The horse butcher in my Paris neighborhood never has a line outside his shop, but he does a steady business with an older clientele. I’ve passed the entrance on the market street, Rue Poncelet, many times—it’s unmistakable, with its thin red neon tubes outlining like halos three horses’ heads that might once have graced a small carousel—but I'd never been in.
When I stopped by Tuesday morning to pick up a horsemeat steak, a gray-haired gentleman in a fedora and cloth coat was just purchasing a horsemeat sausage. A familiar clochard, or bum, stopped by to chat. The whole scene seemed a throwback to the France of 50 or even 100 years ago, when people were more frugal, meat was not eaten every day, and a good cut of beef or lamb seemed a luxury. Then, as now, horsemeat was cheap. Chain stores, discount supermarkets, and fast-food restaurants had yet to invade. And frozen dinners had yet to be invented.
Recently, after the revelation that the industrially-produced ground meat sold all over Europe in frozen lasagna, frozen patties, and even in Ikea’s not-so-Swedish meatballs turns out to have been partly equine instead of bovine, horsemeat has become the stuff of scandal and of headlines. The problem is not just that mystery meat might have mysterious infections or chemicals in it, which is certainly a legitimate concern. It’s that most of us feel a little more kindly toward horses than toward cattle, and would feel more than a little guilty about eating them.
In France, we are supposed to salve our consciences with the knowledge that draft horses are raised to be eaten. Not only are they supposed to be checked carefully by health inspectors, horsemeat promoters claim several breeds have been saved for the dinner table that otherwise would have disappeared altogether.
In any case, Jacques Desperrières, the butcher at the shop on Rue Poncelet, said the horsemeat hysteria bothered him “not at all.” His regulars were his regulars; the rest of the world could go eat frozen lasagna.
I explained to Desperrières that I was American and I’d never eaten horseflesh before, at least to the best of my knowledge. He eyed me with a shopkeeper’s suspicion, as if I were about to waste his time. I wanted to buy something tasty, I said. He warmed up a little.
The shop had several cuts on display. The andouillette, a sausage made from pork and horse tripes, did not strike me as especially appetizing. The horse filet “tournedos style” wrapped in pork fat seemed more appealing, but maybe just a bit too much for lunch. There were flank steaks and entrecôtes and other choice morsels, just like you’d see in a beef butcher, but there was something instantly and obviously different about all of them: almost no visible fat. No marbling at all. And the color of the meat itself was a rich red verging on purple.
“How about one of these?” said the butcher, pointing to two freshly cut flank steaks on the board in front of him. Because they were so lean, they looked as if they might be tough. I asked how they should be cooked. “Saignant,” he said. “Rare.” “Ah,” I said, and put down my €2.41 ($3.15). The French hate to cook their meat, and over time I’ve acquired that taste. But, still, with horse?
As Desperrières wrapped the steak, I looked at the decorations put up more or less randomly on the white-tile walls, among them slick posters from the horsemeat association of France that try to make equine flesh seem trendy and even, God help us, sexy. In one, a gorgeous woman in a leather jacket is pictured above horsemeat tartare: “Share a raw moment,” it says.
The appeal of the horse butcher is weirdly, wonderfully anachronistic, in fact. Since about the time baguettes became as ubiquitous as bagels in American supermarkets, much that used to seem special about French culture has been globalized, homogenized, pasteurized, and banalized. And in France itself, those trends have diluted what people here still like to believe is their “exceptionalism.” Sidewalk cafés may be proliferating in Brooklyn, but they’re dying in many parts of Paris, while McDonald’s and Starbucks seem to be everywhere. The smell of Gauloise cigarettes, which use to create a rich, nicotine-laden fog around philosophes and filmmakers bent over their espressos, is now gone altogether, replaced first by Marlboros in the 1980s, and now by “No Smoking.” Horsemeat, I realized at the Rue Poncelet counter, is a last redoubt against the onslaught of global acculturation.
But perhaps what you really want to know is how that steak tasted.
Well, when I got home I searched for a recipe in my yellowing copy of Larousse Gastronomique, that magnificent encyclopedia of food preparation and food lore. Sure enough, cheval takes up about half a page. One learns, in passing, that horsemeat was banned in France until 1811, but grew more acceptable after a lot of steeds got eaten by Napoleon’s troops on the frozen Russian front. The LG tells us that in 1856 several literary lights, including Flaubert and Dumas père, attended a dinner to celebrate horsemeat dishes, from soup (bouillon with vermicelli) to dessert (partly concocted from horse marrow). The wine, of course, was Cheval Blanc. But it wasn’t until later in the 19th century that the sale of horsemeat became widespread and regulations were imposed to keep the beef and horse butcheries separate. The idea was to prevent fraudulent mixing of the cheaper horse with more expensive beef, which is precisely the problem at the root of the present Europe-wide scandal.
The Larousse Gastronomique recipe for roast horse with cinnamon looked superb. But I decided to sample the Poncelet steak in a less complicated form, cooked on a griddle with just the slightest bit of olive oil and sautéed onions.
I ate it rare, but not raw (or, as the French say, “not blue”). And it was … delicious. The meat was distinctly sweeter than beef, and so much leaner. Then, as I finished the last bite, it struck me that the near-total lack of fat left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied, as if I were on a diet I hadn’t intended. And suddenly the guilt set in like acid reflux of the brain.
I’m very glad the French still eat horsemeat, and I hope the boucherie chevaline on Rue Poncelet prospers, but I think the next time I’m walking down that market street, I’ll merely wave as I pass the shop. Horse is an acquired taste that, as yet, I haven't acquired.