I’m always in awe of the power of food to revive memories, especially faraway childhood ones. For some it may be the smell of warm spices, baking bread or sizzling butter. Or it’s the texture of comforting creamy pudding or crispy roast potatoes. Sometimes it can just be the idea of a dish, long forgotten, that will bring back a rush of the smells, taste and rituals.
It happened the other day, unexpectedly to my father. I had been waiting for a chance to take my parents to a vineyard lunch at the biodynamic Canberra winery, Lark Hill, where food is sourced from the 95 year old farmer father of the owner. The menu of uncomplicated, good food is local, short and simple, as all menus should be.
My father spots wild braised rabbit on the menu and exclaims, I haven’t had rabbit in over thirty years!
Another thing I love about food is that it can bring out a story that you’ve never known. Your grandmother used to cook rabbit all the time.
He says it in a wistful sort of way that shows how much he loved it – I remember my grandfather was fond of it too. I try to imagine the suburban Sydney that my father grew up in, in the 50s and 60s and my grandmother preparing ‘baked rabbit’, as she called it, in her tiny kitchen for Sunday night dinners. Dad loved her rabbit so much that when he moved to Hong Kong in the mid-70s, family friends who visited brought my grandmother’s freshly baked rabbit in their bags. It was the last time he ate it, until now.
Rabbit seems to have fallen off Australian tables and menus since then, going out of fashion when chicken became cheaper and bigger. It seems to be slowly making a comeback, but even then I doubt many Australian home cooks are preparing rabbit once a fortnight like my grandmother did in the sixties and long before. Perhaps they have forgotten what to do with it, or it was too closely associated with being a poor meat, something only eaten out of pure necessity with a touch of hunter-gatherer instinct about it.
South Australian food writer David Washington claims it’s the influence that Italian immigrants have on Australian food that is to be credited for the sudden appearance of rabbit in some of the country’s trendiest restaurants.
In Tuscany, like much of Italy, rabbit is plentiful and easily found, from the supermarket to the butcher. It is sold whole, head, kidneys and all, or already chopped into pieces for those on the run. And it’s found as much in any household as on any Tuscan trattoria menu, usually fried, braised, stewed, such as alla cacciatora or in a ragu.
For our farewell dinner in Florence we went to La Vecchia Bettola, one of the most Florentine restaurants that you can find. I couldn’t go past the coniglio e fiori, rabbit and flowers, a rather cute name for a dish of succulent pieces of rabbit and squash blossoms, deep fried in crispy batter. It was decidedly the dish of the night.
In the spirit of my father’s nostalgia for rabbit and mine for the home I’ve just left in Florence, here is the recipe for Tuscan fried rabbit. Deep fried rabbit is an easy and tasty dish and a good one to make to begin with for those who are not familiar with rabbit or how to cook it; it will no doubt replace your favourite fried chicken recipe.
- 1 rabbit, cleaned and deboned, chopped into bite size pieces
- plain flour
- dry white wine
- vegetable oil for deep frying
Combine enough flour and wine to create a smooth, thick batter (like the consistency of pancake batter).
Heat sufficient oil (it needs to cover each piece entirely) in a saucepan to around 160-180°C.
Dip the pieces of rabbit into the batter to coat and then deep fry until golden brown. Fry several pieces at once but do not overcrowd the pan otherwise the temperature of the oil will drop.
Drain the fried rabbit on paper towels, sprinkle with sea salt and serve immediately.
If you make enough batter, you could also use it for coating and deep frying some vegetables, such as squash blossoms (zucchini flowers), mushrooms, onions or other seasonal finds.