Wild rabbit meat, which is leaner and tastier than the farmed variety, has a fabulous subtle, gamey flavour (very different from richly flavoured hare).
Regional dishes reflect the fact that rabbit is very versatile and works well with those flavours often used in chicken dishes, such as mustard and cream (France), tomato and herbs (Italy), and chilli (South America). Get hold of some rabbit and try one of the great recipes below such as Ligurian Braised Rabbit and Rosemary with Olives and Tomatoes.
The rabbit is native to North Africa and Spain. The Romans began importing rabbits to Italy in around the third century BC. During medieval times new-born rabbits and foetuses, known as laurices, were widely eaten in Spain and Italy as they were not considered meat and could be eaten on fish days.
From the fifteenth century on it was common practice for sailors and explorers to release breeding rabbits on islands to provide a supply of fresh meat. The rabbit is now found throughout Europe, South America and Australasia.
In the first half of the twentieth century the rabbit population exploded. Myxomatosis, introduced as a form of pest control in Australia in 1951, and later in Europe, killed more than 95% of rabbit populations.
The rabbit is a member of the family Leporidae, which includes the hare. Rabbits are gregarious and nocturnal animals that feed on grasses and herbaceous plants but will also eat bark when grass is not available. Rabbits are highly efficient at converting plant proteins into animal proteins (their conversion rate is double that of cattle, for example).
In most parts of North America, rabbit is rarely seen in supermarkets, but can often by obtained from specialist food markets and farmers' markets.
Select rabbits by size; they should be large enough to yield a decent amount of meat, but not too large. Wild rabbits much larger than 1kg are prone to be tough. Younger, smaller animals will be more tender and better suited to quick cook methods such as roasting or barbecuing. Larger, older rabbits will have more flavour but may be less tender and so better suited to slower cooking.
Fresh rabbit will keep in the fridge for several days (or longer if vacuum packed). Freezing is not recommended as this can make the meat too dry.
To joint a rabbit: cut the hind quarters away from the body and separate the legs. Halve the leg joints. Cut the body (saddle) horizontally through the backbone into two or three portions, stopping at the rib cage. Cut lengthways through the breastbone and divide the ribcage section in half.
As rabbit meat is very lean, care should be taken to prevent it from drying out during cooking. Marinading or barding (covering in a fat or wrapping in bacon) can help moisten the flesh during roasting or barbecuing.
If you don't fancy rabbit, why not make Welsh Rabbit?