingested the best remaining cuts into the belly of the British Broadcasting beast.

Then we fled downtown through the eternal snows for a strictly vegetarian lasagne in a restaurant full of smoke and lean fellow reporters.

What next for Romania after the British express their fears of both their ponies and potential plumbers?

If the guilt of other labellers, further down the food chain gets them off the hook this time, people across the whole of Eastern Europe will have cause for celebration - if the Dutch or French or even Welshmen shoulder the blame.

For too long the East has been seen as a nest of cruelty and corruption.

But some cliches actually draw the visitors.

On our way home through Transylvania, we stopped at the mock Dracula castle for a quick bite.

The view from the ramparts was breathtaking, of the Radnai snow tops painted horse-fat-yellow in the wintry dusk.

A bust of Bram Stoker, author of the Dracula legend, gazes after another horse and cart.

After a big bowl of vegetable soup - the best yet - we resist the temptation of a Dracula dessert (fruit ice cream and jam in a pancake) and walk out through the Wolf Room into the dying day.

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