wild rabbits

A retired butcher once told me that the only way to tell the difference between a skinned cat and a skinned rabbit is that the kidneys of a rabbit are offset and don’t have the symmetry of most animals. Other than that they are impossible to distinguish. He said it in such a way so as not to invite further questions but I’ve witnessed it for myself; the skinned rabbit part at least.

Rabbit is so abundant that it would be crazy for anyone to slip a cat doppelgänger in the game pie, but it does highlight the perceived issue with rabbit as a meat. It can easily be mistaken for a domestic pet or, at best, a pest. As a food, it really suffers from bad PR. Throw in the zombie makeover that is caused by the myxoma virus and there is a real need for Mathew Freud to get his hands on it.

It is understandable that it doesn’t currently have a high status at the dinner table, but I think it is time for a gentle resurgence. Rabbit is the most populous wild mammal in the UK – there are currently about 40 million of them running around. If you consider that the human population is 60 million or thereabouts then you get a sense of the enormity of the issue.

Rabbit used to have a much bigger place the nation’s diet, particularly during rationing, but it dropped off the scale as part of a post-war malaise, when more meat became available. Because rabbits go at it like rabbits this meant that Britain was soon overrun, and all but 1% were killed off in a couple of years through the purposeful introduction of myxomatosis.  Now the numbers have returned in leaps and bounds, but even though the meat is lean, free-ranging and healthier than ever, it still has a poor image. Apparently we would rather buy meat of inferior quality and dubious welfare than wild food, because it comes with the comfortable assurances of being shop bought.

There are so many reasons to eat more wild rabbit than just the quality of the meat. It must be one of the cheapest meats available – often as little as £1 for a whole rabbit in the fur. Similarly, when rabbit colonies get out of control they can ransack whole veg patches and crops with their voracious appetites. Even the Vegetarian Society might get on board with an eat-rabbit-save-a-lettuce policy. And the rabbits live a normal (even positively hedonistic) life before they are either shot or netted and dispatched in the field where they spent their best days.

rabbit ragu

So the rabbit revolution is long overdue. You can use it in soups, stews and pasta sauces – rabbit ragù and nettle pasta is one of my favourite combinations and Jamie’s 12-hour rabbit Bolognese is awesome too. I recently boned a whole rabbit and stuffed it with a wild herby garlic salsa verde similar to a porchetta too. Yes it has a tendency to dry out when cooked, but to use this as an excuse to not try it is just splitting hares… I mean hairs.

At this time of year it would be great if even a fraction of the rabbits eaten were not moulded in chocolate but instead sourced from a good butcher or gamekeeper. They will happily prepare them into joints after skinning them for a few pence more.

That indeed would be magic without any need for hats.

Steve Lamb

About the author

Steve Lamb is the head of brand at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage, as well as a writer and teacher. He has the incurable River Cottage affliction of wanting to know the whole story of an ingredient, all the ins and outs of it, in a bid to unlock the secrets – hence his obsession with butchery. His book, Curing & Smoking, is out now through Bloomsbury.

Steve Lamb's blog

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