Rabbit stew, or Stuffat tal-Fenek, is Malta’s ‘national’ dish. Here’s my go at it…[recipe at end].
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.
Tanya Cauchi says
Thanks Tanya, much appreciated. Always good to cook up a rabbit (especially now in fact, in Feb as cold winds blow!).
Kristin Martin says
Thank you for your blog. This is a great place to discover Maltese fare. I am 1/2 Maltese. My father was Maltese. His parents were right from Malta and came over to the US to Ellis Island in 1920. My grandparents last name was Cauchi, but their name was changed to Couch at the time they arrived to the US. The Rabbit Stew you are featuring in your blog looks delicious. My husband wants to make it! (but we don’t raise rabbits… LOL!) My dad used to make rabbit stew and also put rabbit in our spaghetti.
I have never been to Malta but have been dying to visit for years now. We are planning a trip in 2017 and we can’t wait! My sister visited last fall and she fell in love with Malta and the Maltese people. She broke into tears when she arrived after traveling through Italy. She said she immediately felt a kinship with the Island and the people. We are looking into everything Maltese. Maltese Foods, places to visit, historical sites, Churches, beaches, etc.
I just thought I’d share that with you.
Kristin Martin (Couch)
What a wonderful story and I am so glad that I could help you beam into your Maltese roots via this post on rabbit stew! I am guessing you can’t buy bought / frozen rabbit anywhere near you in the States? But, when you do finally get here in 2017, you’ll be able to indulge easily and make up for it. Try gathering your long lost and extended family and head out for a Fenkata! Thanks for visiting the blog and do pop back. I tend to do a varied Mediterranean-inspired menu here on the blog, but do have some traditional Maltese sweets coming up after Easter.
Ivy Radcliffe says
Hi Kristin. My maiden name was Cauchi. My parents were both born in Valletta but lived in Gzira once they married. We emigrated to a wonderful country called Australia in 1960. It is great to chat to another Cauchi over a sumptuous recipe.
Cameron Nicol says
I would like to take this recipe for future experience, Please.
Glad you are going to give it a god Cameron. I hope it turns out tasty.
Joe Bianco says
I am glad that I have found your site whilst looking for a maltese recipe for “rabbit stew” to compere with my version which is to my recollection how my parents used to make it. I live on a property on the mid north coast of NSW Australia and have beef cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and a good supply of wild rabbits.So you can appreciate we are pretty much self sufficient in most things. I might also add that our property has about one mile of river frontage which gives us plenty of fish when we want.
My children Ben and Lily often accompany me when we crave a feed of “rabbit stew”. They absolutely love it and your right we soak it up with crusty bread. Ben and Lily say to me “Nanna and Pop “would be proud dad.
I also make it with chicken at times also. I normally cut up chicken wings and whole drum sticks also . Either way everybody enjoys the meal very much.My mother used to put 2 -3 teaspoons of curry powder in it as well.
I have had friends over for dinner and served this recipe using chicken instead of rabbit and they go back for seconds. I might add a couple bottles of wine accompany this meal very well for the adults , Ben and Lily enjoy a fruit juice and soda water.
I enjoyed reading your article so I thought I would share this with you .My parents are no longer with us but their recipes and fond memories will always be with us and are often in our conversations.
Both my parents were Maltese and came to Australia in the Fifties.
Keep up your good work and one day I would like to visit Malta.
Thanks for beaming in and so glad my recipe for rabbit brought back fond family memories. I loved reading your story and about how your own children feel a kindred spirit with long lost relatives and a ‘homeland’ in another hemisphere. It’s incredible how those simple, homespun recipes keep memories alive. I think as I get older, and my own parents in the UK increasingly frail, I cherish even more those recipes of my mother – the one’s dog-eared in files that she’s annotate as she adapted flavours and methods. I do hope you’ll stick with me here; sadly, I’ve been a bit sluggish on Red Bistro lately as my house undergoes building works. Kitchen almost free of workers so raring to go for the last part of 2015! Hope you make it to Malta one day!
Nora @ The Forgotten Recipe says
I am so happy to have found your site. I’m American but my boyfriend is Maltese so I have had my fair share of rabbit since we started dating. I think I have made more rabbit in the last two years than I had ever had my entire life before meeting him. I love the Mediterranean spices and flavors running through this entire blog. We will definitely be cooking some of your more meaty dishes!
I wrote about Stuffat tal-Fenek as well. Guess when you’re in love with a Maltese man you just have to share your love for a good Fenkata. 🙂 http://forgottenrecipe.com/timeless-recipes/malta/the-great-fenkata/
So glad you connected and shared your own Maltese-man anecdote on rabbit eating! Once you know a Maltese, it’s inevitable you’re going to spend time eating something that had never occurred to you before. Actually, I did eat rabbit as a child in the UK, as we lived in the country and my dad would go shooting occasionally or get given some. Rabbit has had a bit of a revival in the UK thanks to Jamie Oliver who does a recipe or two on it; it’s also now deemed a healthy white meat so much in vogue. Of course, everywhere in the southern Med, rabbit is common, from Provence down really.
Hope to tempt you with some other regional specialities soon! And I’ll check out your blog too.
Martese Scaglione says
Can you could this in a slow cooker (crockpot)
I am sure this would be ideal in a slow cooker. I haven’t used a crockpot – pottery version – but I imagine it’s the same as the metal Tefal-coated one I use. I do find with slow cookers that some of the liquid doesn’t get evaporated so you might need to thicken it a little before the last hour of cooking using flour or cornflour. Rabbit can be a bit tough so slow is good!