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French horsemeat sales up thanks to horse-for-beef scandal
You might have expected lasagnegate to have turned the French off horsemeat altogether. Far from it. The scandal that saw horsemeat substituted for beef in readymade meals sold all over Europe has actually revived a culinary habit that was on the decline in France.
Sales of horsemeat have increased by up to 15 per cent according to the French industry body for horse butchers, Interbev Equins. And they are hoping the trend will last.
The French began eating horsemeat in the 18th centruy when revolutionaries requisitioned horses from the aristocracy simply to stave off hunger.
Horsemeat went on to become a working-class staple, especially in the north of France.
Low in fat and cholesterol, it can be seen as a healthier and slightly cheaper alternative to beef.
But by the 1980s eating horse had gone out of fashion and many specialist butchers closed down.
There are now just 700 nationwide.
The French consume less than 300g of horsemeat per head a year, a fifth of the amount they did 30 years ago. And most consumers are over the age of 50.
But any publicity is good publicity and sales have shot up since the lasagnegate fraud broke around three weeks ago.
"People had forgotten about horsemeat," says Nicole, a middle-aged Frenchwoman buying her weekly horsemeat mince at a specialist butchers in Paris’s 15th district.
"The scandal has made them think about it again."
When the scandal broke Nicole says she came rushing to her trusty artisan butcher Jacques Leban to support him.
"I imagined he’d have no customers, but he told me he’d got loads more," she laughs.
Leban, who's been in the business for 38 years, stands behind a display of horse steaks which he sells mainly as fresh mince to be eaten as horse tartare.
"Sales are up by 40 per cent," he says proudly as he throws another bloody horse steak into the mincing machine.
But he’s had to reassure his customers and has recently dusted down his "Viande de cheval 100% francaise" (100 per cent French horsemeat) sign and put it in the window for all to see.
He shows me the invoice for his latest delivery of horsemeat.
"All the horses are Percheron, from Alençon. It’s French meat," he declares proudly.
Nicole says knowing where the meat is from is crucial.
"I wouldn’t buy horsemeat from just any butcher. But this is good stuff. I trust him. And horsemeat has to be very fresh. It oxydises quickly so I buy it in the morning and eat it at lunch. "
Like many consumers, Nicole says she’s avoiding ready-made meals.
For the moment the losers in the horsemeat scandal are producers of ready-made lasagne.
Last week Fraisnor, a company that makes lasagne near Arras in the north of France said sales were down by 70 per cent and it would soon have to lay off some of its workforce.
As for the artisan butchers and horsebreeders, it’s far from clear whether the interest in buying horsemeat will be any more than a passing trend.