“First catch your hare” is a quote that was thought to have come from the beginning of a 16th century recipe*. One cannot help but sense a degree of foreboding, or at the very least an expectation, when considering this quote. What happens next? Well, here is my account.
My story begins with a book that was given to me, entitled “Meat” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of River Cottage fame. I had always been enamoured with the idea of cooking Jugged Hare properly, the old-fashioned way. I already have my own favourite New Zealand recipe for Jugged Hare, taken from an old New Zealand Deerstalkers Association cookbook (I will post up here shortly). This tried and true recipe uses copious amounts of plum sauce, plum jam and red wine – a slow gentle cooking, a rest overnight and then back in the oven to warm before serving. It is sweet, rich and never fails.
Hugh’s recipe sticks to the traditional interpretation of Jugged Hare. The ‘jugged’ bit refers to cooking the hare casserole in a jug that sits in a steaming pot, a slow cooker of sorts. Hugh has written a thoroughly comprehensive reference book on meat that has a conversational style which makes it hard to put down once you begin. I thoroughly recommend it.
So. First catch your hare.
Parenthetically, I generally disagree with the use of the word ‘catch’ in this instance, as it is far from what actually happens. Hugh confronts this issue well in his book, as do others who think about ‘ethical meats’ – see the book “Call of the Mild” by Lily Raff McCaulou.
Hares are not rabbits. They are completely different. Hares do not dig burrows, they are monogamous, they give birth to precocious young (unlike rabbits whose offspring are born blind and hairless), they have not been domesticated, they live in completely different habitat usually high up in the rough country, and if you behold one up close you will note they are about 3 times the size of a rabbit. Every ounce of their being oozes wildness. The prickled coat, the dark tips on their ears, and especially their wild and crazed protruding eyes.
The area I get hares in is my own private paradise. I was alone on the farm on a sunny summer evening. The hills took on the blanched golden colour of the setting sun and a robust northerly wind tossed the heads of the seeding grass around me. I sat on the shady side of a rough gully in amongst twisted scrub trees and enormous swathes of open grassland. Much the same view greeted me on the other side, as I spied a lone hare creeping around a thicket. A careful deadly accurate headshot from my little .17HMR rifle brought this hunting scene to an end, and a transition to a culinary adventure.
I wasted no time rushing down the slope, bursting through thorny matagouri bushes and gorse to arrive at the side of my quarry – a very healthy looking young hare. I unpacked the jangling items that had been waiting expectantly in my pack – a jam jar with a splash of red wine vinegar, a small screw top plastic container, a razor-sharp knife, and many nitrile gloves. I went to great lengths to make sure the hare carcass was treated with the utmost respect so it would not spoil as a result of my own bacteria from my hands contaminating the meat, or from the soil, hair or guts of the animal for that matter. If you go to the trouble of taking the life of an animal, it is the least one can do to make the most of the offerings they leave behind.
I placed the hare’s blood into the jam jar, the purpose of the vinegar being to stop the blood clotting. The liver also went into the small plastic jar and both were packed into an insulated cold pack. I left the skin on, as Darren Meates recommends, which helps to prevent spoilage and drying of the meat during the ageing process later on. I have heard the skin described as ‘natures clingfilm’. The carcass cooled in the shade momentarily and was then stuffed into my canvas pack for a quick and very steep rush back to a waiting coolbox at my vehicle.
I had “caught my hare”. Once home, a single S-hook held the carcass up in my game fridge to age the meat for 4 days. Hugh provides an unparalleled description of this process in his book, so if you want to know more I would strongly encourage you to read it.
Four days later at 5:30 pm on a Tuesday night, the spoils of the hunt were ready for the next step. Our culinary adventure was set to begin…
*From what I have read the recipe actually started with the words “Take your hare when it be cas’d” in the Art of Cookery by Hannah Glasse in 1747 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hannah_Glasse).