Early writers claimed the Romans found rabbits in Spain about 200 BC and may have been the first to keep rabbits, putting them in large walled pens and letting them breed freely. They supposedly introduced rabbits to Britain when they invaded in AD 43. By the 5th century, Catholic monks in France were raising rabbits for meat. On days when Catholics were not allowed to eat meat they could eat fish, but it wasn’t always available so, in the absence of fish, Pope Gregory I officially proclaimed laurice (unborn and newborn rabbit) to be classed as fish so it could be eaten on those days. Oddly enough, the oldest sources on cookery and rearing livestock often include rabbits in the category of poultry.
Tame rabbits in Britain date from roughly the 12th century and through the Middle Ages the practice spread into other parts of Europe. The Ghent Giant (later called the Flemish Giant) was a distinct breed by the 16th century.
Should one consider rabbits in their historical context, it would be natural to wonder what a tame rabbit looked like in the early to mid-1700’s. “Those tame rabbits vary in colour, as all other domestic animals; black, white, and grey are, however, the only which this sport of nature seems limited to. I call grey that mixture of sallow, black, and ash-colour, which forms the usual colour of rabbits and hares. Black rabbits are the most rare; but there are many quite white, many quite grey, and many of a mixed colour. All wild rabbits are grey, and, among the tame, it is also the prevailing colour; for in most litters there are frequently grey rabbits, and even in greatest number, though the sire and dam are both white, or both black, or one black and the other white.”
Such is the case with mine. They are a cross of a New Zealand Black and a New Zealand White and all are a lovely shade of “grey”, though the parents have produced all white, all black, or black and white mixed.
Various books indicate tame rabbits should be ready to butcher at 12 weeks old provided they’ve received adequate and regular food up to that point, feeding them longer resulted in the cost of the meat per pound exceeding the value of the animal.
Disease was avoided “in great measure” by keeping the cages clean and not allowing the bedding, usually hay, to become soiled and sodden in urine. Mesh on the bottom of the hutch allowed the waste to drop through into trays that could be removed and cleaned. Doing so prevented the ammonia from the urine irritating the rabbits’ eyes, and droppings soiling their fur.
In-breeding generation after generation often resulted in poor quality offspring and was to be avoided; by replacing breeding does every three to four years. The breeding season lasted from February through October or into November. Giving birth was called kindling. Just before a doe was ready to kindle she prepared a nest and lined it with fur she pulled out of her own coat.
The same writer claimed that once the young were two or three weeks old the doe should be allowed access with the buck again on two consecutive days so that no time was lost in bringing on a second litter. When the young were one month of age they were taken away from the mother and housed in their own compartment. If timed right, that gave the doe time to prepare for the birth of the next litter. Ames told his readers a rabbit could breed eleven times per year producing six to eight rabbits in each litter. “Thus at the end of four years a pair of Rabbits would produce nearly a million and a half”.
Writers noted does were capable of rearing young by the time they reached five to six months of age and that the gestation period for rabbits was thirty to thirty one days. Does were to be put with bucks only for mating to prevent fighting and injury.
Feeding costs were controlled by growing produce on a small scale to feed them and the rabbit manure so nourished the soil that a small space yielded a maximum amount of vegetables. A writer in the late Victorian era advised that a pound of hay per week was sufficient for a doe with a couple of tablespoons of oats or barley and a little green food or a root such as a parsnip, carrot, Jerusalem artichoke, potato, or turnip. This was increased somewhat after having a litter and he advised adding a little skim milk with the dry food.
He thought food like cabbage leaves that contained a great deal of moisture caused diarrhea in rabbits and advised air-drying it somewhat before offering it. Recommended dry food included hay, clover-hay, oats, barley, bran, peas and beans. He also approved of chicory in the rabbits’ diet. Ames told his readers feed could include fresh clover, corn leaves, apples, beets, and lettuce.
Methods of cooking rabbit varied, some authors indicating any recipe for chicken worked equally well with rabbit. The earliest recipes refer to rabbit as coney so don’t limit yourself to too narrow a search. The meat was simmered and served with onion sauce, made into pies, curried, or roasted. Tame rabbits were larger than wild ones and their flesh considered delicate and nutritive, “very little inferior to chicken…”.
The illustrious Hannah Glasse included in her The Art of Cookery how to roast them, how to sauce them, fricassee them, how to make Rabbit Surprise, and how to dress rabbits in casserole. Her FRICASSEE of RABBIT recipe instructed the cook to simmer the rabbits with sweet herbs and an onion until tender then remove the rabbit to a platter. To the pan juices was to be added a little butter rolled in flour to thicken the sauce and a half pint of cream and the yolk of an egg beaten well, some fresh or pickled mushrooms, and lastly the juice of half a lemon. It was necessary to stir well after adding the lemon juice so that the mixture didn’t curdle and remove it from the heat. When served, the fricassee was garnished with sliced lemon. Another version contained mace, nutmeg, and a glass of white wine.
Mrs. Frazer and Susanna MacIver’s SMOTHERED RABBIT:
Truss them as you do a roasted hare; put them into as much boiling water as will cover them; peel a good many onions, and boil them in water whole; take some of the liquor the rabbits are boiled in, and put in a good piece of butter knead in flour; then put in the onions amongst it, keeping them breaking until the sauce be pretty thick; dish the rabbits, and pour the sauce over them all, except the heads. The same sauce serves for boiled geese or ducks.
RABBITS EN CASSEROLE. (1823)
Cut your rabbits into quarters…then shake some flour over them, and fry them in lard or butter. Then put them into an earthen pipkin, with a quart of good broth, a glass of white wine, a little pepper and salt, a bunch of sweet-herbs, and a small piece of butter rolled in flour. Cover them close, and let them stew half an hour; then dish them up and pour the sauce over them. Garnish with Seville oranges cut into thin slices and notched.
John Perkins’ RABBITS PULLED. (Pulled referred to taking meat off the bone)
Half boil your rabbits, with an onion, a little whole pepper, a bunch of sweet herbs, and a piece of lemon-peel; pull the flesh into flakes, put to it a little of the liquor, a piece of butter mixed with flour, pepper, salt, nutmeg, chopped parsley, and the liver boiled and bruised; boil this up, shaking it round.
Good luck to anyone with an interest in raising rabbits and as for eating them, I wish for you Blissful Meals. – The Historic Foodie
“Bees, Rabbits, & Pigeons”. Ward, Lock & Co. London. 1882.
Ames, D. F. “Cottage Comforts”. New York. 1838.
Perkins, John. “Every Woman Her Own Housekeeper”. 1796. London.
“The Universal Magazine”. Vol. 46. April 1770.
“Cassell’s Household Guide”. 1869.
“An Encyclopaedia of Domestic Economy”. 1845.
Farley, John. “The London Art of Cookery and Housekeeper’s Complete Assistant”. 1785.
Henderson, William Augustus, Schnebbelie, Jacob Christopher. “The Housekeeper’s Instructor”. 1823. London.
Radcliffe, M. “A Modern System of Domestic Cookery”. 1823.
“The Complete Farmer, Or a General Dictionary of Husbandry. 1793.
“The Complete Farmer”. 1767, 1777, and 1810.
Hale, Thomas. “A Compleat Body of Husbandry”. 1758.
Huish, Robert. “The Female’s Friend”. 1837.
McIver, Susanna. “Cookery and Pastry”. 1789. London.
Frazer, Mrs. “The Practice of Cookery, Pastry, Pickling, Preserving, etc.” 1795.
Glasse, Hannah. “The Art of Cookery”. 1788 and 1791. London.