With the interest in alternative meats growing, more and more rabbits are hippity-hoppity’ing their way into area roasting dishes and stewing pots, particularly at this time of year.
"Rabbit is really big for some nationalities during Easter," said Dave Garland, president of the Ottawa Valley Meat Rabbit Producers Association where the slogan is: "Eat rabbit... a delicious habit."
Always welcoming new members, the association’s next meeting April 13 will be held at Garland’s in the Osgoode area, while the annual rabbit show and sale is set for May 8, also at Garland’s
While manning a booth at the recent Ottawa Valley Farm Show, Garland had no trouble telling wide-eyed children that the bunnies on display were for eatin’ more than for pettin’.
"They learn that we eat cows and chickens... why not rabbits?"
Or as association vice-president Micki Moir put it: "We tell them we don’t eat the cute little ones... only the big ugly ones."
We’re not talking house bunnies here! These are big bruiser rabbits, bred for their meat not their cuddlibility, rabbits like the New Zealand White variety which can tip the scales at 12 pounds; that bunny is as big as a small dog and could be just as ornery.
And that’s not the largest breed, Moir said. The turkey-sized Flemish Giant and French Lop can weigh in at 20-25 pounds before they’re butchered and stuffed for the oven.
As a conventional butcher might keep a chart showing the various cuts of beef, so to did Garland and Moir post a chart at the farm show outlining the cuts on their preferred meat animal. Just like beef, Moir said, eatin’ rabbits must be government inspected and slaughtered at a licensed facility, in the case of Eastern Ontario, at Tom Henderson’s Custom Meat Cutting south of Chesterville.
With one of the main objectives of the meat rabbit association being education, Osgoode-based Moir, together with Barb Smith, are kept hopping running a rare 4-H rabbit club with welcomes up to 30 members. While the club focus is on rabbits as pets, it also delves into their food value, with some members raising animals to be sold as meat through Moir’s operation.
Reaching retirement age, and with other interests such as horses and raising chickens and turkeys, Moir has scaled back on meat rabbits from her heyday of keeping up to 400 at a time. She now deals with freezer orders for long-time customers, with a typical 3-4 pound frozen "fryer"- a young rabbit 8-12 weeks old - selling for about $12-$15.
While eating rabbits is still viewed with horror and suspicion by many North Americans, it has been an accepted alternative in Europe since French monks discovered in the Middle Ages that by keeping rabbits in protected above-ground hutches, they could breed selectively for development of new varieties.
For those who want to enter the fledgling industry here, the association will provide information on setting up a rabbitry, including help in acquiring breeding stock.
Why switch to rabbit? Or more specifically - to refer to a couple of recipes offered by the association - why try rabbit cacciatore or rabbit scallopini?
As Moir explained, rabbit meat is all-white and fine-grained with a delicate flavour all its own. It can replace chicken in almost any recipe.
It’s a good dietary source of protein, B vitamins, calcium, phosphorous, niacin and iron. It’s low in fat, fatty acids, cholesterol, and sodium, can be easily digested, and is recommended by physicians in diets where red meat is restricted.
Connoisseurs claim rabbit meat is one of the most versatile foods in the world. It can be dressed up for special occasions or used to flavour a lunch-time soup.
Whole rabbits can be stuffed and roasted; older rabbits can be cut up and slow-braised, simmered or stewed; marinating makes the meat more tasty, while pressure cooking results in juicy, tender meat.
Who’s eating rabbit in Eastern Ontario? Everybody from those of European descent to whom it’s common practice, to those with dietary problems, and those who’ve somehow simply acquired a taste for it, Moir said.