I first tried rabbit on a pork-tasting trip around the Peak District – specifically, around parts of Derbyshire – where we sampled the quite impressive array of pork scratchings (and crackling – the difference, in a pub snack context, has never been clear to me) on offer in various pubs. Fun though this was, we had decided to take a night off (a birthday was involved) for a meal in Buxton. With its opera house, its spring water, the distant grandeur of the surrounding skyline (and despite being in the Midlands), Buxton can, I think, justifiably claim the title of the Italy of the North; we weren’t surprised, then, to find a lovely trattoria right in the town centre, all wood and leather and stairs and painted glass. The menu was pretty decent, too, from what I remember (we had quite a lot of wine – a birthday was involved) – we had snails to start, topped with vivid splashes of green, and there was squid-ink ravioli and calf liver and onions and I had rabbit, as I said, which had been stewed on the bone in a tomato sauce that could have been richer if you ask me. It was overcooked, dry but still tasty, and it might have been the wine or the company but that stands out in my mind as a hugely enjoyable dinner (we went clubbing afterwards – not an activity I recommend in Buxton), and I’ve loved rabbit ever since. The trick, of course, is not to overcook it – and to make the tomato sauce richer.
“Taking care not to overcook” is a particularly annoying piece of recipese, up there with “if liked” on my personal list. Presumably you are always taking at least some care not to overcook, and if not, the odd admonition is unlikely to make much difference. The implication, of course, is that the ingredient and process mentioned are particularly likely to result in overcooking, or that the consequences of overcooking are more drastic than usual. Without telling you exactly how not to overcook, though, or what the early-warning signs that you are doing so might be, these imprecations are worse than useless, throwing the cook into a panic without giving any way out. With any slow-cooked meat, it can be hard to judge the point where slow, happy disintegration shades into overcooking, a problem which is exacerbated in a meat as naturally lean as rabbit (all game suffers from a similar problem, which is why I’m not a huge fan of slow-cooked venison) – especially, and I’m sorry if I’m labouring this point, the tomato sauce (or other cooking medium) isn’t rich enough. When I started cooking rabbit, I used to stew the animal in its entirety, something which, for a number of reasons, you’d never do with a cow or sheep, though you might get away with a pig. As a result, the tender saddle meat always ended up tough and dry, a problem which I thought could be fixed by longer stewing, thereby messing up the whole dish. Now, of course, I keep the saddle fillets separate, and make rabbit nuggets.
This is a happy place to have arrived at, but the journey could have been halved if anyone had told me what to look for while I was taking care not to overcook my rabbit. A problem with recipes as a genre is that they do rather assume you know what the finished result should taste like – an assumption which robs them of a large part of their use, or certainly of their egalitarianism. A good cookbook should throw open the cuisines of the world and of history, and make them available to anyone who can follow a set of instructions. Without a certain degree of precision in the matter, say, of what overcooked rabbit looks like, or the degree of reduction in a tagine, or the careful balance of spicing in a proper Istanbul kebab, you are narrowing your audience to those who can afford to go and get the real thing. I mention examples from world food, but this applies just as much to restaurant cookbooks, which need the same sort of precision if they are to be more than just souvenirs of a good meal. The Nose To Tail cookbooks are so good because they manage to call up the whole atmosphere and ethos of St John, and I loved them long before I could afford to eat there. They are welcoming, in a way that, say, White Heat is not, and this welcome is extended in the balance between blithe imprecision – ovens are only ever gentle, medium, hot – and absolute clarity. Rabbit is ready when a knife can be slipped easily into its haunch; this is true, and useful, and immediately understandable. If only those Buxton-Italians had known. They could have taken some advice on the sauce too.