The online magazine
dedicated to the
discussion & revival
of British foodways.

NO.53
SUMMER2017

Rabbit in the British Diet

A Historical Perspective on a Wild Foodstuff by a Visiting Historian

Many people in twenty-first century Britain and America have never eaten rabbit and would not consider doing so. Though seldom if ever seen on supermarket shelves, rabbit is found in good butchers’ shops in Britain, particularly during the winter months. It can also be shot, snared or netted at any time of the year: This is foragers’ as well as hunters’ food. There are good reasons for eating more rabbit meat: it is lean, nutritious, healthy, cheap (or free) and can be used in a wide variety of delicious dishes from simple homemade stews or pies to intricate gastronomic creations.

Hanging RabbitsWith few exceptions farmers, foresters and gardeners would be delighted to see more rabbit eaten on account of the animal’s destructive burrowing habit and the damage it does to food crops, young trees and flower beds. For all the gloomy prognostications about the threat to certain mammal species, there is little danger of the rabbits being eaten into scarcity, for recent estimates suggest a British population in excess of 40 millions. (Observer) At its peak in the early 1950s, numbers may have been as high as 100 millions, but nemesis was on hand in the form of myxomatosis, a viral disease of the European wild rabbit which, for a short time, appeared to threaten the animal with extinction. From that nadir rabbits, displaying the adaptability and breeding-power for which they are legendary, made a remarkable comeback in the final decades of the twentieth century. Not only in Britain and continental Europe, but in Australasia too, where they were introduced with devastating effect on farmland and native flora, they have regained their status as major pests.

Such is the extent of the rabbit’s association with the British countryside and English literature that it is easy to forget that the European wild rabbit, an entirely different species from the Cottontail and other rabbits of the Americas, is not native to the British Isles. It originated in the land surrounding the western Mediterranean basin and spread to other parts of the European continent.

Views differ about how and when the rabbit reached Britain. Some authorities argue that the Romans introduced it; others think it arrived with the Normans after the Conquest of 1066. Whoever was responsible, it is clear that rabbits have inhabited the British Isles for hundreds of years and have been highly regarded for their meat and fur--so much so that they were protected under the Game Laws beginning in the fourteenth century. Their range and numbers were strictly limited until the eighteenth century when changes in farming technique and hunting practice combined to precipitate a population explosion.

Cook & Game

By the 1840s rabbits were widely regarded as enemies of agriculture. Strangely, just as they were acquiring their unenviable reputation as vermin, they also began to be portrayed sympathetically in fiction. From Lewis Carroll’s White Rabbit, through Beatrix Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies, A.A. Milne’s Rabbit, Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny and the characters of numerous other novels, short stories, cartoons and advertisements, the rabbit’s stock with the public soared as it plummeted with the farmer. Consequently, when myxomatosis struck in Britain in 1953, killing rabbits by the million, reactions ranged from sheer joy to utter revulsion.

Aside from its status as agricultural pest and icon of popular culture, the rabbit has had a long history in the kitchen. Yet the evidence concerning the extent of its use, and by which sections of the population, is conflicting. When rabbits were scarce, in the Middle Ages and beyond, they were deemed luxury food. Elisabeth Ayrton maintains that rabbit meat then fell out of favour to the extent that it was “positively disliked in the First World War and again in the Second, when meat was short.” (Ayrton 105) Probably people did tire of rabbit during the war years when a shortage of alternative meats led to a heavy reliance on it, but whether rabbits lost their popularity in the kitchen in the way Mrs. Ayrton suggested is questionable.

The horticulturalist John Simpson, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, observed that rabbit meat was “esteemed by all classes... by the invalid as much as by persons in robust health” and that it was served by both the poor and the expert cook: “In all towns and populous districts the demand is practically unlimited.” (Simpson 23) Alexander Shand, writing at almost the same time, thought the culinary merits of the rabbit had been unjustly ignored, except by the “poorer classes” because its meat was cheap and common. He predicted, however, that it would “cut a more conspicuous figure in the future.” (Harting 222-23, 233)

The rabbit’s presence in recipes that have been compiled across at least seven centuries points to its enduring popularity, even if demand rose and fell. Maxine McKendry refers to a fifteenth century recipe for spicy creamed rabbit. In the mid-eighteenth century Hannah Glasse published six rabbit recipes. Over a century later Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management listed ten dishes, a number that had risen to twenty-three when All About Cookery appeared under the same author’s name in the 1920s. Casseroled, creamed and curried rabbit all featured, as did rabbit patties, pie, pilau and pudding. Rabbit also loomed large in Norah Fletcher’s 500 Sixpenny Recipes (1934), which listed fifteen recipes, including jugged rabbit with chestnuts.

BunnyBy 1950 Beeton’s Household Management carried as many as thirty-three rabbit recipes across sixteen pages of text. Additions to the 1923 repertoire included rabbit à la minute, American style and roasted with an Espagnole sauce. If myxomatosis reduced the availability of rabbit meat and public demand for it, a search of the internet today reveals an abundance of inventive rabbit recipes and high-quality British restaurants that serve them. So next time the opportunity arises why not try a spicy creamed rabbit, saddle of rabbit with black pudding and mushroom juice, curried rabbit, rabbit fricassée, or loin of rabbit wrapped in York ham? Forage for your food and make a farmer happy.

Rabbit recipes appear in the practical.

Sources.

Elisabeth Ayrton, The Cookery of England (London 1974)

Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s All About Cookery (London 1923, 1950)
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (London 1888)

Norah Fletcher, 500 Sixpenny Recipes (London 1934)

Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London 1747)

James Harting & Alexander Shand, The Rabbit (London 1898)

Maxine McKendry, The Seven Centuries Cookbook (London 1973)

The Observer (9 September 2007)

John Simpson, The Wild Rabbit in a New Aspect, Or, Rabbit Warrens That Pay (London 1893)