As a child I hated butchers' shops: the stink of blood soaking into sawdust, the whack of knife edges on purple flesh, the sheer deathliness of it all, the hint of cannibalism. Human beings tend not to eat other carnivores, but the taboo can seem weak (some people do eat dog). The horse-meat butchers seemed particularly shocking: the dark red slabs seemed to ooze sadness. Fairy tales and art make use of such frissons, of course. St Nicholas rescues poor children who have been salted and put in barrels against a hungry day. Claude Chabrol's thriller Le Boucher is extra scary because it plays against our prejudices: surely such a nice, civilised butcher, knowledgeable about prehistoric caves and animals, cannot really be, after all, a simple hunter-gatherer in psychopath's clothing?
Supermarket meat wrappings and paddings bandage our fear of death and blood. They remove our need to have relationships with the people who provide our food. Yet butchers are usually kindly people, listening as patiently as therapists, giving advice on nice tasty cuts that will cheer customers up, cracking jokes, calling you "young lady" whatever your age. The young butcher in my local market town in France goes one better, enacting a Chabrolesque drama of bottom-pinching. The female assistants feel obliged to caper and squeal: girly piglets.
He is the best butcher in town, and so the long queue of customers shrugs and smiles. His is an old-fashioned shop, featuring decorations such as animal horns mounted on plaques, plastic pigs' heads, posters of cheery bullocks dressed in smocks and trousers, arriving, beaming, for the annual New Year Fete de la Viande. The counter displays home-made rabbit pates and pate de foie, andouillettes (tripe sausages), truffled boudins blancs, pigs' trotters, bacon, a couple of guinea fowl and a rabbit, as well as the usual filets and gigots.
The young butcher wears a spotless starched white jacket. Across the street, his newly arrived rivals, striving to win away his customers, look very different. Monsieur, with a 1970s hairdo and sideburns and a heavy moustache, wears a scarlet overall. Madame, with impossibly upswept and blonded hair, sculpted and glazed as a puff pastry, wears a frilled scarlet apron, high stiletto heels. They look got up for TV; a bit like the Craddocks. Their meat is similarly cosmeticised, mostly made into something else. They are trying to be traiteurs a la mode but haven't quite pulled it off. Sausages hide under puff pastry duvets. Gambas are mixed with mandarin segments. Piles of grated carrot sit on cockle shells. Russian salad comes with quiffs of factory mayonnaise. Bouchees a la reine look fake. No need for the butcher across the way to sharpen his knife and look meaningfully in their direction. Not yet, anyway.