Rabbits had begun to breed in plague proportions in Tasmania as early as 1827. The Colonial Times and Tasmanian Advertiser reported: ‘…the common rabbit is becoming so numerous throughout the colony, that they are running about on some large estates by the thousands. We understand that there are no rabbits whatever in the elder colony [New South Wales].’ Well, if this were true, New South Wales soon caught up!
Rabbits were contemptuously referred to as ‘underground mutton’ , initially shot more for sport than their culinary qualities. However, by the early 1900s the rabbit was fulfilling an important role in sustaining the residents of Reedy Marsh; a unique little settlement near Deloraine, in Tasmania’s north. My maternal grandfather James Larcombe was one of a handful of farmers scratching a living here on small patches of grass between rabbit burrows and blackberry vines. According to my mother, rabbit pie formed an essential part of their diet . Mum joked (at least I think she was joking!) 😎 that she and her bare-footed siblings would be shown a line of rabbit dirts by their father and told : Off you go…your dinner’s at the other end!
My own childhood was spent on a farm near Ulverstone and my older brother Laurie earned his pocket money trapping poor old rabbits and selling the skins. And yes, one of our favourite meals was Reedy Marsh Rabbit Pie.
The following recipe was passed on to me by my mother’s sister Leah, shortly before she died. I suspect this was the first time it had ever been written down.
REEDY MARSH PIE
Here is the typed recipe;
One rabbit cut into about six pieces. Roll the pieces in seasoned flour and put into a 3 pint casserole. Cover with chicken stock to which 1 tablespoon of vinegar and one tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce has been added. Cover with a layer of sliced tomatoes, a layer of thinly sliced onion, a layer of thick sliced bacon cut into two inch pieces and finally a layer of overlapping, thinly sliced potatoes. Season each layer with salt and pepper. Top with a layer of soft breadcrumbs mixed with dried herbs Dot with butter. Bake in a moderate oven for about two hours.
Before Aunty Leah sent me the recipe I had won a radio completion with a version I vaguely remembered Mum making. It netted me nearly a thousand dollars in cash, cookware and electrical appliances. My sister is a wonderful cook and was quite rightly disgusted. I had never actually made the pie myself, and worse still I had forgotten to mention the chicken stock! In my defense, my sister ended up with most of the appliances I’d won.
Of course, rabbit really came into its own during the Great Depression. Below is an Australian recipe from the 1930’s
POOR MAN’S PIE
Joint a rabbit and place the pieces into a stew pan with a chopped onion and a little water. Simmer until tender. Season with salt and pepper. Put all into a pie dish.. Make a batter with a heaped breakfast cup of flour, half a cup of dripping, two well beaten eggs and enough milk to make a smooth batter. Season with salt and pepper and pour over the rabbit. Put into a hot oven and bake for about an hour or until the batter is nicely brown.
I love this snippet from The Queenslander January 7 1937. Clearly “Carlos” knew what he was about!
Here’s a suggestion for the man with no snares or gun who wants a rabbit pie for dinner. Wait till the bunnies are out feeding, then sneak up and fill all the openings of a burrow – not at the top, but about an arm’s length down. Then run round behind where they are grazing, kick up a din, and rush them to the burrow. They’ll dive in; and the rest is easy. – “Carlos”
A BUNNY STUFFED WITH A BIRD – OR VICE VERSA
Rabbit meat is very lean, and therefore inclined to be a bit dry if baked. My mother would stuff the carcass with a buttery herb and bread stuffing, then cover it with bacon strips. However, on late-night radio I heard an old man reminisce about rabbit baked with a fatty mutton bird inside*…oh my word! Marjorie Bligh, a delightfully eccentric cook and author from the Tasmanian town of Devonport, did this in reverse. Her method was to stuff a mutton bird with rabbit meat.
In 1953, the Town Clerk on Flinders Island sent some birds to the Governor of Tasmania, who sent back this very diplomatic letter. I’m not fully convinced that Governor Cross really did try them. 😃
Tasmanian Federal MP Dick Adams once told journalist and television presenter Annabel Crabb that the entrée for his dream dinner party would be: ‘Braised rabbit and mutton-bird served hot in individual coddle dishes’ . Among the guests he imagined inviting to the meal were the innovative celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal and Hu Jintao, then President of China. I suspect both men would appreciate the dish!
Despite the name mutton bird, the taste of the meat has been described as a combination of bacon and smoked fish with a big dollop of fat. I ate my share as a child, but it has been so long since I tasted one that I don’t l feel qualified to comment.
*✔ – An important note on the birds. Tasmania is the only Australian state in which it is still legal to harvest them, during a brief season lasting from March 27 until April 30. They are the chicks of the migratory short-tailed shearwater. Around 200,000 are caught and sold each year, mainly by residents of Flinders Island, in Bass Strait. Opinion on whether the harvest should be continued is divided.
I think New Zealand is the only other place where mutton birds can be found on menus, especially in the South Island. Photographed below is a risotto, served at an Invercargill restaurant.
In 2019 the decision about continuing to harvest the birds was almost taken out of the hands of humans. There was a mysterious shortage of the adult birds arriving from Alaska. Many of those which did manage the epic journey were underweight and too weak to produce chicks. Here is an article published on the subject in the Tasmanian paper, THE ADVOCATE
If you enjoyed this story, you might like another ‘foody’ one about scones.
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