“First, catch your rabbits”. Yes, I’ve said it. I should really call this dish cliché of rabbit.
This is a British twist on a classic French dish, Rabbit and Aegan Prune stew. All the ingredients may be locally sourced, and you could even reduce food miles to food feet by shooting or netting a rabbit, or by growing and raising the whole lot with a vegetable patch, a fruit tree and a hutch.
Warn your guests that you are serving rabbit in advance. Leviticus gave it a bad press and it has a lot of tiny bones. It is best for grown-ups who can handle small mammal skeletons. In fact, this dish is capable of offending or injuring most of the population.
Rabbits. You can get farmed ones but I prefer the wild. There are thousands of them here in Gloucestershire. They are lean, tasty, free-range and, if you know how to net them, free. If you are squeamish, buy one from a butcher and go straight to the recipe or become a vegetarian and stop upsetting yourself by reading this.
Shooting with an air-gun is permissible but rabbits are easily mistaken for cats. We take cats seriously in Britain. Shooting a cat is a good way of ending up doing Community Service and getting hate mail for the rest of your life. Besides, who wants to look like Elmer Fudd?
Traps and snares are illegal in the UK. I reckon that they were made illegal following political lobbying from some rather unlucky cat owners.
The finest, cheapest, and eco-friendly way of catching rabbits is to find a friend with a ferret (a type of polecat). I’ve got a friend with a ferret, and he showed me how. You will also need some netting and a few pegs. Then you find your local rabbit burrow…
Tie a long piece of string to the ferret’s collar and send the ferret down the hole, quickly peg the netting over the burrow and wait. If the burrow is inhabited, the ferret will return with a rabbit. They are genetically programmed to do this. The net and pegs will ensure that you can carry out the business quickly and humanely. The string will ensure that the ferret does not make a bid for freedom. Remember to hold on to it.
Early rabbit catching methods
The net will contain a ferret and a rabbit. The most difficult part will be separating the two. Be careful--ferrets have trouble differentiating between lupine neck and human finger. Once you have done this, get the rabbit’s legs in one hand and its head in the other. Pull. You will hear and feel a click and you will have successfully finished anything that the ferret left undone. There will be some further movement, a bit like the proverbial headless chicken.
Rabbits may be hung by the feet for a few days as this tenderizes the meat and gives it a “gamey” flavour. However, this makes gutting and skinning incredibly unpleasant. The smell can be unbearable. I prefer to get them “oven ready” within a few hours.
We now have to dress our bunny. This job is not nice. You will need a very sharp knife and a strong constitution. The knowledge that you are creating something delicious from free ingredients will mitigate any unpleasantness. Once you have done it once, it is as easy as shelling peas.
Slice its feet off and make a cut from just below its head, along the belly and keep going until you run out of rabbit. The skin will come away easily although a good pair of kitchen scissors may help with the leg areas. Hold the carcass and pull the head. They will separate easily.
Remove the innards, all of them. There are chefs that talk about using the liver, they are talking nonsense. Rabbit offal is useless. [Editor’s note: We differ slightly on this, in finding rabbit kidney delicate and delicious] Cut away the area around its bum, removing the tail in the process. Wash under running water and clear out any blood and anything that does not look like a prepared rabbit. Keep the prepared carcass and dispose of everything else, unless you want to make an imitation Davey Crockett hat.
Rabbits freeze easily and retain their flavour. Catch, prepare and freeze in season and enjoy them all year round.
-1 rabbit, jointed into four legs and four sections of saddle
-10 dark plums, stoned and skinned (I use plums from a tree that overhangs the platform of a local railway station. I’ve no idea what type they are. I’ve named them prunus gratis.)
-1 large onion
-1 clove of garlic
-1½ pints chicken stock
-1 Tablespoon of died herbs or 2 of finely chopped fresh herbs
-Flour, salt, pepper, oil
- Using a heavy pan, season the flour, flour the rabbit portions and brown in hot oil, turning frequently for two or three minutes.
- Chop up the vegetables, finely chop the garlic and put all of the ingredients in a large casserole dish, stir in the stock.
- Put the lid on the dish, cover and cook in a very slow, low oven for as long as you like. You can cook for hours and hours but have a look every now and then and add water if the meat is not covered by liquid. Give it a stir once in a while.
- Once cooked, drain most of the liquid off and thicken it with flour or by reduction.
Serve in a plate with a bit of depth. Make sure there is a side plate for bones and napkins. The dish is best eaten with a spoon and fingers. Make as much mess as you like and be careful of those bones.
Eat it with fresh, warm, crusty bread and a bottle of decent red wine. A syrah (shiraz for you former colonials) goes well.
A decent size creature will feed up to four people and this dish will freeze. As the rabbit said, “That’s all folks”.
©2009, Charlie Burling, Wotton-Under-Edge, Gloucestershire, England