The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - The Telegraph Magazine
Paris may be the city of love but...
... in Lyon, France’s self-styled Capitale de la Gastronomie, it is the stomach and not the heart that governs the emotions. My lunch spot, however, is not one of the city’s 20 Michelin-starred restaurants or a historic bouchon hidden down a Renaissance-era alleyway in Vieux Lyon. Instead I’m on a workaday street near the rugby stadium in the city’s rough-around-the-edges southern 7th arrondissement, following a tip from Pierre Koffmann, the former chef-patron of three-michelin-starred La Tante Claire in London. And rather than sampling Lyon’s world-renowned charcuterie I am here to try a delicacy that one will not find for sale in the famed market hall of Les Halles de Lyon Paul Bocuse: horsemeat.
Carnegie Hall – the ‘g’ is pronounced softly, as in ‘gee-gees’ – is the sort of off-the-beatentrack restaurant that Francophiles dream about when they picture ‘la France profonde’: rugby shirts framed on the wall, Kronenbourg on tap at the bar and not a word of English being spoken at tables that are impressively busy for a Monday lunchtime. There is côte de boeuf and pot-au-feu, escargots and tête de veau. And, down in one corner of the menu, there is ‘Le cheval de chez John Robert’, the Lyon-based butcher who supplies meat to the dwindling number of restaurants in France that still serve horse.
I start with horse tartare, a chunky puck of brick-red raw mince flecked here and there with onion and scattered with parsley. There is squeezy Dijon mustard on the table by way of seasoning but the rich meat is good enough to eat without any further adornment, silkily textured and with an almost milky flavour. My waiter tells me that the restaurant sells 100 plates of horse a day and that tenderloin is the most popular cut. I can see why: the crimson meat is soft as velvet and tastes both sweet and minerally, with a nutty finish that is quite distinct from beef.
John and his brother Jim supply Carnegie Hall with 60kg of horsemeat a week. Their wholesale business, Profil Export, and its retail website steakapapa.com, was founded by their father, Claude, 57 years ago after his grandmother got him a job in the horse butcher’s where she sold parsley. Only 10 per cent of the 200 horse carcasses that pass through their facility each week are destined for France, however; most are exported to Switzerland and Italy.
For the French have largely lost their appetite for horse. According to Interbev, the national livestock and meat association, the French eat 80 per cent less horse than they did in the 1970s, consuming the equivalent of 290g a year per head. In 2019, horsemeat represented less than one per cent of all fresh butcher’s meat purchased in France, compared to 23 per cent for pork and 22 per cent for beef.
Profil Export supplies just 10 restaurants in France, and none in Paris. The Robert brothers’ final client in the French capital, Le Taxi Jaune, shut two years ago. Chef Otis Lebert caused a sensation on the Paris dining scene serving the likes of cured horse sausage, horse brain and horse heart with shallot butter and red wine but says he closed the restaurant after becoming disillusioned by the gentrification of the Marais. ‘The 3rd arrondissement used to be more cosmopolitan but now it looks like everywhere else,’ he says. ‘It’s all burgers in Paris these days. My cuisine is more traditional French.’
Gentrification is not the only reason for abandoning a meat that is low in fat and rich in iron and vitamins. ‘Overall there are fewer butchers in France,’ Jim Robert says. ‘But it’s also become difficult to buy horsemeat after some supermarkets stopped selling it after the scandal of 2013. We lost 10 per cent of our business.’
The scandal revealed a shocking lack of traceability in the European food supply chain. Ireland’s Food Safety Authority raised the alarm in January 2013 after traces of equine DNA were discovered in frozen beefburgers; the following month, the UK Food Standards Agency found that some Findus UK beef lasagnes in fact contained 100 per cent horsemeat. Supermarkets across 13 European countries rushed to withdraw products, with £300 million wiped off Tesco’s market value alone.
Memories of the scandal were revived this January by two trials in Marseille. Twenty-five wholesalers, vets, dealers and butchers were accused of selling horsemeat from the pharmaceutical industry that was unfit for human consumption. The animals were former racehorses which had been earmarked for retirement rather than an abattoir. A separate trial involved 18 people accused of tricking the owners of ageing horses into believing that their animals would end their lives peacefully in the countryside; instead, they were taken to the slaughterhouse.
‘It is clear that such scandals contribute to the deterioration of the image of horsemeat,’ admits Guy Arestier, the president of the equines section of Interbev. ‘However, what limits consumption is availability. Distributors encounter difficulties in obtaining supplies, in particular of French horsemeat, which would meet consumer expectations. A recent study estimates that 15 per cent of the French population are potential consumers. This is why we are working to try to relocate the production of horsemeat to France.’
Arestier has a point. France only produces 30 per cent of the horsemeat it consumes, with the remainder made up of imports from North and South America and the European Union. We may associate eating horses with our Gallic neighbours but the practice of ‘l’hippophagie’, to use the sonorous French term, is barely more than 200 years old across the Channel.
The consumption of horsemeat was not made legal in France until 1811, possibly due to the return from the Napoleonic Wars of soldiers who had developed a taste for horseflesh seasoned with gunpowder in lieu of other emergency rations. Statutory regulations governing the butchery of horses were introduced in 1866, just in time for the Prussian siege of Paris four years later, which forced widespread
hippophagie on the French capital and cemented the image of the French as a nation of horse-eaters, at least in British eyes.
L’hippophagie hit a peak in 1911 and has been declining steadily since the Second World War. Consumption is concentrated on Paris and the north. Traditionally, the cheap meat of draught, or dray, horses has been sold in specialist butchers called ‘boucheries chevalines’ so the meat would not be confused with beef.
A trip to the chevaline remains a childhood memory for many of the older generation of French people. ‘It was tradition for us to eat horsemeat on a Monday,’ says Koffmann, who grew up in Gascony in south-west France in the 1950s. ‘The butchers selling beef and pork were closed on a Monday, but not the boucheries chevalines. I love the sweet flavour of horsemeat, maybe because I associate it with being young.’
Koffmann still seeks out chevalines on trips back to France but, according to Interbev, the 74-year-old fits the increasingly elderly demographic of the typical horsemeat consumer. Koffmann, in fact, is lucky to still find anywhere selling horse: in 2005, there were more than 1,000 horse butchers in France; today, there are around 300. Most work in markets such as the Bastille market in Paris or at the market hall at Courbevoie in the La Défense business district of the capital. The fact is that younger – and I use the term loosely – generations simply aren’t interested in eating horse.
Dorian Nieto is the author of over 40 cookbooks in France, as well as the 2012 celebration of horse-eating La Boucherie Chevaline Was Open on Monday. He still eats horsemeat, though few of his friends do. ‘Eating horsemeat is not common in my generation,’ he says. ‘I turned 60 last year, but when I go to buy horse I am almost the youngest person in the queue. In my small village in the Ile-de-france the boucherie chevaline closed more than 20 years ago, but there is still a horse butcher in the market.’
Nieto blames the decline of horsemeat consumption on the decline of meat-eating in general with younger consumers. ‘They eat less meat and they prefer meats with less flavour, like chicken, that are easy to prepare. Horsemeat recipes are rare and if you don’t know how to cook something, you’re unlikely to buy it. I don’t think the decline can be reversed unless, perhaps, one day an Instagram influencer celebrates horsemeat. But I can’t see that happening.’
He’s probably right; social media-savvy, switched-on French foodies are shunning horsemeat. ‘I don’t know anyone who eats horse,’ says Sabrina Ubinana, a 47-year-old resident of Paris’s hip Marais district. She lives near the former premises of Le Taxi Jaune, where she never ordered horse, now home to what Ubinana says is one of the best Parisian bistros, Parcelles, where horse is not on the menu. ‘I have nothing against horsemeat, but I wouldn’t buy it,’ she adds. ‘It is never served at dinner parties in Paris and I’ve never seen it in a butcher’s shop. It’s just not fashionable.’
Ubinana should know: as the French PR for the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards, she gets to eat in the coolest restaurants in the country. ‘No Michelin-starred chef in France, to my knowledge, offers horse on their tasting menu,’ she says. ‘It would be a very strong statement because horse is now considered more of a pet than livestock and too cute to eat. I don’t think restaurateurs have taken horse off the menu out of conviction but because the French public see consuming horse as almost taboo.’
It is an opinion echoed by Bertrand Grébaut, the head chef of Septime, a one-michelinstarred restaurant that is also the highestranking Parisian dining room on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, at number 22. Grébaut once carved and cooked a horse’s heart on the big screen at a culinary event to encourage debate around eating offal. ‘It might have been less appalling if it was a beef heart,’ Grébaut admits, ‘but horse heart is better, absolutely delicious.’ Why, then, is there no horse on Septime’s menu today?
‘Eating horsemeat is divisive in French society,’ Grébaut says. ‘People have an emotional relationship with the horse, just as they do with a pet, and they often don’t make a distinction. I mentioned a horse recipe on the radio and it created some virulent reactions, nothing nasty but protests outside the restaurant and graffiti. Horse is a very good meat in terms of taste but, in the end, we stopped serving it because the supply chains were rather vague and traceability was not transparent. I don’t consume horsemeat any more because I don’t see it any more.’
And it’s not just the Parisians who have lost
their appetite for eating horse. Laëtitia Visse is the chef and owner of La Femme du Boucher, a meat-focused Marseille restaurant where the not-for-the-faint-hearted menu includes beef testicles and black pudding made by simmering a pig’s head overnight. Yet she suspects that horse might stick in the throat of diners. ‘I have never had the opportunity to cook horsemeat for the simple reason that breeders are difficult to find,’ she says. ‘I’d be curious to serve it at the restaurant but I’m a bit apprehensive about the reaction of customers – stupidly, maybe.’
Or maybe not. Koffmann explains the French affection for horses in two words: Brigitte Bardot. The actor-turned-animalrights-campaigner founded the Fondation Brigitte Bardot in 1986, which has as one of its slogans ‘le cheval: ça ne se manger pas’ (‘you can’t eat a horse’). Bardot wrote an open letter to the prime minister of Malta in 2017 stating: ‘The horse, like the dog, is a life companion not an edible product.’ Koffmann remembers a programme Bardot made for French television. ‘It showed horses having their legs broken before being put on a train to France. That put a lot of people off eating horsemeat.’
Managed carefully, however, eating horsemeat can lead not only to better animal welfare but more sustainable agriculture. Interbev claims that not only do equine grazing habits contribute to the conservation of flora and fauna biodiversity, but raising horses for food ensures their genetic survival: the nine French breeds of draft horses are classified as ‘breeds threatened with abandonment’.
‘Slaughter must be considered a favourable end-of-life solution for horses,’ says Arestier. ‘Maintaining the horse’s value for a butcher contributes to limiting the abandonment and mistreatment of old animals. We believe that improving the treatment of horses requires the responsible management of their death.’
It is an argument espoused by Britain’s most high-profile equestrian, the Princess Royal. Addressing the World Horse Welfare charity in 2013, she asked, ‘Should we be considering a real market for horsemeat and would that reduce the number of welfare cases if there was a real value in the horsemeat sector?’ Her comments sparked predictable outrage from animal-rights charities, with some wondering whether the late Queen’s corgis would be next. Yet why do the British feel such a deep revulsion to the idea of eating horsemeat?
‘The sets of creatures that we think are appropriate to eat or not eat form a complex and deeply held set of traditions,’ says Charlie Taverner, a food historian and academic at Trinity College Dublin. ‘When the French were eating starvation food such as horse, snails and thin soups, they appeared as poor and weedy to British eyes. In comparison, the British associated their boisterous national character with eating well-bred beef. Food has a real power to tell us who we are like and who we are dissimilar from and an emotional strength to make us feel very strongly about what is right and what is wrong.’
Yet might the cost-of-living crisis be the time for Brits to confront their aversion to horsemeat? Kezie is a mail-order company based near Duns in the Scottish Borders that specialises in exotic meat such as crocodile, kangaroo, zebra – and horse. A pair of striploin horse-fillet steaks costs £6.08, roughly a third cheaper than the beef sirloin Kezie sells and with half the calories – though given that fat is flavour, the steak I tried lacked the lusciousness of beef sirloin.
Kezie’s head of sales Clare Stewart says that while she receives at least one phone call a month from an animal lover disgusted by the idea of selling horsemeat, the public reaction is usually more positive, with a spike in sales evident after appearing at British food festivals. ‘We get our horsemeat from Uruguay and the animals are bred exactly the same way that we would rear cattle grazing out on the pasture,’ she says. ‘Obviously it would be better if we could purchase horses from British slaughterhouses. The only way to do that is to increase demand by steering the nation into a different mindset, which is not easy.’
Could the country’s most respected chefs play a part in changing attitudes? Claude Bosi, the chef-patron of the two-michelin-starred Bibendum in Chelsea, grew up in Lyon and used to serve chips fried in horse fat at his previous, two-starred London restaurant, Hibiscus. Would he ever put horse back on the menu? ‘If I were to open a Lyonnais-style bistro in London, I would like to offer horse-fat chips and grilled horse steak as a tribute to where I’m from. Before going to school in France, I’d have horse steak with persillade for breakfast. Horse is really lean and has a delicate, clean flavour. Donkey charcuterie is delicious, too.’
Bosi remains appalled by some British culinary traditions. ‘You used to eat squirrel pie here. That’s f—ked up. A squirrel is a rat that runs up a tree! I’ll eat horse over squirrel every time.’
Chacun à son goût, as we should all perhaps say a little bit more.