For as long as I can remember, my sister and I have called our maternal grandmother Mémère. I’m not exactly sure how it started. But, isn’t that always how those things go? Mémère’s from a small French town near the Belgian border, where she lived through the German occupation. Growing up, she told us stories of the rabbits her father raised, that kept her and her family alive and well through the lean times and severe rationing. But despite this family connection, rabbit and I have a particularly tortured history.
For you to fully understand, there are a few things you need to know about me. First, I should tell you about my pet rabbit, Bun. Originally, his name was Frisky, which my mother hated and was promptly changed. (When it comes to naming pets at our house, suggestions are welcome. But, make no mistake. This is no democracy.) Like all the pets my family’s had over the years, I absolutely adored him, even more so because he was the first pet besides a goldfish that belonged to me and was my responsibility to take care of. So naturally, I found the idea of anyone eating my beloved little Bun, or anything like him, totally appalling. I also blame Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll and Richard Adams, among others.
You should also know, I went vegetarian around this time while I tried different animal rights ideologies on for size. As the only non-omnivore in my family, no one, especially my grandparents, really seemed to understand my refusal to eat meat. In fact for the most part, it just seemed to inspire panic. Well, what does she eat? What if I make chicken? Fish? How will she ever get enough protein?! As an 11-year-old know-it-all recreational vegetarian with a pet rabbit, burgeoning PETA-esque ideals, and no concept of hardship or going hungry, Mémère’s stories of her family’s lapin fell largely on deaf ears.
As you can probably imagine, the French countryside, where my family often vacationed in the summers, isn’t exactly the ideal destination for a middle school-aged vegetarian considering going vegan. And, I certainly was a pain. I remember going to the boucherie and seeing the rabbits hanging there, skinned or maybe not. Unlike those neatly-wrapped packages at the grocery store that I was used to, meat at the butcher much more closely resembles what it was before it became “food.” I was completely traumatized. (Not to mention the day Mémère ordered tête de veau — quels barbares ces français!)
In addition to the beautiful little restaurants and cafés that my mother lovingly and painstakingly sought out for us that I totally underappreciated at the time, Mémère often cooked for us on these trips. These home-cooked meals (feasts, rather) are one of the things I remember most fondly about those vacations. We ate in the dining room or out on the patio of the same gîte in Provence that we all lovingly refer to as “The Farmhouse.” The trees around the yard secluded us, and we ate as the sun set late in the evening listening to the cigales.
To celebrate my college graduation, my family, Z and I went out to Zazi, a French restaurant in San Francisco’s Cole Valley. I’ve had quite a few memorable meals there with people I love, and it’s a place I’ll always remember fondly. Mémère spied lapin on the menu. She started with moules, we opened a bottle of champagne, and you could see she was transported. The waiter came to take our order and when it was clear he wasn’t getting a word of it, we politely reminded her that she had switched into French. Instead of laughing it off as usual, she scolded him for not understanding, working at a French restaurant where the dish was written in French on the menu. (I’m not going to argue with Mémère, are you?) Despite their linguistic differences, my grandmother and the waiter made up. Dinner was fantastic and Mémère said the rabbit was some of the best she’d had outside of France.
Obviously, my vegetarianism didn’t last forever and I did start to eat meat again. My outlook remains that meat is a luxury that necessitates responsibility. Still, rabbit remained something I just couldn’t do. When I moved to Paris, lapin came back into the picture in a big way. In the U.S., it’s a specialty item. Here in France, it’s everywhere: at restaurants, at the market, at the butcher, even at the grocery store. I lingered over rabbit choices on menus and even asked a few marchands to weigh rabbit pieces before changing my mind. (I know, I know!) Finally, I told myself that if I was going to conquer this bête — I was going to do my research, buy it from a local producteur and cook it myself.
So, one Sunday I came home from the market, set my spoils on the table, and announced, “we’re having lapin.” To say Z looked nervous would be an understatement, but being his unwaveringly-supportive self, he indulged me. I carefully seared the pieces then slowly braised them with wine, vegetable stock, tomato, cured pork and plenty of aromatics. Our apartment smelled delicious and I waited with anticipation until we finally scooped the cuisses onto our plates. Thankfully for me (and for Z), it all turned out well and we mopped up every last bit with fresh, crusty baguette. I felt a quiet sense of accomplishment. My new love of rabbit was born.
Both rabbit (lapin) and hare (lièvre) are commonly found at markets and in butcher shops here. While I often see hare displayed whole and unprepared, rabbit generally already skinned in pieces, halved, or whole. You can also buy the thighs (les cuisses) or the saddle (le râble) individually. If you buy a whole rabbit, the butcher will ask you if you want them to cut it up. I always take them up on it, since it makes less work for later; but, if you happen to wind up with a whole rabbit, Hank Shaw of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook has a great post with helpful pictures to get you started.
Cooking rabbit and hare, I personally lean toward stove top simmers and stews because I don’t have an oven and it makes for a great one pot meal. However, I’ve seen roasting and even grilling recipes that look absolutely delicious. The latter are probably best for rabbit and most involve pre-brining to lock in moisture. Easier still, you can buy already spit-roasted rabbits bathed in oil, mustard, and herbs, either whole or in pieces, at farmers markets and some boucheries and traiteurs here in Paris.
If you do want to cook it yourself, you can substitute rabbit for chicken in most recipes, according to your tastes. Hare will be darker and gamier than rabbit, and quite a bit tougher. You’ve gotta braise those guys. There’s really no getting around it. Keep in mind that both rabbit and hare are very lean and dry out easily. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that rabbit can be quite forgiving and not at all difficult to prepare, as long as you add the right amount of liquid (wine, tomatoes, homemade chicken or vegetable stock all work well) and fat. I usually shy away from cream-filled recipes and prefer bolder, meaty, wine-based sauces, but many traditional French rabbit recipes use at least some cream. I like to add whatever strikes me as delicious at the time, but I’ve included a few links to recipes at the bottom of this post if you need some inspiration.
I can’t write a post about rabbit and hare without mentioning the civet. Traditionally made with hare, regional variations use everything from rabbit to boar to seafood. What makes this dish special is the use of the animal’s blood and liver in the braise. It does take work, but the result is so rich and satisfying. If you don’t have time to make a traditional civet, you can get some of this richness simply by chopping the liver and adding it to the braising liquid. Chicken livers are widely available here at your local butcher, and make a great substitute if you don’t have the rabbit liver.
If you did buy a whole rabbit but aren’t planning to use the offal in your recipe, don’t throw it away! Clean and sauté the heart, liver and kidneys in butter until cooked. Serve on buttered bread (I like toasted pain Poilâne),. I know we Americans can be squeamish about the “nasty bits,” but give it a try. You’ll love it. If not, invite me to dinner and I’ll be happy to dispose of it for you.
Rabbit is now one of my favorite things to prepare and eat. It’s delicious, and don’t let anyone tell you it tastes “just like chicken.” Buying, preparing, and eating it, I’m reminded of all those changes that in a roundabout way, brought me back to responsible meat eating and made me think more seriously about my food in general. It makes me think of the family meals that were such a big part of my childhood, not just those on vacation but back home as well, that made me love cooking and regard dinner as something special. And, I think of Mémère, her unabashed love for lapin, and how without those little guys, things might have turned out quite differently for all of us.
Buying Meat in France – Other posts in this series:
La Mamma and her Braised Rabbit – A rustic and simple rabbit braise. I love the video too.
And, finally, the recipe for Civet de lièvre from Alexandre Dumas’ Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine:
Dépouillez et videz un lièvre, coupez- le par morceaux, en ayant soin de conserver le sang dans un endroit frais. Faites un roux avec un peu de farine et de beurre, faites revenir dans ce roux quelques morceaux de petit salé ou de lard, mettez-y votre lièvre et mouillez-le quand il sera chaud, avec moitié bouillon, moitié vin rouge; ajoutez-y du sel, poivre, bouquet garni, une gousse d’ail, un oignon piqué de deux clous de girofle et un peu de muscade râpée. Quand le lièvre sera à moitié cuit, vous y joindrez le foie et le poumon. Faites cuire à grand feu jusqu’à réduction des trois quarts. Ayez alors deux douzaines de petits oignons que vous glacez dans une casserole avec un peu de beurre, un demi-verre de vin blanc, jusqu’à belle couleur blonde; ajoutez aussi des champignons et des fonds d’artichauts coupés en morceaux; faites aussi, en même temps, frire à l’huile de petits croûtons de mie de pain.
Toutes ces garnitures préparées, vous liez votre civet avec le sang que vous aviez en réserve; dressez alors votre lièvre sur le plat, couronnez-le avec les petits oignons glacés, versez la sauce dessus, ajoutez les champignons, les fonds d’artichauts, le petit salé; garnissez le tout avec vos petits croûtons frits, et servez chaudement.