Eating Rabbit on the eve of Mnarja: how was it eaten 300  years ago?

On Wednesday, Malta will celebrate the traditional feast of St Peter and St Paul with a public holiday.  This feast, in Malta, is known as l-Imnarja, in reference to the torches that were placed on the roof of the Cathedral on the eve of this feast.  The eve was marked by eating rabbit: a tradition that goes back centuries.  In the past hares were eaten and not rabbits like today.  In Italian, they were called lepre or leprotti. The latter means leverets.

Hares were cooked differently from the way we prepare rabbit today even though, some old traditions have survived.  First of all, the blood of the rabbit or the hare was preserved.  The blood was collected and then the rabbit meat was ‘marinated’ in its own blood.

The rabbit was cut into pieces, nearly in the same manner it is chopped up today.  The legs were put aside and kept with the rest of the carcass.  Lard was spread across all the meat and left to rest. The rabbit could be cooked in many different ways  

In days gone by, the rabbit was not soaked or cooked in red wine. It is clear that our tradition of soaking and cooking the rabbit in red wine has been adopted after it was no longer customary to soak the rabbit in its blood.  It was even stewed in its own sauce.  The arrival of tomatoes in the late 18th and early 19th centuries eliminated once and for all using the rabbit’s blood.

The rabbit meat was fried in lard for a few minutes following which it was allowed to simmer slowly. Broth was added which either consisted only of white wine or white wine mixed with a vegetable or meat broth.  The specialty of this broth was in the spices.  Different spices were used and each chef closely guarded his secret recipes.  One recipe suggested the use of fine herbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, and laurel leaves.  Other recipes suggest the use of lime instead of laurel leaves. Personally, I prefer this recipe when preparing my fenkata (as this repast is called in Maltese).   

The rabbit’s entrails were cooked separately. The liver was, and still is, considered a delicacy.  It was fried separately, then pounded and minced. Flour (or breadcrumbs) was added together with a little bit of broth and/or lemon juice depending on the taste desired.  This was served as a side dish.  I serve it as an antipasto on a slice of toasted Maltese bread.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, rabbit meat was served either with lemon, which was squeezed by the guests over the meat, or else with a sweet sauce. The sweet sauce consisted of sugar, wine, vinegar, cinnamon, and pepper. Rabbit could be served with another sauce called in Italian alla peverata which is nothing more than a  pepper sauce. Personally, I prefer the first sauce which has an agrosweet taste typical of Mediterranean cuisine.

There were other methods for preparing sauces but I will be discussing them in another blog.  Meanwhile, after rubbing the meat in lard, I have opted to fry it.  It will be served with a lemon sauce and a sauce created from cinnamon, wine, pepper, sugar, and vinegar.  I can assure you that it tastes delicious.  You must try it.

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