It all happened just over a year ago.
reeling from the shock of the hurricane that had devastated the country
and the oil slick poisoning the Atlantic coasts. But life continued, and
the upsets were soon forgotten. In those dark days, a small publishing
house suggested I should write a cookery book to be published in a vaguely
comic series. As an ethnologist and professional chef, it was
inconceivable for me to write a book of traditional recipes. There are
already so very many. What else could I possibly add? So I decided to turn
the situation on its head and ask the French people, gourmets or
otherwise, a simple question, “Is there a cookery book you would never
dare open?” Silence. No one could imagine a disgusting book about
cookery. A total blank. Without even knowing why, I made a suggestion,
“What if I wrote a book about horsemeat?” Hostile reactions. “You
can’t do a thing like that”. “You have no right to do anything of
the sort”. “Do that and I’ll never speak to you again”. I must
confess that these animated reactions worried me.
So, like a good ethnologist I had found
the right topic. A culinary taboo still exists among the French people I
know, horses. The reasons for this repugnance were all very similar –
the horse is a noble animal, horses are man’s best friend, and so on.
As far as the printed page is concerned, there simply were no books on the
subject. Recipes for horsemeat are rare and are relegated to the end of
books about meat in general. What’s more, they all date back to the
1960s. Gleaning information here and there, I have learned that from a
historical point of view the consumption of horsemeat has never been a
simple matter. Horses were eaten long before they became domestic animals.
The discovery of carved horse bones under the rock of Salustré proves
that our prehistoric ancestors ate horses, as well as reindeer and bison.
In his book De l’animal à l’Assiette, Jean Marie Bourre tells
us that in ancient
sacrificed to the gods, especially in March to favor a good harvest. The
meat of the slaughtered animals was consumed during ceremonies while the
head was crowned with sprigs of wheat and displayed at the main gate of
the city. The author adds that during the conquest of
Caesar’s troops longed for horsemeat above all else. And let’s not
forget Attila and his Huns, always top of the list when illustrating
barbaric eating habits, who ate the animals they rode and drank their
These beloved animals had therefore been eaten for centuries before the
Middle Ages when popes Gregory III and Zachary I decided to ban the
consumption of horse and beaver (!) meat, under threat of heavy penalties.
History neglects to explain the reason for this sudden ban by the Church,
but officially horsemeat could no longer be eaten on a daily basis, except
in cases of force majeur.
Starving soldiers dying from the cold in their worn, cloth cloaks during
Napoleon’s Russian campaign were the first to butcher their faithful
companions, like the survivors of an air crash lost in the jungle and
forced to feed on the flesh of their dead companions in order to survive.
Ashamed and disgusted, they did it just the same. Later, this sacrilege
occurred again. In 1870 during the siege of
, the citizens
queuing in front of empty butchers’ shops began to fill their wretched
pans with mice, cats, dogs, and even horses, to the extent that they
developed a taste for horse meat. Years later when the war was over and
the dead were buried, the survivors changed the rules and added man’s
best friend to the menu du jour. Horsemeat was odd and slightly sweet, a
cross between game and beef. The sages of the era said their piece too,
praising the nutritional qualities of horsemeat and emphasizing the fact
that it contained no parasites and could therefore be eaten raw. The only
reservation was that it did not keep long and had to be eaten quickly.
It was during this period that the first horse butcher’s opened, selling
only horsemeat. Particular care was taken over the aesthetic side of this
new business. Horse butcher’s shops looked like small but magnificent
light-colored marble temples, with a blood-red window and a gold-painted
horse’s head hanging above the door. These unusual retail outlets were
called “boutiques hippophagiques” to avoid confusion with beef
Although the shops clearly looked different, the terms used to describe
the cuts of horsemeat were borrowed from the terminology of beef. A
roasting joint, of course, and fillet, steak on the bone, cutlets,
shoulder and so on. Was this simply a lack of imagination, or a device
adopted to avoid confusing consumers and promote the consumption of
horsemeat? Be that as it may, the animals sold were not just any old nags.
Horsemeat was already good to eat when the animal was three or four years
old but was considered to be really delicious at about seven. Foals and
mares were also comestible, as were donkeys, their meat made aromatic by
the herbs they grazed in the fields.
After the Second World War, and in the 1960s and 1970s, horse butchers
made their fortune. Horsemeat had a good reputation. It was cheap, lean
and nourishing. Children were supposed to eat at least one horse steak per
week. Horsemeat always bleeds bright red blood. In
wraps it in the famous pink paper, with a picture of a magnificent
stallion, its mane blowing in the wind, looking you right in the eye as if
to say, “Eat horse meat and you’ll be strong and proud like me”.
Some liked the blood from horsemeat but others found it disgusting.
end of a trend
Today, there are barely thirty horse butchers in
the market stalls. But as you walk through the city, you can identify many
others by their gray marble façade with its red stripes, which is all
that remains of the former butcher’s shops. Only the insignia is
missing, that golden horse’s head, no doubt sold on to antique dealers.
The butcher’s shops have become offices or homes, and the moment of
glory enjoyed by horsemeat butchers has passed. They have either gone
bankrupt or continue to work with nostalgia for a golden age that will
One butcher in his ascetic shop in the XVIII arrondissement of
, told me,
“Once there were ten of us in this street, now there are only two.
Horsemeat used to be the people’s food because it was cheap. There was a
queue outside the shop. Then horsemeat became hard to get and
expensive”. What the butcher asked me not to mention was that epidemics
of trichinosis among horses in the 1970s did little to help. Like others
before him, he preferred to be angry about what he considered to be the
low profile image unfairly attributed to his product. “Anyway, people
don’t want to eat horse meat anymore. They say it’s a crime to eat
these animals! I don’t understand it. Do I look like a murderer? Any
more than a tripe seller or a beef butcher? They don’t like us much
either. They despise us. They think we’re too sophisticated, I suppose.
Well, to tell the truth we don’t like them either, they’re just
It is true that once upon a time a horse butcher could strut around, his
head held high, in his very stylish shop, as sparsely furnished as the
house in Jacques Tati’s film Mon Oncle. Horse butchers also
boasted that they did not simply carve up animals. Horsemeat is full of
sinew so to make it edible, it has to be cut up using little pointed
knives and almost surgically precise movements. You can tell a good
butcher from the way he slices the meat to make it tender. “You cut a
horse up from the head down towards the tail. That’s the proper way.
Then you remove the inedible sinew. Using thin, bendy knives, you cut up
the pieces one by one. It’s a long job. A real piece of surgery. The
meat is lovely – red, smooth and tender. The oddest to deal with when
you are removing the sinew is in the rump steak, the bit we call the
‘wallet’ because it opens up just like a purse. But the best part in
my opinion is the ‘surprise’, the equivalent of a shoulder of beef but
smooth, even silky”.
I move on to another, equally austere butcher’s in the same district,
where I find a more jovial, less pessimistic butcher. There is no meat on
display. Preserved products are arranged elegantly in the window,
including donkey salami, horse sausages, horse mortadella, smoked horse
meat and dry horsemeat sausages. Customers who love this sort of product
can order very expensive – and very hard to find – cooked horse meat
ham. The meat is kept in the refrigerators. The price list hangs on the
wall and an advertisement shows a boy smiling as he praises the various
merits of horsemeat. Next to the door, protected by a plastic cover, is an
article written by a top chef, again praising horsemeat to the skies. The
regulars parade in and out politely. One grandmother demands her
hamburger. A young woman comes in to leave an order. “Will you have some
chainette by Monday? It’s just like lace”, she says to me. “It’s
really nice. The kids want it every Monday, in the frying pan with fried
potatoes. Delicious!” One after the other they come in, never staying
long but just leaving their orders. Gourmets with a horse butcher’s
nearby must plan their menus in advance. The butcher is friendly, making
comments on the best cuts, suggesting recipes, hinting that horsemeat goes
well with sweet and sour flavors. When I express a desire to visit a farm
and abattoir, his smile disappears. “That’s difficult! I never go
myself. I always send someone else. You shouldn’t even talk about it
unless you want trouble with Brigitte Bardot”. I insist, and ask where
the animals come from. The butcher becomes even more reticent and the
mystery deepens. “I only buy American meat, which is red and firm. In
butchering terms we call it ‘well-structured’, the best you can get.
Out of a thousand animals, only the American ones are really worth buying.
But they don’t eat horsemeat in
. They raise
horses for foreigners. German and Canadian animals aren’t bad either but
don’t even think about buying Polish horses, they stink of fish and they
are a light bluish chocolate sort of color. In
, we eat
working horses and sometimes – but don’t tell anyone this either –
riding horses that have reached the end of their career. They’re
delicious – smooth, placid meat because the horses have been
Vegetarians from now on?
My investigation is over. After the storm and the oil slick,
was rocked by
a food scare that drove us to distraction. Every morning we were served up
increasingly alarmist information. The mad cow disease was followed by
swine fever, then the epidemic of foot and mouth that meant English sheep
had to be slaughtered by the truckload. And to cap it all, we were
terrorized for a whole week by a mystery panic in which the serial killer
this time was vacuum-packed pig’s tongue in gelatin. The suspicion was
spreading. Pessimists claimed that a Soylent Green era was beginning, as
in Richard Fleischer’s terrible sci-fi film of 1973, which describes a
starving society that unwittingly eats its own dead. Even optimists turned
Then one morning, the butcher from the XVIII arrondissement happily
informed me that sales had doubled.