Catch your hare
There is a popular belief that a famous historical cookbook, often cited as the 18th century’s most significant recipe book – The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse – but sometimes attributed to the 19th century’s major work on the subject – Beeton’s Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton, begins its recipe for jugged hare with the incredibly useful advice: “First catch your hare”. The phrase has entered colloquial usage, its meaning equivalent to: “Don’t count your chickens until they hatch”.
Unfortunately, no cook ever actually began a recipe with those words. This article from Great British Chefs claims that Glasse actually said the slight variant: “First case your hare”, but this is sadly not true either. The actual words she used were: “Take your hare when it is cased“. Significantly, the meaning here is that you can obviously rely on somebody else to do the actual hare catching for you. Also, if you’ve clicked on the link, you’ll have noticed that the recipe isn’t even for jugged hare, it’s a roast hare. Glasse’s jugged hare recipe actually begins with the far more prosaic: “Cut it into little pieces“, which is actually what anybody would do under the circumstances (Beeton, for her part, has the more detailed: “Skin, paunch, and wash the hare, cut it into pieces“).
This week was the York Food and Drink Festival, meaning there’s been loads of food stalls in town selling a great variety of meats, cheeses, preserves, spirits, and basically any and all sorts of foods we might not always get in the shops. In order to celebrate this I sent Professor Plum out to surprise me and buy the meat of her choice from the Festival stalls, which I promised to cook. If you’ve been paying any attention during the first couple of paragraphs then you’ll have already guessed that what she brought back was a hare. At the time, though, it really just looked like a body bag with a bloody corpse inside.
Nevertheless, I was intrigued. I’d never cooked or eaten hare before, but, having had rabbit last week, I was interested to taste the difference between the two similar leporids. According to Mrs. Beeton, hare: “is deemed, in many respects, superior to that of the rabbit, being more savoury, and of a much higher flavour“. I was keen to discover whether what Mrs. Beeton said was true, so I decided to make a stew from my hare. Jugged hare, a slow cooked casserole in a rich sauce of port or red wine and the animal’s blood, has been made since the Middle Ages (originally it would have been cooked in a tightly sealed earthenware jug in a bath of water, hence the name). You may remember it got a brief mention here back in chocolate month when I referred to The Flavour Thesaurus‘ contention that blood and chocolate was a fine flavour pairing, giving adding chocolate to a jugged hare sauce as an example. Given the perennial chocolate theme to York’s Food Festival, this seemed a perfect dish to try here.
All of which brings us back to where we came in. Apparently jugged hare is a dying culinary tradition in this country. This article from The Guardian, via Taipei Times for some reason, tells us that only 1.6% of under 25s had even heard of jugged hare as a dish. When it was explained to them, a staggering 70% said that they would refuse to eat it. On a side note, this article once again brings up the “first catch your hare” quote, just where does it come from?
It turns out that the originator, and the first person to attribute it to Glasse, was the cartoonist HB, also known as John Doyle (an identity that was apparently revealed “in a 17 page letter to Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel“, unmasking an anonymous celebrity being a far wordier process in the 1800s). Doyle was known for his cartoons being rather more droll than laugh out loud, so perhaps this phrase is his greatest legacy, well that and his descendants (grandson Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had a decent line in mystery writing).
Back to my hare and, fortunately, the catching of it had already been taken care of, as had the decapitating and de-furring. Opening the body bag, and dealing with the powerful smell of blood that released, I was confronted with a noticeably bigger, gorier body than last week’s rabbit. Despite Hannah Glasse’s advice to cut the meat into little pieces, modern recipes suggest simply jointing the hare so that the thighs and legs can cook on the bone and cutting the saddle into large pieces so they don’t shrink too much during cooking. Jointing and butchering the hare wasn’t too much of a challenge. It was a little more tricky throwing out the remains of the body without getting blood everywhere (there’s a phrase I never thought I’d say) and the room continued to smell quite strongly of it.
The blood, though, is a vital part of the jugged hare process. So, I kept all that was left aside as I marinated the hare pieces over night in a mix of red wine (cheaper than port) that I had boiled to cook off the alcohol and beef stock.
The following day I started to put my stew together. Glasse suggests onions stuck with cloves, slips of bacon and a seasoning of mace, cayenne and sweet herbs as the other required ingredients. For Beeton it’s onions cooked in butter, lemon, cloves, pepper and cayenne. Meanwhile, the modern recipes linked above use a greater variety of both vegetables and spices.
Taking inspiration from all of these recipes, I browned the hare in butter before cooking the bacon in it as well. Putting these to one side, I softened an onion, pieces of carrot and some crushed garlic in the remaining fat, before adding potato (if I learnt anything from The Lord of the Rings last week it’s that a stew like this needs taters), the wine and stock and the zest of a lemon, some cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme, rosemary and a bay leaf. And then I could just leave it for hours.
During movie month I had mixed results with slow cooked meats, but after three hours this was tender enough literally to be dropping off the bone. The final stage, then, was to bring back the blood and add chocolate. Using a bit more butter, some flour and some of the liquid the hare was cooking in, I combined the blood and chocolate to make a thick sauce that I could then stir into the casserole.
Serving up the finished product with a piece of homemade crusty bread, the jugged hare looked kind of dark and brown, difficult to pick out the component parts, but the meat was impressively soft and tender. So how did it taste? Was the hare, as Mrs. Beeton would have it, “of a much higher flavour” than last week’s rabbit? And how did the chocolate effect it?
Well, the meat was a little more flavoursome than the rabbit, but that may also have something to do with the fact that last week the plot of The Lord of the Rings made sure that the rabbit stew was pretty basic, where this was packed with ingredients. In fact, my main complaint with my jugged hare was that, with blood and chocolate on top of lots of red wine, butter and stock, it was just a touch too rich for my tastes. It was a good meal, but, with the far greater scarcity of hares than in Hannah Glasse’s time, it’s probably not going to become a regular part of our diet. Still, jugged hare certainly offered me enough enjoyment to pour scorn on the vast majority of those under 25, who would never even consider it.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: People who won’t eat cute animals are missing out, in my opinion. I’ve always fancied trying jugged hare – it’s my childhood fantasy geek coming out – though I have to admit when I’ve acquired hares in the past I’ve usually tried other things, since I feel like stewing unusual meat doesn’t really give you a chance to really appreciate it.
Now, I don’t know whether I’d know jugged hare from jugged rabbit, but marinating it in wine and its own blood for two day made it really different to red or white meat (or feathery forms of game). It was a massively rich dish, hearty and filling, and went down perfectly with homemade bread. Satisfied all my high fantasy fantasies – made me feel like a hobbit again!