If hippophagy disappears completely, breeds of draft horses will fall into extinction.
By the time I came down for breakfast at 7am, Christine had left for Lille, where she teaches business management, and Pierre Yves was out on the farm with his dogs. It felt slightly strange being alone in somebody else’s house.
In the little hamlet of Savy-Berlette I passed the imposing bust of Emile Decroix who peered out from his plinth. Decroix was born in Savy-Berlette in 1821, and by the time of his death in 1902 he had arguably become the village’s most famous son.
During an active life Decroix become the head of the army veterinary corps, for which he was awarded the Legion d’Honneur. But it was in the fields of anti smoking and the consumption of horse meat (l’hippophagie) that his more interesting accomplishments lay.
Decroix was vehemently opposed to the smoking of tobacco by the soldiers he encountered in his job and in 1877 he established the Society against the abuse of Tobacco, of which he was the President until his death.
Which brings us on to the more controversial subject of Decroix’s support for horse meat consumption or ‘hippophagy’ (* NB Not steak à cheval!)
Prohibited in the West by the Papacy in the 8th century, the consumption of horse meat has long been taboo. Hippophagy enjoyed something of a renaissance in France in the 19th century, in no small part due to Decroix’s campaign to promote the public health benefits of horse meat consumption with a desire to protect the welfare of horses. During the period, many horses died of exhaustion in the street due to their harsh working conditions. Promoting hippophagy therefore had a double benefit: it promoted a healthy, inexpensive diet for consumers and a more humane and shorter life for horses, as animals sold for slaughter had to be kept in good conditions.
At its inception, hippophagy was 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 in Paris. The Siege of Paris by German troops in 1870 also encouraged the spread of horse meat consumption.
However, horse meat consumption failed to really take off and become a main stream part of French culture. 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. The relative popularity of horse meat consumption 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.
Decroix must have been a busy man. Besides his advocacy against tobacco consumption and the promotion of horse meat consumption, during his life he also found the time to be President of the Society for the Protection of Animals; President of the Society of Military Veterinarians; President of the Society of Civilian Veterinarians; President of the Dosimetric Therapeutic Medicine Society.
Besides those roles he was also a member of the Society of Practical Veterinary Medicine, The Temperance Society, and The Philanthropic Society of Free Loans. I somehow suspect he didn’t have much time for golf and gardening!
At the little hamlet of Écoivres I sought out a couple of neolithic menhirs called ‘Les Pierres Jumelles’ ( the twins). It seemed a suitable location to ‘sling my hook’ and eat my baguette.
According to local legend the stones owe their origin to Queen Brunehaut, who, wanting to build a road that would lead to the territory of the Morinie of which she was Queen, made a pact with the devil to come to her aid. His soul would belong to him if he finished the road overnight, before the first rooster crowed. A little before dawn, the queen woke up the rooster, which started crowing before the fateful hour. Furious at having been fooled, Satan dropped the two enormous stones which he still held… They were planted in the earth, where they stood in front of me as I munched on my baguette.
From Ecoivres, it was a short hike up the nearby hill to take a quick look at the imposing ruins of the Abbey of Mont St Eloi, which dominated the surrounding countryside. Originally formed as an Abbey in the 7th century to commemorate St Eligius ( St Eloi in French, the Abbey was demolished during the French Revolution. It’s strategic location made it the ideal base for Allied forces to launch their attacks on Lorette (1915) and Vimy (1917) during the Great War.
The ruined Abbey’s facade has long attracted tourists from far and wide who admire its stark beauty atop its lofty perch.
Heading out of Ecoivres I passed my first war cemetery. I wandered in and had a look around. In the middle there was a small stone wisteria covered structure which resembled a Greek oracle. Serrayed rows of head stones and memorial crosses stood on immaculately maintained plots and manicured grass.
Over the last week, I’ve enjoyed the variety of house signs warning potential visitors from ill advised entry. Another one caught my eye in Ecoivres!
Eventually I reached Arras and made my way to the Cathedral for another stamp in my burgeoning pilgrim passport.
The Cathedral, which was built in the 18th century. is dedicated to an obscure 6th century saint who died in Arras called St Vaast. His main claim to fame, as far as I could ascertain, was to banish a bear from underneath the altar of a church, whose status he wanted to elevate to a cathedral.
Inside the Cathedral I noticed a 12th century reliquary casket which held the surplice that Thomas Becket wore when he was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170.
There was also a moving memorial to the British troops who had lost their lives during the Great War. I lit a candle for my great uncle, Charles Dutton, and stood in silence, humbled by the sacrifice he made over a century ago.
Arras lies at the nexus of several pilgrim routes, hence the magnificence of the Cathdral, whose fortune must have benefited from the steady flow of medieval pilgrims paying homage to St Vaast, the bear banisher extraordinaire.
Before making my way to my lodgings for the night, I took a few moments to wander around the main square in Arras, where Friday evening revellers were already beginning to gather. It was a welcome sight to see so many people gathered in one place, a reminder of happier pre-Covid times.
My old friend Claude and my godson, Georges, had no sooner arrived than it was time for an impromptu trumpet recital by Georges who rapidly took us through La Marseillaise to La Brabançonne and finished with a flourish with the Pink Panther theme tune!
Claire Kapoun, the owner of the Au Carré St Eloi , had recommended that we sample the local cuisine at the Le Comptoir Restaurant nearby. So we sought out the restaurant and asked, Tiffany, the waitress, what she would recommend. Without a moment’s hesitation came the response – “Andouillette”.
I’m now going to preface the next bit of my blog with a health warning. For those of a delicate constitution or squeamish disposition, please skip the following section which details the gastronomic niceties of intestines and may not be to everybody’s taste!
Andouillette is a coarse-grained sausage made with pork, chitterlings (intestines),pepper, wine, onions and seasonings. It arrived at our table in the form of a small plump sausage, together with a variety of tasty relishes – possibly designed to take the edge off the taste which is strong and distinctive. I have to admit that I wasn’t a great fan, but I did manage to polish my andouilette off, and the pommes frites were delicious!
We retreated to our lodgings at the Au Carré St Eloi and tucked in to a bottle of red wine and Belgian chocolates that Claude had kindly brought from Brussels. It seemed a fitting end to another stimulating and entertaining day!
Post Script: Don’t be alarmed if you enter a French restaurant and see steak à cheval on the menu. It isn’t horse meat steak but chopped beef steak with an egg on top!