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Well, bless my whiskers! Rabbits are having a field day in France at the moment – literally!
Apparently, and according to recent reports, there has been an 'explosion' of our little furry friends all over France. In fact, a damn right 'plague' of them!
They are devastating crops, along with community relations throughout the idyllic tranquility of rural France. Much to the exasperation of local farmers.
In fact, lawsuits are flying (or hopping!) about as farmers, hunters and landowners blame each other for failing to keep the rabbit population in check.
The farmers, too, are 'hopping' mad, amid mounting anger and destruction on a scale unknown for 30 years. Cereal farmers are being advised to sue their neighbours who allow wild rabbits to proliferate.
As highlighted in 'The Times' this month, one case that created controversy recently was that of a hunter who was ordered to pay €1,439 (£1,134) in damages to two farmers after a court ruled that he had not shot enough rabbits in his woods.
Apparently, French internet sites are full of similar tales.
The owner of a fallow field in northern France poured out his woes on one site after a neighbouring farmer demanded €3,000 in compensation for the loss of 2,000 lettuces, 1.5 tonnes (3,300lb) of beetroot and 800kg (1,760lb) of carrots. "I have been in a black mood since Saturday morning," he said.
Under French law, landowners have a civil responsibility to prevent an "excess number" of rabbits on their property.
The damage by rabbits has doubled in the last 2 years, devastating thousands of acres of land at a rate of 500 grammes per rabbit per day. Costs to farmers can range from €80 an acre to €1,000.
One apparent reason for the explosion is growing resistance to myxomatosis, the viral disease introduced into France in 1952.
A second explanation is the weather last summer, when there was enough rain to provide an abundance of food during the reproductive season, but not enough to drown their litters.
However, many farmers say the main cause is an increasingly slipshod approach to land management.
Public authorities are blamed for allowing rabbits to multiply alongside rivers, roads and railways, where they have curtailed a longstanding policy of regular culls.
Private landlords have also been lambasted, and deemed no better. They are accused of doing nothing about rabbits on their land these days.
Many of France's private woods and forests are used for hunting. But it is now felt that contemporary hunters have been ignoring the rabbits that they used to stew with red wine and 'herbes de Provence'. They now prefer bigger game these days such as deer, wild boar, and, of course, the popular, seasonal duck shoot.
The Noble Rabbit
Of course, not so long ago rabbit was part of the traditional farmers' regular country fayre, and certainly that of the local peasant poacher's.
In 'Roman Empire' Italy, amongst the aristocracy dining in their villas, it was once originally regarded as a special delicacy! (no doubt along with dormouse, song birds, etc.!)
In the rest of Europe, and particularly in Britain, it then became part of the commoners diet – rabbit pie, rabbit stew, and the like.
I, myself, have impressed our French friends regularly during the cold autumn and winter months with a particularly good recipe for rabbit which I found in an old farmhouse recipe book.
They simply love it, and it makes me feel good that they surprisingly experience an Englishman successfully preparing something that the French adore.
It is a Romanesque-style recipe, but also harkens back to the typical rabbit stew which my father used to make, usually after returning from the local 'cattle market' in Peterborough with a couple of dead rabbits under his arm. He and I would skin, gut, and prepare the joints for the pot together. (I remember doing the same for my 'backwoodsman's' badge in the scouts!)
All served with mashed potatoes and carrots, of course.
Now, the recipe I prepare in France is slightly different, and a little more sophisticated.
A little touch of 'haute cuisine', naturally. We can't keep 'feeding' them the idea that all us Englishmen are a load of beer-swilling, fry-up-eating peasants, now can we?!!!
I also buy the rabbit already prepared. I would also recommend buying legs, as the bone gives more flavour. Everyone gets one each, and it also looks more impressive when you 'plate' up'
Ingredients – Serves 4
4 Rabbit Legs
Streaky Bacon (3 or 4 slices)
1 Large Onion, roughly chopped
150ml Dry White Wine (Muscadet is good)
1 Garlic Clove peeled and crushed (optional)
Whole Grain Mustard (2 large table spoons)
150ml of Chicken or Vegetable Stock ('Marigold Bouillon' is excellent)
Salt and Pepper to taste.
Creme Fraiche (2 or 3 large table spoons)
Cut the bacon into small inch-sized strips, or use ready-prepared lardons, and add these to a large Le Creuset style casserole dish (cast-iron type), with some butter or olive oil, and cook until the fat starts to run.
Remove to the side into a dish or onto a plate, and cover.
Next, roughly chop the onions, not too small, and fry until soft, but do not brown.
Then remove the onions to the side dish with the bacon.
Fry each of the rabbit legs in the casserole dish until golden brown all over, then add the bacon and onions back with the rabbit in the casserole dish.
Next, add the wine, stock, garlic, and the mustard, plus ground pepper and salt.
Cover, and leave to simmer for 15 minutes. Then place onto the middle shelf of the oven, and leave for 1½ hours at medium heat, checking occasionally.
If necessary, top up with a little more stock/wine, but don't over do it!
Remove from oven, and stir in 2 large, heaped tablespoons of creme fraiche.
And 'Voila!' There you have it!
Serve with creamed potatoes, carrots or peas.
The French particularly like the way we sometimes serve it with tagliatelle, so they can eat their baguette with it, along with a simple, mixed-lettuce salad and obligatory French dressing, which they have the option to eat with the rabbit, or separately afterwards (almost as a refresher before the cheese course).
So, happy cooking, and happy eating!