Fossils of rabbit bones dating back to 7,000 BC have been found. It seems that this animal is originally from Spain.
It seems likely that rabbits have always been hunted and eaten by humans. However, as these extremely prolific animals (does are fertile from 5 months old and can give birth 31 days later to anything between 2–12 young ones, while males can mate several times a day) destroyed crops, the Romans had the idea of putting them in large enclosures, called warrens. But it is actually because of the extreme greed of monks that breeding developed in the Middle Ages. They had the horrible idea of eating laurices – in other words, newborn rabbits – during Lent after it was decided that these poor creatures came from an aquatic environment (the amniotic fluid of the doe), and so monks were allowed to eat them during their meat fast. In order to do this, they kept the mothers in cages so that they could collect their newborns without killing them.
From the 16th century, rabbit breeds multiplied. In the 17th century, there were already many ways of cooking "hutch" or "wild" rabbits. As they were easy to feed, eating grains, herbs, and vegetable peelings, they became a natural addition to farmers' diets. Breeding has been steadily developing ever since.
Two kinds of farmed rabbits exist:
- The free-range rabbit: it is bred on a small scale using traditional farming methods, and weighs 2–3 kg. It is obviously the tastiest.
- The farmed rabbit: it is intensively farmed and is slaughtered at12 weeks. It can weight from 1.2–1.4 kg.
Rabbits are usually slaughtered between the ages of 12 weeks and 3 months. Their weight depends on their age and their rearing conditions.
A good rabbit should be rather short and compact with a plump and fleshy saddle, a red liver with no spots, pink shiny flesh, and bright eyes. The fat around the kidneys should be very white and the kidneys clearly visible. Flexible legs are a sign of freshness.
Rabbits that are slightly gelatinous or that have dark flesh should never be used, as they are not fresh or have been improperly bled.
The Millevents and the Lapin rustique de Saint-Robin have both been awarded the French quality label, the "Label Rouge".
Rabbit are sold fresh, either whole or jointed (thighs, front legs, saddle, liver, and kidney). They are sold all year round, as breeding is continuous. However, the best time for farm-reared young rabbits is from April through June.
Wild rabbits are available during the hunting season.
Farmed rabbits are also sold frozen, in pieces, or cooked in rillettes, pâtés, or terrines.
Rabbits should be stored in a cold room or refrigerated between 0° and 4°C for 4–5 days at most, always wrapped in a cloth because the meat tends to dry out. It should not be covered in plastic wrap, as this makes the flesh deteriorate quickly.Wild rabbits should be stored in the same way.
Rabbit is high in protein and quite low in fat, making it a lean meat. Its peripheral fat can easily be removed, but it contains little cholesterol anyway.
Rabbit contains some B vitamins and minerals.
There are some 50 breeds of farmed rabbits with different color coats. In exceptional cases, they can weigh up to 10 kg.
In France, the most common species and those that are bred the most often are the Bouscat Giant White (5–6 kg), the Flemish Giant (5–7 kg), the Giant French Papillon (5–6 kg), the Belgian Hare (3–4 kg), the New Zealand Rabbit (4–5 kg), the Fauve de Bourgogne (3–5 kg), the Normand (3–4 kg) and the Rex du Poitou (3–4 kg).
Wild rabbits have dark gray-brown fur, with whitish gray fur on the belly. They can weigh from 1.2–2.5 kg.
Its meat is different from that of farmed rabbits: much firmer and stronger in taste.