I spend at least thirty percent of my waking hours thinking about rabbits, so I am surprised that it has taken this long for me to write about them. As you may or may not know, I raise rabbits for meat (unapologetically—I am not going to use this article to defend myself for eating a nutritious, humanely raised, humanely slaughtered, sustainable, and delicious protein). I have a few does and an energetic little buck that provide my garden, life, and mind with endless nourishment and entertainment.
Rabbits have been documented as a domesticated food source as early as 1000B.C. in
the time of the Phoenicians. It was the Romans who have been credited with spreading rabbit populations from their origins in what is Spain and Northern Africa today to the rest of Europe. During the Middle Ages, rabbitries were extremely popular in monasteries where monks developed the practice of breeding wild European rabbits for certain genetic traits such as color, size, and reproductive rate. Rabbits were introduced to Great Britain in the 13th century where the popularized the methods of raising them in large enclosures known as warrens, or on a small island free of predator. This system for raising rabbits was carried over to the United States, giving Coney Island its name—originally it was called “Conney Isle,” Conney being an old Dutch term for rabbit. Rabbits continue to be cultivated for food in large scale all around the world today. One of the most significant benefits of raising meat rabbits is that they are highly efficient in terms of reproduction (legendary, I would say) and converting feed into edible protein. The countries with the highest rabbit consumption per capita are Malta, then Italy, Cyprus, and France. The countries with the highest rabbit production in the world are China, followed by Italy, then Spain. Because rabbit is widely regarded by relief organizations as one the most efficient and viable solutions to improving food security in struggling nations, many programs are in effect globally to implement and promote rabbit farming in such environments.
Devil’s Gulch Ranch co-owner and operator, rabbit guru (she calls it having “furry thumbs”) Myriam Kaplan-Pasternak oversees just such a project in Haiti and in other developing countries. She says that through educating people on how to farm rabbit helps them to “to empower their lives…to help people help themselves end world poverty and hunger.”
One of my first experiences eating rabbit was coincidentally a Devil’s Gulch rabbit at Berkeley’s famed Chez Panisse. It was my birthday, and I had rabbit fricassee and champagne, a truly transcendent experience. It was sweet, delicate, and juicy. At Devil’s Gulch in Marin County, Myriam’s furry thumbs produce a breed of rabbit using the two most commonly farmed varieties of rabbit for meat, the New Zealand and Californian breeds, with a less common meat variety, the Rex. They believe that the Rex, though it slows the growth rate of the animal, improves both the flavor and the temperament of the rabbit.
The property of Devil’s Gulch Ranch, so named for the dangerous gulch that divides Nicacio Valley and
Paper Mill Creek, has been used for ranching since the 19th century, and the original barn from 1876 is still used in ranch operations. Mark Pasternak, Myram’s husband and partner in the farm operations, purchased what is now Devil’s Gulch Ranch in 1971. Since then, then ranch has been the producer of Yorkshire-Duroc and Yorkshire-Berkshire pork, quail, high performance horses, and rabbits, all considered to be some of the very finest available in California. Myriam, a UC Davis Veterinary Medicine alumnus, joined his operation in 1987.
Learn more about Devil’s Gulch Ranch, their relief efforts, and their educational programs on their website.
Most photo credits to Brooke Gray Photography.