PARIS – With cured hams, blood sausages and fatty terrines, the only indication of the Hippo-Secretan’s namesake was the sign behind the counter, up near the ceiling detailing the prices of horse meat. "Years ago we had five or six horse roasts in the windows, today we have none," the butcher said, explaining that people don’t want to see it anymore. But that doesn't mean they aren't eating it: Despite recent headlines, revived interest and an online movement are helping make the meat more appetizing to curious new clients.
Hippophagy, or the consumption of horsemeat, is a centuries-old practice that recently made headlines in Europe. With horse DNA found in Burger King hamburgers in the UK and in frozen foods in France, the horse hunt led to Austria, Norway and Ireland among other nations. Consumers were aghast and many repulsed by the thought of eating horses, considered a companion animal akin to eating dogs and cats.
In France, however, like several European countries, shoulders are shrugging as horsemeat has traditionally been anything but taboo. In the 19th century, it was commonly eaten by a rising middle class who deemed red meat a sign of prestige.
As recently as 50 years ago eating horse steak in France was, and largely still is considered healthy, as it is a low-calorie, low-fat source of protein and iron. More recently, consumption is far less. A United Nations report states in 2011 the French ate only 330 grams (roughly a little more than an eight-ounce steak) per person, less than in Italy or Switzerland.
The tides have been turning for some time as animal rights activists speak out against horsemeat. At Hippo-Secretan, pamphleteers routinely leave notices about ending horse slaughter. "We’d be better off if the press wasn't talking about us," the butcher said, "and we could just hide in our little corner."
The last horse butcher in the 19th arrondissement, Hippo-Secretan has been in business for 36 years, but the future isn't a bright one. The couple behind the shop is looking for someone to take over the business, but no one has stepped forward yet.
With only 500-600 horse butchers in France, and only about ten in Paris, the industry would seem to be fading, but that’s not necessarily the case. While the UN reports that only around 0.3% of meat consumed globally comes from horses, and most of those horses come from the Americas, the hippophagy market is a small one, but with room to grow. Some butchers report a 20-25% increase in sales since the scandal broke, as the few remaining horsemeat shops seeing unprecedented queues from those interested in discovering the largely forgotten product.
Jerome Paviet, who helps run an online horsemeat distributor Ma Boucherie Chevaline, said that the recent media events have bumped his company’s business by doubling and even tripling sales in France. The company has only been around since September 2012, but Paviet believes that the horse meat market is still alive and hopes to increase its visibility and its consumption, especially among younger generations.
With his online shop, Paviet is looking to attract a wider market, notably young professionals and internet users, but currently older clientele, between 50 and 60 years old, dominate his business. "The coverage in the news has rekindled memories in this older generation that used to eat horse meat in another time," he said, noting that after World War II, horsemeat was more commonplace in France.
Though more difficult to find these days, horsemeat, however, is not just a nostalgic dish for the older generation. Clients of all ages still go to physical butchers like Hippo-Secretan looking for horse steak or tartare. And at trendy restaurants like Septime or le Verre Volé, chefs are reintroducing the often-forgotten meat to younger diners. As selling points dwindle, with only about a dozen or so specialized butchers in Paris, could horsemeat be making a comeback the way vinyl records have become stylish as cassettes and CDs pushed them out of the mainstream?
Author and French food blogger Dorian Nieto penned La Boucherie Chevaline était Ouverte le Lundi (The Horse Butcher Was Open Mondays) in 2012 about hippophagy, including recipes. He said that horsemeat has undergone a sort of renaissance, which the recent media coverage could bolster. "Since it’s in fashion, the bobo Parisians are finding it in restaurants like Le Taxi Jaune, which offers horse dishes and is doing very well at the moment," he said.
Media coverage and controversy aside, horsemeat eaters don’t seemed phased by this lean, tasty meat (best served rare with potatoes) as long as it doesn't show up where it shouldn't be. Paviet hopes that the business spike continues, attracting more loyal customers, rather than fading away as another fad. "It’s a tradition in France," he said, and that’s usually a sure investment in this country.
Photos (top) Horse statue found outside a now-defunct horse butcher in Paris (below) raw horse steak: Bryan Pirolli