I didn't catch the hare; I found it lying by the side of the road after midnight as I drove back from a comedy gig in Bath. I was only 300 metres from home when I saw this soft, golden pile of fur curled up at the bottom of the hedgerow and I hit the brakes sharply. My fear was that it was a dog but it was a hare -- an exquisite, elegant long-legged, great-eared beast, still warm and limp.
I admit that I lifted it into my arms and held it for a while, rocking back and forward as if comforting a baby. It was clearly dead -- its eyes wide open and a few drops of blood around its head -- but it felt as though some of the life-essence still remained.
Hares are sacred beasts. Here on Dartmoor, the Three Hares Trail leads you from church to church to see the bosses of hares joined at the centre by their ears. Of course, hare magic far pre-dates Christianity but the old ways creep into the new ways and, if allowed, meld into a deeper sacred heart that honours the land and its deep magic.
As I held the hare, and blessed him, I knew that I was going to take him home, dress and cook him. This death must not be wasted but appreciated and honoured by giving it, if not a reason, a value.
If you've read this blog before, you'll know that I've learnt to pluck and dress pheasant, grouse and duck since moving to Devon but a hare was a whole new challenge.
As it was after midnight, I hung him by his back legs in the garage (I'd seen rabbits hung that way in butchers when I was a child) and prayed for his delight in the Happy Hunting Grounds (though whether that's the right terminology for a prey animal, I somehow doubt...).
In the morning, thanks to some appallingly badly-framed videos on YouTube, I had a vague idea of how to do it and set about skinning and gutting the beast on our front porch to the rapt fascination of both our beagles.
Beagles, of course, are bred to chase hares and our younger one, Biggle, will go careering off for hours across the fields whenever she gets the scent. She's a reject from the Warwickshire hunt because she would never kill one but oh, the temptation! She tried several times to annex what she must have perceived to be my kill. It was very gentle, the respectful request for a leg of her own to chew and when I said, 'no' she backed away, knowing that the Alpha Bitch had spoken.
But, oh my goodness, gutting a pheasant and gutting a hare are worlds apart. I was pleased that I handled it well as the spiralling slippery mass fell out. The skin and innards, I put on the common to be of use to the local wildlife and, the jointed carcass came into the kitchen for a much harder task: to be turned into food that a family that had never tasted hare would appreciate.
Luckily, one of the prizes for getting to the finals of the Bath New Comedy award the previous night was a couple of bottles of cider so our hare was suitably 'jugged' in those and left to simmer for hours in the Rayburn together with apples, onions, garlic and lardons.
Served with creamy mashed potatoes and peas, he was delicious -- and continued to be so for five further meals. Maybe, at this rate, one day I will truly be a countrywoman!
*The quotation 'First catch your hare' is attributed to the Georgian cookery writer, Hannah Glasse, but, as with so many of these things, is purely apocryphal.
The photograph of a hare at the top of this article is by Michal Zacharzewski.
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