Hares live alone, never in a burrow but in a flattened nest of grass, called a form. They are renowned for their running speed, and can reach 60 km per hour.
Their sex life is fairly hectic. The mating season stretches from January through September, with a peak in spring. Males engage in fierce and noisy struggles to seduce lady hares. If the female in question is not willing, they also fight with her, but less violently, until she gives in, exhausted.
The female, called a "jill”, has a peculiarity: she has two uteri and can copulate with one male when she is pregnant by another. Her pregnancies last 42–44 days. She has 2–4 broods each year, with 2–4 babies each time, which she dutifully feeds. This explains why, in ancient times, the hare symbolized the fertility goddesses. And it was this unbridled amorous behavior that led Pope Zacharias, in 751, to ban people from eating hare because its meat was unclean, coming from an animal that was "lewd, with monstrous defects that would be transmitted to man" if he ate it.
Despite their prolific tendencies, hare numbers dropped off everywhere, and especially in Europe: territorial consolidation reduced their living areas (they love great plains), roads were built that they were too frightened to cross, and diseases conspired against them. Since the 60s, some hares have been bred solely to replenish populations for hunts: pairs of hares put in small cages to reproduce and the little ones are released into the wild.
Hunting has always been the best way to get meat and so hare has always been a common addition to a stew or a spit roast. Archestratus, in the 4th century BC, recommended roasting it, but leaving it rare: a "true gourmet will not be disgusted by rare hare", he wrote.
The nose of a freshly killed hare is stained with blood.
Depending on its age, the common hare is given different names in France: a levrault ("leveret" in English) is a baby of 3–4 months, a trois-quarts (literally "three-quarters") is a one-year old hare, and its meat is tenderer than that of an older hare, called a capucin. When it is very old, it is called financier, but no-one knows why.
Fresh hares are bought whole, generally not skinned, during the hunting season.
Whether purchased from a wholesaler or from a hunter, it is subject to the same legislation as all game, wherever it comes from.
Hares are also sold whole, skinned or unskinned, and frozen. They are also sold in pieces (thighs and saddle), fresh or frozen.
Hare is not only used to make stew or civet, although this is the traditional way of preparing a capucin, or large hare. A marinade is of course necessary. An old hare can be cooked in a stew or casserole.
The saddle and filet of a young hare can be roasted, stuffed or otherwise, and served with various sauces, which are sometimes tangy (currant or cherry sauce, for example).
The emblematic recipe is still hare à la royale. It was supposedly created for Louis XIV, when he only had a few teeth left in his mouth. Nignon, in his Éloges de la cuisine française ("Praise of French cuisine"), refers to it as a "princely dish" that "was at all times the subject of great discussion", and reproduces the recipe given to him by Mr. Hebrard, Director of Le Temps newspaper, which, Nignon stresses, can only be made with one 4–5 pound female hare, stuffed with "500 g of stuffing No. 2 enriched with 4 tablespoons of minced ham braised in madeira sauce, and a pinch of lemon blossom".
Fresh hare should be immediately skinned and gutted, if it is not already, and the blood collected. Gloves should always be worn for this operation.
Whether in pieces or not, it should then be stored in the refrigerator or cold room between 0 and 4°C to minimize the growth of bacteria. Hares can be stored for 2–3 days, depending on the date of slaughter, and if the flesh needs to mature or not.
Frozen pieces of hare must be kept in the freezer, without interrupting the cold chain.
Hare meat is particularly low in fat and high in protein and minerals, including iron.
It also contains a lot of uric acid, like all game, which limits its consumption for people suffering from gout.
There are more than thirty species of hare.
The brown hare or common hare or European hare lives across Europe, but also in the United States, Canada, South America, New Zealand, and Australia. It is a different size depending on its country of origin: around 3 kg for those from the Mediterranean region, and about 6 kg for those from the east.
The white-tailed jackrabbit lives in the plains of North America, while the black-tailed jackrabbit is often found in California.
Other species of hare are found in the temperate regions of Asia: there is a Chinese and Korean hare, a Yarkand hare from western China, and a Japanese hare.
In cold areas, there is the Manchurian hare, the Tibetan hare, and the varying hare, otherwise known as the snowshoe hare (from the north of the American continent). There is also another varying hare that lives in Ireland, Scotland, Scandinavia, Greenland, Eastern Europe, and in the Alps. The Alaska hare lives along the coast of the Arctic Ocean, but the Arctic hare (which is white) lives in northern Canada and Greenland.
Several species of hare also live in the deserts of Africa and in tropical countries.
Hare season corresponds to the hunting season, the dates of which are set in each country (for those that regulate hunting). It usually takes place in fall and winter.