Ragu of hare with red wine and cocoa

Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood/Clean from my hand? ~ Macbeth

I had only come across hare in a culinary context once before I attempted this classic Italian dish. My housemate last year fancied trying his hand at jugged hare (which, if you are unaware, means cooking the hare in its own blood). Fortunately, he asked the butcher to do all the cutting and jointing for him. So when I entered our communal kitchen to find blood spattered everywhere (we later found some inside the kettle), I was more than a little confused, and was told that apparently the butcher hadn't cut it into enough pieces. He stood there, gore-stained knife in hand, hacking away at a deep red carcass and looking decidedly sheepish. To this day I am unsure if perhaps the hare story was a clever ruse to cover for some sort of kitchen-based murder.

In 2006, a UKTV Food survey of 2021 people found that 70% of people stated that they would refused to eat jugged hare if it were served at the house of a friend or relative. Although the idea doesn't bother me in the slightest (seriously, people, man up - it's basically the same as eating a rare steak), I settled on a slightly less gory way of cooking this wonderful animal, in case my four dinner guests comprised those people who object to the idea - braising the joints in a mixture of red wine, cocoa, bacon, vegetables and aromatics (juniper, bay, thyme), and serving it with pasta. This hare ragu is served throughout Italy with pappardelle; thick, wide strips of pasta that hold the rich sauce perfectly. 

I'd never tried hare before; I knew it was very different to rabbit, and much more like venison both in its appearance and flavour. I didn't realise quite how much larger than rabbit it is; the hare and its braising liquid could barely fit in my Le Creuset (and that, avid readers, is perhaps the most middle-class sentence you will ever find within this blog). Nor was I prepared for the sheer amount of blood that the meat seems to shed, even when it has already been jointed. I felt a little bit like Lady Macbeth, frantically scrubbing bright red blood from under my fingernails. 

That said, it's a magnificent animal. The meat has a fresh, glistening look about it, and a startling red colour that will satisfy any carnivore. The saddle of the hare is good roasted, which I'd quite like to try. However, the legs are best braised; because the hare is such a muscular animal with hardly any fat on it, roasting the leg joints would probably result in dry, tough meat.

This is a very straightforward dish, and one that doesn't require much attention. Marinate the hare joints overnight with crushed juniper berries, a bay leaf, thyme, a chopped onion, chopped carrots, leeks and celery, and olive oil. Then brown the joints in a casserole, remove and fry some streaky bacon until crisp, then add the vegetables and cook until softened. Pour in some red wine, a teaspoon of cocoa, and some tomato pureé, leave to bubble for a bit, then return the hare joints to the pan. Cover with water, put on a lid, and simmer for at least two hours. The cocoa is an interesting addition: the pairing of chocolate and venison is not that unusual, so I suppose it makes sense: it adds a depth to the sauce.

It depends on the age and toughness of your hare as to how long you'll need to cook it, but mine was perfect after just two hours. The meat fell off the bone in beautifully thick, deep russet strands, which I stirred back into the cooking liquid to make the ragu. It's hard to describe the taste of the meat, but it's incredibly strongly flavoured. In fact, the smell of it is almost unpleasantly strong, though the taste is excellent. If you like venison and don't object to gameyness, you'd probably like it. The sauce needs lots of grated parmesan to cut through the meaty richness, but what you'll end up with is an immensely satisfying - and unusual - bowl of pasta. I'd quite like to try cooking hare with some form of fruit; I think it needs sweetness to complement its dark, iron-rich meat. Watch this space.

Hare ragu (serves 6-8) (taken from Game: A Cookbook)

Place a hare, jointed, in a large bowl with a shredded bay leaf, the leaves from a sprig of thyme, 6 crushed juniper berries, 4 crushed cloves of garlic, a finely diced onion, 2 finely diced carrots, leeks and stalks of celery, and 2tbsp olive oil. Mix together and leave in the fridge to marinate overnight.

Heat some oil in a large casserole and brown the hare pieces all over. Remove to a plate and fry 100g smoked streaky bacon until it becomes crispy. Add the vegetables and any marinade juices. Add 500ml red wine and allow to evaporate partially, then add 1tbsp tomato pureé and 1tsp cocoa powder. Return the hare to the pan and cover with water. Season and bring to the boil; cover and simmer gently for at least two hours, or until the hare falls off the bone.

Remove the hare from the pot and let cool until you can handle it. Shred the meat from the bones and be careful not to snap off the ribs and put them in the sauce too (ouch). Mix the shredded meat back into the cooking liquid - you may need to add more water to loosen it, or arrowroot or cornflour to thicken it. Serve over cooked pasta with lots of grated parmesan.

For more wonderful game recipes, I'd strongly urge you to buy this recipe book. It's very rare that you find such an enticing selection of recipes in one place, and if you're a big game fan (that is, a big fan of game, not a fan of big game like rhino), you'll know that finding nice recipes can be a struggle, because the meat is so underrated in this country. Click the link...you know you want to.