France: They Eat Horses, Don't They?

A Short History of Horse-Eating in France

horse
A horse head sticking out from a building.

By Stephanie DiCarlo

Piu Marie Eatwell lived in France for years, long enough to compile a book on what exactly they do over there in France. Playing off the title of her book, "They Eat Horses, Don't They?: The Truth About French Eating," Eatwell has compiled pages of other such myths about the French. "Do the French eat horses? Do French women bare all on the beach? What is a bidet really used for?" 

Eatwell debunks and finds truth in her observations and life living in the French culture, culminating her experiences in this funny and charming book. This book reveals a fascinating picture of historical and contemporary France, a country that still retains much of the mystery, romance, and allure that has seduced foreigners for decades.

This book is worth a read if you love culture, the French, or simply for an interesting peek into how other people live!

"I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse. -- English saying

Everybody knows the French are into hippophagy. What is hippophagy, you ask? Well, it’s got nothing to do with devouring the large, foul-tempered pachyderm that inhabits the water- ways of Africa (a step too far even for the omnivorous French). Rather, quite simply, it is the consumption of horses. The English seem to be convinced that the French regularly serve man’s second-best friend at the dinner table with the insouciance that would accompany an ordinary steak au poivre.

It goes with the general perception of the French as a people who are prepared to shoot (and eat) more or less anything that moves, and who consider all creatures great and small as being potentially part of the mundus edibilis. But is this perception correct?

It’s a strange fact that horse consumption in France was socially engineered and a relatively recent phenomenon. Hippophagy in ancient cultures has a long and distinguished history: it is said, for example, that the horse-eating Tartars or Mongols of Central Asia would put a piece of raw horsemeat under their saddles in the morning, to be pounded to a fine mince by the end of the day – allegedly the origin of the celebrated steak tartare.

Sadly, this romantic myth is probably untrue, as it is thought that the dish owes its name to the more prosaic fact that it was originally accompanied by Tartar sauce. In the Christian world, however, hippophagy was traditionally strictly taboo, and until the mid- nineteenth century, the French were as squeamish about eating horses as anybody else in Europe.

Hippophagy had been forbidden by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century as an ‘abomination’ – although the pope, needless to say, was at the time at least as interested in quashing the pagans of the North, who sacrificed and ate horses, as he was in animal welfare. Horsemeat was a food to be resorted to only by those in the direst straits –- such as the French peasantry during the food shortages of the Revolution, or the armies of Napoleon on campaign in the depths of the Russian winter.

In fact, it wasn’t until the 1860s or even later that the French really got into horsemeat, largely due to the efforts of a zoologist named Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, and a fanatical military veterinarian, Émile Decroix. Decroix was obsessed with proving (to a sceptical public) that horsemeat was edible, and to this end he chomped his way through several hundred dead horses suffering from every conceivable disease, and even a mad dog by way of comparison – the purpose of the rabid canine amusebouche being presumably to prove that, if you could survive eating a mad dog, you could survive eating a horse.

Taking a rational and unsentimental approach, Decroix and his fellow scientists argued that it was better for the poor of Paris to kill their horses than to starve. There may also, however, have been a less lofty motive to his campaign, in that offloading cheap horsemeat on the poor would have reduced the demand for beef and pork, thus making these classier meats less expensive for the rich.

The French public proved unreceptive to this idea, and so a number of ‘horsemeat banquets’ were thrown, to which the press were invited –- including a particularly famous one in 1865 at the Grand Hôtel in Paris. At this fabulous (or freakish) repast, according to the respected authority the Larousse Gastronomique, the menu was as follows:

They Eat Horses, Don't They?
They Eat Horses, Don't They?

A Horsemeat Menu

Horse-Broth Vermicelli
Horse Sausage and Charcuterie Boiled Horse
Horse à la Mode
Horse Stew
Fillet of Horse with Mushrooms
Potatoes Sautéed in Horse Fat
Salad Dressed in Horse Oil
Rum Gâteau with Horse Bone Marrow
Wine: Château Cheval-Blanc*

* Those who imagine that they could stomach only the wine on this menu– Château Cheval-Blanc, one of the most sublime of the Bordeaux Grands

The horsemeat banquets in Paris inspired similar feasts in Britain, in Ramsgate in the 1860s, where the choice dishes were euphemistically described using the French term, as ‘chevaline delicacies’. Funny enough, horsemeat in England did not catch on.

On the other side of the Channel, despite all the press and campaigning –-and the legalization of horsemeat for human consumption in 1866 –- the poor of Paris remained unreasonably reluctant to consume their aging nags. Until, that is, an event of seminal significance in French hippophagic history: the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. Surrounded by the invading Prussian army, Parisians found themselves cut off from their customary food supplies.

Desperation

As a consequence, hunger and desperation led to some hitherto unconsidered creatures becoming part of the Parisian diet. Horses were the first to be served up on dinner tables, quickly followed by cats, dogs and rats. Finally – as Christmas approached with the bleak prospect of roasted rat as the star dish – it was the turn of the exotic animals in the Paris zoo. Camels, kangaroos and even the zoo’s famous elephants Castor and Pollux – all were auctioned off to Paris butchers, who made a mint selling slices of zebra and chunks of elephant trunk (culinarily speaking the most prized part of an elephant’s anatomy) to wealthy Parisians.

On 6 January 1871 the British writer, politician and diplomat Henry Labouchère noted in his diary: ‘Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner… It was tough, coarse and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton.’ The Christmas Day 1870 menu of the chic Parisian Café Voisin, in the rue Saint-Honoré, featured such intriguing delicacies as éléphant consommé and jugged kangaroo. Cookery books appeared with recipes and instructions on how to cook every- thing from giraffe to wolf.

Now that the ancient taboo had finally been broken, hippophagy in France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries went from strength to strength, with the consumption of horsemeat increasing by 77 percent between 1895 and 1904.

In 1876 butchers in Paris marketed the flesh of over 9,000 horses, mules and donkeys, a total weight of more than 3.7 million pounds. Prized for its high iron and nitrate content but relatively low in fat, horsemeat was regularly prescribed by doctors for all sorts of ailments from anemia to tuberculosis. Owners of cavalry and shire horses were only too delighted to offload their old nags at the knackers’ yards.

The Height of Consumption

The first half of the twentieth century saw the apogee of horsemeat consumption: by 1913, native French horsemeat dealers were unable to keep up with demand and horsemeat had to be imported from abroad. Horsemeat butchers, or boucheries chevalines, with their distinctive horse’s head above their doorways, burgeoned, particularly in working-class areas, such as the nineteenth arrondissement of Paris or the Nord-Pas-de- Calais region. Cheaper than other meat and shunned by hippophile aristocrats, horsemeat was always working-class fare: even at the peak of its consumption, it was associated with low status and poverty.

From the 1950s onwards, though, the role of the horse changed. No longer a beast of burden or war (those roles having been taken over by the tractor and the tank respectively), the horse came to be regarded as a pet by the increasingly pony-mad French. Nevertheless, the average French consumer did not seem too fazed at the prospect of eating his new friend, as the horsemeat industry in France continued to thrive around the middle of the century (110,290 tonnes équivalent-carcasse or TEC, the industrial unit of measurement of horsemeat, were consumed in 1964).

But in the 1980s, something disastrous happened to the horseflesh trade: the Devil recreated the former 1960s sex symbol and fashion model Brigitte Bardot as a vegetarian animal rights activist. She vociferously denounced the act of eating an animal that had become man’s loyal companion, and condemned the –-admittedly ghastly-– conditions in which horses were transported to slaughter. It is probably at least partly down to Bardot’s influence that consumption of horsemeat in France fell dramatically in the 1990s.

Contrary to popular belief, then, the French are becoming increasingly hippophile and less and less hippophage. In 2004, for example, France consumed 25,380 tonnes of horsemeat (mainly imported from abroad) – less than half the amount consumed in Italy (65,950 tonnes). The Italian market remains the main export market for French horsemeat, valued at 90 million euros per year. According to figures from the French livestock rearers’ association OFIVAL (L’Office national interprofessionnel des viandes, de l'élevage et de l’aviculture), hippophagy dropped by 60 per cent between 1980 and 2001.

And relative to other types of meat, the French don’t consume much horsemeat at all – just 0.4 kg per French person per year in 2005, compared to 22.5 kg of beef.13 The French, in fact – today as in the past – tend to eat horsemeat most when pushed by fear of something worse: Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, for example. (Rates of horsemeat consumption shot up during the mad cow disease crisis of the mid-1990s, which led to a ten-year ban on export of British beef to the rest of the European Union.) Even now, the average Frenchman would prefer to eat a horse than British beef. Many French people actually think that BSE stands for ‘British Spongiform Encephalopathy’. Nothing, in fact, terrifies the nation of the Laughing Cow more than the spectre of la vache folle.

Hippophiles vs Hippophages

Meanwhile, the battle in France between hippophiles and hippophages continues unabated. An attempt in 2010 to ban the consumption of horsemeat by law failed, although the animal protection leagues did manage to get it taken off the shelves of many French supermarkets by organized campaigns of letter- writing. And the boucherie chevaline – previously a common sight on the French high street – appears to have had its day, with only a few dozen of them now remaining in the whole of Paris. There are horse retirement homes where old Dobbin can put his hooves up in luxury after a hard life of service, and there is even a legal provision for horse owners to stipulate on a sale that their horse is not to be sent to the knacker’s yard (two- thirds of French light horses and ponies are now protected in this way).

The French Horse Butchers’ Association, of course, has taken up arms in opposition, marshalling arguments in support of the continued consumption of horsemeat. The most convincing of these is: ‘mind your own business’. The least convincing is that the nine breeds of horse reared in France for meat would die out if people stopping eating them.* (* One cannot, somehow, be convinced of an argument that says that the continued survival of a species depends upon its being eaten.)

Horseracers Approve

Hippophagy is supported by the French racing profession and stud farms, and even the renowned horse trainer and impresario Clément Marty, known to his adoring fans as ‘Bartabas’, is on record as urging, ‘Si vous aimez les chevaux, mangez-en!’ (‘If you love horses, eat them!’). An acrimonious debate on the horsemeat question is currently raging in France between tweedy traditionalists on one side, and urban reformers on the other. In some ways, this clash has parallels with the foxhunting debate of the early 2000s in Britain – the main difference being that, apart from a few diehard activists, the French public is nothing like as exercised by the rights and wrongs of eating horses as the British public was by the morality of hunting foxes with hounds.

Piu Marie Eatwell
Piu Marie Eatwell

The relatively laissez-faire attitude of most of the French public on the horsemeat issue was illustrated by the French reaction to the ‘Horsegate’ scandal of 2013. The crisis blew up when ‘100 percent beef’ products – including burgers, lasagnes and chilli con carne produced by Findus, Picard and other frozen-food manufacturers –- were found to consist of anything up to ‘100 percent horse’. Investigations across the European Union revealed a tangled network of abattoirs, subcontractors, traders, meat processors and frozen-food distributors.

In France, a Languedoc-based meat-processing company was accused by the French government of selling horsemeat labelled as beef. The French government and consumers were enraged, like everybody else, over the issue of traceability: a government inquiry was immediately set up and calls made to the EU for the labelling of presumptive ‘beef ’ by country of origin.

The French response to British expressions of outrage at the idea of consuming horsemeat, however, was a giant Gaullic shrug of the shoulders at the incomprehensible sentimentality of the British towards animals. As the food critic of the newspaper Le Monde, Jean-Claude Ribaut, observed: ‘It’s an English ethnocentric attitude that applies also to rabbit, andouillette, frogs and calves’ heads.’ He added that, unlike the French, who legally define a horse as a farm animal, ‘the English consider the horse a domestic animal.

That’s their right,’ noting for good measure that horse- meat is low in fat and ideal for steak tartare. Le Monde even dug up an expert on the history and culture of food to explain to its readers the weird British antipathy to eating horseflesh: according to the distinguished academic, this aversion is due to Britain’s inception of the Industrial Revolution, which meant that horses lost their status as working animals and became pets at an earlier date than in other parts of Continental Europe.

It's the Not Knowing that Bothers Them

The reaction of French consumers interviewed in supermarkets by the national television news was not so much disgust and outrage at eating horse, as disgust and outrage at not knowing what they were eating. Perhaps the French have a point. After all, if one can tuck into octopus and pufferfish sashimi without batting an eyelid (these are now standard fare in the average hip London restaurant), should sliced raw horsemeat with grated garlic, miso paste and soy sauce really pose much of a problem?

(In fact, the ‘Horsegate’ scandal revealed that a number of Asian restaurants in Britain had been discreetly but openly serving horsemeat successfully for years.) As a number of commentators on both sides of the Channel have pointed out, the true issue of ‘Horsegate’ is not so much the rights and wrongs of eating horses, as the fast-disappearing traceability of what we eat in a vast multinational production line.

Never may the French be accused of failing to turn a situation to their advantage, however. The solution to the crisis, according to their national media, is simple: vive le boeuf français!

Myth Evaluation: Partly true. The French are divided between hippophiles and hippophages, but in any event they eat a lot less horse than the Italians."

Piu Marie Eatwell went to France for a long weekend one August many years ago. She never left. After graduating from Oxford University with a first-class degree in English language and literature, she trained first as a BBC television producer and then as a lawyer. Over the years, she has worked in various positions as a documentary filmmaker, barrister, teacher, mother, and -- most recently -- full-time writer, both in London and Paris. They Eat Horses, Don't They? is her first book. 

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