Down the Rarebit Hole… Or Is That Rabbit?
“This is ’cause I know you like rabbits, and I know you like cheese.”
It’s cold here. It’s really frickin’ cold, and windy, and earlier today an unexpected shower meant that I got absolutely drenched while walking my dog. He seemed to enjoy it. I did not. After I dried off (including the peeling-off of the wet skinny jeans, which we all know is one of the most horrible feelings in the world) and thawed myself out with some tea, I started thinking about warming comfort foods. In my mind, most of the foods that fall into this mental category involve cheese, and I suppose that’s how I ended up thinking, Hmmm. Welsh rarebit.
What is Welsh rarebit? It’s sort of a cheese toastie (or grilled cheese, to my friends across the pond) but with added oomph. It’s like a regular toastie ended up on Pimp My Ride but they added beer and Worcestershire sauce instead of putting televisions in silly places. It’s an old recipe, and nobody is sure exactly where or when it originated. We do know that it was originally called Welsh rabbit, despite the fact that there’s absolutely no rabbit meat involved (even Anya from Buffy – notoriously terrified of bunnies – could chow down on this without freaking out.)
The term “Welsh rabbit” was first recorded in 1725, with “Welsh rarebit,” a corruption, not surfacing until sixty years later. The OED states that ‘Welsh rarebit’ is an “etymologising alteration. There is no evidence of the independent use of rarebit”. From what I can see on Ye Olde Internet, there are many people who feel strongly about this (oooh, something new and unusual for the Internet) and firmly believe that the dish should still be known as Welsh rabbit. As the grammarian H. W. Fowler grumbled in his 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage, “Welsh Rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong.” (I’ll use “rabbit” for the rest of this article so that Fowler can rest easy, but I promise that nary a bunny was harmed in the writing of this article. This is not Fatal Attraction.)
It’s likely that the word “Welsh” was used in a derogatory manner by the English, who considered their neighbours to be foreign, uncultured and inferior; the use of the word “rabbit” may have been a reference to Welshmen being unable to afford even that cheapest and most common of meats. However, the name could alternatively have been based on the common notion that Welshmen were inordinately fond of cheese. Way back in 1542, in his 1542 Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge (pretty grandiose title there), Andrew Boorde wrote “I am a Welshman, I do love cause boby, good roasted cheese” – “cause boby” here is the Welsh caws pobi, meaning “baked cheese.”
There’s also a 16th century tale (very evidently written by an Englishman) in which God asked St. Peter to get rid of all the Welsh from heaven because they were too rowdy. St. Peter was all like “I’m on it, God” and marched outside the Pearly Gates, where he bellowed “Caws pobi!” All the Welshmen in heaven ran out in hungry excitement, and mean old St. Peter slammed the gates shut behind them. None of them got any cheese, and now there are no Welshmen left in Paradise. Harsh, man.
I’d never made or eaten a Welsh rabbit before, but I’ve been thinking about it (well, prevaricating about it) for years, on and off. I got Googling, trying to figure out what exactly to put in it. Das Internet revealed a plethora of variations, some including things like flour, egg yolks, wine and breadcrumbs. I was unsure about much of this, but I thought the use of egg seemed like a great idea for softening the cheese and making it oozy and spreadable. Jamie Oliver is often my first point of call for recipes, because I find him reassuringly reliable, but I didn’t really see the point of his crème fraiche, and he hadn’t added any beer. I wanted the beer. I searched further.
Worcestershire sauce was a definite and, being in love with wholegrain mustard, that was going in too. I didn’t think much else was necessary, and I decided to keep it simple seeing as this was my first rabbit: I wanted to see how this one turned out before I began tinkering with chillies and cayenne. I did, however, allow myself to use an unusual choice of bread: onion sourdough, purchased from my favourite bakery (the amazing Firehouse Bakery in my nearby Delgany Village). I reckoned the texture of the bread, and its firm crusts, would hold together perfectly, and the sweetness of the caramelised onions would work with the stronger flavours of the beer and cheese.
As I searched, I discovered that some recipes, like Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s, call for the cheesy sauce to be based on a roux, while others are more loosely structured. I went with my gut feeling and opted to follow good aul Hugh, and the following method is my combination of three or four different recipes, all found online. I like to keep things local where possible, so this is more of an Irish rabbit I suppose, using local cheddar from Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese and a lovely dark Irish stout in place of regular beer. The result was a dark and oozy sauce, with a nice bitterness from the beer to balance the richness of the cheese and the egg. (If you’re not a fan of bitter beers, I’d suggest something smoother, like maybe a red ale.) When the rabbits were browned and bubbling on top, I piled some of my mate Nikki’s best tomato and chilli chutney on top (I love how my girls keep my fridge stocked with homemade treats), and sat down with my BFF Jules to stuff our faces and talk about the important things in life, like Netflix and how our dogs look like they match.
First grab these:
- 4 thick slices of good quality bread (I used an onion sourdough)
- 50g butter
- 50g flour
- 150ml beer, ale or stout (I used O’Hara’s Irish Stout)
- 150g meltable cheese (I used Wicklow Gold Cheddar from Wicklow Farmhouse Cheese)
- 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons wholegrain mustard
- 1 egg, beaten
Now do this:
- Toast the bread very lightly on both sides, and then put to one side.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over a medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour to make a roux.
- Warm the beer in the microwave for a minute or so, just so it’s lukewarm. Add it to the saucepan bit by bit, whisking it into the roux.
- Add in the grated cheese and keep whisking gently until a smooth sauce is formed. Spoon in the Worcestershire sauce and mustard, and crack in a good load of black pepper.
- When everything’s melted together, take the saucepan off the heat and add the egg very slowly, whisking steadily to avoid scrambling.
- Pour a thick layer of cheese sauce onto each slice of bread and pop them under the grill (broiler). When they’re brown and bubbling on top, pile the slices on a platter and serve with your favourite chutney and the leftover beer.
[All images featured are property of Jocelyn Doyle.]
Have you ever tried a rabbit/rarebit, or do you have your own special recipe? If you have any thoughts on food names, melted cheese, rabbits, Welshmen or how much of a meanie St, Peter is, feel free to leave them below.