Let's all eat rabbit
Sustainable, gastronomically intelligent, but largely misunderstood in Britain, rabbit meat is long overdue a culinary comeback, says Sarah Monier-Williams.
Pop quiz: Name three things you’d associate with rabbit. Aside from a charming 50p with Peter on it, William Hill would give good odds on Watership Down, Thumper and Fatal Attraction. Fessing up to being the sort who wells up at the merest hint of the opening bars of Bright Eyes, I’m living proof of the existence of a cerebral cortex permanently scarred by childhood movies. Witnessing Violet being carried off by a hawk (leaving the warren without a female – disaster!) in the shockingly ‘U’ rated Watership Down is right up there with the scene where Bambi’s mother gets it. Throw in that shocker of the ominously bubbling pot on the kitchen stove and you’ve got an entire generation of normally sensible, sturdy Tweed-wearing Brits with a throwback aversion to most things rabbit.
It took a while for the success of Watership Down to cross the Channel, but generations of Frenchies have a special place in their heart for Beatrix Potter’s Pierre Lapin. Despite this, the French totally get rabbit as food. So do the Italians and the Spanish. Between them, these three countries account for over 50 per cent of the world’s farmed rabbit and production is increasing around two per cent annually as the EU veers away from Mad Cow meat scares. Rabbit (conejo) is a regular feature in every Spanish supermarket and I was assured by my phone-an-Italian friend, the go-to dish that cures all ails is rabbit broth, not chicken soup.
So let’s get real. At first glance, most farmed rabbit available in European supermarkets sits there as a carcass in a cling-wrapped polystyrene tray, eerily resembling your favourite whippet, freshly skinned. Yet anyone who’s ever sampled the delights of a rosemary and garlic-laden Conejo Con Ajillo, or the gloriously hearty Arroz Caldoso Con Conejo, scented with juniper berry freshness and saffron elegance, is a convert to the conejo culinary cause. No need to head for the Ritz in Madrid, these are everyday dishes straight from the kitchen of any Andalusian roadside workman’s caff. The Arroz Caldoso Con Conejo is a remarkably straightforward dish and, with the exception of rabbit, you’ve probably got every ingredient in your larder. No juniper berries to hand? A slug of Gordon’s should do the trick.
Never a nation to hold back on the right to bear arms, perhaps we shouldn’t reference the USA of today, where (at the time of writing) they look set to elect a man who colours his hair and the definition of an American adventure is whether or not to supersize a meal? The concept of the Easter Bunny arrived in the US courtesy of German immigrants in the 1700s, but we really need to roll forward to 1860 and the Civil War for the bunny on yankee rabbit, so to speak.
Better known for the Derby and Bourbon than its culinary prowess, the good ole state of Kentucky has nevertheless managed to come up with a state dish known as ‘burgoo’. The jury’s out on its precise origins, but the main ingredients for this Bluegrass basic should be three critters you’ve shot yourself (crossbow, obvs) with the best-case scenario being squirrel, deer and rabbit. Rumoured to have been the meal of choice of Confederate general John Hunt Morgan, burgoo was the invention of his French chef, Gustave Jaubert, and a mispronunciation of “boeuf ragoût”, deer being a common substitute for the rarely available steer. No two burgoo aficionados make this dish the same way and all are fiercely protective of their secret formulas. Packed with chilli, or livened up with a healthy splash of booze, the only thing in common with every burgoo is the portion size. Think enough to serve a platoon and you’re halfway there.
It’s been said that rabbit is not best fried and so a critter fritter is not the done thing. Here in the UK we seem to have taken a more refined approach to our rabbit dishes. I served up risky rabbit terrine at a recent dinner party for friends (him: Land Rover dealer. Her: sheep breeder and show jumper. I’d figured ‘assisting a ewe with a tricky labour’ = ‘type likely to eat rabbit without fuss’). True, there’s a whiff of a pilfered idea from the French here, what with the cornichons and all, but I’d basically modified a recipe nicked from the chef at a local gastropub. Terrine de Thumper arrived at the table to much accolade all wrapped-up in lovely bacon (further proof that there is no game dish which can’t be improved by the addition of pig products). We were all watching our weight, otherwise it would have been an alternative recipe heist of rabbit and tarragon rillettes accompanied by fat, glossy radishes, a dollop of local mustard (another game love match) and the thinnest slices of toasted sourdough ever.
The Wild Rabbit in the chic Cotswold village of Kingham has a bunny theme running throughout, from staff T-shirts to coat hooks. It’s a gastropub owned by an organic farmer with deep pockets and an eye for style. With beer at around £3 a pint, the pot-shot locals taking one home for Sunday lunch after a morning’s rough shooting are kept happy, too.
Fundamentally, rabbit as a meat is long overdue a comeback. Head to London and the ubiquitous Gladwin brothers on the King’s Road and in Notting Hill have rabbit dishes appearing faster than their clichéd reproductive prowess – confit, tagliatelle, slow-cooked, loin – and all from creatures shot on their own farm. Boisdale (see page 110) and Rules, restaurants who know a thing or two about game, often feature rabbit and, because it’s not seasonal and it’s becoming more socially acceptable, you’ll probably find it cropping up more often on your local gastropub menu. However, those of you with a penchant for something different might want to head to wild rabbit meat suppliers www.farmerschoice.co.uk or for a broader range, www.wildmeat.co.uk where you can also acquire squirrel and venison to knock up your very own Blighty burgoo.
Rabbit is a meat which is both sustainable and gastronomically intelligent. They don’t require a shedload of food or land to survive and will happily subsist on a diet of bits of wood, wildflowers and garden waste. Even farmed, they aren’t fed on their dead cage companions (battery chicken anyone?) and, unlike cows, don’t look set to gruff out enough methane waste to poison us any time soon. The fieldsports industry is always banging on about the health benefits of game, so how does the humble bunny stand up against chook in the health stakes? 216 calories and 14g of fat per 100g of chook versus 179 calories and 6.6g of fat for Peter. Winner winner, chicken dinner? Not if you’re watching the waistline.
Talking of calories, have I managed to overcome an underlying aversion to killing and eating a creature with the magical ability to bring me chocolate in spring? You betcha. Some time soon I fully intend to introduce rabbit’s boxing cousin to Valrhona 85 per cent Abinao Noir finest for a Sicilian lepre ai cioccolato. What’s up choc!
Find a recipe for Sarah's delicious rabbit terrine HERE.