Just before Easter, year after year, pictures of “bunnies” start cropping up on the web.The trouble is many, perhaps most of these images do not show bunnies (rabbits) but hares. Both rabbits and hares (sometimes called jack rabbits in the US) are, it is true, in the family Leporidae, just as sheep and goats are in a single family, in this case, Bovidae. Just as goats are very different from sheep, so hares are very different from rabbits.
OK, you may be saying to yourself, this is just nit picking. Well, perhaps. But if you google rabbits and hares, you will find a slew of articles teasing out the differences. And for me as an English country girl, both rabbits and hares were an important part of my childhood, so allow me to pick those nits for a few moments.
Let’s start with rabbits and cowslips. Around this time of year, I would meander through the orchard, skirt the hedge along a large field, and climb the angled wooden stile over the barbed wire into the field known as Sling.
Sling dropped off sharply from the gently south-sloping grade of the rest of the farm down to narrow meadows that fringed a brook. It was the place for both cowslips and rabbits. Cowslips, never in dense clusters, dusted the slope. The rabbits had a warren in the shelter the hazel and bramble bushes that marked the division between slope and meadow, but in the early morning they ventured out to nibble on the young growth. On hearing me, the rabbits hopped back into the shelter of their burrows.
I lay on my tummy on the cropped grass, enjoying the warmth of the spring sun, pulling the cowslips from the stalk, taking the sweet smell, checking the buttercup-colored freckles inside the pale yellow flowers, and sucking the narrow end for a fleeting taste of sweet nectar. As a very small child, I had been offered cowslip pudding. What it tasted like I have long forgotten, though it was not the creamy custard of many recipes. I would hazard that it was a light steamed pudding. When I tired of sucking on cowslips, I got up and started collecting enough cowslip heads to run cotton through, drawing them into a cowslip ball.
Once they got used to me, the rabbits crept out again. and resumed their onslaught on the grass. And there’s the rub. Rabbits were voracious eaters of anything young, tender, and green. Remember Peter Rabbit who first “ate some lettuces and some french beans; and then he ate some radishes,” narrowly escaping the gardener’s wrath.
Keeping rabbits in check was a regular task in the country and provided food for humans and dogs alike. Down from Cambridge as an undergraduate, my father had set snares for rabbits on their runs through the hedges, selling them in the market for a little spending money. I still have the baby bonnet he made for me from one of the skins that he had cured.
When I was a child our two dogs did their part, setting off in the early morning. The shaggy brown and white mongrel circled the hazels and brambles in wait while the terrier dived into the middle to flush the rabbits from their burrows. They returned to sleep the afternoon away, confined to the coal shed because of their bloody jowls.
Then in 1953, a severe outbreak of myxomatosis occurred in Britain. This is a virus that kills rabbits within a couple of weeks. It had been discovered in South America but was introduced to Australia in 1950 when the population of some 600 million rabbits was threatening the country’s ecology and agriculture. Across the farm, rabbits hunched in agony, their skin lesioned, their eyes glazed. I ran to find my father or one of the farm workers who would put the suffering creature out of its misery with a blow of a stout stick.
The population re-bounded. My father, who hated shooting anything, was driven to action, getting out the shotgun. I drove the Landrover slowly through the lower part of Sling at dusk while my father perched on the hood took aim at the rabbits frozen in the headlights.
Hares were a whole different story. If when I think of rabbits, I think of cowslips, when I think of hares I think of grass, long grass. Hares preferred the long grass growing in the fields where dairy cattle would graze or hay would be made. There they made their “forms,” depressions in the grass where they slept and gave birth. In spring, I wriggled through these fields, making my own form where I could read in peace. If discovered, this warranted a talking to, because you did not mess up the grass before it was cut for hay.
Hares might at first sight look like rabbits, but they are bigger, rangier, have black-tipped coats, and ears with a distinctive bulgy twist. They do not hop but sail across the fields, accelerating to as much as 45 mph, poetry in motion to borrow the words of a long-forgotten pop song. They are elegant, mad in the spring when they joust with their partners. Competent to face the world from birth when they already have hair and open eyes, unlike rabbits, which are born blind and hairless, hares are free-spirited loners, and impossible to domesticate. And hares, thankfully, are immune to myxamotosis.
And strange as it might seem, hares are game animals, unlike rabbits which are caught in snares, or potted off as pests. Hares were worthy of hunting, still are I believe in some parts, usually on foot. Harriers are the hounds that used in these hunts, a smaller version of a fox hound, and very handsome too.
As food, rabbit meat is white and mild, cooked with white wine and cream at the high end, a cottager’s chance at meat at the low end.
Hare meat is dark and gamy, much tastier in my opinion. When I first had my own kitchen, I would sometimes have a gift of a hare shot in one of the two shoots my uncle arranged every year on the farm. If I wanted to roast it, the butcher would skin it, draw it, re-form it as befitted its rank into a lifelike crouch, and wind a twist of entrails on top of its head, supplying a little container of blood on the side.
Truth be told, roast hare can be a little tough. So usually, following the excellent procedure of my maternal grandmother, I had the hare jointed and “jugged” it instead, the old term for cooking an animal in a sealed container. The hare is seasoned, fried, and placed in a round glazed brown stoneware pot with ear-like handles. Water and port are added and the top is sealed with dough. After long, slow cooking, you open the “jug” to add forcemeat balls made with breadcrumbs, suet, and lots of thyme and parsley. At the last minute, you thicken the sauce with the blood of the hare. Serve with redcurrant jelly. Divine.
What I only had intimations of in this long childhood engagement with rabbits and hares is that in cultures around the world, hares are regarded as clever tricksters or as sacred beings. There is a tangled story that I can’t begin to tease out about Brer “Rabbit” and hares in West African and native American cultures. East Asians see a hare in the moon. Depictions of a triangle of three hares crop up from caves on the Silk Roads to English churches.
So, please, different in everything from style of life to flavor to cultural significance, rabbits are bunnies, but hares really aren’t.
Well, that’s off my chest.
Even Wikipedia has an article on the three hares
And here’s an article with the three hares on a lovely Iranian brass tray.
“Wild hare” featured in menus on a transatlantic steamer. From the blog, The American Menu.