My first morning in Aix-en-Provence, my hotel room perched above an intimate cobblestoned ‘place’, a small market appeared in the square below, stall umbrellas bursting upward around the square’s central fountain like mushrooms around a pond.
Though spring was only in its infancy, the market was bursting with colour. Bushels of red tomatoes sat alongside towers of white asparagus. Lemons glowed yellow, framing forests of freshly picked green herbs.
At one stand hung, among the glistening charcuterie and white mould flecked salamis, a dozen slender, pink animals. ‘Lapin de garenne’ read a sign hanging amongst them.
“Wild rabbit,” the stallholder translated, lifting one of the long bodies from its hook. “Very fresh.”
“How do you cook it?” I asked.
“Soak overnight in wine,” a voice behind me responded. “Then simmer with garlic, rosemary and Provence herb salt.”
The voice belonged to a chef who operated a small restaurant in a châteaux just out of Aix. He had come to collect fresh rabbit, he told me, to add to those he already had marinating in the kitchen.
“You want to help cook it? Learn how?”
Whatever initial hesitation I had at the idea of following a stranger to his kitchen disappeared when I thought of tasting that wine-bathed rabbit.
I followed him to his kitchen on the ground floor of a majestic châteaux, large windows offering a view of the herb garden outside, the lush verdigris of Provence beyond.
He sent me to pick herbs from the garden as he retrieved yesterday’s marinated rabbits.
Together we cooked, the language barrier proving only a minor obstacle to our conversations. When finally the rabbit was done, I sat at an ancient timber table with the chef and his family and tasted in that dish the very soul of Provence and its people.
Provence became, for me, forever framed in that combination of game, wine and herbs; a time machine that would allow me to return, after simply soaking a rabbit overnight in wine, to that town square and that rustic chateaux.
Recipe: Provincial Wild Rabbit Stew, with Herbs de Provence
For the Herbs de Provence (makes 350g)
250g salt flakes
¼ cup fresh thyme leaves, picked from stalks
¼ cup fresh lemon thyme leaves, picked from stalks
¼ cup fresh sage
¼ cup fresh rosemary, picked from sprigs
¼ cup fresh oregano
3 fresh bay leaves, centre stalk removed
1 clove garlic, crushed
For the Rabbit Stew
1x wild rabbit, approx. 1kg, cleaned and skinned
10 cloves garlic, unpeeled
5 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1½ tablespoons Herbs de Provence (adjusted to taste)
½ bottle good quality Bordeaux or similar French red wine
To make the Herbs de Provence, finely chop the sage, rosemary, oregano and bay leaves. Add thyme, lemon thyme and garlic, then add salt and stir. Allow mix to sit for 30 minutes before using. Store remainder in a jar for up to 6 months.
To make the stew, cut the rabbit into pieces and place in a sealable plastic container. Add wine and one rosemary sprig, and leave in refrigerator overnight to marinate.
Before cooking, strain rabbit, discarding the rosemary but keeping the marinating liquid.
Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Season rabbit with Herbs de Provence and fry off, in batches, until brown.
Return all rabbit pieces to the pan, along with garlic cloves, pepper, rosemary, sugar, tomato paste and rabbit marinating liquid. Bring to a simmer, then cover and continue to cook over a low heat for 50 minutes.
Season with herbs de Provence, and garnish with additional herbs.
Serve with chick peas, potatoes or bread. Bon appétit!