Rabbits are everywhere – speaking ones from childhood who listen to Art Garfunkel, frozen fur bundles dotted across fields and stunned baby ones at the side of roads. And I have a particularly fine specimen who loves bananas, in my garden (and sometimes house). Rarely however are they are on our plates, in our cookbooks, on TV and never will you find a whole one in a supermarket near you.
The absence of rational thought in all of this may simply stem from the misplaced childhood affection towards a fluffy animal gifted with the power of speech in children’s literature. If you are a meat eater however, watch this unnerving Films for Action clip from the Samsara Food Sequence to think differently about where your flesh comes from, including the hopping type.
Dispatching a rabbit out of its natural environment is much more humane and if you do it correctly, immediate. The aforementioned has hopped, skipped and jumped in the fields and hedges before leaping onto our plates and while it is not the tastiest of meats, it can be combined with fattier friends to make some excellent, cost-friendly dishes.
Lamping is one way to literally bag some rabbit. Take a 4×4, a fine summer’s evening, a couple of straw bales to sit on, some guns and the expertise of brothers-in-law James Martin and George Pascoe who run the Philleigh Way cookery school and you’ll get some proper wild meat.
We arrive just before 10pm, just as lamping hour begins, greeted by James and George with coffee and saffron buns from that morning’s cookery class. The kitchen, a converted stable, oozes good taste and quality – the same ovens in each cooking station as used on The Great British Bake Off, marble worktops and Robert Welch knives.
Copies of The Ethicurean and Hunt Gather Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast give away the brothers’ philosophy behind the school: passing on the heritage of cooking and using the knowledge and sources around you. And few places are better equipped to talk of heritage than a family who have been on the farm since 1853, with three generations of expertise behind the school.
Lamping is all about being hurled around – the Landrover option being a little less extreme than the quad. The lights of the vehicle send a beam across the field searching out midnight bunnies; when one is spotted, the vehicle drives straight at it and slams to a halt, with the aim of creating that all-important ‘rabbit in headlights’ moment. There was some rather pre-emptive shooting from the excitable boys in the back, met in turn with some colourful Cornish swearing from George’s dad Jim. The long grass was apparently making it tricky, but a few clean shots later and we had our protein for the next day’s cooking.
How to cook a rabbit the Philleigh Way
Rabbits are lean. So lean that if you ate just rabbit you could apparently die of starvation as they have such little fat. But this is a highly unlikely scenario, particularly if you go down the confit route and boil the meat in lard (highly recommended).
George is the chef of the family and he demonstrated rabbit three ways: confit, paella and smoked. First: the skinning. Sounds shocking but it’s not so different from taking off a woolly jumper (once the legs are removed). Just as George reminded us, there are indeed, “many ways to skin a rabbit.” If you don’t want to do it yourself just ask a decent butcher.
Smoked rabbit loin
Take off the loins (the equivalent of the fillet of beef) and salt them to draw out the moisture and intensify the flavour. George used one part sugar to two parts sea salt and a sprinkling of rosemary, bay leaves, thyme to cover the loins and left them for a minimum of 30 minutes.
To prep the saucepan (must have a lid) for smoking: line it with a layer of foil in the bottom and add a few handfuls of wood chippings, rosemary and bay leaves on top. Leave the lid off the pan and place it on full heat; once it starts smoking, turn it down, squeeze a lemon over the wood chippings to add flavour and slow it down, place the loins on the rack and put the lid on top. The actual smoking process will only be a few minutes, but the taste is delicious and transforms the rabbit flesh into gourmet food.
Paella traditionally contains rabbit and chicken. For paella the Philleigh way you will need: a red pepper, an onion, rabbit meat, some chorizo or back bacon and some par-boiled rice in water with a pinch of saffron; a couple handfuls of mussels cooked in a glass of white wine, preferably from Fal-based Matt Vernon’s Mussel Shack and some pre- prepared fish stock.
Fry the onion until translucent, add the bacon, the chopped pepper, rabbit (equivalent of two loins which is roughly equivalent to one small chicken breast, the mussels and white wine. Sprinkle the rice on top, add the fish stock and George also added in a few spoonfuls of some homemade sweet ‘n’ sour tomato sauce (tomato sauce in a bottle would do at a pinch) and some chopped parsley to finish, plus seasoning.
Confit rabbit legs
Salt the rabbit legs in the same way as for the smoking. Leave a little longer if possible – overnight is fine. Wash the legs thoroughly (three or four times) to remove the salt. Melt enough lard (preferably goose, but other types are fine) to cover the meat and boil for a couple of hours or until the meat comes away easily from the bone. Let the fat cool, wipe any excess fat from the legs and put the oven onto full whack – 220°. Place the legs on a roasting tray and cook for about 20 minutes until they resemble large rabbit leg pork scratchings.
For more information on the excellent Philleigh Way cookery school near Truro and their courses, supper clubs, catering and weddings, contact James, George or Amie at philleighway.co.uk on 01872 580893 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Upcoming courses: Pickling and Preserving 25 September and Pig Butchery and Sausage Making 2 October.