OK first up; I’m going to warn you that if you are sqeamish about meat, or blood, or are a vegan or anything like that, this is NOT a post you’re going to want to read. So go away now and don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.
I have to admit to being a bit conflicted about our meat eating, however. While I’m absolutely NOT a vegetarian, I have been in the past, and I do have a big problem with how mass livestock is treated and in particular with how it’s slaughtered. And I do also believe that we have come very far from where we should be in regards to all of this. I have a cousin, Persephone, who has a sheep farm and they slaughter all their own lambs with love and care after bringing them up with love and care. I only want to eat those lambs! I also totally understand what Mark Zuckerberg was about when he declared that for a year he would only eat any meat he’d killed himself. It kind of meshes really well with something I read by Jamie Oliver in one of his cookbooks; that there’s a certain responsibility we have to understanding where our food comes from and what experience it has in living AND in death – and what it takes to MAKE food from a real animal – and why people in rural cuisines use ALL of the animal – and all that stuff.
Doesn’t mean I’ve killed anything myself .. yet … nor does it actually mean that I’m prepared to. I’ve mentioned before that hunting is quite a way of life here; a way of escaping the confines of the Gaulish village and a big compensation to many people for the long winter. Both Artemis and Athena have offered to take me hunting – they are a bit upset that we had a permit for a deer and we didn’t use it; mostly because the GC was away on the cargo ship for most of the season. But when it came to the crunch I realised I really didn’t want to take a life (and the prospect of buggering it up with some ghastly injury through a bad shot – given that I hadn’t even touched a gun for years – was high!) so I turned them down, but I did say that I’d help them butcher anything – because after all; philosophically anyway, that’s the next best thing to taking responsibility for a dead animal – right?
Not that I had to deal with that prospect; so my philosophy and my actions remained – quite happily I might say – theoretical and untested.
We received – and were very grateful for! several presents of venison and the like that have come our way since the autumn. However, one day, there it was – a plastic bag full of what looked like furry feet; dumped on my kitchen table by a friend of the GC’s who had dropped in for a drink. Err yup; it was a brace of rabbits …. complete with fur … that he’d just shot ‘on the mountain’.
I could see the GC glaring at me; daring me to be anything but enthusiastic in my response to this unexpected hostess gift. I rose to the occasion; thanking our benefactor prettily; but as soon as he left I had to say – what the F am I supposed to do with THOSE? I mean, they were … dead rabbits. With all the fur and little closed eyes … and rigor mortis.
The GC wasn’t terribly helpful. Clean them up, he said. Really? I mean really? HOW? Where do I begin???? It’s skinning; and gutting …. I mean I’ve never even had to gut a fish; let alone a rabbit. Crumbs.
So of course, I called Artemis. Ah; she said; no problem. Happy to help. But I’m really busy right now and I don’t have time. Plus I’m going hunting on the weekend. Just put them in the freezer; and we will take care of them later.
Ummm; really? In the freezer? Just like that? Furry feet and all? Don’t you have to, kind of – do something first?
No, she said. They’ll be fine.
So I did; and for the next month or so that’s where they stayed. Fortunately for me I have a big freezer that has separate drawers, so I wasn’t constantly confronted with those damn furry feet; and actually I managed to kind of forget about them; but Artemis didn’t. She came to dinner a couple of weeks ago and asked about them. Hunting season is over; and she’s got far more time on her hands. I was going to have to face those feet.
Gosh, I said; I had forgotten I had them. Sure; I’ll defrost them and we can do it. Gulp.
Now seriously; don’t read any further if you don’t want to know exactly how you deal with a whole, dead rabbit. But if you do; here’s the step by step.
First, you need to be able to hang the rabbit up by one back foot. That preliminary stumped me a bit, with Artemis surveying my kitchen ceiling for a hook. She was obviously unimpressed by the lack of a suitable installation for convenient butchering – we had gone down in her estimation, I could tell – but there we were. Home improvement project #621. She had her eye on the chimney of the wood heater, but the GC came to the rescue by stringing up a line across the kitchen. She donned a full apron (I had to admit I didn’t own one; note to self for next shopping trip!); I put down several sheets of packing paper (knew that would come in useful!); we placed a bowl on the floor to put in all the discarded stuff (it’s a bio degradable bag and all this went into the compost, I might be brutal but I’m green to the core) and we got to work.
As a note, my rabbits were still quite frozen even though I’d taken them out of the freezer a full day earlier. They had stayed in the kitchen on top of the fuel stove the whole day and most of the night before (its a warm spot and safe from the cats!); I had put them into the fridge when we went to bed at midnight at at 1pm the next day the carcasses were actually still really frozen. As Artemis said, their fur is a great insulation. Anyway; this actually helped us as obviously it keeps things together a bit and in fact apparently the skin comes off more easily if they have been frozen than if you do it when they are fresh.
So as I said; you string the rabbit up securely by one back foot. Then, using your fingers, you pull through the skin and fur to start getting the skin off (of course Artemis, as a hairdresser, has really strong hands!) I had to use a tiny pair of scissors to snip through the skin because I couldn’t get through it properly with my fingers and nails. Then you start to peel the skin back over the legs. There’s a video of her doing this a bit further on.
You have to pull quite hard; but it comes away fairly easily once you get started. You basically just keep pulling; separating off the sinew as you go; pulling it off like its ,… well … skin. You keep going like this, working away at the bits where it sticks, working under with your fingers where you need to and pulling downwards. Basically the thing should come off in a piece, all the way around the carcass. You keep going till you get to the head; then you pull it around the head and right off. Sometimes you have to pull really hard, so you need to hold the leg that it’s being hung on; or else I can imagine that it might pull right off which would be quite gross! Then you work at the skin with your other hand. Of course if there are two of you, it’s easier! Into the bin she goes.
Next; take a good pair of kitchen scissors, and cut carefully down the middle of the carcass, starting at the chest and snipping up carefully through to the butt. Be careful up here, you don’t want to cut through the intestines. This is where the rabbit being quite frozen was a big advantage. All that stuff was solid, where it would certainly not be if the rabbit was fresh! Anyway; you snip gently all the way through as shallow as you can go, and when it’s open you can reach in and get out the guts, the lungs and all the rest of it. You want to keep the heart, liver and the kidneys, but the rest goes in the bin.
Once it’s gutted, you can take it down (using poultry shears to cut through the bone and the other strong scissors to finish the job); cutting through the shin just before the final joint to the paw. Jointing it is quite easy if you’ve ever done a chicken; basically legs come off front and back; the body cuts into the saddle and the breast and you can cut each of these into two. Jamie Oliver says to cut the rabbit into 10 pieces; but we did it in 7; leaving the hind legs together.
The whole process (with two rabbits) basically took less than half an hour, but Artemis is an expert. I helped her with the second one but she had skinned a whole leg before I’d managed to get through the skin on mine; as I said before I had to start by snipping a tiny hole with a pair of little scissors as I couldn’t break the skin with my hands; but I do actually recall that she starts by pulling out tufts of fur on the skin to break the skin and I didn’t do that. She’s very quick! So it’s not always easy to see what she’s doing; you have to slow her down a bit! But it was good to have the second rabbit to do myself; so I felt I learned the process.
The GC was really looking forward to dinner. I like rabbit and have cooked it pretty often, but always farmed rabbit and I could believe that wild rabbit would be pretty special. But I could also imagine (and he confirmed this) that it would take pretty long cooking. So I decided a braise with red wine would be the go.
Both Artemis and Athena had told me that rosemary was the de rigeur herb for lapin (I’d never heard that before) so of course I had to try. I also decided that I would use my enamel ‘secret weapon’ pot in preference to my Le Creuset Dutch oven. This thing is amazing. I found it in the house and didn’t think much of it – I mean, it’s just an enamel casserole with a lid – until I realised that every home in St Pierre had one. And after we had a slow cooked chicken cooked in one by our friend the Grasshopper I realised what a treasure I had. Apparently they are ubiquitous in Canada and they turn out the most amazing, tender braises I have ever eaten. They are the absolute Waterloo of any tough, aged bird like the ones they sell for 20 euros each from Miquelon, evidently after they’ve ended their laying life! I have no idea what they are called, but they are as cheap as chips and work like a dream. If you ever see one, buy it. Seriously. They are THAT good. So as I wasn’t taking any chances with my rabbits, this was the weapon of choice.
Wild Rabbit Braised with Red Wine
2 wild rabbits, jointed; washed well in cold water, then dried with kitchen paper and dusted with a couple tablespoons of all purpose flour
2 brown onions
12 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons rosemary (or a few sprigs of fresh if you’re lucky enough to have it)
Fresh chopped Italian parsley, for serving
4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
Half a bottle of red wine
½ litre chicken stock (1 large cube in hot water is fine)
Salt & Pepper to taste
Heat a good couple of lugs of olive oil in your casserole (if you have an enamel casserole, go for it, otherwise a heavy Dutch oven is good) and sear the rabbit in batches; set aside in a bowl
Turn the heat down a bit, add a bit more oil if you need to; scraping off all the crusty bits and add the onion, frying to soften them – at least five minutes, maybe a bit longer. Remember the rabbit is very lean so the oil is all you’ll have – you can be quite generous.
When the onions are soft, put the rabbit back in the pot along with any juices and add the garlic and rosemary; stir to coat and mix
Add the red wine and let it bubble up a bit; it will become thick from the flour anyway. Once it’s cooked off a bit, add the stock and the vegetables; season with salt and a lot of fresh pepper (you could add whole black peppercorns) and throw in a couple of bay leaves.
Bring to a simmer and cover and leave for at least two hours. Jamie Oliver says 45 minutes for wild rabbit, but I reckon longer. Stir occasionally to make sure that it isn’t sticking and to distribute the vegetables evenly in the mix. You could add potatoes but as I wanted to be able to freeze what we didn’t eat I didn’t – I don’t like what happens to potatoes when they’ve been frozen, that kind of mushy texture they can go …
Test for seasoning before you serve it; with lots of fresh green Italian parsley on top please! lots will go with this kind of braise – crusty bread; potatoes or cous cous – even rice would be great with this. I did it with steamed potatoes but a buttery mash would be great too. A simple green salad is all you need for after.
Verdict? The GC ate three pieces. It was amazing. Worth the effort; on so many levels. Thank you, Artemis, thank you rabbits.