One of Paris’s last remaining horse meat butchers discusses the disappearance of his trade
HAD you been a member of the French Society for Animal Protection in 1865, you would have received an invitation to the Grand Hôtel in Paris for a lavish horsemeat banquet on February 6. There, you would have been among the 130 guests to whet your appetite on a Consommé de Cheval (a horse consommé), try a Culotte de Cheval bouillie garnie de Choux (a boiled horse rump steak garnished with cabbage), taste the Hâchis de Cheval à la Ménagère (Housewife’s Horse Mince) and bite into, during the final course, some Filets de Cheval Bigarrés avec sa sauce xérès à part (various horse tenderloins with a side of sherry sauce) or maybe enjoy the Pâté de Foie de Cheval aux Truffes (truffle and horse liver pate).
This banquet was one of the many lobbying tactics that zoologist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and military veterinarian Émile Decroix organized to legalize hippophagy, the act of eating horse, in the mid-19th century. Back then, horse meat consumption in France was illegal, pursuant to a cultural taboo inherited from a papal decree in 732 that equated horse eaters with pagans. The pro-hippophagic lobbying movement, rooted in rational positivism, saw these social norms as morally as well as culturally backward. Their argument was that a postmortem economy for horses would guarantee better living conditions for the elderly animals—who were generally forced into mortal exhaustion working in mines and cities—as well as provide a healthy and cheap source of protein for the newly urbanized working class. And so, 14 years after the first banquet, an equine butcher shop (boucherie chevaline in French) opened in 1866.
By 1910, there were 550 of them, a testament to the strength of the horse meat movement. At its peak in 1960, horse meat consumption represented about 10 percent of all French meat intake, but since then numbers have decreased. Didier Dassonville is one of 10 remaining Parisian horse butchers still operating, and he is retiring next year. In his 20th arrondissement shop one late afternoon, we spoke about supermarkets, slaughterhouses, and saucisson.
What do you sell the most of? And do seasons or world events affect that?
The haché (minced meat) is my top seller…But that’s a trend that isn’t so specific to horse. People are lazy, I guess; they don’t want to have to chew too much. It’s probably my favorite too, to be honest. In the summer eaten tartare (raw) with a bit of salt and pepper, it’s just lovely. In the winter people tend to buy more rôtis and entrecôtes. A horse’s cuts are like beef ’s—there’s ribs, sirloin, the shoulder, etc. I also sell a few types of equine-based sausages like the saucisson d’âne (donkey sausage).
During the mad-cow-disease scandal I had a real increase in my sales. People were so panicked they even opened a horse butcher shop in the United Kingdom. I imagine it’s closed since then. With the latest lasagna scandal, nothing radical changed. We had more to laugh about with clients, and maybe a few younger curious people tried horse meat for the first time. But it wasn’t as clear as with the cow scandal, for sure.
How did you start working as a horse butcher?
Unlike most, I’m not part of a family of butchers. When I was 18 and confused about what I wanted to do, I met a friend who was a butcher’s apprentice. He liked it and told me that the equine butcher he was working for was looking for a second apprentice. I went to the shop, he took me in, and I started a three-year training made up of two days at school and three days at work. The school still exists in this arrondissement.
When I graduated I became one of the three employees of this very shop. Madame Delion, who owned four other boucheries chevalines around Paris, ran the place. She had opened it before the war with her husband. She was quite a woman. Her four sons inherited a store each, and I bought mine in 1978. None of them continued the trade. There’s a flower store higher up on the boulevard, over there; that’s what one of her sons transformed his chevaline into.
The number of horse butcher shops have closed since the 1970s in Paris is staggering. There are only 10 left in the capital.
I’m very lucid about the fact that the profession is disappearing, although I didn’t know there were so few left. But look, I’m closing my place next year and no one will take it over. Over the course of my career I’ve had three apprentices that are all qualified horse butchers; all of them quit. One even finished first of his class and now works for the city of Paris as a manual worker. He works his 35 hours a week, gets his weekends and days off. Being a horse butcher isn’t an easy life. And it isn’t only us; traditional butchers are having a hard time too.
Do you mean this trend is part of a larger development affecting all types of butchers?
Over the past 40 years people have embraced new ways of shopping and cooking that have profoundly affected all independent butchers. The emergence of supermarkets with their industrialized foods and diverse products … small butchers like myself can’t compete with that. When I started, it was possible to sell just horse and make a fine living. Paris was filled with specialty shops back then that just sold charcuterie or triperie. But supermarkets changed that.
To keep my clientele, in addition to my classic hâchis (horse mince) I’ve had to start selling pork saucisson for instance, which is charcuterie. I’ve also started to sell more prepared foods—my terrine de poulet en gelée (chicken terrine in aspic) is now one of my top sellers. People still eat meat, yes, but the manufactured, frozen industrial prepared type and that’s not really meat, it’s more an animal-based packaged good. As an aside, they also give horse a terrible name: in Auchan [a supermarket chain] the horse is terrible quality, Argentine, sold vacuum-sealed. It’s cheap and disgusting.
So these new consumption habits are changing the beef and horse butcher profession alike. That butcher shop, over there on the corner, they used to have 10 employees, there’s three left now. Here, when I started, we were three, now I’m alone.
Is there something about horse meat that makes this more difficult for you?
These days I clear about 350 kilos of horse per week. That’s the equivalent of one small horse. Before, when I started, we would easily sell 700 kilos a week. When I was an apprentice we would generally buy one full horse and a few other pieces. That decrease can be explained by the emergence of supermarkets and “fast-food” eating, but I think the role of horses in French society has changed during that time too, and that’s been a factor that beef butchers have not had to deal with.
I think everyone can eat whatever he or she wants. I wouldn’t force anyone to try horse, and I think the Findus lasagna scandal back in 2013 was a legitimate scandal, but it’s a little absurd to me that we are abandoning horse meat consumption just because the general public gives horses more consciousness than they do to cows or pigs. The local school here went on a weeklong horseback riding trip. There they met a guy who filled their heads with nonsense, and I lost I don’t how many clients that way, because their kids don’t want to eat horse anymore. I can understand that that type of empathy is part of being human, but it’s unfair, too. People will feel bad for the horse, but they wouldn’t think twice about eating cow, deer, lamb—have you ever seen a lamb, how cute that is? Or a rabbit—although ever since they’ve been producing smaller and smaller, fluffier and fluffier white rabbits and selling them as home pets, people are progressively becoming more uncomfortable about eating them too.
Is what happened to rabbits—breeding them smaller, more companion-like—similar to the cultural repositioning of horses in French society today?
When I started, most horse meat came from working horses that had labored in the fields, cities, or mountains most of their lives. They were tools that were then eaten. These horses were huge. Sometimes you could get a ton of meat from one Percheron [a type of horse]!
Replaced by tractors, cars, and other mechanical devices, laboring horses have been rendered completely useless, and so are bred less. The days when you could get a ton of meat off a horse are over. And while the Trait du Nord, a horse mostly used in mines, is on the verge of extinction, there have never been this many ponies. People breed them for entertainment and leisure activities. They are smaller, thinner, and more elegant horses for children to ride. In 30 years, when people will wonder how we could have let the extinction of labor horses happen, you’ll remember me.
What do you know about the lives of the horses you sell?
I am happy that the meat I sell comes from animals that have lived actual lives. In France people eat adult horse meat, unlike in Italy, for instance, where they prefer foals. This means it takes at least seven years to have a horse available for slaughter.
[There are two windows to get adult meat from a horse: either the animal must be killed between the ages of seven to nine years old, or after 14; in between, the animal enters the prime of life and its muscle strength is too firm.]
The horses I sell grow up in the south of France or in Normandy where there’s a huge horse culture. None of them have been used as racing horses—not only are these horses generally heavily drugged, like our human athletes, and wouldn’t be safe to eat, but also their post-“prime-of-life” economy is to reproduce and not end up on our plates. So most of the horse meat I sell comes from animals that lived rather long and peaceful lives carrying children or taking tourists along trails. They’ve eaten grass, oats, and some hay in the winter, and haven’t been fed animal bonemeal.
Arguably, that’s a lot better than being a chicken, and even an organic chicken, let me tell you! My son’s wife’s cousin breeds organic chickens and eggs—she has 8,000 hens! They make eggs like crazy for seven months, until they get killed. Sure they get to walk around, but on soil that needs to be disinfected for a whole two months. So, frankly, is that organic?
There’s an interesting parallel between today’s organic food trend and the 19th century positivist doctrine that lobbied for eating horse. The proponents of organic food today, like hippophagy supporters then, see the practice as moral and healthy. Obviously that didn’t change the fundamental hardships of industrial life on humans and animals, but do you think it relieved a few of the difficulties?
You know, another factor that helps me do my job is that in my head there’s like two horses—the meat I sell and the animal I pet in Normandy. It’s the same thing most people to do when they eat lamb, there’s the animal and there’s the meat. If I had to slaughter a horse I couldn’t do the job I do. When I started, horses were still killed in the Abattoirs de Vaugirard. Back then, and this was hard, we would head to this slaughterhouse to choose the horses whose meat we would want to fill our shop windows. The horses would arrive eight or ten days before being killed, and while they rested in the stables to recuperate from transport, butchers would come by and pick the animals they wanted.
Today that part has completely disappeared. I send a fax to my wholesaler every Saturday, Monday the horse is slaughtered, skinned, eviscerated, and split or cut into sides and quarters, and Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on the week, it’s here. I’m not confronted with the live pony. Auchan doesn’t see the Argentine horses, and the consumers don’t think about it either.