When it comes to inexpensive, yet richly complex and satisfying cuisine, not many countries can hold a candle to France. Over a period of centuries the French have built up a repertoire of peasant-based dishes that are still prepared today, religiously faithful to the original article. French cuisine is also defiantly regional, sometimes to the point of jingoism – and thank God for that too. This intense regional pride has meant that classic dishes have been passed down through the years virtually unscathed by outside influences, so the dish you prepare today could realistically be very similar to one that a French country family ate centuries ago. To me, that makes this food superior cool.
Take confit, the classic dish from the south west of France. Poultry, usually duck or goose is slowly, gently cooked in fat from the same bird. If you have never eaten this, you might at first recoil at the idea – but trust me – this is seriously special and unique food. The duck legs originally used in confit would have been cast-offs from foie gras production – cheap and unpopular. Today, in Sydney restaurants, confit is such a hot dish that suppliers have trouble keeping up with the demand for duck legs. I have seen their wholesale price leap from $6 per/kg to $16 per/kg in a few short years.
Another example is bouillabaisse; the world-renowned seafood soup hailing from Provence that was once the fare of poor fishermen’s families. What the fishermen couldn’t sell at the market, usually small bony fish, was taken home and simmered into pure magic, in a soup redolent with saffron, orange and fennel. One of those little fish that wouldn’t sell was the rascasse, or scorpion fish – a spiny, nasty looking thing. However, over time it came to pass that rascasse was considered so essential to a true bouillabaisse, that this one time throw-away fish is now scarce in the catch and pricey at the market.
Rillettes is a dish that enjoys this sort of heady and treasured history. Like confit, the idea of rillettes can be a little daunting in this era of low-fat this and no-calories that. It is unashamedly rich and flavoursome. Meat, poultry or sometimes even fish is cooked slowly either in its own fat, or that of another animal, such as duck fat or lard. This slow cooking includes seductive aromatics such as garlic, thyme and bay, which imbue their flavour throughout the meat during the prolonged cooking. When lifted from the fat, the meat will be meltingly soft and tender. It is then shredded into fine pieces with the aid of two forks, and mixed with some more strong flavourings such as wine and bacon pieces. This heady mix is spooned into small pots, then covered with a thin layer of the cooking fat that acts not only as a preservative, but also adds keenly to the flavour of the final dish.
If all this sounds like an incredibly reckless amount of saturated fat, then remember this. Most meat-based smallgood delicacies such as sausages and salami have a fairly decent proportion of fat in their make up. However, this isn’t simply to keep the local cardiologist in Zegna suits. Without their strong fat presence these dishes would end up an unpalatably dry mess. By the same token, you wouldn’t contemplate dining on sausages and salami every day (unless you are Jethro), and this is exactly how you should treat rillettes – as a rich and decadent occasional treat.
Although rillettes is made all over France, it is the city of Tours in the Loire Valley that enjoys fame for its pork based rillettes (rillettes de porc) which has a deep caramelized flavour due to a higher cooking temperature. Larger chunks of pork, a paler colour, and an altogether more subtle taste due to longer, slower temperatures are the hallmarks of rillettes from Le Mans and Le Sarthe. Poultry such as duck (rillettes de canard) and goose (rillettes d’oie) are sometimes used, and more often than not, a proportion of pork is included – if not the meat, then simply pork fat. Rabbit, and even salmon or eel may also be used. There are no hard and fast rules, just hundreds and hundreds of regional recipes – each of which is a treasure.
A few weeks back, one of the chefs I work with got it into his head that he just simply had to put rabbit on the menu. And not any old bit of rabbit mind you, but rabbit loin – the most tender and pricey part of a rabbit. Our meat supplier couldn’t locate us any loins at the time, but they had some fabulously fresh whole white rabbits. “Fine” said my colleague to our butcher, “We’ll take 6”. Now I don’t know if you are au fait with the anatomy of a rabbit, but suffice to say, the loin is a very small part of a fair sized animal. Once the rabbits were trimmed, he had 6 x 180gm portions of loin. Left over? Kilos of tougher rabbit saddle and legs. I had planned to braise these up slowly in red wine, garlic and tomatoes, but instead, my spend-easy colleague cooked the rabbit leftovers before I got to them, in duck fat flavoured with garlic, thyme and orange peel.
When I found the rabbit legs the next day, I didn’t really have a great deal of choice. It was pretty much rillettes or nothing. However, my initial annoyance at his wastefulness turned to soft satisfaction – I remembered once again what those French country farmers were onto centuries ago when they first shredded up some meat and cooked rillettes.
The recipe that follows is pretty much the same rabbit rillettes I made that day. I guess the inclusion of a recipe here is kind of redundant, because few people these days have the time, ingredients or inclination to make a dish that includes so much animal fat! However, for the sake of culinary anthropology I’ll press on with it anyway. Who knows – one of you might actually make it one day. If you do, trust me – you will be repaid handsomely.
Rillettes de Lapin
In a large stainless steel or glass bowl, combine the 2 Tbs of salt, peppercorns, bay leaves, orange peel, thyme and wine. Add the rabbit pieces and toss well to combine. Cover and place in the refrigerator overnight.
Next day, preheat your oven to 160° C (320° F). Melt the fat or lard. Pour the rabbit, along with its marinade and the bacon into a small baking dish, then pour the fat or lard over the rabbit. Ideally it should cover the rabbit entirely; however, I am aware that this quantity of animal fat isn’t exactly easy for the home cook to acquire. That is why I have given such inexact quantities for the fat, just use as much as you can get – it doesn’t matter too much if it only reaches half way up the rabbit.
Place a piece of non-stick silicone paper over the top of the rabbit, then cover the whole baking dish with aluminium foil. Place in the oven and cook for 2 hours.
Remove the dish from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Lift out the rabbit pieces and set aside. Strain the liquid into a container and place into the refrigerator. Ideally leave the liquid overnight, but if time is short, try and leave it for at least four hours.
In the meantime, pull all the rabbit meat off the bone. Throw away the bones and place the meat in a large mixing bowl. Using 2 forks, rigorously shred apart the rabbit meat into small stringy pieces. This can take a while, so don’t start if you are in a rush.
When the cooking liquid has cooled enough, it will separate into 2 distinct layers – the white fat on top, and the jellied brown stock underneath. Lift all the fat off and place into another bowl, leaving behind as much of the jellied stock as you can. Add this stock to the rabbit and mix well to combine.
Be careful with this next step. Starting with a couple of spoons at a time, add some of the reserved fat to the rabbit mixture and stir very well. Taste for salt and pepper – you will probably need a bit more. Continue adding a few spoons of fat until the mixture tastes rich and moist, but not cloying and fatty.
Once you feel you have the rillettes just right, spoon the mixture into small ramekins or cups, pressing down gently to expel any air, but not so hard that the mix is compacted. Heat about half a cup of the left over fat until it is liquid, then pour a thin layer on top of each ramekin. You want to make sure the fat covers the rillettes to keep the air out, but not so thick that it will be cloying. Place the ramekins on a tray, cover, and set in the refrigerator.
The rillettes can be prepared to this stage up to one week in advance (some would say even longer). In fact, they will gain flavour and complexity after sitting for a few days.
Half an hour before you are to serve the rillettes, take the ramekins out of the refrigerator. It is important to get the temperature correct; if they come fully to room temperature (or warmer) the richness will be too apparent. On the flipside, fridge cold is no good either, so you will need to find a good balance. Place each ramekin on a plate and surround with freshly sliced, good quality bread (sourdough would be perfect here), and a few crunchy cornichons (baby pickled gherkins)
For wine, the traditional accompaniment is a dry white with racy and zingy overtones, such as a flinty, citrussy Riesling (Polish Hill River or Adelaide Hills) or a very dry gewurztraminer. However, I can’t help but feel that a cold, sharply hopped larger (Cascade or Pilsner Urquell) is the perfect match for this wonderfully rich dish.
¹ Jointing a rabbit isn’t too difficult, but you will need a large, heavy, very sharp knife. Place the rabbit back side down on a chopping board, head end facing away from you. Pull away one hind leg, and using the blade of your knife, locate the joint where the rear leg meets the body. Push down with your knife, through the bone and remove the leg. If all you feel under your knife is hard, un-cuttable bone, you haven’t located the joint properly. Move your knife across a small amount until you find the point where cutting is easy.
Turn the rabbit so the head end is facing you and repeat the process to cut off the forelegs. The end of the body where the hind legs were attached is the widest part, and is called the saddle. At the point where the saddle ends, and the body slims before widening out again to the ribcage, cut the body in half. Using a good deal of pressure, cut both the saddle and ribs in half again. There you have it – one jointed rabbit.
² Ok, I know, this much animal fat will not be lying around in your fridge. You have three choices here. You can go to a gourmet delicatessen and buy cans of imported duck or goose fat, however, this will prove to be very expensive and is recommended only for those with a surplus of readies. Another choice is to render the fat yourself. Buy a 500 gm (1 lb) piece of pork back fat and chop up into thumb-sized pieces. If you can find the equivalent weight in poultry fat, you can use that too.
Place the fat in a saucepan and add 125 ml (1/2 cup) of water. Set over medium-high heat and allow it to come to the boil. After a while the fat will start to melt and bubble away in the water, which will now be quite cloudy. Stir the solid fat around so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. Once the liquid has turned clear and the solids sound like they are starting to fry, the fat has been fully rendered. Strain off the fat and discard the solids.