PARIS — Under the red-and-white awning and gilt horse-head statues that have been the trademarks of his profession for 150 years, Jean-Pierre Houssin, a horsemeat butcher, wiped his bloodied hands on his apron and gave a satisfied smile. After years of being ignored by modish Parisian diners, horsemeat is back in vogue in the worlds gourmet capital.
Over the past six months, sales have soared by 60 percent. For Mr. Houssin and the other few remaining horsemeat butchers in Paris, the upturn has been a godsend.
Selling for $7 per pound in butchers shops, compared with $10 for beef and $11 for lamb, it is mostly consumed at home, although some restaurants have started to offer it.
“Ive been in the trade for 21 years, and its been all downhill,” Mr. Houssin said. “But in the last few months, sales have taken off — and with it the morale of the whole profession.”
The cause of Frances renewed taste in horsemeat is simple: the repeated crises that have hit its biggest rival — beef.
“Had the cows not gone mad and foot-and-mouth disease not reached France, many of the last remaining businesses would have closed,” said Michel Beaubois, president of the French horse butchers federation. “As it is, consumers have lost confidence in beef and turned to us.”
Such is the extent of horsemeats reversal of fortune that Frances once-flourishing suppliers are struggling to keep up with demand. With the French expected to eat 55,000 tons of the meat this year, most of the horses that end up on Gallic plates have to be supplied from abroad. Many come from the United States. There, horsemeats “image problem” — as Mr. Beaubois calls it — has led to angry demands for exports to be halted.
In California, home to one-fifth of all horses in the United States, it is a crime for the animals to be sold for food.
“Nobody eats horsemeat here, but we need protection for our horses against the foreign market,” said Cathleen Doyle of the California Equine Council, who led a successful campaign in the state two years ago to ban the sale of horsemeat for consumption.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that up to 100,000 horses are killed in the nation each year, with 75 percent of the meat finding its way to Belgium and France.
Even racehorses end up on dinner tables. Latest figures suggest that one in nine U.S. thoroughbreds — particularly sought after for horse steaks — is killed for food.
The increase in demand in Europe also has spurred a rise in rustling of wild horses for their meat. In March, two men were arrested in Nevada after police discovered them rounding up wild horses as part of an illicit trade.
Back in his shop in Paris, Mr. Houssin revels in horsemeats new-found popularity.
“I started this business in the 1980s when it was still going reasonably well,” he said. “But then people like Brigitte Bardot and the animal-welfare groups started trying to destroy things.”
Horse — sometimes seen as a “poor mans meat” — became popular during the hungry years of the interwar depression. Military leaders and sportsmen recognized its high nutritional value, and its popularity continued to grow until opinion turned against it in the 1960s.
“It seems as though weve made it through the dark days,” Mr. Houssin said. “The beef crisis has brought us a whole new generation of customers.”
One of his satisfied customers said: “You can do anything with horsemeat that you can with beef. It tastes a bit like a cross between beef and venison — its delicious.”