RABBITS... AND MORE RABBITS|
Rabbit meat is considered "healthy" because it is very lean and contains little saturated fat, unlike red meat.
In Maltese, fenek is not just a common surname, though differently spelt. It also means rabbit, and has given its name to fenkata, which is a feast of cooked rabbit. In the past, a popular local remedy for fever was to cut open a live rabbit and more popular , but they do remain a much used source of food, and many consider rabbit to be the national dish.
Its popularity stemmed from its being a cheap source of meat. When wild rabbits were hunted down, using dogs which gave their name in Malta to be a breed known as the Pharoah Hound (kelb tal-fenek literally means 'dog of the rabbit'), they cost nothing but time and effort. Even now, breeding them for the cooking-pot requires little space and cost.
Many Maltese families keep rabbits for their own consumption, in rooftop hutches or in a backyard, sometimes selling the surplus to friends and neighbours. The rabbit's famed ability to procreate rapidly and prolifically means that there have catastrophic results and eventually prove impossible.
Those who cannot bear the process of killing and skinning buy their rabbit in sanitised form at the butcher's, ready portioned for cooking. But going out to eat rabbit has become an entertainment in itself. There is a number of village bars and small restaurants which specialise in preparing fenkati for large parties of merrymakers.
These, for some unexplainable reason, are mainly concentrated in the northern part of Malta, around Rabat, Mgarr, Mellieha, Bahrija, Salina, and Bidnija. Because these places are often no more than village bars with a few tables, both the rabbit and the tables have to be booked in advance. Some do offer alternatives on the menu, for those who feel uneasy at the thought of consuming Peter Rabbit, Cottontail, and Bugs Bunny, but these are usually non-vegetarian, like steak. Even the pasta comes with rabbit sauce.
Rabbit-bars are very popular venues for stag nights, probably because the highly informal atmosphere is conducive to rowdy behaviour. If a quiet evening is what you're after, you might prefer to check beforehand whether your booking coincides with that of the bestman at the wedding.
Most barowners have tales to tell of stag nights which turned into food-throwing matches, and ended with the bridegroom being subjected to some form of ritual humiliation. It is not uncommon to see a naked man, usually a little worse for drink, running around in the vicinity of a Maltese bar which serves rabbit.
Malta still has a few wild rabbits, which are small and grey. Hunting them requires a special licence and much time, so the rabbit served in restaurants is usually farm-reared. Wild rabbits have a strong, gamey taste which many find to be less palatable than that of domestic rabbits, whose flesh is milder and paler. Rabbit meat is considered 'healthy', because it is very lean and contains little saturated fat, unlike red meat. Those who have to watch their cholesterol intake need not worry.
At the Friend-To-All Bar, one of three bars which serve rabbit in Mgarr, Charlie does the cooking. He owns the place, with his wife Rita, and is very insistent because about the freshness of his rabbit. He buys it in three times a week, to meet the demand from tourists and locals. Steak and fish are also available for those who prefer to avoid rabbit, but Rita and Charlie have to be forewarned so as to bring it in specially.
The prices are low: spaghetti with bolognese or rabbit sauce for 50 cents, and a whole rabbit, fried in garlic or stewed in sauce (which serves three with normal appetites or four frugal eaters) for Lm8. Steak or fish is served at around Lm3. Gbejniet (cheese made from goat's milk), Maltese sausage, home-made wine, and fruit and nuts, are included in the price. Charlie believes in value for money. "After all, he says, "we would only be affecting our own popularity if we were to cheat our customers".
The Selmun Bar, near the Maritim Selmun Palace Hotel, has a wider menu which includes fillet, freshly-caught fish, lamb chops, bragoli (a Maltese meat dish), octopus, and sometimes even horsemeat, which is an acquired taste but sought after by some. The main speciality is rabbit, fried in garlic and served with potato chips and cooked vegetables. A sauce is offered separately. The fixed price of Lm4.30 per head also includes spaghetti with rabbit sauce, nuts and fruit, and a glass of local wine.
The bar's proximity to a popular hotel has made it quite a watering-hole for visitors. It featured in a Dutch travel programme, and the young couple who own the place proudly display photographic evidence of this on the walls. Those who go there would do well to avoid food for some hours be- ittle forehand, because the owners do not believe in the accepted fenkata policy of one rabbit for three people. "It all depends on the size of the rabbit," they say.
Your hotel will be able to recommend a choice of bars and restaurants where rabbit is served. Now how about a recipe for you on how to cook a rabbit. GOOD LUCK!!