It took little convincing for Jennifer Heagle, co-owner of Ottawa's the Red Apron, to feature rabbit on the menu of her subscription-based catering business and food shop. A purveyor of "gourmet comfort food," Heagle's company promotes the principles of locavorism. She was struggling with the ethics of feeding her dinner-delivery clients the quantities of meat they craved, but after Lee Bourdon, a local food distributor, told her about rabbits' low environmental impact, she was hooked. Rabbits produce six pounds of meat on the same feed and water as cattle will consume to produce one pound, Heagle says, "Rabbit is one of the most sensible meats we can consume."
If you ask Bourdon, rabbits are essentially chickens with bigger ears. He spotted rabbit meat in a Quebec health food store about six months ago and thought Ontario eaters would soon jump on board. Rabbit's delicate, neutral flavour – not unlike chicken – and the fact that the animals are being raised locally on a grain-free diet, hits a sweet spot in the current food culture, Bourdon says, "It's an original product and it gives people an alternative."
The market for rabbit is still small but growing, says Bourdon. He believes the animal's diminutive environmental footprint combined with greater consumer interest in buying meat from farms that aren't controlled by large food companies are behind the boost. He also thinks that people in Ontario are "getting over the cuteness factor" that has made rabbit's journey from hutch to plate a hard sell.
A new wave of conscientious cooks and ethical eaters are celebrating what generations of Europeans and Quebecois have long known: bunnies belong at the dinner table. Jamie Oliver, Thomas Keller and Tommy Habetz are among the big-name international chefs who've used the meat in headline-grabbing dishes in recent years.
Rabbits' reproductive habits are legendary but their reputation as a lean and low-calorie meat that's high in protein, iron and minerals puts other animals to shame. In addition to being one of the most sustainable and healthiest meats on the market, rabbits can exist on a grain-free diet in a time of raising grain prices.
Nobody has raised more awareness about the need to eat meat responsibly than Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma. He says "sentiment" is what prevents people from embracing the backyard bunny as a meat choice. "Rabbit is a comparatively sustainable source of animal protein, as well as a tasty one," he says. "They grow fast, eat any produce you want to discard and are quiet."
Up-to-date Canadian statistics about rabbit consumption aren't available but between 2008 and 2011 the amount rose steadily from 18.7 to 22 grams per capita. An increased sense of adventurousness among restaurant-going omnivores, thanks to nose-to-tail cooking and charcuterie trends, only adds momentum.
Last year, Bourdon connected with Le Lapin de Stanstead, a family-owned farm near Sherbrooke, Que. that raises rabbits on an exclusively alfalfa meal, free of any medications and growth hormones, seeing an opportunity to bring local, organic rabbit to his Ontario clients, including health food stores, gourmet shops and restaurants.
The timing appears ripe for rabbit cuisine in the nation's capital, a place not known to be on the cutting edge of food trends until recently. With Ottawa chefs taking gold and silver respectively at the Canadian Culinary Championships for the last two years, restaurants in the region are taking more risks with their menus.
"It just take one trigger to set it off," says Marc Doiron chef-owner of Ottawa's Town restaurant where he replaced a popular chicken dish with crispy rabbit Milanese. He says chefs get tired of working with the predictable proteins and start looking for something different to help their menus stand out. Increasingly, chefs are using social media to keep on top of trends, he says. "Chefs see the tweets from customers raving about the rabbit they ate and then it starts showing up everywhere."
Matthew Brearley of Castlegarth restaurant in White Lake, Ont. adores working with rabbit because of its versatility – there's a reason it has been peasant fare for an eternity, he says. His great-grandfather's diaries are filled with references to the Depression-era staple. At Castlegarth, he often puts a whole rabbit in a stew, grills it, stuffs the loin and makes rillettes. "Whenever it's on the menu it goes like crazy."
He's been known to serve leftover rabbit pasta to his young staff – a generation more likely to have rabbits as pets than for supper. "They were horrified when they found out it was rabbit," he says, "but what horrified them more was how good it was."
In Calgary, where beef is the undisputed protein of choice, chef Justin Leboe has foodies swooning over his shaved rabbit mortadella with pistachios, a popular bar snack at his restaurant Model Milk. He says the current interest in rabbit reflects the way ingredients fall in and out of favour with chefs, citing a penchant for pork and alternate cuts of beef like bavette and flat iron in recent years.
"It's a cultural thing too, like horse meat in Montreal," he says. "I don't think there's a restaurant in Calgary that would put it on the menu."