Normally when you buy rabbit (for cooking, rather than cuddling), it comes ready-skinned, wrapped up in a foetal position. At the end of the final Harry Potter book, there's an episode where Harry "dies" and has a strange dream in which Voldemort appears as a creepy flayed creature, curled up and whimpering to himself. I imagine him to look, at that point, rather like a rabbit from the butchers. So yesterday, when I went to the market and asked for a rabbit, I didn't really expect the butcher to return holding one by the scruff of the neck that could quite literally have been frolicking around in a field minutes earlier. I was slightly terrified that she was about to skin and gut it right there in front of me, but fortunately that process took place behind a nice screen. When done, and jointed, the fluffy little thing barely resembled a living creature. I therefore felt just about OK with wrapping it in bacon and putting it in a pan with some onions, white wine and lots of thyme.
This might sound heartless, and I know plenty of people who refuse to eat rabbit. My mother, for one, largely due to the fact that we once had a pet rabbit (called "Mr Rabs") who my Dad is convinced was actually wild. He both looked and acted like a wild rabbit, running amok in the kitchen and chewing through various wires. I think it is the thought of Mr Rabs on a plate that perturbs her so much. However, my justification for eating rabbit is this: I would much rather eat something that led a happy and unrestricted life, gambolling around fields and nibbling on weeds right up until the end of its days than, for example, a battery hen or a pig that had been appallingly treated. Yes, I know you can buy free range chicken and pork, but labelling of meat is so confusing and there are so many variations in the treatment of animals reared for meat that I'd prefer to eat something that is pretty much guaranteed to have led a free-range life. Maybe this is why I like game so much. That and the fact that rabbit is very cheap, tastes good, and is quite versatile. The Italians eat it with pasta, which is why I served this dish on ribbons of pasta. They soak up the sauce and are less heavy than something like mashed potato.
The rabbit, wrapped in bacon, is simmered in white wine on a bed of sauteed onions and garlic, with lots of sprigs of thyme. The dumplings are made from breadcrumbs, melted butter, chopped watercress, parsley and thyme, and some lemon zest and juice. Their soft lemoniness is a nice contrast to the rich, bacony rabbit (which is not the tenderest meat around, largely because there's very little fat on it). They go in the dish halfway through cooking, and then the whole thing goes in the oven. The cooking juices are delicious and go very well on top of the pasta. Polenta is the traditional accompaniment for rabbit in northern Italy (I once had an amazing dish of rabbit and polenta in a little trattoria in Bergamo), but I thought it might be too similar texture-wise to the dumplings. It's up to you really. Another good way to serve this would be to shred the meat from the bones and mix it all in with the pasta. However, the dish smelled too good to wait much longer, so rustic-style presentation was the only way forward.
And this might sound weird, but the bonus of buying a whole rabbit is that they often leave all the offal in. Rabbit kidneys are really rather tasty.