Standing in the kitchen of London game emporium The Jugged Hare, chef Steve Englefield opens a bag containing a skinned hare and a teacup’s worth of blood.
All photos by the author.
Hare blood honks.
Like, really honks. Like, Hulk Hogan's crotch after a wrestling match honks. Not that I've ever smelt Hulk Hogan's crotch after a wrestling match but you get the point I'm making—hare blood fucking stinks.
Steve Englefield, on the other hand, has smelt it all before. Standing in the open-front kitchen of game emporium The Jugged Hare, the head chef is unaffected, snipping open a second clear bag containing another headless, skinned hare and a teacup's worth of its burgundy-coloured, honking blood without even a quiver of a nostril.
Dressed head-to-toe in kitchen whites and Cornishware striped apron, I'm here to learn how to make the restaurant's namesake dish: the 18th century recipe, jugged hare.
Side-by-side with Englefield, I'm quite aware this is a pretty privileged masterclass. Englefield is one of my favourite chefs in London and I'm eager to impress.
"So, Steve, jugged hare is a light dish, right?"
"Er, it's actually pretty heavy."
Thankfully, I'm given a chance to redeem myself with a spot of butchery. The hares we're cooking with today were shot up on the Yorkshire Moors. They've been skinned, beheaded, and their bellies have been cut out before they arrive so I'm spared some of the more grizzly parts of the job. But there's still a fair amount of muckiness to get stuck into.
"What we do first—take off the back legs," Englefield says, in his softening Aussie accent. "Grab hold and cut down with the knife, back towards the arse, run on to the bone, crack it, and it will pop out."
Englefield makes it sound easy and when I clearly marvel at the speed of his work, he tells me he's been cooking hare for 21 years and spent the previous morning prepping fifty for today's service.
"It becomes second nature," he says, as we cut away the shoulders and snip out the ribcage. Moments later, his hare looks immaculate—mine looks like it's been through a tumble drier with a pair of nunchucks.
We're left with the saddle (the prime cut) and the first five ribs (the equivalent of lamb cutlets.) We cut the hips away and cleaver the hare in half.
"Give it some welly!" Englefield says, as he does his in one go. I take about five, hacking the poor thing up a bit more (if it still had its head, it would be rolling its eyes.)
Hares have suffered at the hands of ham-fisted people like me for centuries. Jugged hare is a dish attributed to mother hen of the modern day dinner party Hannah Glasse, who penned the recipe in her famous 1747 cookbook The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy.
Curiously, Glasse's identity as the author of the book wasn't confirmed until 1938, when the historian Madeleine Hope Dodds revealed the name behind the cryptic "By a Lady" signature. Glasse was no Mary Berry that's for sure. She suffered bankruptcy, did porridge in Fleet Prison, and died penniless.
So far we've followed the kitchen rebel's recipe with aplomb. Now, it's time to go a little off piste—and I can't help but think she'd approve.
As Englefield explains, the original jugged hare dish was borne out of necessity as once the hare was sectioned off, it was chucked in a jug with whatever offering there was in the pantry, typically, mace, onion, cloves, and herbs. We're keeping it rustic—roughly chopping an onion, a leek, and celery—but also adding some refined flavours with star anise and cinnamon in place of the more common rosemary and thyme. We bung all that in a big Tupperware along with the sealed-off legs and saddle (the off-cuts are used to make a rich stock) and cover the whole thing in red wine.
This is left to marinade for 12 to 16 hours until the colour becomes "livered and violet." The meat and veg is then cooked in a "slow braise to keep it moist and flavoursome without boiling the hell out of it" for six hours in a huge vat of meaty-march-hare-madness down in the prep kitchen. A heady mix of 50 percent chicken stock and 50 percent veal stock, one whiff and I'm tempted to dive in—if only it wasn't for the fact I'd probably get third degree burns to my face and torso. All in all, 20 hares are brimming away, enough to make 80 portions later tonight.
Plodding back up the stairs to the restaurant, for such a historic dish, I'm rather struck by all the techniques involved. It's like a hare factory, without industrialising any stages of the process: butchery, roasting, braising, and sauce-making—it's the perfect baptism of fire for young chefs to learn a number of kitchen skills in one go.
"I love doing this dish and because it's our namesake dish, we all take great pride in it," Englefield says, explaining how the hare season is short-ish (August 1 to the end of February.) "Our first batch arrives on the first and it's on the menu on the second. Then at the end of the season, we play around with it, add more wine, add more aromatics, so it's a constantly evolving recipe. I want it to be different. I want to make it better and better."
We're only a few bunny hops from the end now and once the meat is picked free of bones and lead shot, packaged into servings alongside mushrooms and roasted celeriac, and the sauce thickened, it's time to add the hare blood.
"Blood is used to thicken the sauce as it coagulates," Englefield says, carefully spooning a tablespoon into the pan of meaty-gooey-goodness. "But it also changes the dimension of the dish, making it earthy with a irony flavour. You can really feel the difference."
Lastly, it's time to plate up. Englefield takes a handmade jug ("I'm very particular about my jugs," he says which, suitably, like children, we all laugh at) and scoops the hare and sauce into its depths. A side of mash and cabbage and lardons and we're ready to go.
I have to say, I bloody love this dish. It's the kind of stew Super Gran would make (that's probably why it's a recipe that's lastest since the 1700s.) I can't really taste the blood—there's just a slight kick of metal that reminds me of running my hands along the school railings and sucking the rainwater from the tips of my fingers—but hours later, I can still bloody smell it.
It won't come out. I feel like Lady Macbeth and her "damned spot!" only I haven't conspired to slay a king, I've butchered a nameless hare and now my hands hold the stench of its death.
I remember how a mate of mine says she doesn't eat hare because it's a creature of folklore and that it just feels wrong and I convince myself I've been cursed. Fuck with a creature of folklore, take the consequences.
The ancient Greeks believed hares to be hermaphrodites, changing genders every month and self-impregnating at will (some party trick, that.) The Celts had a sneaky suspicion that the women of the tribe were shape-changing hares in disguise and Buddhist and Hindu texts describe the hare as a creature of sacrificial fire with Lazarus-style, rising from the ashes properties …
And it's this last one that really gives me the heebie-jeebies. What if the hare I've just eaten comes back from the dead, reforms in my gut like a T-1000 Terminator, and boxes it's way out of my belly in the middle of the Starbucks on Paternoster Square?
Man alive, could you imagine the smell?