Nearly Easter, so here’s my take on the bunny.
The Rabbit It Was That Died
THE RABBIT.—Though this animal is an inhabitant of most temperate climates, it does not reach so far north as the hare. The wild rabbit is a native of Great Britain, and is found in large numbers in the sandy districts of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. Its flesh is, by some, considered to have a higher flavour than that of the tame rabbit, although it is neither so white nor so delicate. The animal, however, becomes larger and fatter in the tame than in the wild state; but it is not desirable to have it so fat as it can be made. (Mrs Beeton, 1861)
Le temps perdu
Rabbit is inextricably linked with family history in my mind. I can’t have been more than four—less, I think: it’s one of my earliest memories. Standing beside the stove in our first house, in Wellington, watching Mum open the oven door and carefully draw out the roasting pan with the rabbit in it. I always got given a tiny kidney for a treat. She must have got rabbit from the local butcher—we were in a well-established suburb, this was before we moved for the first time, in 1949. That’d be right, the roast rabbits which were a very occasional treat would of course have been before “the mixy” was introduced to kill them off. I got a very good view of the roasting pan, I wouldn’t have been as tall as the stove was.
As to whether the rabbit would have been wild or domestic— I think it must have been wild, it was very tasty.
Rabbiting On: Ancient History
I was five when we moved to Auckland. Of course I don’t remember anything that went on behind the scenes, but judging from the scenes that preceded the next time Dad changed his job, it wasn’t all his idea to go north to a much better job. Though, true, by that time his father, who was an Aucklander but had been living in Wellington for ages, must have been about to retire up there.
When he did retire they settled in a brand-new house in the south of the greater Auckland conurbation—the nice part, in Papatoetoe, thanks. A lovely single-storeyed house, all mod cons, with one of those etched glass front doors that you had in the Fifties if you had a bit of dough to chuck around. Pristine over-stuffed pink brocade suite in the sitting-room, which we kids were only allowed to go into for special afternoon teas, not ordinary ones when it was just us calling, twin beds in the main bedroom that looked as if no human being had ever slept in them, they were so rigid and creaseless, garage plus the car to go in it. Not that they hadn’t had a car for most of their married life, but not that many families could afford one. My grandfather had a well-paid job in the Public Service, in fact he rose to be its head.
Boy, had they gone up-market! Once we’d moved to Auckland we used to go and visit my grandfather’s sisters, Dad’s very old aunties, in the old family home. A tiny two-storeyed house in the horrifically steep King Street, in a very inner suburb, at that time already starting to go down-market. God knows what it’s like these days, probably full of urban trendies and terracotta render. It must have been a nightmare fitting a family of at least five kids into that little house with its tiny rooms. (Might have been six, not sure exactly, adults didn’t talk much to kids in those days.)
We couldn’t visit all that often for the first ten years, as we were on the North Shore without transport and the ferries were pretty infrequent in the weekends. After we had the car we managed it more often. By that time I must have been in my mid-teens, it was well after my grandfather died, plus and after Nanna had stopped digging her toes in about passing the car on to her only son. Oh, yeah. Took the silly old cow years. –No, she didn’t drive! She was just a dim, silly, and very stubborn woman. After that she just went gaga—nothing else to do. Never saw her pick up a book in her life. Why he married her, Heaven knows. Presumably she was pretty when she was young.
He was very good-looking and terrifically bright: a working-class boy from a poor family whose dad, so the story runs, started off hauling water in a goat cart to the soldiers in Auckland’s Albert Barracks.
“Inside Albert Barracks”, 1860s
(Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 4-423)
I have seen the remains of the barracks: one piece of a high, coarse stone wall, warm in the sun, and dotted with tiny, pretty, flowering plants, in the grounds of the university.
The family only managed to rise in the world because my grandfather got a scholarship to go to secondary school. Back in those days if you couldn’t pay for it, you didn’t get a secondary education in God’s Own Country.
No More Rabbits
New Zealand and Australia have both had “the mixy” since around 1950, so after we moved to Auckland the family never ate rabbit again. Rabbits are pests—vermin—in the Antipodes, introduced by the poor ignorant English early settlers who didn’t know any better. New Zealand hasn’t got any native animals, so the things went crazy, had a free-for-all, like the gorse. And they went crazy in Australia, too: the upper-class English morons had introduced foxes for their bloody sport, so they killed off most of the native animals that might’ve given the rabbits some competition. Bred like rabbits, hah-hah.
So by 1950, with the rabbits taking over the best grazing land and actually offering competition to the sheep—Australia was living on the sheep’s back, of course, and EnZd wasn’t far behind, though it was frozen lamb, not merino fleece—the scientists introduced a disease to control the little buggers. Myxomatosis. Commonly known as the mixy.
It only sort of worked. Not too well in New Zealand, actually. I’ve seen lots of rabbits in the King Country. We came through around 1980 when it was getting on for evening and there they were, sitting up like Jacky near their burrows, it was like something out of Beatrix Potter! I think the stuff worked for a while and then faded out.
It worked better in Australia, only then the bunnies developed a resistance to it. The Australians also attempt to control them with a rabbit-proof fence—it’s not a myth—but I don’t know how well that works.
From The Queensland Figaro, 2 August 1884, p. 129. (A Mr Stevenson suggested that the Queensland government should erect a fence between New South Wales and Queensland to check the invasion of rabbits.)
Yes! Joking apart, the rabbit-proof fence is not a myth!
In the 1990s the Aussie scientists had a new anti-rabbit potion—calicivirus. It was almost due for release when suddenly it “got out” and infected the rabbit population of South Australia. That is what all the TV news reports said. Wikipedia echoes them:
“In 1995 the virus escaped quarantine and subsequently killed 10 million rabbits within 8 weeks of its release.”
(“Rabbit haemorrhagic disease”, Wikipedia.)
You can just see that virus leaping over the wall on its bunny-like furry hind legs, rushing to the coast of the island where it was quarantined, and paddling for dear life to the shore—yeah. A virus cannot “get out” nor “escape”! A human agency is in there, mates. Someone let it out. There had been vague rumblings about whether it should be used, not well reported, so my bet is some enterprising boffin deliberately spread it. Spurred on by the example of the Kiwis—yes. During the late 1980s the virus had been deliberately spread by EnZed farmers—mashing up the already infected animals in mum’s good kitchen blender and scattering the result around was definitely in there. Not referred to in the Aussie media when that voluntary wall-leaping and swimming occurred, no—certainly not in any reports that filtered through to me.
In the Antipodes rabbit simply vanished from the cookbooks and the shops alike after the mixy. It must have been thirty years before I next tasted rabbit: the NZ supermarkets started to get frozen Chinese ones in. They were very mild, rather like frozen supermarket chicken, in fact: nothing like the ones I remember from my early childhood. You don’t see them in the Aussie supermarkets these days, so presumably the majority of the Australian population were put off either by the idea of rabbit (having been raised with the myth of the mixy together with the belief that the things are vermin), or by the idea of Chinese. Or both—yep.
19th Century: Common Fare
Once rabbits had been introduced, they were eaten as matter of course in Australasia: it was the custom of the culture the settlers had come from. In the mid-19th century Mrs Beeton had 10 recipes for rabbit: it was a popular English meat in those days. Here’s her roast rabbit from 1861. When I was little we were already too squeamish to serve them with the head still on, but the Victorians were made of sterner stuff!
ROAST OR BAKED RABBIT.
983. INGREDIENTS.—1 rabbit, forcemeat No. 417, buttered paper, sausage-meat.
Mode.—Empty, skin, and thoroughly wash the rabbit; wipe it dry, line the inside with sausage-meat and forcemeat made by recipe No. 417, and to which has been added the minced liver. Sew the stuffing inside, skewer back the head between the shoulders, cut off the fore-joints of the shoulders and legs, bring them close to the body, and secure them by means of a skewer. Wrap the rabbit in buttered paper, and put it down to a bright clear fire; keep it well basted, and a few minutes before it is done remove the paper, flour and froth it, and let it acquire a nice brown colour. Take out the skewers, and serve with brown gravy and red-currant jelly. To bake the rabbit, proceed in the same manner as above; in a good oven, it will take about the same time as roasting.
Time.—A young rabbit, 35 minutes; a large one, about 3/4 hour.
Average cost, from 1s. to 1s. 6d. each. Sufficient for 4 persons.
Seasonable from September to February.
(Isabella Beeton. The book of Household Management. [London], S.O. Beeton, 1861.)
(Picture based on the vignette in The Book of Household Management)
Mid-20th Century: When Is A Meat?
Was it usual to roast the things Downunder, back just before the mixy? I don’t know, but I suspect it wasn’t. If in doubt, bung meat in the oven with a bit of salt and dripping perched on it, was pretty much Mum’s attitude. I recently asked an elderly Australian friend, who recalls the “Rabbito” coming round selling rabbits at the door, how his mother used to do rabbits in the 1930s, and she used to cut them up and soak the pieces in milk before stewing or casseroling them. That’d be right: in the later colonial cookbooks roast rabbit doesn’t feature. The recipes are stews or casseroles.
Not that rabbit was meat, in the 1940s! No, not game: the concept “game” doesn’t seem to have existed in the Antipodes. The Green and Gold Cookery Book, 15th ed. (rev.), circa 1949, has to list rabbit under “Entrees,” because it cannot be listed as “Meats,” and not “Stews,” either! There are two recipes for rabbit under “Entrees” in this book. The other “Entrees” are such non-meat recipes as “Beef Olives,” “Spiced Mutton” (chops), “Rissoles,” “Indian Devil,” or “Curry and Rice.” The category is totally misleading: the normal Australasian table did not feature an entrée course! It was usually a meat course followed by pudding. Here’s what the book calls “Meats”.
Later 20th Century: An Unusual Delicacy
By the 1970s even in the English recipe books rabbit was being presented as something special and different, if it turned up at all. Josceline Dimbleby’s A Taste of Dreams (1976) is typical: the book’s policy is to offer enticingly different recipes, and there are two for rabbit. Intriguingly, this one picks up the roast rabbit idea 115 years after Mrs Beeton!
Rabbit with Green Sauce and Pine Nuts
1 good leg of rabbit per person; salt, pepper; olive oil
For the green sauce (approx. quantities):
2-3 oz. fresh basil, parsley, mint or other green herb;
2 large cloves garlic; 2-4 teaspoons capers;
1 1/2 oz. grated Parmesan; juice small lemon;
10-12 tablespoons olive oil; salt, black pepper;
about 2 tablespoons pine nuts [to finish]
Salt and pepper the rabbit joints and spoon a little oil over each. Put the joints into a shallow earthenware dish which you can serve from or a roasting pan. Cover with foil and cook in centre of oven at Gas 5 (375°F/190°C) for 1 1/2 - 2 hrs.
Then drain off juices (keep as they make a good jellied stock) and if cooked in roasting pan, transfer to serving dish.
To make the green sauce:
Put all ingredients except for nuts into a blender and whizz till thick and fairly smooth. This can be made in advance.
Spoon green sauce thickly over each joint and sprinkle with pine nuts.
(Josceline Dimbleby. A Taste of Dreams. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1976.)
Whether anybody risked it and ate the feral rabbits in NZ after they’d become mixy-resistant I don't know. They certainly ate hare, though. –Not me personally, no. But in the late 1970s Stan the Man favoured me with a long involved story about getting out after hare somewhere in the wilds of the South Island with his rifle. “Hare,” singular, natch, when they’re prey. Unfortunately it got rather mixed up in my head with Mum’s burblings about West Coast beech forests and Ngaio Marsh’s autobiography, Black Beech and Honeydew, so I can’t tell you exactly where he shot them. I didn’t ask him about rabbits because I had a sort of feeling that that was one of the things I oughta know. Silly wee feminine me: he wasn't a critical sort of person at all, and he’d have been happy to enlighten me. Oh, well! Si jeunesse savait, eh?
Not long since I saw one of Jamie Oliver’s cookery programmes where he got out after rabbits with a shotgun in the wilds of somewhere or other in England. (Could it have been Esher, or am I extrapolating, here?) This was presented as an extraordinary endeavour. Showing the over-civilised urbanites of the 21st century what real food is, or where food really comes from, or quite possibly both. Being used to blokes who get out with guns after the furred creation, I wasn’t that impressed, or absorbed, either—can’t recall if he bagged anything or not! Have a medal anyway, Jamie.
Shades of the Raj: How to Curry Your Rabbit
It’s rabbit stews, under various names, that predominate in Isabella Beeton’s book, but she also has recipes for fried and boiled rabbit, rabbit pie, rabbit soup and, to my astonishment, rabbit curry! Yep. Already back in 1861 it was the accustomed practice of the English to bowdlerise the Indian dishes encountered by the Empire builders of the British Raj.
978. INGREDIENTS.—1 rabbit, 2 oz. of butter, 3 onions, 1 pint of stock No. 104, 1 tablespoonful of curry powder, 1 tablespoonful of flour, 1 teaspoonful of mushroom powder, the juice of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 lb. of rice.
Mode.—Empty, skin, and wash the rabbit thoroughly, and cut it neatly into joints. Put it into a stewpan with the butter and sliced onions, and let them acquire a nice brown colour, but do not allow them to blacken. Pour in the stock, which should be boiling; mix the curry powder and flour smoothly with a little water, add it to the stock, with the mushroom powder, and simmer gently for rather more than 1/2 hour; squeeze in the lemon-juice, and serve in the centre of a dish, with an edging of boiled rice all round. Where economy is studied, water may be substituted for the stock; in this case, the meat and onions must be very nicely browned. A little sour apple and rasped cocoa-nut stewed with the curry will be found a great improvement.
Time.—Altogether 3/4 hour. Average cost, from 1s. to 1s. 6d. each.
Sufficient for 4 persons. Seasonable in winter.
(Isabella Beeton. The book of Household Management. [London], S.O. Beeton, 1861)
Not Indian, no. And know what? This must be where later cooks in the English tradition—I mean, for well over a century—got the putrid idea that apple belongs with a curry! Big black mark, Isabella.
Awful versions of so-called curry turn up for all kinds of meat in English-language cookery books, but your specific rabbit curry also appears, in various guises. Here’s a really innovative American version, turning the curry into a pie!
Oriental Rabbit Pie
Clean and cut a rabbit into small pieces and let stew, well seasoned with salt and pepper and cayenne. Add 2 chopped cloves of garlic, 1 chopped green pepper, 1 Spanish onion sliced thin and 2 sliced tomatoes, a pinch of cloves and allspice. Then line a pie-dish with a puff paste; let bake and fill with the rabbit; add 2 chopped hard-boiled eggs and sprinkle with curry-powder. Cover with the paste; brush the top with a beaten egg and let bake until brown. Serve hot.
(365 Foreign Dishes: A Foreign Dish for Every Day in the Year. Philadelphia, G.W. Jacobs & Co., )
If you’re looking for the culinary clichés of the turn of the 19th century, this fascinating little book is a go-to! “German” recipes tend to have apple, cabbage and/or vinegar, “Spanish” recipes feature tomatoes or tomato sauce, and often rice, and “Indian” (or, as here, “Oriental”) recipes of course have curry powder.
In Australasia rabbit curry survived up until the mixy:
Fry two sliced onions until brown in one tablespoonful of hot dripping; peel, core, and grate one apple and add to onion; mix tablespoonful of curry powder with two cupsful of water; one-quarter teaspoonful of salt; add to and boil with onion and apple; chop one tablespoonful of stoned raisins and add, when the curry is boiling, with one rabbit cut into neat joints. Simmer gently for two hours; and 10 minutes before serving add one tablespoonful of flour and the strained juice of one-half a lemon.
–S. R. Smith, Congregational Manse, Kadina.
(Green and Gold Cookery Book: Containing Many Good and Proved Recipes. 15th ed. (rev.), Adelaide, R.M. Osborne, [1949?])
And now for something completely different…
There are real Indian recipes for rabbit. This one is pretty authentic, except that I've cut down severely on the salt:
Rabbit Curry: Kharghosh Ka Salan
1 rabbit; 1 large onion; 4 cloves garlic;
100 g/4 oz tomato purée; 300 ml/1 pint chicken stock;
4 teaspoons garam masala; 1 teaspoon ground cumin;
1 teaspoon ground coriander; 2 teaspoons chilli powder;
1 bay leaf; 4 cardamoms; 4 cloves;
100 g/4 oz ghee or 120 ml/4 fl oz cooking oil; 1/2 teaspoon salt
Wash the rabbit and joint it.
Heat the ghee or oil in a frying pan and seal the rabbit joints fairly quickly, turning them constantly to ensure that all sides are sealed. Remove the joints and put to one side.
Thinly slice the onion and fry it in the remaining ghee until soft.
Peel and slice the garlic and add to the pan. Add the cumin, coriander, chilli powder and bay leaf, followed by the cardamoms and cloves. Mix in well and add the stock, together with the salt.
Replace rabbit pieces in pan. Bring to the boil and stir in the tomato purée, reduce the heat and simmer. After 45 minutes, add the garam masala and stir in well. Simmer for about another 15 minutes or until the rabbit is tender and tends to fall off the bone.
Check to see how thick the sauce is. The sauce should be fairly thick for this dish; if it is not, remove the cover from the pan and increase the heat to boil away any excess moisture.
(Khalid Aziz. The Encyclopedia of Indian Cooking. London, Michael Joseph, 1983)
Nostalgia or Not?
No, well, given the choice, think I’d rather have Mum’s roast rabbit, tiny kidney and all. Was it that good? Gee, who knows, with the nostalgia factor in there, but there are very few things I remember from when I was very little, and the rabbit definitely stands out! Along with, by all means fall about laughing, Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit. We only had a handful of children’s books, they were in very short supply in the years after the War, but we had that, and a set of A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin books, including the poems, that were bound in a heavy cheap cardboard, a mottled olive-green colour, that got very rubbed and fuzzy.
Don’t ask me what happened to the original copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Most likely Mum gave it away or biffed it out with all the other books of my childhood she got rid of without asking if I still wanted them, as soon as I’d left home. She’d have been telling herself firmly she was doing the best thing, and the sensible thing—had a tremendous capacity for self-deception. It was pure spite, of course. Against me personally or against life itself, I couldn’t say. Both, I rather think.
Back when I wasn’t as high as the kitchen stove, she had much ado not to laugh when my very little brother and I, not having taken Miss Potter’s cautionary tale to heart, wriggled into the grumpy old next-door neighbour’s broad bean patch and nicked some of his beans. He caught us, of course—we weren’t as invisible as we seemed to ourselves, flat out behind the tall beans—and dragged us home ignominiously. What in Hell happened to that energetic young woman with the great sense of humour who told that old crosspatch not to be silly, we were just little kids, and then didn’t punish us at all?
Never mind, I’ve since managed to replace the book. I can live without roast rabbit, and certainly without the more elaborate recipes, and even without Stan the Man, but it’s not a life without Peter Rabbit!
Cover of my new copy of Peter Rabbit