I have pet rabbits but I also eat meat. Call me a food snob but I worry about where my meat comes from and I’d rather eat less of it than eat mass-produced, clumsily-slaughtered, chemical-ridden and unhappy animals. That’s just how I am.
Rabbits, plentiful at this time of year, are the ideal candidate: they’ve lived outside, haven’t been injected with antibiotics up to their eyeballs, provide a lean form of protein and taste good in a stew or pie, if a little sweet. What’s more, they are free and it’s legal to shoot them all year round as they are considered a pest, but August is a time of plenty.
Rabbits are fluffy, cute and surprisingly clever (mine are house-trained and love banana) and it is hard to separate them from the likes of Fiver, Bigwig and Hazel in Richard Adams’ 1972 novel Watership Down. However, in the bigger European context, this makes us unique – in Italy, Spain and France, whole skinned rabbits feature alongside chicken on supermarket shelves. I’m not sure if this is because we have all shed a tear at Bright Eyes or whether the appearance of something that resembles an actual animal is too much for the pet-loving British public to bear. Whatever it is, we need to get over it and get into eating rabbit.
Watching Tom Scade of Tides Restaurant in Rock, skinning, jointing and cooking with rabbit at The Royal Cornwall Show this year was a great lesson in food provenance for those kids lucky enough to watch. And they didn’t cry, but were fascinated at how the animal then turned into gourmet pan-fried loins. With terrifying statistics about how many urban school kids don’t actually know where sausages or milk come from, this type of common sense cooking is vital to a healthy attitude to food. Chicken nuggets don’t grow on trees nor do sausages poke their heads up through the soil (even if we can now grow burgers in test-tubes).
According to The Oxford Companion to Food, rabbits were considered a luxury in the late 14th century and medieval cooking methods included roasting with the head on and served with verjuice (juice from unripe fruit) and ginger sauce. Domestic rabbits are normally killed for the table at three months, don’t need to be hung and provide a tender and pale meat, and a doe’s meat is considered superior to a buck. Older animals with a stronger flavour are often marinated.
The advice on how to prepare the meat varies. I sought the seasoned advice of Simon Wilkins of Cornish Game who suggests: “Gutting and skinning then putting in ice cold water with lots of salt, repeat for three days and this will take out the earthy taste.” Rabbit meat can be curried, turned into burgers with some pork mince or made into a tomato-ey rabbit ragu, slow-cooked and served with fat pappardelle pasta. However you fancy it, bunnies are in abundance at this time of year and as a low-fat, low cost meat option, you’d be silly not to.