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Last week I suggested that Puglia majored in vegetables but meat was a subsidiary module. There was certainly not much in evidence in the market in Ostuni. A short walk around several corners, however, led us to a serious butcher. The refrigerated counter included bits of horse, sausages, goat, beef and pork, all of apparently peerless quality. On the shelf behind was a range of salami, that made from donkey eliciting special interest from members of our party.

Despite this plenitude, I was on a mission. I wanted rabbit. My request for coniglio was met in the most affirmative terms. There was a little chortle from the gentleman at the back of the shop. I was shown a magnificent plump rabbit. After consultation with my host I resolved that we needed three such beauties. The gentleman at the back chortled even louder and might even have stamped his foot with pleasure. I asked what provoked this glee. They were his rabbits and he only brought them in this morning. When did he kill them? This morning, of course, all 20. Since it was still only 10.30am, those bunnies must have met their fate long before sunrise but, judging by their condition, hitherto they must have lived a happy life.

I was hoping to barbecue the bunnies but the weather did not sanction it. I stewed them with pasta instead. I apologised to a local restaurateur who had come for dinner, saying that I knew it was bad form to serve pasta with the main course. Nonsense, he said, down here we do it all the time. He may have been being polite.

We bought the orecchiette, made by hand that morning. A day later we wandered through Bari, sightseeing, and happened on a little lane where trays of freshly made pasta – almost all orecchiette – were placed outside small dark doorways. An old lady popped out of one of them and beckoned us in to watch her at work. An even older lady was sitting at the table, rolling out cylinders of dough for the first lady to cut and shape into little ears with extraordinary dexterity. There was barely enough room for us all in the tiny space but we were duly photographed with these artisans and felt like intrepid pioneers. As we made our goodbyes and obligatory little purchases, the first lady thanked us for coming and then vouchsafed the information that “Jamie Oliver was here last year”. We felt a little less intrepid after that.

Rabbit with orecchiette

Indolence, lack of equipment and theft of one or two ingredients by my fellow cook led me to improvise this dish. I think we were all pleased with the result. I have scaled it down to a meal suitable for six.

1 plump rabbit, weighing at least 1.8kg
100ml olive oil
6 cloves garlic
3 red chillies
4 tomatoes
1 bunch spring onions
250ml white wine
1 sprig of rosemary
3 strips of lemon peel
750g orecchiette
  1. A little butchery is required, either by you or the butcher. Cut off the hindquarters with a straight cut down at the back of the saddle, then split the legs apart. Cut off the forequarters with another straight cut at the other end of the saddle, split the forequarter in two with a large knife or cleaver and finish by cutting the saddle in two. Season the pieces well before coating in olive oil. Place them in a large ovenproof dish in a preheated oven (200C) for 20 minutes.
  2. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Split the chillies, remove the seeds and pith and slice finely. Remove the stalks and blanch the tomatoes in boiling water for 20 seconds, refresh in cold and then peel. Cut them in half, remove the seeds and cut the bulb into centimetre-sized squares. Trim the spring onions and cut them into rounds.
  3. Stir the garlic and chillies into the oil around the rabbit pieces and put back in the oven for two or three minutes. Add the wine, rosemary, lemon peel and tomato, season and braise at 170C for a further 20 minutes. The rabbit should be just cooked through and an aromatic and piquant sauce have formed. Dilute with a little stock or water if required.
  4. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. If using fresh orecchiette, cook until they come to the boil. Dried orecchiette will take 8-10 minutes. Drain when cooked and then add to the rabbit. Mix together on the stove, checking seasoning and sprinkling the spring onions over. Take to the table and serve.

Rowley’s drinking choice

Negroamaro from Salice Salentino (the heel of the boot) can be surprisingly temperate and mineral with a salty tang. Best served cool but perfect for the piquant rabbit.

Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais


Photograph: Andy Sewell

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