As a child in the 50s, it was normal to pass by the butcher’s window and see the furry corpses of rabbits and indeed hares swinging on hooks. Rabbit meat for stews or pies made a regular appearance on our supper table. They were seen by my grandmother as a cheap and nutritional meal and were a welcome supplement to the meagre rations that the British had to contend with until well into the fifties. Across the countryside ‘rough’ shooters managed to earn a bob or two killing what the farmers and gamekeepers considered a serious pest. Wild rabbits could be sold not only for their meat, but for their skins as well, because rabbit fur or coney, was much in demand from hatters and furriers.
As early as the 1840s a select committee had noted that rabbits were ‘universally condemned as mischievous vermin’ on account of the crops they consumed and damaged. So much so that when myxomatosis arrived in the UK in 1953, the landowners, farmers and many members of the government were keen to let the virus run its course and kill off this longstanding and virulent agricultural pest.
There is indeed some debate as to whether the introduction of the disease was accidental or intentional. But many people, including Churchill, were horrified at the sight of so many animals dying from this horrible disfiguring pox, as well as the loss of a valuable food source. A 1954 article in the Field reported ‘Who could view with equanimity the prospect of Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies riddled with myxomatosis?”
The virus did run its course and, by the winter of 55/spring56, over 95% of the wild rabbit population had been decimated, leaving a population of just 4 million. As prolific breeders, the rabbits quickly recovered and gained some immunity after repeated flare ups of the disease in the next decades. But after long years of war the food market was now flooded with meat choices from across the world and even my grandmother, who had been very fond of bunny pie, had perhaps seen the bulging eye corpse of one too many a rabbit, and stopped cooking it.
Now the UK is teeming with rabbits, with approximate estimates of there being over sixty million. They are thriving with the decline of predators (foxes have moved into the easier pickings of urban life), an abundance of food, and a move towards warmer winters. So why is it very difficult to find them in any but specialty butchers? British supermarkets apparently find it too ‘challenging’ a meat to sell to the home cook. This is not the case in many European countries, with both farmed and wild rabbit being readily available in France, Italy, Spain, as well as Portugal and Germany.
Rabbits, like poultry, efficiently convert the plant proteins they digest into high value animal protein. But they have the advantage over chicken in that they eat cellulose rich plants that are readily available and not used for anything else. In contrast, domestic poultry are fed traditional grain and soy cakes which put them in direct competition with the human food chain.
With all these advantages and perhaps with the rising price of food, once again people may turn to this flavoursome meat. In France, farmed rabbit is readily available, and although it tends to be plumper, what they gain in meat they lack in taste. In London, I buy my rabbits from Farmdrop, where they are supplied from Park Farm, whose animals are either shot on their farm or others in Kent. (Our cover photo is from the Farmdrop site, courtesy of photographer Andrew Burton)
A wild rabbit’s free-ranging lifestyle diet makes for healthy, lean meat that tastes like a gamey chicken. Because of the lack of fat, the meat does have a tendency to be dry. If you do barbecue, it needs to be cooked, hot and quick, turned regularly and brushed with a marinade. The easiest way though is to make a stew.
As we are now well into June, sauces thickened with flour and cream tend to rescind in my menu, to be revived again for colder months. Therefore, for the two of us, I split the rabbit in two, legs for the barbecue and the rest for the stew pan, but served in a light jus with a side of braised baby spring vegetables. Children love eating with their hands, so nibbling the meat off the fine bones should be encouraged, but discarding the bones by throwing them over their shoulder-Henry VIII style perhaps should not. That is unless you have a rabid dog waiting patiently underneath the table for such dropped treats! If you have never tried rabbit, do give it a go. I’m sure you’ll find it to your taste and you’ll be doing British farmers a favour.
Rabbit cooked in a Mushroom and Shallot Jus
Preparation Time 70 minutes + overnight in the fridge, which enables the tastes to develop and the fat on the jus is easy to skim off. Feeds four
600g or a whole wild rabbit jointed
200g shallots, chopped
200g mushrooms chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
750 ml vegetable stock
A handful of fresh thyme
Heat 50ml oil in a large frying pan until very hot. Add the rabbit pieces and brown well on all sides. Transfer the pieces to a saucepan. Add the rest of the oil then add the shallots, mushrooms, and garlic. Fry, stirring all the time until coloured and then transfer to the pan with the rabbit pieces.
Add the stock to the pan and bring gently to the boil, scraping off any sediment from the bottom as you go. Add this to the rabbit, mushroom, shallot mix. Bring to the boil, skim off any scum, and then add the fistful of thyme. Reduce heat and simmer for about an hour. Leave to cool. Remove the rabbit pieces and place in a container in the fridge. Sieve the rest of the liquid and also place it in a storage box in the fridge. You can throw away the mushroom and shallot mix but I stuck it in the blender with some instant miso soup and that was lunch.
Next day remove any fat from the top of the jus, place it back in a pan with the rabbit and heat slowly for approximately 15 minutes. I served it with a scattering of parsley or coriander and a selection of young vegetables seared in a frying pan and then steamed in their own juices.