Hippophagy: steak tartare

Prohibited in the West by the papacy in the 8th century, the consumption of horse meat has long been taboo. Hippophagy again experienced an important development in France in the 19th century, particularly under the influence of the naturalist Isidore Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire (1805-1861) and the veterinary Émile Decroix (1821-1901). The public health interest of the latter was coupled with a desire to protect horses, dear to former. As it happened, many died of exhaustion in the street, subject to harsh working conditions. Promoting hippophagy therefore held a double interest: a healthy, inexpensive diet for consumers and a better end of life, i.e. a shorter life, for horses, as animals sold for slaughter had to be kept in good condition. At its inception, hippophagy was therefore supported by the French Humane Society (SPA – Société Protectrice des Animaux). The active campaign carried out to promote the consumption of horse meat in 1866 led to an order authorising horse meat consumption and the opening of the first horse butcher. The Siège de Paris by German troops in 1870 also encouraged the spread of this eating practice.

If hippophagy disappears completely, breeds of draft horses will fall into extinction.

Jean-Pierre Digard

However, it failed to establish a sustainable manner in French custom. Peasants could not bear to eat their fellow workers, while the aristocracy was loath to eat a recreational companion. It was mainly the bourgeoisie which engaged in this practice, which reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th century. This relative popularity declined shortly thereafter. Today, 30,000 tonnes of horse meat are consumed each year, i.e. 2-3% of the total meat consumption in France. While the SPA is now campaigning to stop this practice, the discontinuation of this sector could lead to the disappearance of certain heavy breeds of horses.

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