Ancient Roman Rabbit


According to Varro, the Romans bred three kinds of hares in their leporaria, enclosures for wild animals built near the villae, the ancient farms. Leporarium derives its name from lepus, which means hare. Because of their extraordinary fecundity, the author strongly advises breeding these animals: even if you only keep a couple, your leporarium will soon be overrun with leverets. Pliny uses a more general term, vivarium instead of leporarium, but the meaning is essentially the same, with less emphasis on the hares. This author mentions many wild animals commonly bred in the vivaria: wild boars, wild goats, deer, mouflons, chamois, fallow deer, and others.
Both Pliny and Varro mention the various kinds of hares. Varro describes the Italic hare, with a dark coat, white belly, and long ears; then he mentions the Alpine hare, whose coat turns white in winter; and finally cuniculum, the rabbit. This term refers to the rabbit’s ability to dig underground burrows. The ancient authors generally believe that rabbits come from Spain, which is called cuniculosa Celtiberia by Catullus in a poem: essentially, Spain is characterized by being full of rabbits. This appears to be a hint to their fertility: according to Pliny, they even caused a famine in the Balearic Islands, prompting the inhabitants to request military intervention from Emperor Augustus to save the harvest from this plague.
In a passage from Oppian’s Spanish Wars, we read that the soldiers ate venison and hare, lagon in Greek, a term that probably refers to the local variety of hare, which is the rabbit. However, the change in diet caused them some health issues, because they were forced to eat something different from what they were used to: venison and hare (in addition to the more familiar wheat and barley), but from the text, the main problem seemed to be that they had no oil, wine, salt, or vinegar.
However, despite the common belief that the rabbit comes from Spain, we find in early texts mentions of the presence of this animal in Italy. For instance, between the 2nd and 1st centuries BCE, Poseidonius, quoted by Athenaeus, writes that he saw many rabbits during his journey from Puteoli to Naples. A century earlier, Polybius tried rabbit in Corsica and noted that its shape and flavor were different from hare.
Hare was highly prized in ancient Roman cuisine. We find thirteen recipes in the 8th book of De Re Coquinaria and a few more in other parts of the text. From the poems of Martial and Horace, it seems that it was considered particularly refined to serve only certain parts of it, such as the legs and shoulders.
In the recipe we chose, the author does not specify the cooking method, though in the previous recipe, the hare is either simmered or roasted and then cooked with olive oil. We followed this preparation, adding the sauce to the cooked hare and boiling it shortly as specified in the recipe.
Caroenum is concentrated grape juice, obtained by boiling it down until it reduces by a third. We recommend using a little quantity of dates, raisins, and concentrated grape juice to avoid a sauce overly sweet, and in general, a good idea is to balance the sweetness with a good amount of pepper and asafoetida, which is equivalent to ancient silphium Parthicum, a cheap variety of silphium. We used long pepper in the sauce and dusted the cooked hare with black pepper, because the combination of these two varieties balances the overall sweetness of the sauce very well, but if you prefer, use only one type of pepper. Garum can be replaced with a South-East Asian fish sauce, colatura di alici or ancient muria, or just salt.

For more information about ancient cuisine, we suggest reading our book Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources. Moreover, the complete translation of De Re Coquinaria is available on Patreon, with further translations of ancient and medieval sources.
To know more about the passage between ancient and medieval cooking, check out our translation, commentary, and glossary of a beautiful 6th-century source, De Observatione Ciborum, written by the physician Anthimus to the king of the Franks Theuderic; if you are interested in late-medieval cuisine, we recommend Libro de la Cocina. Medieval Tuscan Recipes and Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook. If you are interested in recipes for vegetables from the Antiquity to the beginning of the Modern Era in Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers available in English and Italian.
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spices (asafoetida, pepper)
olive oil

Cut the rabbit into pieces and parboil it in water for 10 minutes. Discard the water and cook it again with olive oil for 20 minutes. In the meantime, prepare the sauce. Mince a date, pound the pepper in the mortar, and add the date and a few raisins. Pound well and grate some asafoetida. Dilute with two tablespoons of garum, olive oil, and reduced grape juice. When the rabbit is cooked, pour the sauce and bring it to a boil. Serve the rabbit dusted with pepper.

Original text
Cum prope tolli debeat, teres piper, dactylum, laser, uvam passam, caroenum, liquamen, oleum. Suffundes, et, cum bullierit, piper asperges et inferes.

When it is almost time to remove [the hare from the fire], grind pepper, date, laser, raisins, caroenum, garum, oil. Pour the sauce over the meat and when it boils, dust with pepper and serve.

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Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano. Medieval Tuscan Recipes
Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus. Early-medieval recipes at the court of the Franks.
Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook
Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes

Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius (Ancient Rome)
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8th-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Tractatus de Modo Preparandi et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria (13th-14th century)
Enseignemenz (14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Maestro Martino – first and second part (15th century)

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