Tastes like chicken? What is it about rabbit that has always sent people scurrying for calming comparisons? Those big, doe eyes? The fur? Or simply the domestication of an animal otherwise best known for digging holes and breeding like, well, y’know.
Thankfully our restaurant customers seem to have no such qualms about this glorious animal. Since its introduction earlier this year, our rabbit starter has been a runaway success, even becoming something of a signature item. Which is good news, as – perhaps more than any other dish developed in our dedicated test kitchen during its formative months – it speaks volumes about the direction in which we’re headed.
For one thing, it’s a dish with great provenance, making the best of a wild, sustainable, and often undervalued animal. It also gives us the opportunity to combine the best of traditional and newer cooking techniques to bring the best out of the meat – cooking the loin sous vide for optimum texture and lightness, while braising the legs with aromatics until meltingly tender. But crucially it all plays on our desire to deliver a genuinely British kind of cuisine, in this case drawing inspiration from the nearby countryside to create something redolent of our landscape in both presentation and taste.
The idea of rabbit transplanted back into its native habitat provided our starting point. Of course, artfully recreating a scene from nature on the plate is one thing, ensuring that it tastes great is quite another and doesn’t come off as gratuitous or pretentious is especially tricky. Remarkably, though, the dish came together pretty quickly. Wrapping the loin in garlicky greens gave us something akin to exposed, mossy roots, while a crispy cylindrical wrapping for the braised meat provided a suitable branch-like element. Glazed carrots were obviously a no-brainer, while carefully selected foraged herbs and flowers gave the necessary brightness, floral and bitter notes. But the secret of the dish’s success is undoubtedly down to the component that then brings all these elements together: the soil.
Edible savoury ‘soils’ are nothing new. Noma does one with beer and malt flour, and elsewhere we’ve seen people toy with dried cake crumbs, ground nuts and good old tapioca maltodextrin. But, while there’s no harm taking inspiration from elsewhere, we had some specific flavours and textures in mind, and so chose to head down a fresh path. The result, a lightly toasted mushroom soil that not only looks the part, it also brings some lovely aromas and suitably earthy flavours to the party.
With some tarragon-infused ‘dew’ for a final warming dash of anise, the dish is complete. The only problem? It’s proving so popular the rabbits are having a hard time keeping up. It may soon be time to look to some other, equally tasty woodland offerings to plant in our hedgerow.