Stewed Rabbit: 1861

Last week I began to question if I was still young.

Now, I’m not one of these people who fears getting old at all. Nothing makes me switch channels faster than when adverts come on showing beautiful women slathering greasy creams onto their faces while some voice over purrs that the cream contains acid and will make them look so young midwives will be wiping their wrinkle free bums and bundling them up in blankets before they can blink. Incidentally, why was acid a substance my chemistry teacher wouldn’t let us handle without twenty pairs of goggles and a hazmat suit, but as soon as you turn 50 is OK to smear on your eyelids?

First of all, I found a grey hair. No big deal; I work with kids and they’ll keep me young, I thought, and went to work.

Year 7 were working on developing their extended answers to essay questions. Who knew: sometimes history can be boring! As practice, I’d asked them to write a paragraph about their favorite subject at school or, if they didn’t have one (as so many of them loudly shouted), their favorite family member. It was all going really well until one of the little delights put their hand up to ask a question.

“Miss, is this alright: History is my favorite subject at school -“

“Certainly the best possible start, Sophie.”

“There are lots of reasons for this, mainly it’s because the topics we’re looking at are interesting, such as Battle of Hastings.”

Things were looking good. I willed my head of department to walk through the door.

“However, there are other reasons I enjoy it too, such as my teacher…”

As my ego drowned out the sound of the class collectively rolling their eyes, I imagined the headteacher joining my head of department in the doorway and giving me a thumbs up. Sophie was saying something else now, so I re-tuned in.

“…so therefore the reason I like her is she’s a bit like my nan, who I would say is also my favorite family member.”

“Er, what was that last bit?”

Even after we’d established that Sophie was just comparing my personality rather than my appearance to that of a 70 year old, I found it hard to shake the idea that maybe my youth (in a sort of true sense of the word) was coming to an end. Later, whilst I researched care homes and browsed Boots for hair dye, I thought about what I’d achieved in my 27 years and wondered: was it it enough?

All this background is just an incredibly long winded way to introduce Isabella Beeton, a woman who crammed so much into 28 years of life that she’s often mis-imagined as an elderly spinster, rather than a young woman under 30 (spot the difference now, Sophie?)

Born in 1836, Isabella Beeton is still an absolute stronghold of English kitchens throughout the land. Most people have heard of her Book of Household Management which was published in 1861, but what they might not be aware of is that the collection of recipes and household advice was actually published serially in a magazine owned by her husband before it was turned into a book. Not specifically a cookbook, but an instructional guide for the flourishing middle classes to help housewives with the everyday problems they might encounter as they ran their households. Her writing style was brisk and clipped which made her seem like a repressed middle aged woman, but did lend an air of authority and gained her many fans. Unfortunately, Mrs Beeton died at the age of just 28 from complications surrounding the birth of her fourth child. Her husband later sold the magazine they had worked on together and to keep a good income rolling in, the men who bought it continued to publish recipes under her name and in her writing style to give the impression she was still alive, such was her popularity and success.

Originally, Mrs Beeton didn’t focus on recipes but on translating work, having been educated in England and Germany. In fact, she had been given quite an extensive education and training and by 19 was proficient in multiple languages, piano, dressmaking and had even trained in pastry making at a German finishing school. All this worldly experience would later be used in her book; in between the recipes that made Mrs Beeton famous there are chapters on fashion, how to hire servants and how to raise children to be polite and respectful.

As well as being a celebrated cook, Mrs Beeton appears to have been a massive occultist too

Whilst flicking through the book I was delighted to learn that the correct term of address for me was Mistress of the Household and that “as with the commander of an army, or the the leader of any enterprise, so it is with the mistress of a house.” I read on, bristling with importance. “She [is] who makes her husband and her children happy, who reclaims the one from vice and trains up the other to virtue…” Finally, some recognition!

To help me command my household without going bankrupt, Mrs Beeton also included a breakdown of how much to pay each type of servant, from the lowliest maid and “occasional girl” (£150 – £200 a year) to an entourage of a cook, a couple of housemaids, a nursemaid and a manservant (about £1000 a year). My husband enquired hopefully whether we could get an “occasional girl” of our own. I told him that since it was my job to save him from vice we could not, but that I’d look into getting us a manservant.

Stewed Rabbit is a recipe that sits in chapter 18 of Household Management in-between a chapter about the natural habitat and behaviour of birds and some “General Observations on Game”. Having never cooked rabbit before I was a bit alarmed when the butcher whacked a carcass down on the counter rather than some pre-cut packaged meat, but I think I hid it well and only squeaked a little bit. Victorian cooks were used to seeing meat in its original state and I counted myself lucky that at least I hadn’t had to behead, skin and gut it.

Although the stewed rabbit part of the recipe was straightforward, there were many sneaky additions that weren’t immediately clear would need lots of prep. For example, when going through the ingredient list I saw that I’d need to add ‘a few forcemeat balls’ and something called ‘mushroom ketchup’. Knowing that cooks throughout history hated waste of any kind, I was suddenly very wary of what the forcemeat balls might be.

Turns out they’re sort of like stuffing, but smaller and smoother in texture. Mrs Beetons says that there should be no one flavour that overpowers them and they should melt in the mouth and not be dry, nor heavy. This made me rather question the bloody point of them, but I obliged and made 15. Mrs Beeton also suggested using the liver of the rabbit but said I could pick ham if the liver was not available. Though a queasy glance at the pile of bones, skin and meat told me the liver was very much available, guess which one I picked.

I’ve helpfully distorted the size of these by putting them into a novelty skillet, which makes them look massive. In reality they’re about the size of walnuts

The mushroom ketchup was something I had to adapt, as Mrs Beeton’s recipe takes about a week to make properly and I only had an afternoon. It involved salting a lot of mushrooms and leaving them for 3 days to draw the water out (or 15 minutes over a low heat with a lot of mashing if you have no time), and then boiling them for hours until all the neighbours had evacuated their houses to escape the stench. With the street empty, the mushroom/water potion was strained through a sieve and bottled.

My sneaky additions prepared, I set about making the stew. First I cut off the liver and kidneys from the rabbit, spraying blood everywhere as my knife wasn’t sharp and in my blunt carvings I accidentally tipped the blood drenched dish the rabbit had been sitting in upside down. Then I placed the joints into a large pan to which I added 2 chopped onions, cloves and lemon peel. I covered with water and let it cook for half an hour while I scrubbed myself and the kitchen clean a la serial killer style.

The recipe very unhelpfully told me that the rabbit stew would take ‘rather more than 1/2 an hour’ to cook. Nothing else, cheers Mrs B. I went back after half an hour and saw that the meat appeared cooked, but since 1/2 an hour didn’t feel like very long at all I left it a further 1/2 hour, hoping to emulate some of the slow cooking style of modern rabbit stew recipes. I had also by now had a chance to look at some modern day recipes and was dismayed to see the addition of wine, butter, olive oil, garlic and all other sorts of things that would make this dish a lot more appetising. The thriftiness World War One enforced on the British public was still decades away from this recipe, but boy was Mrs Beeton practicing hard for it. It was now that I discovered decadence and frivolity were not traits that Isabella Beeton was known for; she espoused frugality and moderation (sometimes bordering on what we might call minimalism today) in everything she did, even when writing meals for people who could afford servants.

After some further boiling from the rabbit, and some silent seething resentment from me, I drained some of the water off and added the forcemeat balls. To make a gravy, Mrs Beeton advised added flour and butter and then a ladle of the mushroom ketchup. I boiled it all together and then it was done.

Honestly, I did nearly give up on this. There was a moment while I was stirring that I looked at the grey slush before me and then caught sight of the BBC recipe which was open on my phone brazenly looking so much better and just thought ‘sod it’. But I rallied, in true Beeton style, and admonished myself for setting such a negative example to my impressionable child and imaginary servants. I plated up, ignored the fact that even though I’m pretty imaginative I couldn’t think of a way it could look more unappetising, and ate.

Charles Darwin, the great evolutionary scientist of the Victorians themselves has shown that evolution takes a long time, longer than 150 or so years anyway, to make significant change to a species. Therefore, the Victorians must have had tastebuds. I can only imagine, then, that they must also have had a deep seated self loathing. The rabbit was bland and chewy, thanks to the fact the recipe didn’t do anything to it other than boil it in water for only half an hour. The sauce might have been thick, but like the rabbit, lacked any sort of meaningful flavour apart from a hint of cloves which was just a bit unpleasant with nothing to offset it. There was an earthiness from the mushroom ketchup (which incidentally was actually quite useful in other dishes that needed something salty) but it was a subtle flavour against the already bland backdrop, and didn’t really enhance anything. Immediately, therefore, it became obvious what the forcemeat balls were for: taste. Unfortunately, the taste was not unlike lemon scented sink cleaner with an added bitter aftertaste thanks to the mace. Of my tiny portion, I ate two forkfuls; it was worse than Lord Woolton’s Pie.

Even with a side plate size serving I managed to scratch my throat on a tiny fragment of bone

I felt slightly betrayed by Mrs B. I mean, it may have been down to my cooking ability but as you’ll see, the instructions are not exactly hard to follow so if I went wrong I’m not sure where it was. People who still want to try rabbit stew and don’t hate themselves would be far better off making the one from the BBC recipe instead of this. I’m not done with Household Management yet, but we’re definitely taking some time away from each other for a bit following this dish. On the plus side though it has taught me that I if I do ever commit a murder, no forensic lab will ever be able to prove it happened in my kitchen.

At the start of this Mrs Beeton may have compared me to a commander of an army, but it was an army that had suffered a heavy defeat and was now limply retreating to the direction of the nearest kebab shop. My husband, guinea pig that he has become, had been very excited to try stewed rabbit. As he told me he was heading home I texted him back: “getting a takeaway, what do you want?”

E x

Stewed Rabbit

1 rabbit
2 large onions
6 cloves
Lemon peel of 1 lemon
Forcemeat balls
Table spoon of butter
2 or 3 tablespoons of plain flour
Mushroom ketchup

  1. Put the rabbit, cut into joints, into a large pan with the chopped onions, cloves and lemon peel.
  2. Cover with water and boil for 1 hour or so.
  3. After the meat is cooked, thicken the sauce with flour and butter – take out two ladles of water from the pan and put in a bowl. To this, add the flour and butter and whisk together until thick. Then tip this back into the main pan and stir until fully mixed in.
  4. Add a ladle of mushroom ketchup, or more or less depending on taste, and stir.
  5. Add the forcemeat balls and bring to a boil.

Forcemeat Balls

3 slices of ham
180g of breadcrumbs
1 large egg
10g of beef suet
rind of 1/2 a lemon
1 teaspoon of finely chopped basil, sage, mint and thyme
1/2 teaspoon of ground mace

  1. Chop the ham into as small pieces as you can. Add the grated rind of 1/2 a lemon.
  2. Add the breadcrumbs, beef suet, herbs and mace. Stir until well combined.
  3. Beat an egg and once it’s well beaten add it to the mix to combine. It should now be the consistency of sausage meat. If too dry, add water. If too wet, add more breadcrumbs.
  4. Roll out balls the size of a small walnut and place on a baking tray.
  5. Bake for 25 minutes at 160 degrees.

Mushroom Ketchup

1 pack of portobello mushroom
120g salt
brandy

  1. Place the mushrooms in a pan and cover with salt. Mash the mushrooms and salt together over a gentle heat.
  2. Once mashed, cover the mushrooms in 1.5 litres of water and bring to the boil. Let them cook for 3 hours, by which time the water should have reduced by half.
  3. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a jug so that only the liquid remains.
  4. Add a teaspoon of brandy and store in the fridge, covered, for 3 days.