Imagine a meat that is virtually fat-free, free-range, flavoursome and incredibly cheap. No, I'm not talking about chicken, or unmentionable offally bits of other beasts, but rabbit. So why does this miracle meat so rarely make it to the table?
The answer, I suspect, is that for many of us, reared on tales of the naughty but lovable Peter Rabbit and his smug sisters, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail, rabbits are fluffy companions that trigger sentimental memories of childhood, or fleeting flashes of fur on a country ramble.
To those who own and farm our countryside, though, rabbits are not cute and cuddly but velvet-faced vandals that cause some £150m worth of damage each year. The UK's wild rabbit population is reaching critical levels – 45 million at the last reckoning, and the number is growing – and guzzling unprecedented quantities of Britain's crops.
For Simon Whitehead, who is one of the country's last few remaining warreners – that is, someone who manages the country's rabbit population using traditional methods – it's crazy that we hardly harness this wild meat on our doorstep. Lack of demand for rabbit meat has meant it attracts a pitiful price, so there's sometimes little incentive for farmers and pest controllers to pick them up after killing them, something Simon roundly condemns. "Rabbits need controlling, but we have a moral responsibility when we take an animal's life to show respect and to do something constructive with the meat, rather than wasting it, particularly when we're in a recession," he says.
To get this abundant and tasty meat on to our tables, Simon has teamed up with a local butcher and chef and now sells to local restaurants. He's also made a DVD on how to prepare and cook rabbit, and last month, he supplied 100 rabbits for a "wild" wedding reception.
"Unlike chickens, that are often intensively reared and fed on grain, rabbits eat a completely natural wild diet, run around freely and haven't been given antibiotics or hormones. To buy chicken produced in similar conditions you'd have to pay around three times the price," Simon says. "Wild rabbits don't have to experience a journey to the slaughterhouse, and provided they are dispatched properly, have a quick, clean and humane death."
Simon works in East Anglia, whose sandy soils and fields of grain make it ripe for rabbits. The region has been famed for its rabbits ever since the practice of confining them in warrens was introduced to Britain by the Normans. The animals were prized for both their meat and fur, luxuries reserved for the upper classes, and the job of warrener was one of the most highly respected. Henry VI apparently had a nightshirt lined with black rabbit fur, and the monks of Thetford Priory gave Catherine of Aragon a gift of rabbit fur trimmings for her gowns when she visited them in 1513.
While the way we view rabbit meat and fur has transformed, the methods used by warreners such as Simon have changed little. Like his medieval predecessors, the tools of his trade are lurchers, ferrets, nets and tip-traps (now known as drop-boxes) – as I discover when I join him in Suffolk.
We drive to an estate where rabbits have been ravaging lawns and vegetable gardens. The owner has hired Simon rather than an ordinary pest controller as she likes the fact that he doesn't use gas, which means that other wildlife such as shrews and frogs are not destroyed. She also appreciates that Simon makes use of the meat, and sometimes takes some of the kill for her own table.
Simon introduces me to the three of his 24 ferrets that he's chosen to work with today. For visibility on this misty winter's day, they are all albino. Their names, Peppa, Roary and Olivia, have been selected by his five-year-old daughter, Gracie. "I fear we may be getting a Little Princess or Hannah Montana soon," Simon laughs. Ferrets, as I find out shortly, are as much a part of warrening as the rabbits themselves.
Simon has been rabbiting since he was 14, and I soon see that I am in the company of true professionals (including his animals). The area to be cleared of rabbits is netted off, then, as if in a meticulously choreographed ballet or game of chess, man and animals take their positions. The lurcher sniffs out which warrens are active and silently raises his paw when he makes a find, then Simon places a couple of ferrets down the holes in search of their prey. "It's like a game of chess," Simon whispers. "You have to second-guess the rabbits' reactions."
Dog and man wait, poised in silent suspense as the ferrets go about their dark work below ground. Then, in the blink of an eye, a rabbit bolts for freedom and is then trapped in a net. Simon swiftly twists its neck, and we wait for the next runaway. We watch the lurcher to see if there are more rabbits to catch – ears pricked, there are more; if he relaxes and loses interest, they've all been flushed. "It's about working with nature," Simon says. "It's a very different way of working from sportsmen who just shoot." He ties a string around the rabbits' hind legs and hangs them on a hook in his Pajero.
We catch 15 in all. A small dent in the population, perhaps, but, as Simon explains, when you are dealing with a beast that breeds as fast as the rabbit, every rabbit counts. "When you take out one doe [female rabbit], you're taking out what in a year's time will be around 20," Simon says.
With no shortage of supply, people such as Simon believe there's little excuse for us not to eat this flavoursome meat that's often described as a gamy version of chicken. But we're taking our time to fall in love with rabbit, it seems. Some are still put off by memories of the deadly myxomatosis disease that hit the UK in 1953, eradicating 99 per cent of the country's 60 million rabbit population. For the older generation, many of whom survived on wild rabbit in the war, this "poor man's meat" brings back difficult memories; once the war ended, they were keen to move to red meats that had been scarce.
Recently, though, rabbit has started making a comeback, thanks to the efforts of television chefs such as Hugh Fearnley -Whittingstall, who last year stunned the nation by serving bunny burgers outside an Exeter nightclub and donning underpants made from the rabbits' skins. "Rabbit is hugely underrated," he says. "I believe it has the potential to play a far bigger role in the national diet."
The French have long appreciated the virtues of rabbit, with classics such as lapin à la moutarde (rabbit with mustard) and lapin aux pruneaux (rabbit with prunes). It may take a bit of courage for us Brits to pop Peter, Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail into the pot as our ancestors did. But it's well worth a go if you don't want to miss out on an economical and wholesome meat.
Find out more about warrening, or order Simon's DVD, 'From Field to Fork: A Guide to Preparing & Cooking Rabbit', by going to www.pakefieldferrets.co.uk
Buying your bunny
Many supermarkets stock rabbit, usually in portions. Alternatively, go to a butcher and expect to pay between £3 and £5 for a skinned rabbit, or a bit more if it's jointed. The best meat is on the legs and saddle, but don't neglect the liver, heart and kidneys, which make a great terrine or a warm salad.
Another option is to buy direct from a game dealer, though this means the rabbit will probably be unskinned. The British Association for Shooting & Conservation can help you to find a game dealer, and also has recipes. See www.basc.org.uk.
The best rabbit is available from September to December. These rabbits are nice and plump and have fed on summer crops and berries. Fresh rabbit should have a nice rosy colour and a fresh, clean smell; avoid rabbit that smells gamy.
Because of its lack of fat, rabbit can be dry, so consider adding pork belly or bacon to the pot to realise its potential. Young rabbit can be delicious roasted or sautéed, but older rabbits are best casseroled.
Check your rabbit is wild and British, not farmed. Farmed rabbit is to be avoided. Not only is the meat white and bland, but many rabbits never leave their hutch and are fed on grain and feed pellets. And what's the point, when there are so many wild ones?
Rabbit stew with tomato
By Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Serves 3 as a main course, 6 as a starter
1 wild rabbit, jointed
2 tablespoons rapeseed or olive oil
4 streaky bacon rashers, chopped, or about 100g home-cured bacon belly
2 carrots, roughly sliced
2 celery stalks, sliced
1 onion, sliced
2 bay leaves
A few sprigs of thyme
A few black peppercorns
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1kg tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and roughly chopped, or 2 x 400g tins of chopped tomatoes
Glass of white wine
Water or chicken or game stock, to cover
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Season the rabbit pieces well with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a large saucepan, add the bacon and brown over a medium-high heat. Then add the rabbit and cook, turning frequently, until browned all over.
Stir in the carrots, celery and onion and let them take a little colour too. Add the bay leaves, thyme, peppercorns, garlic, tomatoes, wine and just enough water or stock to cover everything. Bring to a very low simmer and cook uncovered, or partially covered, very gently (or with the lid on in the oven preheated to 140C/gas mark 1) for about 1 hour, until the rabbit is very tender. Take out the thyme and bay leaves. Taste the liquid and adjust the seasoning, then serve, with plenty of fluffy mashed potato and some steamed greens.
From 'River Cottage Every Day' by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Bloomsbury, £25)