Sweet ‘n’ sour rabbit & sausage stew

‘Hmm, it’s not the same as last year, Matty,’ said one.

‘But just as good,’ said another.

‘Just different. Not so sharp,’ said a third.

Everyone’s a critic in my family. There were, what 24 of us, gathered for the fourth year running in the Monte Lucretilli, about 35 north-east of Rome. It was, as you can imagine, a quiet and orderly affair.

However you go about it, cooking for 20 + for a week of so makes certain demands on even the most dedicated cook. On the other hand, the rewards in terms of cleaned plates and appreciation are more than adequate compensation.  I had cooked a version of this dish last year. It went down pretty well then. It went down pretty well a second time. Even if it wasn’t quite the same. Pedants!

Serves 20+ (Just scale it down for smaller numbers)

5 rabbits

30 fat sausages

350g unsmoked pancetta or bacon

2 kg onions

2 heads garlic

wild fennel stalks (or 1 tsp fennel seed if that’s all you can get)

2 bottles rose wine

200 ml red wine vinegar

2 dsp granulated sugar

150g raisins or sultanas

75g pine kernels

Salt & pepper

Olive oil

Turn the oven on to 200C/Gas 6. Dissect  the rabbit into 7 pieces,  cutting each the saddle in half cross-wise. Put the chest sections, any trimmings  and heads if you’ve  got them, into a big pan. Add the wild fennels stalks. Cover with wine, bring to the simmer, and let it all burble away quietly for an hour,  and then slowly reducing, while you get on with the rest. Peel and slice the onions thinly. This is a tedious task, but worth it. Glug some olive oil into a frying pan. Cut the pancetta/bacon into pencil-thick sections and fry in the oil.  When they’re crisp and their fat has run, take them out and keep them on one side. Now brown the sausages in the hot oil rapidly. Take out. Put in the rabbit pieces, a few at a time and brown them. Take them out as they brown and keep to one side. Tip in the onions, adding some more oil if necessary. Fry gently until soft and golden. Divide the cooked onions between the various cooking vessels. Pile in the pancetta/bacon, rabbits, sausages and raisins. Season. Sprinkle the sugar over everything. Cover and turn up the heat. Cook for a minute or two. Pour the vinegar into the frying pan and deglaze. Pour that over the rabbits and sausages, and then add the rabbit/wine stock. Make sure all the rabbit is covered. Add some more wine or water if necessary. Clap to top on the casserole and cover the roasting trays with foil. Pop into the oven for 1 hour. Take the top off the casserole and remove the foil from the roasting trays. Cook for a further 30 minutes. This will brown the surface of the dish. Taste the juices. They should be a liquid miracle. If they’re not, pour them off and reduce them until they are. If you prefer a sharper finish, splash in a little more vinegar towards the end. (Vinegar loses some of it potency when it’s cooked for a long time). Brown the pine kernels in a frying pan. Sprinkle over the top.

I served mine with a good thick chunk of bread to soak up the juices. I simply did have enough room to cook potatoes, particularly as I was frying up a mountain of zucchini cut into matchsticks.

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