It’s not often that I do a truly traditional Maltese dish at home or for the blog. I tend to forage around what’s in season and create some hybrid Anglo-Maltese/Italian/French/North African dish blending a bit of this and that, from herbs to various cooking methods. Recently, however, I was asked by an international recipe site if I would like to contribute Malta’s ‘national dish’ – Stuffat tal-Fenek or rabbit stew – which is pretty much its most famed dish when it comes to tourism guide mentions. Although I have a rabbit stew recipe already on this site here, plus a BBQ rabbit here, the request was firmly for an original Stuffat tal-Fenek recipe.
What exactly that is depends on Maltese family recipes handed down over generations. In essence, rabbit cooked ‘the Maltese way’ sees the meat simmering away for around an hour and a half minimum – usually far longer – in a rich wine and tomato sauce infused with bay. My father-in-law does a mean rabbit and we meet at a large family gathering around twice a year for his famed ‘fenkata’ (rabbit meal in company). He prides himself on marinating the rabbit a good 24 hours in a bottle of red plonk (the local grocer’s red wine is the norm) laced with garlic and generous handfuls of bay as well as other herbs he has to hand. The husband told me that this dish is one of Maltese kids’ first intros to wine, which you’ll often find served no frills in regular tumblers if you eat rabbit in village bars. Kids in his day would get an inch of wine topped up liberally with 7Up! Perhaps they still do.
Most Maltese make a large stew using around two or even three rabbits as the meal is a communal affair. Given that rabbit has fiddly joints you need that many to ensure there’s a decent portion per person. The rabbits come with head (eyes) and all when you order one from the butcher. The liver, and sometimes the kidneys too, are fished out of the stew and eaten with spaghetti as a first course with liberal ladles of the thickened sauce. The stew proper is the main and served mostly with roast potatoes scattered with fennel seeds and accompanied by crusty Maltese bread. The sauce may contain peas, though I doubt this was the norm before the age of the fridge-freezer in rural homes as pea season lasts a mere month at the most in spring.
In search of the ‘original’ rabbit stew recipe, or as near to it as I could get, I dug out a yellowing, faded booklet entitled ‘Cooking the Maltese Way’ which my father had given me on a trip home a few years ago. I think a fellow Brit who’d been in the Services in Malta in the 50s-60s must have passed it to him, knowing I lived in Malta and thinking it useful! Anyway, the booklet came up with Rabbit ‘La Kampanjola’ which is a very simple version using just core ingredients of onion, tomatoes, bay leaves, red wine and potatoes. The booklet published by ‘Cordina’s Emporium General Stores of Valletta’ in 1967 is my guide, but I added carrots as they crop up in other Maltese rabbit recipes and are more likely a traditional veg to add as they would have had a longer shelf life, like the staple veg ingredient potatoes.
If rabbit is not your thing substitute with chicken thighs or a whole chicken jointed. It wasn’t quite Jamie Oliver’s web editor‘s ‘thing’ when he tested out the two-course fenkata on a recent trip to Malta. Most Mediterranean countries have some version of a rabbit stew, but Malta’s recipe is simplicity itself. Why not more rabbit recipes from the islands? As another local foodie told me recently, meat was a luxury to rural folk in times past, so they weren’t going to fancy it up further at more expense. Also, the wild Maltese rabbit was and is a rarity! [though I’ve dug up a Maltese wild rabbit photo here]. Today, rabbit is bred for eating. We pass a rabbit farm each day on the school run. Why asks J, does the sign have a nice fluffy bunny picture? Why indeed!
All images © Liz Ayling 2014
- 2 rabbits skinned and jointed, with or without liver and kidneysprint button transparent
- ¾ bottle robust red wine (cheap and cheerful)
- approx. 2 wine glasses of water
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 8-10 bay leaves
- 1 x 400g can tomato polpa or whole plum tomatoes mashed up
- 3 tbsps tomato puree’
- 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
- 6-8 medium potatoes, peeled and roughly chopped
- salt & pepper
- 3 tbsp regular olive oil
- Marinate the rabbit in the wine, garlic and bay for an hour or two, or if possible the night before cooking. Cover and chill in the fridge.
- When ready to cook, remove the rabbit joints from the marinade, shaking off excess liquid. Heat the olive oil over a high heat in a heavy-based casserole and sear the rabbit on all sides until lightly browned (approx 4 mins each side). Remove and set aside.
- Lower the heat under the casserole and add the onion and some fresh bay leaves to the pan. Brown the onion gently for around 5 minutes, then add the garlic and continue to fry gently for another minute.
- Add the tomato ‘polpa’ or peeled whole canned tomatoes mashed up, and increase the heat. Cook for around 5 minutes stirring a little, then add the marinade and bring to the boil. Return the rabbit joints to the pan, give a good shake and top up with water to just cover the rabbit. Cover, return to the boil, and then reduce to a medium simmer (gently bubbling).
- After half an hour, add the sliced carrots, potatoes and tomato puree’, shake the pot gently or stir to ensure the vegetables are covered with liquid. Continue to simmer the stew for around another half an hour.
- At one hour, prop the lid half off to allow the sauce to thicken up. Check the rabbit after 15 minutes – the stew is ready when the rabbit is just falling off the bone and the root vegetables are tender.
- Serve with fennel-seed and olive oil roast potatoes or regular potato mash and with white crusty bread to mop up the delicious and rich sauce.