Deal to those furry varmints with this classic dish from rural France.
BY ALEX COLBY. 23 September 2014. In her indispensable book, Exotic Intruders, a history of the introduction of plants and animals to New Zealand, Joan Druett says that “for hundreds of years man has been partial to a rabbit in the pot.” While she is referring to simple dishes like rabbit stew – once so well founded in English recipe books as to be practically a national icon – she more accurately might have said “thousands of years”: no history of humble cuisines in many parts of the world could exclude this abundant form of small game.
The history of the European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in New Zealand is short but dramatic. Originally introduced in the 1830s (the exact date is now obscure because soon no-one was anxious to claim responsibility!) rabbits quickly flourished to the point where they threatened the agriculture of the country. Their voracious nibbling and exponential rate of reproduction bankrupted a number of early South Island run-holders, and helped to create deserts where lush tussock country had flourished before. By the 1870s legislation was being passed against them and to this day landowners are legally obliged to keep rabbits under control.
Rabbit meat, once a major export industry for New Zealand, has been out of fashion for several decades, which is a pity because it is a tasty and versatile high quality protein that is leaner than pork and beef and a handy substitute for chicken. It is also good for you, being a rich source of unsaturated omega fatty acids and relatively low in cholesterol and sodium.
Some enterprising restaurants around the country feature rabbit on their menus – notably in Central Otago where it should be on every table because of the problems they still have with the pestilential little beasts – and you can find rabbit here and there at butchers, speciality supermarkets and markets. I prefer the easier option of purchasing it online at moreish.co.nz. Click away, and a few days later a whole, vacuum-packed wild rabbit arrives by courier. Like any good butcher, moreish.co.nz does the work of eviscerating and dressing the animal, so all you need do is joint it. (If you are unsure about how to joint a rabbit, there are plenty of instructions on Google.)
The recipe that appears below is a bit of a trip down memory lane – and across the world. When I was young, my father’s work used to take him into a part of the Northland countryside that was plagued with rabbits. He always took his .22 rifle along, and guess who had to go and retrieve the bodies? It was poor, steep hill country, terraced with sheep tracks, and I remember the effort of racing down the hillsides, and the weight of the dead rabbits as I laboured back up to the car.
The second memory is a happier one from a land where they eat a lot more rabbit than we do. In France you can buy rabbit everywhere from tiny boucheries to big supermarkets, and in Paris my local butcher had a stone vat in which pieces of rabbit sat marinating in Dijon mustard.
The recipe below for Lapin à la moutarde (Rabbit with Mustard) is a typical country-style dish you find in bistros across France. I have adapted it slightly from a version by Andy Harris in Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine. Served with a good glass of red wine or chardonnay, it will transport you to whichever part of France you love best.
Photos: John Corbett
Alimentary thanks moreish.co.nz for the opportunity to try their delicious wild game products. For more about moreish, see “Wild thing!” on this website.
Lapin à la moutarde (Rabbit with Mustard)
5 tbsp Dijon mustard (Alimentary likes Delmaine brand)
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 rabbit, jointed into 8 pieces
2 tbsp butter
2 slices streaky bacon, diced
2 shallots, peeled and sliced (substitute onions if you wish)
150ml dry white wine
250ml crème fraîche
250ml chicken stock
1 small handful fresh thyme
2 fresh bay leaves
Combine 4 tbsp mustard, olive oil and some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper in a large bowl.
Add the rabbit pieces and make sure they are well covered by the mustard mixture. Refrigerate, covered, for 3 hours minimum.
Remove the rabbit from the refrigerator and bring it to room temperature.
Heat half of the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the diced bacon and shallots and sauté for about 5 minutes or until softened and the bacon is beginning to brown. Transfer to a cast-iron casserole pot.
Heat the remaining butter in the frying pan over medium heat and sauté the rabbit pieces until browned or for about 8-10 minutes.
Transfer to the casserole pot with any of the remaining mustard marinade.
Add the white wine to the frying pan and cook for 2-3 minutes.
Add the crème frâiche and stock, stir well and continue to cook for 5 minutes.
Pour this mixture over the rabbit and add the thyme and bay leaves. Stir the mixture well then place the casserole pot over a medium heat and bring to the boil.
Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 1 hour, stirring the mixture occasionally, or until the sauce has thickened and the rabbit is tender.
During the last 10 minutes of cooking, add the remaining 1 tbsp of Dijon mustard, season generously with sea salt and black pepper and stir to combine.
Serve rabbit with the sauce and blanched green beans. (Alimentary used asparagus in celebration of the spring.) In some parts of France, this dish is often served with pasta (tagliatelle is good.)
Suggested wine and beer matches: A red wine with a bit of acidity goes well with this dish, e.g. rioja, tempranillo, sangiovese, pinot noir. Chardonnay. Wheat beer.