Their little purple bodies look so human on the butcher’s table. They are taut in death and with a bluish tinge. The labels state their origins in sad shires: Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset – something so real about their departure from this mortal coil. Lying there: dark, muscular and austere. I can think of few animals that evoke such sympathy in the romantic. There was one event in my youth that left me enthralled by the genus Lepus; one cold autumn night that remains clear in the memory, scented with the sharp musk of braising hare.
My parents had a tumultuous marriage. Theirs was one of love and war. Dad was often absent and his returns were not always smooth. My mother isn’t the world’s greatest cook. Mum’s lifeforce burns hot and proud; she’s cerebral and wilful, but not one to be found toiling away at a hot stove. On this occasion, however, things were different. Dad was away and his return was to be something of an occasion. My mother ventured to the market and in a moment of madness she purchased a hare. She dragged it silently through the house and with steely determination prepared herself for the job in hand.
The butcher must have had a sense of humour, for he’d sold the hare to my mother without obliging to skin, gut or joint it. I will never forget the sight of her standing in the garden in the rain, dressed in a gore-stained coat, skinning and butchering her hare with a cleaver. As its black, uric blood mixed with rainwater and coloured the stone floor, she fought on with a willfulness that spoke sharply of love. It was a herculean job, something that will remain in our collective memory for generations to come.
Dad returned, along with Deborah, his expansive, and uninvited, colleague. Deborah, it transpired, was a pagan – a dedicated daughter of the earth. On seeing the apocryphal hare brought steaming to table, on sensing a whiff of its rich musk, Deborah proceeded to faint. There she was, a great wobbling mass of marooned velvet on a cold linoleum floor. “My sisters,” she wailed, once resuscitated, “nobody has the right to eat the souls of my sisters.” Nonplussed and alarmed, we stroked her head and asked her to explain. She finally managed to describe the problem. “Hares are the souls of dead women,” she whispered, “eating them is murder.” The night ended with Deborah sitting alone sniveling, making swift work of a family-sized vegetarian lasagne from the Co-Op, the rest of us sucking greedily on the bones of the hare in rapt concentration and awe.
The hare has mystified and entranced man for centuries; he has a rich and multifaceted role in folklore and figures prominently in the histories of several major religions. On the one hand, he is seen as a wily character, cunning and playful, a showy huckster who misleads and delights in our confusion. Fascinatingly, there are other narratives that situate the hare as a spiritual soul, deserving of reverence and perhaps fear. The ancient West Country legend of ‘The White Hare’ describes the animal as the nighttime form of a white witch who seeks to prey on the spirits of broken-hearted maidens and haunts the dreams of their unfaithful partners. Complex associations, for sure.
Hares do not hide underground as rabbits do; they do not reside in burrows, they live as proud above-ground dwellers, building complex nests to house their families. Rabbits are born naked, blind and helpless – they escape by hiding below ground. Hares are born with thick dark fur, their eyes open and alert; they are valiant and escape by outrunning their prey. I suggest that one of the reasons hares fascinate us so much is that they have never been domesticated, we have never made them our plaything. Sure, there is a semi-domesticated breed called the ‘Belgian Hare’, but these are essentially rabbits and I suspect their naming says more about the Belgians than this wily beast.
Let us consider hare in more detail as a delicacy. I would argue that in its best guises, there can be no finer treat for the gourmand. Perhaps hare lacks the high-toned charms of a well-hung côte de boeuf, or the regal splendour of a saddle of venison, but on a recent trip to Paris, I was alerted to the singular, hedonistic appeal of hare in its most theatrical form: Lièvre à la Royale. The original recipe for this dish featured in ‘Le Temps’, the political column written by Senator Aristide Couteaux in 1898, and famously required two bottles of finest Chambertin for its creation.
Today, perhaps the best example of this dish you will find anywhere on the planet is to be found at the superb restaurant at Le Bristol hotel in Paris. It consists of a slow-braised ballotine of hare that’s been stuffed with foie gras and covered in a sauce composed of red wine and black truffle, enriched with the blood of the beast. This is a death row dish if ever there was one; there is nothing that makes one feel so alive as the feral, exigent flavour of truffle-laced hare’s blood.
A fascinating discovery is that this dish is not isolated; the hare’s blood is often returned to it in death. After researching the topic in some depth, I can see the three great European dishes involving hare: Lièvre à la Royale, Jugged Hare and the German dish Hasenpfeffer all demand this ritualistic letting, collecting and returning of the blood to thicken the sauce. It’s reasonable to suppose that these are simple procedures governed by the physics of thickening and the necessities of flavour. But I would argue that these procedures run deeper and gauge the acute understanding and primal respect that man has for the animal. It is a mark of deep reverence; we are returning the beast’s blood, ready for it to begin the next cycle of life and death. I urge you to delight in the dark pleasures of this brooding, sultry beast. Be brave and take its lengthy purple corpse in your butcher’s bag, invest in Chambertin, collect its dark, dank blood; take some time to rejoice in the bounties that life affords us.