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Chevaline … a horsemeat butcher in Paris. Photo: Reuters

THE eating of horses has a long history. Many prehistoric cultures both ate and sacrificed horses, and the ban on horsemeat by Pope Gregory III in 732 was in part an attempt to eradicate pagan rituals in the Germanic states.

From the early Middle Ages, the horse grew in importance. It made no sense to consume an animal rich in symbolism and expensive to buy and maintain, when farming gave us ready supplies of other, similar foodstuffs, namely beef and mutton. So entrenched was this view that by the 17th century eating horses was banned in most European countries.

And when horse as food started to be popularised in the mid-19th century, it was partly driven by the need to feed growing numbers of urban poor when meat prices were rising sharply.

Its proponents in England and France argued that thousands of horses went to waste every day, mainly elderly cab nags, which were worked to death and then slaughtered for glue and pet food.

In France, Belgium, Italy and Switzerland, the medical and culinary establishment lauded horsemeat, and the working classes gradually accepted it.

Legally, in France, it could only be sold in designated chevalines, clearly signposted by the still-visible golden horses heads above the door (it is now available in supermarkets as well).

In England the arguments fell on deaf ears. The idea the English could consume these noble animals, these long-lived friends of the family, was regarded with revulsion.

Guardian News & Media