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Why rabbit is making a return to the British menu

PUBLISHED: 16:15 23 April 2014 | UPDATED: 16:15 23 April 2014

Brassica; Confit rabbit with charred saddle, charcoal grilled cauliflower, squash

Brassica; Confit rabbit with charred saddle, charcoal grilled cauliflower, squash

Archant

It's lean, healthy, sustainable and plentiful. No wonder rabbit is hopping onto many a restaurant menu

Mark EllisMark Ellis

It was a mainstay of the wartime diet, and has been a constant feature of French cuisine. But for many Brits in recent decades, rabbit has been regarded as a furry pet rather than a hearty meal.

Now more and more restaurants are adding rabbit to the menu, and more of us are prepared to give it a try.

At the 1851 Restaurant at Peckforton Castle, Tarporley, for instance, you can enjoy a starter of confit rabbit with charred saddle, charcoal grilled cauliflower and squash.

‘Rabbit has always been a staple in a fine dining French menu,’ says Mark Ellis, head chef at the 1851 Restaurant. ‘At this end of the market, we don’t have to make any effort to “sell” it at all. It’s one of the most popular starters we have on the menu.’

Chef, David MacDonald with his Rabbit PieChef, David MacDonald with his Rabbit Pie

As more restaurants make it their mission to source fresh, local, sustainable food, rabbit scores on every count. Peckforton is surrounded by countryside full of rabbits. The estate gamekeeper can source fresh meat from within walking distance of the restaurant.

‘It just tastes better, as well,’ says Mark. ‘We can get French farmed rabbits, but they don’t get to the same size. It’s like wild sea bass as opposed to the farmed sea bass; the wild sea bass are three times bigger with much more muscle definition because it’s been allowed to swim freely and use its muscles. It’s the same principle with rabbits.

‘They have a similar flavour profile to chicken, but because the meat is so lean, there’s very little fat. I like to strip the rabbit down and use everything - the liver, the kidneys and the bones for stocks. Everything’s in miniature, but every four-legged animal strips down pretty much the same. You end up with the lean cut of the fillet, and the legs, which are great for confiting.’

Mark keeps the meat for his confit rabbit tender and moist by cooking it sous vide - in air-tight plastic bags in a water bath - at 58C for 48 hours.

‘Although it looks like a fairly small amount on the plate, there’s a lot of man hours and thought gone into it,’ says Mark, who spent five years at Simon Radley’s Michelin-starred restaurant at the Chester Grosvenor hotel.

At Leather’s Smithy, a cosy pub nestling beside a reservoir at Langley on the edge of the Macclesfield Forest, rabbit pie has become a best-selling dish in the last year, particularly among more mature customers who may recollect it from their childhoods.

‘Our grandparents would have eaten rabbit pie as a matter of course,’ says Paul McMahon, licensee of Leather’s Smithy, an inn which, as the name suggests, began life as a smithy in the 18th century.

‘It’s only later generations that look upon rabbit as a pet. When you mention chicken breast to younger people, they think of a white cling-filmed breast of meat in the supermarket. They don’t associate it with a little clucky thing running around a field. But you mention rabbit and that emotion is there.’

That is likely to change, though, as rabbit is found more routinely on the restaurant menu. More to the point is the question of why rabbit stopped being everyday food in the first place. For centuries, our ancestors were partial to rabbit. Through two world wars in the last century, rabbit - cheap, available, nutritious - was in our daily diet.

But after the Second World War, rabbit fell out of favour with the British, partly because the nation wanted to enjoy the meats which had been in short supply during the war, but also because, in the 1950s, the rabbit population was ravaged by the deadly virus myxamatosis, to which rabbits have since developed an increasing genetic resistance.

Now, just as a combination of adventurous palates and recession-inspired parsimony brings rabbit meat back into favour, there are plenty of animals out there just waiting to be caught. After all, they breed like rabbits.

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