Rabbit Rabbit Everywhere
I was walking past the rabbit stall at St Foy market recently and went cold. There they were. Rabbits. All lined up like skinny pink soldiers, all buggly-eyed and snugly arranged (I swear the French have a measuring stick to get them equidistant), the scene reminded me of my first week as an apprentice chef at Blenheim Palace. I was 17 and petrified to walk into that huge, echoing kitchen at 6am every morning when the Duke and duchess were in residence, usually with a ‘full house’ of guests.
The first day of the shooting season was my baptism by all manner of furry, feathery and gamey critters, and a day I shall never forget. I pushed open the heavy kitchen door and tried my best, as always, to look confident, when a sudden warm dizziness came over me, my eyes seemed to roll into my head, my breathing leapt into top gear and I could feel a tightening in my face and hands; the entire side counter, at least 6 metres long if memory serves, probably longer in fact, was heaped high with game, from small woodcock, teal and snipe (I know) to a whole deer, about three million pheasant and partridge and five million rabbits, all still in their winter coats and not looking too lively.
That’s when I began the grown-up game of questioning my sanity. I’d fought like billy-o to get the job, which turned out to be for a pittance, one day off a week for my city and guilds course and a turret room, to learn the trade from one of Britain’s master chefs, Michael Adams. I digress, but wouldn’t you? I’m still scared to get to the rabbit part all these years later.
We had one kitchen porter called Tim, myself and the Chef, with the occasional help of a lady I can’t remember the name of, or the chef’s wife when things got hectic.
But that’s all academic because looking at that lot on the side counter, I knew I was in a for days of plucking, skinning, chopping and cleaning, and there was no time for getting squeamish. Only I was. My stomach churned after being introduced to the game cleaning room, a tiny stone-cold room under the staircase in which we’d labour until the game was up (sorry, couldn’t resist).
Most of the game birds were plucked and cleaned by Tim, though I had to work at it until I learned how it’s done correctly, Mike didn’t pull any punches when it came to training me in classical game preparation, which I hated at the time but am truly grateful for today.
So, to the rabbits. I won’t go into too much detail because I realise it’s not the most savoury of subjects but suffice to say if you do it efficiently and quickly, the fur comes off in one clean movement. And I cleaned so many rabbits and hare I wouldn’t even like to count them.
I’m not quite sure when rabbit went out of culinary fashion in the UK, but I do think it’s a shame, not just because it’s a really delicious, versatile and healthy meat, but that there are just so many of them. They’re too scared to show their faces here in France, even though they’re all farmed anyway. There are theories, but I think falling out of vogue for British rabbit is a combination of reasons.
So, here is my favourite rabbit recipe that I hope you’ll try. For those who aren’t keen on the rabbity flavour this is ideal, the pastis and smoked bacon refines the gamey overtones and the chickpeas add a surprisingly filling element.
RABBIT BRAISED IN PASTIS WITH FENNEL AND CHICKPEAS
• 4 medium fennel bulbs
• 4 legs or saddles of rabbit, or 1 whole rabbit jointed like chicken (a whole rabbit being preferable as some prefer the saddle to the leg, etc)
• Salt and pepper
• 2 tbsp Dijon mustard
• 1 tbsp olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
• 1 onion, roughly chopped
• 2 bay leaves
• Juice of 1 lemon
• 1/2 litre of chicken stock
• 1-2 large cups of Pastis, or similar
• 2 cloves garlic crushed
• Enough smoked streaky bacon to cover the entire rabbit, which can be a dry meat.
• I tin chickpeas
• Casserole dish with tight fitting lid
• Salt and black pepper
• 1 tbsp roughly chopped fennel tops or fresh dill, to serve
For the chickpea purée
• 1 x 400g tin cooked chickpeas, drained
• 2 garlic cloves, chopped
• 150ml/5fl oz extra virgin olive oil
1. Preheat the oven to 160C/140C Fan/Gas 3.
2. Place the rabbit in a large bowl and smother with the mustard.
3. Heat the oil in an ovenproof pan and gently fry the onion, garlic and fennel for 2 minutes. Add the rabbit, lemon juice and pastis and season with salt and pepper. Lay the bacon on top.
4. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and bake for 1–1¼ hours. Leave to cool for 15 minutes.
5. To make the chickpea purée, blend the chickpeas and garlic in a food processor and gradually add the olive oil until a smooth purée is formed. Warm through in a saucepan.
6. Transfer the rabbit to serving bowls. Drizzle with a little olive oil and sprinkle over the fennel tops. Lay the cooked bacon on top and serve with the chickpea purée.
Oh, and I like to pair it with a nice aromatic wine such Riesling or Gewürztraminer. Let me know if you cook it please.