Eating rabbit can conjure feelings of guilt as images of fluffy pets spring to mind. But on a recent trip to Ischia in Italy, food writer Nicola Miller overcame her aversion. . . with a vengeance!
“If a good Jew eats pork, he should eat it until the fat runs down his chin” wrote June Flaum-Singer, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot in respect to my own dietary rules and how they came to pass.
Until a recent trip to Ischia, I have always refused to eat rabbit, a mammal that is unusual in the position it holds as pet, food and cultural icon in the UK. This aversion to eating bunnies has its roots in a childhood populated by pet rabbits until one day, my father served Trog and Minty up for supper. They were my last childhood pets.
I didn’t have a lot in common with my father and his love of rabbit meat was another thing I didn’t share, although in other respects our basic dietary preferences were very similar. He liked nothing more than to chow down on a plateful of meat-streaked bones. I still do. He’d cook up big pots of chicken neck stew and oxtail when my mother was out for us to share and I had to keep a tight hold on my plate lest he scavenge from that too. He was ruthless: no bird of prey could compete with him when it came to the stripping clean of a chicken carcass. I can say that in this respect, I am my father’s daughter. This is both good and bad.
Back to that saying. If you are going to transgress, throw yourself into it with no half measures; make sure you smash that eating taboo to bits. This came to mind as I caught sight of my reflection in a tiny restaurant in Ischia Ponte, rabbit leg in one hand and napkin in the other and in front of me a plateful of other rabbit parts in a garlicky tomato sauce, the latter of which had managed to find its way onto most of my face. I thought about how far I had come since my father died and why, at this moment, I had sought him out via a particularly uncomfortable memory, which oddly made me feel closer to him again – and this came with its own fresh set of difficulties. ‘He’d have loved it here’ was the thought that constantly popped into my head. I might have said this aloud at every meal too.
I did feel guilty eating that rabbit, especially when I picked up the last piece of meat and it turned out to be the rabbit’s head cleaved in half, complete with giant teeth, tiny brain and a rather cavernous eye socket, but this wasn’t enough to stop me. ‘Oh God, you ate a bunny’s face’ strobed across my conscience for days afterwards until rabbit was ordered yet again and I was presented with its spinal cord, kidneys and heart. Somehow eating those bits seemed less sociopathic. Or maybe one becomes a better and more skilled sociopath. I swallowed mouthful after mouthful of meat and if there were any tinges of conscience about betraying my poor dead pets, these were swallowed too. Did my father feel the same? I will never know. I have so many questions and it is too late to ask any of them.
In Ischia, this method of serving rabbit with its innards is known as ‘mbrugliatell’ and the offal is the most prized part of coniglio all’Ischitana, a specialty of the island. The locals are very proud of this dish and guard their recipes fiercely. You are meant to eat the rabbit with your hands, the restaurateur said, and I think he noticed my eyes light up at that because his demeanour changed from one of polite service to warm investment. I used to be such a tidy eater and now, in my fifties, I’m incapable of getting through a single meal without dripping sauce down my front or liberally distributing crumbs about my person, so the chance to eat something that is extremely and deliberately messy (waiters bring armfuls of napkins to the table) wasn’t something to pass up.
Like Sardinia, Ischia is an island with a long tradition of meat-eating because for centuries agriculture and not fishing was the main source of food for the islanders. Originally, the rabbits were raised ‘da fossa’, in narrow man-made tunnels where they were encouraged to dig and burrow. They were – and still are – fed on a diet of hay, fresh grass, the stems of fava beans, tree prunings, and leaves from the grapevines and fig trees that cling to Ischia’s fertile volcanic slopes. Slow Food Italy has been instrumental in encouraging local farmers to re-adopt these methods and because of this, you can still eat local rabbits raised traditionally.
However, you do need to ask the restaurant where they get their rabbits from as I don’t recommend eating rabbit that is cage-raised; it’s cruel and denies them the benefit of the complex social structures they would form in the wild. Traditionally, rabbits have been depicted as symbols of fertility, innocence and helplessness, which, as any rabbit owner will tell you, is only part true. These are inquisitive, often-aggressive, problem-solving creatures with a Terminator-like desire for parsley. So, it amused me to find out about the prevalence of the violent rabbit in medieval texts. (These page-edge illustrations were known as drolleries.) Hunters being spit-roasted by rabbits; rabbits, jousting with a dog whilst riding a snail-man; rabbits beating peasants to death with sticks better reflect the often-violent nature of this creature in its wild state. The bucks will bite at each other’s testicles to establish dominance and fighting to the death is not uncommon.
It was hard to find a wild rabbit in my part of Suffolk and having exhausted all the outlets in my town, I managed to buy some from Lavenham Butchers, where an entire wild rabbit will cost you around £5.50. The rabbit population has declined in East Anglia although there are still areas where they are plentiful so I didn’t feel too guilty about this aspect of eating rabbit in the way I would hare, for instance. I asked the butchers to leave me the heart, liver and kidneys, but you may prefer not to cook these. I balked at dealing with the head though.
The technique used in this recipe delivers stupendously tender meat and this is not always a given with rabbit because of its lack of fat. The sauce has a slight heat to it from the pepperoncini, the small local dried red peppers that are typical of the region of Campania. It’s hearty and gutsy in the most literal sense and in that tiny trattoria with its eight tables arranged two by two, I gnawed rabbit meat from fine-boned crevasses until only a few tender shreds remained.
Serves four with sides, two without
Olive oil for frying
I rabbit jointed (about 1-5kg in total) plus its offal if you plan to eat this
1 finely sliced white onion
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced (In the past I have used smoked garlic for extra oomph, but ordinary is fine)
1tsp chilli flakes
2tbsp tomato purée
200g cherry tomatoes
450ml white wine
350ml chicken stock
2.5tbsp red wine vinegar
2 large dried bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
Dry the rabbit pieces with paper towels then season the meat with salt.
Heat three tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy casserole dish placed over medium heat and fry the rabbit pieces in batches, taking care to not overcrowd the pan. When the pieces are golden brown, drain over the pan before setting them to one side while you prepare the sauce. If you are cooking the heart, liver and kidneys, now is the time to briefly sauté them before setting aside.
Add the onion to the casserole dish with a pinch of salt and fry over low heat until softly translucent. Add the garlic and chilli flakes and continue frying for another minute.
Now add the tomato purée, stirring well, then place the rabbit with its offal back in the pan with the wine, red wine vinegar, chicken stock, thyme and bay leaves.
Bring to the boil, then turn down the heat to medium-low, cover with a lid and simmer gently for one hour.
Now add the tomatoes, remove the lid and cook uncovered for 30 minutes more or until the rabbit is tender. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary before serving.
NOTE: In Ischia, they may serve the sauce over pasta and the meat as a separate course. I also like it with good old English mashed potatoes.
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