Boucherie chevaline

Hippophagy, meaning the eating of horse meat, wasn’t even legal in France until 1866, although there was a black market for horse meat long before that, especially in times of crisis.

According to the French historian Sylvain Leteux, horse meat lost its taboo status and became a popular food in France between 1870 and 1960, especially among the “urban working classes”, particularly because it was inexpensive, costing only about half the price of pork or beef.

When hippophagy was legalized, it was also highly regulated. Horse meat was allowed to be sold only in specialized equine butcher shops, not in ordinary butcher shops where it might be confused with other kinds of meat. These special shops were required to be clearly marked with pictures of horses, so no one would be in any doubt about what they were buying.

Former butcher shop for horse meat

One of the first equine butcher shops in Paris was this one in the Marais district at 56 rue du Roi de Sicile (= Street of the King of Sicily), at the corner of rue Vieille-du-Temple. The shop was established in the 19th century in the ground floor of an older building called the Hôtel de Vibraye, but it didn’t get its distinctive façade made of bright ceramic tiles until 1946.

The slogan in the mosaic reads Achat de Chevaux, meaning ‘Purchase of Horses’. The façade is now protected as an historical monument (along with other features of the building), but the butcher shop has been replaced by a clothing store.

At least a dozen equine butcher shops are still operating in other parts of Paris, even though the market for horse meat has been declining since the 1960s. The decline started because there were no longer enough horses in France, so it was “necessary to import carcasses from abroad to meet the demand” (Leteux, page 12). As a result, horse meat has become an expensive kind of meat, losing the price advantage it used to have.

By the way, the “Street of the King of Sicily” got its name in the 13th century, when the King of Sicily was a brother of the King of France, Louis IX, now better known as Saint Louis. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Les vêpres siciliennes, which he composed for the Paris Opera using a French text, takes place in Sicily in this period, specifically during a rebellion (against the French) in the year 1282.

Location and aerial view of the Hôtel de Vibraye on monumentum.fr.

My photos in this post are from 2011. I wrote the text in 2021.

See more posts on the Marais district of Paris.
See also: the ceramic façades of Zaengerler et Roussel and the Baths of Chatêaudun.

29 thoughts on “Boucherie chevaline”

  1. Ah, now this takes me back to my first visit to France! I was on a school French exchange, aged about 15 I think and staying with my exchange partner and her mother in a small village quite near Beauvais called Monneville. The mother ran the village cafe which was on the ground floor and they lived in a flat above. There were just the two of them – the father had died a year or so previously and her older sister was married and lived in another village. My partner Helene spoke limited English and was very shy; the mother spoke none at all. So I was thrown in the deep end! One morning at breakfast before Helene had got up the mother asked me, I thought, if I liked horses. I assumed this was a proposal to visit a stables or maybe go riding. So I replied that I liked them but couldn’t ride. She then had to explain that the question wasn’t whether I liked them per se but whether I liked to eat them! Not ‘Do you like horses?’ but ‘Do you like horse?’ 😆 She was going to the butcher that morning to buy meat for dinner. My first instinct was to say no (and she did offer to get beef steak for me) but then I reflected that I was there to have new experiences and I also didn’t want to put her out, so I agreed to try the horse. And I was glad that I had, as it was a tasty and very tender steak 🙂 That’s when I resolved always to give new foods a try, especially when abroad, and I’ve stuck to that ever since!

    1. That’s a great story, Sarah. I’m not sure if I have ever eaten horse meat. If so, it was in the form of ground meat in the 1960s. The French used to bake it into lasagne, for instance, and nobody noticed the difference.

      1. No, from what I recall it would be hard to tell the difference between horse and beef if cooked in a sauce, ground (we say minced!) or stewed. It really tasted just like a particularly good steak!

        By the way, for some reason I can’t ‘like’ your comments here (or anyone else’s). I have the same problem on a handful of the sites I follow – I have no idea why!

        1. Just a guess, but I suspect for ‘liking’ you might have to have Jetpack installed.
          This ‘minced’ business confused me on my first visit to the U.K., since I understood ‘mint’ and was expecting some kind of mint sauce.

          1. I have Jetpack, and I can ‘like’ comments on most blogs – just not here and one or two others. I’m trying to work out what’s different about those ones but so far I can’t see it!

    2. By coincidence, my wife’s first visit to France was also on a school exchange, and her partner was also a girl called Hélène. Years later they re-connected, and we went on a joint family camping holiday with their four children and our three. Since then, we have visited back and forth several times. We hosted one of their sons for a school exchange (he was shocked to see how undisciplined the German school-children are), and later they were very supportive when our younger son was in Grenoble for his Erasmus year. Now we are still in contact, though the children are all in their forties. (Our oldest will turn fifty later this year.)

    1. The historian I quoted gave a quick review of attitudes toward horse-meat in different cultures — in some cultures it has always been completely acceptable, in others horses were considered comrades and work-mates, and as such not to be eaten.

  2. I know one shouldn’t knock it until one has tried it, but somehow I just don’t think I could bring myself to eat horsemeat. Love the photos, though! Thanks, Don!

  3. Suffice as it’s to say, I’ve never tried horse meat before. I would be apprehensive to try it, as I see horse as a domesticated pet/form of transportation. To be fair, though, I’ve tried camel meat after riding on a camel, so I might have to give horse meat at least a bite…only if the opportunity arises!

    1. In my English conversation classes, I used to use a funny recording of a retired British diplomat talking about all the weird things he had to eat in various countries, so as not to offend his hosts.

  4. I must admit to being a bit shocked to see “cheval” on the menu of someplace, I don’t recall where, after living in Brittany for about 2 years and never having come across it during that time.

    1. That would certainly be possible. The historian Sylvain Leteux writes: “In Canada, horsemeat is legal, but the only market — which is not very broad — is the French-speaking province of Quebec, where the taboo is not so strong, and a few (mostly French) restaurants in Canada.”

    1. Thanks for finding and posting such an entertaining excerpt from 1907, demonstrating the Anglo-Saxon taboo against eating horsemeat. (And thanks for the link to my post.)

  5. Thanks for the memories. When I was a wee sprout in Rome in the late fifties, we ate horsemeat regularly, because my mother, who did not speak or read Italian, shopped exclusively on price. When our help asked her why she always bought horsemeat, she was aghast. It was a sad day, for my brother and me. We preferred the horsemeat: for the money it was tastier. I learned later than it was also less fatty and healthier.

  6. I have eaten many delectable things…but horsemeat isn’t one of them. Maybe if I had played with cows in the pasture the way I spent time with horses when I was younger I would not be so fond of beefsteak now, I don’t know. I have been hungry, poor hungry, and cannot pass judgement on those who ate it. I understood, and your story backs it up, it was a dish for the middle and upper lower classes. We can’t all afford expensive prime foods. thanks for your post.

      1. It was an odd comment as I was trying to be open minded. I had horses as pets when young but I also know I should not condemn other cultures or other peoples for their choices. We all have different cultures and different circumstances. I should not condemn others because I rode horses when I was young and spent many long hours exploring the woods and river bottom lands with them and our dogs.

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