The rabbit sat contentedly nibbling the grass, looking up every now and again to check for danger. She twitched at the call of a grey partridge nearby, cleaned her whiskers and began to graze once again.
I breathed in and as I breathed out relaxed, as I had been taught, until the gun was steady and I could get my eye the right distance from the sight. The view cleared, the crosshairs appeared and I gently squeezed the trigger.
Shooting a rabbit seemed the natural place to start sourcing my own food in the countryside. Shooting rabbits is, after all, how most small boys learn to shoot.
But killing one was not an easy choice. Like most people I have been brought up on a diet of talking rabbits: Peter Rabbit, Bugs Bunny, and Watership Down. They are beautiful creatures and killing that first rabbit made me – and the gamekeeper I was with – cry.
Learning how to shoot a rifle is difficult because it is essentially a psychological skill. I could quickly shoot straight at a target but it took me months to learn how to still my shaking hands when shooting live quarry.
I learned mostly from gamekeepers who have been out in the countryside all their lives. They also taught me recipes and how to cook meat well. As one said: ‘There is no such thing as tough meat, just meat that has not been cooked for long enough.’
As I gained in confidence, I began to serve rabbit and other game dishes to my friends. I was always taken aback by the positive response I got from a largely metropolitan crowd. It was as if they longed for a connection back to the countryside and their own cultural history.
Rabbit recipes often hark back to the Second World War when many people supplemented the small amount of meat allowed under rationing with food from the countryside. Indeed, the Ministry of Food actively encouraged ‘making the most of country produce’.
Nowadays, we prefer to eat chicken and rabbit is not even available in the supermarkets. When it is, the meat is often from fat, caged rabbits from France. So, if you are following the recipe below please take time to find a butcher or game dealer who sells local wild rabbit. Since it is being killed as part of pest control anyway, it prevents waste and is certainly free range.
Second World War recipes often recommend grating in apple, perhaps because it was one of the few other ingredients plentiful in the countryside at that time. I have added apple to a curry recipe recommended by a gamekeeper friend and have used basic spices to retain the sense of a WWII kitchen and the comfort of a very basic British dish.
WWII Rabbit Curry
3 tsp curry powder
2 tbsp flour
Slug of vegetable oil, as you need it. (I used British rapeseed oil)
Slug of olive oil (you could use any vegetable oil)
1 onion, finely chopped
1 leek, sliced
2 carrots, cubed
1 tsp English mustard
6 small Discovery apples or 4 large Bramley apples, grated
1 tsp chilli powder (or to taste)
500ml vegetable stock
Cooking time: 40 minutes preparation, 2 hours cooking
Joint the rabbit. If you have shot it yourself then you can use up every scrap of meat around the belly etc. Mix one teaspoon of curry powder with the flour and coat the meat. Fry the pieces of rabbit in a non-stick frying pan. The meat should turn a lovely yellow, from the turmeric in the curry powder, and will smell delicious.
Put the fried rabbit to one side and finely chop the onion, then fry it in plenty of oil in a large, hob-safe casserole dish over a medium heat until it is translucent. Add the sliced leeks and cubed carrots and cook over a low heat. Add the rest of the curry powder, one teaspoon of English mustard and the chilli to taste. Add in the grated apple. I used Discovery apples because my Dad had a glut in his orchard – they worked well, but any sour eating apple or cooking apple would do.
Pop the casserole dish in the oven at gas mark 5 for a couple of hours or until the meat flakes off the bone. It is worth checking after an hour or so and stirring to make sure there is enough liquid to cook the meat through; if not, add a little more stock as needed. The curry should come out bright yellow and bubbling.
Don’t be fooled by its ‘school dinner’ appearance. The grated apple thickens the sauce and gives the curry a pleasant piquancy that mixes well with the mustard. It’s a mild curry but has enough heat to warm the heart. A deeply comforting dish for autumn.
Serve with rice.
Please do let me know – via Twitter or my blog – how you get on with your interpretations of this recipe so I can improve it. Or let me know if you have any other interesting rabbit recipes from the Second World War rabbit-eating archives.