Sales stable as French do not bridle at horse meat
Did you like that tender, ever-so-slightly sweet entrecôte de cheval your waiter recommended in the little village restaurant just outside Nice last summer? Well, you’re far from alone on this one.
Irish meat-eaters who have unwittingly acquired a taste for horse this week, or whose interest has merely been piqued by the current controversy, don’t have to travel far to partake of what has long been a staple of European culinary tradition.
In France, almost one in five households buys horse meat at least once a year, according to the polling company TNS.
The industry estimates that 30,000 tonnes of the meat are consumed here each year, which means 80 per cent of the 16,000 horses born in the country every year are destined for the dinner plate.
Long seen as a cheaper alternative to beef, horse consumption peaked in the early 20th century.
Sales have been fairly steady in recent years, despite the closure of many butcher shops, as people seek alternatives to more expensive meats. About 800 butchers sell horse, as do many supermarkets.
The appetite for horse meat is biggest in two parts of France: in the former industrial heartlands of the north, where horse was a dietary staple for miners and other labourers; and the southeast, where high immigration flows from Italy – one of Europe’s biggest consumers of horse meat – pushed up demand. Franche-Comté in eastern France is also known for its horse meat.
The meat is available in dozens of varieties and cuts, but one of the most popular ways of eating it is as steak tartare (raw, minced meat).
Indeed, purists insist the only true steak tartare is made of horse meat, not beef.
Its proponents say it is tender, sweet, low in fat and high in protein.
Not that there is no opposition to eating horse meat. Critics say slaughtering horses is inhumane because, unlike cows or pigs, they cannot be killed in an abattoir without undue suffering.
They also warn that the meat may contain dangerous chemicals, although this is contested by the industry.
According to Célia Pasquetti, who oversees the horse meat section at Interbev, a meat industry association, some restaurateurs are reluctant to offer horse for fear of protests from diners. However, she believes that the taboo against human consumption is declining.
“I think people have more to do, in a period of crisis like this, than to ask themselves: should I be eating horse or not?” she says.