Food & Drink: The rabbit is fair game if the gastrognomes are
Saturday 16 July 1994
Beside the whole ones lay package on package of rabbit parts, principally legs. To the atomisation of other animals has succeeded the partition of poultry and game. Where 20 years or more ago you bought a chicken or a rabbit, now you buy bits of each.
It is not only smart marketing (more economical for solitary diners or couples, simpler to distribute among groups, some of whom want dark meat, some light), but it also dehumanises what we are about to eat. With rabbits, I fear, this has always been a problem, especially for children. Few people seem to develop an outrageous fondness for a particular hen, but many a family has a pet bunny. Cartoonists, anthropomorphists to a man, have not adopted many fowl, but game is a different matter. Donald Duck may not greatly resemble a duck; but Bugs Bunny, alas, is all too much a rabbit. Where chickens scratch and cackle and bob, rabbits twitch and sit; a feather is not the same as fur; rabbits have eyes that look at you, while the average cockerel emits only malevolence.
Thus in the world of the barnyard, no one thinks twice of picking up a drumstick: the chicken deserves its fate. Anyway, domestic fowl are kept enclosed, eggs and chicks and the pot part of fate. It used to be another story for rabbits, which for long lived free and were chased by dogs across the open field.
I do not think we carnivores (or, more properly, omnivores) can ever rid ourselves entirely of representations of animals as ourselves, merely lower down the scale of creation. Factory farming was the beginning of the end. Hens fed with scattered corn in the yard could be known, even if sometimes one had a desire to wring their necks. But battery chickens were different: they were remote, as if manufactured.
Still, as one with no particular fondness for animals (I tolerate Max the cat for the sake of Number Five son, and hardly dare tell him that in hard times, immediately post-war, I ate cat and anything else I could find), I have as little sentiment as it is possible to have. And while I admit that fresh rabbit is better than frozen, I am not at all sure that farmed rabbit is as good as rabbit shot on the bound - especially when eating lettuce in the kitchen garden.
Strong intimations abound that we are getting fed up with chicken - everybody's pop, mechanical food, quick and easy to prepare, cheap and universally available. And rightly so: all but the very best chicken is substantially without flavour or interest per se. But a rabbit is a creature of gamey flavour and considerable texture.
There is a great difference in how the two are cooked. Chicken (especially its breasts, now engineered to Jane Russell proportions) is relatively pure, the valetudinarian's delight, easy to digest, quick to prepare, not demanding much of juvenile or senescent teeth. Chicken adapts itself to things white and creamy.
Though we have forgotten the art, boiled or poached fowl, sometimes with a light, unfloury cream sauce, is a dish fit for royalty. It can be pocketed and filled with butter and herbs (Kiev), or breaded and sauteed or steamed under pressure (the Colonel's secret.) That, I think, is its true greatness. Coq au vin, chicken with olives, or carbonara, etc, are no longer chicken but simply that meat around which other flavours collect.
None of this is true of rabbit. Rabbit is still game, even when farmed, and is to be treated as something potentially rich and strong, its origins in the wild carefully retained. It is more a red-wine meat, potent, filling, more chewy than chicken. But it is not a meat that requires - as chicken often does - exceptional care. You may proceed as you wish.
Here, for instance, is the rabbit I prepared for the return from America of my wife and junior gastrognome:
Take one rabbit, cut into parts and carefully dredge in flour (important for the thickening of the sauce and browning of the meat). In a casserole and with a liberal amount of olive oil, first wilt two chopped shallots, then add a generous handful of cubed pancetta. When this is well browned, throw in the rabbit, and on a medium heat stir the pieces until they begin to acquire a golden colour.
Turn the heat down and add a pint of wine (white or red will do, but white is subtler), a tablespoon of real balsamic vinegar (or two of the phoney stuff). Season with fresh thyme, a few leaves of chopped sage, a tablespoon of hot paprika, and salt in moderation, and allow to cook, tightly covered, for at least an hour. Turn the rabbit pieces every 10 minutes or so, and watch the liquid carefully. If the jus reduces too quickly, add wine bit by bit, but do not drown it, for you want to eat rabbit, not wine. Serve with rice, to absorb the jus.
Green beans, cooked then reheated in butter and garlic, make an ideal, austere accompaniment. Just do not think of bunnies. Th-th-that's all, folks.
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