Skip to comments.DIET: Don't laugh, but rabbits are scarce; producers can't ship bunny meat fast enough
Posted on 08/07/2005 5:57:53 PM PDT by BulletBobCo
WEST HAVEN, Vt. (AP) -- Talk about culinary irony -- rabbit meat is in short supply.
Despite the critters' proclivity to reproduce, demand for rabbit meat has surged in recent years and breeders are struggling to supply the many trendy restaurants adding it to their menus.
"We could easily be doing 1,000 a week. The demand is there,'' says Langis Anctil, whose Champlain Valley Rabbitry farm in West Haven, Vt., is working full tilt to raise that many bunnies a month.
Of course, it's not that rabbits don't reproduce fast enough -- it's just an 11-week cycle from birth to broiler. The problem is that there aren't enough producers.
It's just a $10 million industry -- stitched mostly from a patchwork of small farms and hobbyists -- so small the government barely tracks it.
For restaurants such as Minibar, a posh tapas-style eatery in Los Angeles that offered a popular rabbit sausage since opening nearly two years ago, this has meant serious supply problems.
"We would find a purveyor with the product at the right price, but then they'd run out and we'd find another and then they would run out, and that's what it's been like for about eight months,'' says owner Ravel Centeno-Rodrigues.
"Finally, we took it off the menu.''
The number of producers has been in a steady decline since rabbit's heyday about 60 years ago. That's when a wartime meat shortage led the federal government to urge people to switch to rabbit, making it a common offering in grocers' meat cases. But as the supply of red meat and chicken improved, rabbit fell from favor.
Rabbit meat industry insiders blame its decline for so many years on an undeserved bad rap. Though farm-raised rabbit tastes like -- surprise! -- tender chicken, it has a reputation as a tough and gamey meat (likely because wild rabbit generally is).
The Easter Bunny syndrome -- a reluctance by many Americans to eat animals that are cute and fuzzy -- hasn't helped, either, according to Pat Lamar, president of the Professional Rabbit Meat Association.
But it seems the bad reputation is fading and fuzzy is becoming fabulous. Today, rabbit is in restaurants from Los Angeles to Portland, Maine.
In 2004, the United States imported more than 1 million pounds of rabbit meat -- mostly from China -- a near doubling from the year before, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Much of that is ending up in specialty shops and restaurants, which have begun serving rabbit in everything from North African tagines and mixed grill to smoked sausages and salads.
"Rabbit probably at one point was more risque than offal (innards),'' says Shea Gallante, chef at Cru, an upscale Mediterranean restaurant in New York that offers rabbit sausage with gnocchi.
"Nowadays it's so common people think, 'Do I have the rabbit appetizer or do I have the calf's heart?'''
Kate Krader, a senior editor at Food & Wine magazine, sees rabbit on menus everywhere and attributes the renewed interest to the growth in bistro-style restaurants, which focus on rustic fare, including wild game.
What's impressive about the growth is that unlike beef and pork, there is no marketing effort behind it, she said.
Part of the appeal is health. Rabbit is low in fat and cholesterol and high in protein. Americans also are traveling more widely and encountering rabbit on European menus, especially in France and Italy. And American chefs are ever on the watch for new tastes and textures.
As rabbit becomes more common in U.S. restaurants, Krader thinks it's likely to show up in more grocers, many of which already offer such exotics as ostrich and buffalo meat.
Rabbit now is common in specialty food shops in large cities, and is creeping into mainstream grocers. Publix supermarkets offers rabbit at 250 of its 800 stores in the Southeast.
The meat has not fared as well in the grocers in the Northeast, however, where poor sales recently prompted Hannaford Bros. Co. to pull it from the shelves of its 146 stores after five months.
Such setbacks haven't slowed the industry much. At Pel-Freez, the nation's largest rabbit meat processor, work once slowed to part time much of the year. Now it is all the Rogers, Ark., company can do to keep pace.
The hodgepodge nature of the industry complicates that. Because so many rabbit breeders are small-time farmers who go in and out of the business, companies such as Pel-Freez must constantly look for new suppliers.
It also isn't easy on the breeding end. Rabbits can have high mortality rates and a dearth of processors means many breeders must rely on so-called bunny runners to transport the animals to slaughter, sometimes many states away.
Anctil gets around that by processing his own rabbits -- snapping their necks, skinning and gutting them. Despite a steady stream of chefs and culinary students visiting his remote farm, he seems surprised by his success.
He only regrets that he can't keep the rabbits on his farm a bit longer, fattening them up a bit more. He slaughters them when they reach 23/4 or 3 pounds. The market just won't wait longer.
"They move so fast we don't have time to get them bigger,'' he says.
When I was younger we had rabbits, and had rabbit on many ocassions, it's really good if it's cooked right.
I remember looking at rabbit in the frozen food section when In Africa..........The paws were left on so that you could be SURE it was rabbit.
Rabbit looks and tastes like chicken except it's usually more tender and the bones look all wrong.
What else might it have been?
Where I live and have lived, if you want rabbit, you just step outside and shoot one. Though I have seen them in the frozen section at the supermarket lately.
Mom made a bunny sausage to die for.
Well, maybe if a producer or two saved up a bit and put off selling their stock for a few months....
I hunt wild rabbit a good bit, and it tastes fantastic if cooked right.
"What else might it have been?"
I had distant relatives in Norway that durring WW2 when the Germans demanded their rabbit would skin a cat and give it to them. They kept the rabbits for themselves.
bookmark for later printing
Rabbits are mean and nasty things. I say kill em' and eat em'!
You can tell the difference between Cat and Rabbit right away, Cat meat is mushy when cooked, Rabbit meat firms up when cooked.
Bunny in a blanket
We had a kindly elderly Italian neighbor, when I was young, that would treat us to rabbit cacciatore every so often. Just wonderful but I haven't had the dish in over 45 years.
Get yer shootin' iron and make yerself a blind in my backyard. I got too many of them varmints chowing down on the shrubbery.