PARIS (Reuters) - In a dingy Parisian back street, diners at a one-of-a-kind bistro tuck lustily into breaded horse brain, pan fried heart of horse and broiled cheek, along with prime rump steaks the chef cuts from the bone himself.
Seasoned aficionados queuing at one of the few horse butchers left in Paris say they prefer theirs raw as minced "tartare", pepped up with olive oil, lemon juice and pepper.
If the thought of having eaten Romanian cart horses in mislabelled frozen lasagne is making Britons choke, a loyal minority in France laments a dwindling appetite for a meat they say is a tastier and healthier alternative to beef.
"I understand people are upset if what they thought was beef turned out to be old Romanian ponies, but when horses are reared properly it's a delicious meat," said Gerard Marin, 67, at his weekly visit to one of a dozen surviving horse butchers in a city that 30 years ago counted hundreds.
"It's much tastier than beef and has much less fat. Young people today eat nothing but processed meals, kebabs and other rubbish - they don't know what they're missing."
France's taste for horsemeat dates back to when 18th Century revolutionaries seized the fallen aristocracy's horses to sate their hunger. It flourished for two centuries until falling out of fashion with a more squeamish younger generation.
The French now consume less than 300 grams (0.66 lbs) per person per year, a fifth of what they ate 30 years ago and less than 1 percent of the total meat they consume.
While fans say horsemeat is high in iron and more organic than mass-produced beef or battery hens, horse butchers are now a rarity. Le Taxi Jaune bistro in the labyrinthine Marais district is one of a tiny handful of Paris eateries serving it.
Another restaurant, Septime, occasionally serves it as raw tartare accompanied with wild strawberries and tarragon cream.
"I don't serve easy dishes. But you come to a restaurant to eat something different," said Otis Lebert, Le Taxi Jaune's head chef, who also works with wild boar and whole ducks, and serves locally sourced vegetables that change with the month.
His horse brain starter has a subtly sweet flavour, while the steak has a hint of gaminess and a slightly metallic tang.
Finely-sliced cured horse sausage is also on offer.
"My clients know I take care to buy fresh meat and debone it myself. I never work with pre-packed meat. What shocks me is the way food wholesalers are taking people for a ride."
BLOODY IS BEST
Overruling a 732 Papal ban, France legalised the eating of horsemeat in 1866 when poor families struggled to afford pork and beef. Many more were forced to eat it when the 1870-71 Prussian Siege of Paris caused severe meat shortages.
Today many French are sentimental about horses and regard eating horsemeat as something their grandparents did, much like the British think of eating pigs trotters, tripe or wild rabbit.
Yet as anger grows over the discovery that ready meals on sale across Europe contained horsemeat rather than the beef described on the label, some say that view is short-sighted.
They point out that horsemeat carries 110 calories per 100 grams compared to 160 calories for beef and contains far more cholesterol-lowering omega-3 fatty acids.
As long as it is not shipped pre-packed in plastic, where its high iron content means it oxidises faster than beef and can turn acidic, they say it tastes better and is more tender.
"I never buy beef. I prefer horse meat, it tastes better and it's cheaper," said Catherine Clerc, 42, who claims to have converted friends after cooking them horse roasts at home.
She buys horse meat weekly from a local market and likes it best as raw tartare, but otherwise serves it rare with potatoes, garlic and salad.
"I like it really bloody," she whispered.
A 37-year-old karate expert queuing behind Marin at the horse butcher, which sports two neon horse heads above its door, said he finds horse meat lighter to digest.
"I'm very sporty. Beef sits heavy on my stomach. Horse meat is less fatty, it goes down better," he said.
He is dreading the day this butcher's shop closes, he said.
Butcher Jocelyne Lamire, 63, says her daughters have office jobs and she supposes her shop will end up as a takeaway food joint or clothing outlet like the nine other butchers that have closed in her street in the past few years.
"My clientele is getting older and it's not being renewed," she said, as an assistant hacked at chunks of horse flesh with a cleaver. "People nowadays don't shop at traditional butchers. They spend their money on takeaway junk that is not nutritious."
(Reporting by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Angus MacSwan)