Yesterday’s fifteenth century menu included a dish of 'Rabettes, soukers', or newborn rabbit. It is not a dish likely to be found on any modern menu, no matter how cutting-edge the restaurant. Whether or not you are repelled or intrigued by the idea of eating newborn rabbit, I think the concept is worthy of a little more commentary, don’t you?
The origin and early history of rabbits is ancient and obscure. They perhaps originated on the Iberian Peninsula or the Balearic Islands, but they were certainly introduced into Britain by the Romans. The Romans appear to have enjoyed the unborn animals, which they referred to as laurices (singular, laurex.)
Rabbits were bred on a large scale in medieval monasteries. This is likely related to their role on the table during periods of fasting. It is alleged that Pope Gregory I, in 600 AD allowed foetal rabbit to be eaten during Lent, by declaring them to be aquatic animals on account of the watery environment of the mother’s womb.
A brief word here about names. As we have seen, laurices are unborn or newborn animals. A rabbit is sometimes also called cuniculus, from the scientific name Oryctolagus cuniculus.
Until the eighteenth century, juvenile specimens were referred to as ‘rabbits’ but mature adults were ‘coneys.’ Add to this the variations in spellings, and the inevitable confusion with the related animal, the hare (Lepus capensis) and you can appreciate how unravelling the culinary history of the rabbit is quite a confusing process.
The following fifteenth century recipe specifies adult rabbit (cony), and does sound rather delicious. It is made by taking pieces (presumably joints) of rabbit, larding and roasting them, and then chopping the meat into smaller pieces (perhaps very finely, like mince) before cooking it again in a rich meaty broth thickened with ground almonds and rice flour, and spiced with saffron, ginger, galangal, cinnamon, sugar, cloves, and mace.
Conyngys in graueye.
Take Conyngys, & make hem clene, & hakke hem in gobettys, & sethe hem, oþer larde hem & Rost hem; & þanne hakke hem, & take Almaundys, & grynde hem, & temper hem vppe with gode Freysshe brothe of Flesshe, & coloure it wyth Safroun, & do þer-to a porcyon of flowre of Rys, & do þer-to þen pouder Gyngere, Galyngale, Canel, Sugre, Clowys, Maces, & boyle it onys & seþe it; þen take þe Conyngys, & putte þer-on, & dresse it & serue it forth
Two fifteenth-century cookery-books : Harleian MS. 279 (ab 1430), & Harl. MS. 4016 (ab. 1450), with extracts from Ashmole MS. 1439, Laud MS. 553, & Douce MS. 55: Thomas Austin.