Jun 26th 2008

French aren’t saying neigh to horsemeat

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

As Europe feels the effects of rising prices - mainly tied to energy costs - at least one sector is benefiting. The new big thing appears to be horsemeat, increasingly a viable alternative to expensive beef as desperate housewives look for economies.

Even the French are shifting toward horse. Sales here are running about 6 percent ahead of last year, and the past three years have shown steady growth. Horsemeat returned to French restaurant menus and supermarkets in 2006 after a health scare, and that opened the market beyond the specialized butcher shops.

It is not to everyone's taste. I first sampled horsemeat in Helsinki some years ago at the home of my friend Kaarina Kaurinkoski. She served the sizzling steak, then halfway through the meal asked: "What do you think you are eating?" I assumed it was steak but was speechless when she announced it was horse. She was unaware that Americans have a cultural aversion to horsemeat. But we can also be polite, so I finished my steak with a smile.

I decided to give horsemeat a second try after noticing a buzz at the horsemeat stand at Bordeaux's Sunday outdoor market. Customers were snapping up filet mignon, beautifully strung roasts, entrecotes, horseburger patties and even liver at prices up to 35 percent less than equivalent cuts of beef. I joined in, and am becoming a convert.

Horsemeat is undergoing something of a revival in other countries in Europe and Asia -- including Japan, China, Belgium, Germany, Holland and Switzerland. Breeders in East Europe are finding a ready export market for all these destinations.

"The Italians have recently become the biggest consumers in Europe," says national vice president of the French Fédération de la Boucherie Hippophagique (horsemeat butchers). Even classic Italian Mortadella sausage can be had in a horsemeat variety.

I met the vice president, Eric Vigoureux, behind his refrigerated trailer at the market. His job, besides selling the meat, is to overcome the remaining taboos against human consumption. Monsieur Vigoureux was cheerful and eager to communicate his message - horsemeat is lower in fat, higher in protein and cheaper than beef, and the French are queuing up for it, he said. "It has become democratized since the acceptance of exotic meats - ostrich, bison, that kind of thing, but the main drivers are economic."

The slaughter of horse in industrial abattoirs has been criticized as inhumane but Monsieur Vigoureux defends modern European practices. Horses are rendered unconscious by electroshock, then dispatched by controlled bleeding. "The animal feels no fear, no suffering," he said.

In the world of red meat, however, some people can't tell the difference between horse and beef. I once overheard an American couple complain in a Paris restaurant that they could not find a decent hamburger in the French capital. When a waiter came by to take their order, he pointed to the "Steak haché (chevaline)" listed on the menu. He did not mention that "chevaline" means horsemeat. They ordered it and seemed to enjoy it. If they only knew …


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