Every day on our way to school, the snow white silhouette of Sacré Coeur greets us from afar, topping the hill of Montmartre like a sugar coated ornament on an over-dimensional masterpiece of pâtisserie. More often than not the church is draped in an opaque cloud of morning mist, a pinkish hue announcing a good and sunny day. Few landmarks of the city are as familiar to me as the distant sight of Sacré Coeur, yet it took us over a year to finally go up there and visit. And as it´s almost always the case in Paris, it was a walk that somehow led to food.
Breasting Montmartre from the North side is a good way to forget that you´re actually in Paris, for it feels like strolling through a quiet village somewhere in the French countryside. Quite a few of these rural quarters (called villages Parisiens) are scattered all over the city, charming islands of rusticity in the midst of the metropole that proudly preserve the ancient face of the capital. At Montmartre, narrow cobbled streets wind up the hill, past cottage style houses, the local vineyard and the old-established cabaret “Au lapin agile”. Gracing the front wall, said rabbit is about to flee the cooking pot destined for him, all dressed up and cheekily holding a bottle of red. It´s a rabbit with an attitude, defying his fate in the face of certain death – perhaps not unlike the ancient districts defied theirs, defending their original character against the grasp of urbanization.
But maybe that´s a little far fetched and dramatic (in my excuse, the French tend to that), so let´s keep the simple things simple and get back to cooking. A rabbit, a casserole and a bottle of wine mean a scrumptious meal in the first place, and made me think of a dish I hadn´t had in a while: lapin à la provençale, rabbit braised in a ratatouille style red wine sauce. Not exactly what would be served in a fancy Michelin starred restaurant, but comforting, delicious and filled with the scents of Provence – just the kind of dish you´d want to have for dinner on a late summer evening, somewhere in the (Parisian) countryside.
Rabbit with ratatouille (serves 3-4):
1 rabbit, approx. 3 pounds
1 yellow onion
1 small aubergine
1 medium courgette
2 peppers ( 1 red, 1 yellow)
2 or 3 carrots, optional
3-4 medium fleshy/beef tomatoes
3 whole garlic cloves, skin on
a few sprigs of fresh thyme and 1 sprig rosemary
2 bay leaves
approx 1/2 tsp dried lavender buds
1 small glass of red (or rosé) wine, 150 ml approx
salt and pepper
2-3 tbsp mustard
Rub rabbit (cut into pieces – hind legs, back, chest with forelegs or chest and forelegs separated) with mustard and season lighty with salt.
Remove strunk from tomatoes, incise skin crosswise and place in a bowl. Pour very hot water, wait a few minutes until skin can be peeled off easily. Chop coarsely and set aside.
Peel (if needed), cut/slice all the other vegetables except garlic into coarse chunks.
In a large cast iron cocotte, heat 4 tbsp olive oil. Add rabbit and fry on high heat until browned from all sides, 5-7 minutes. Take rabbit out of the pan and reserve on a plate.
Add some more olive oil, fry onion for 2-3 minutes. Add aubergine chunks, continue to fry for 2-3 minutes, add carrots (if using), peppers and zucchini, fry for another 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper.
Return meat to the cocotte, add garlic cloves (whole) and herbs. Deglaze with the wine, reduce for 2 minutes, scraping all the residues from the bottom of the pan. Add chopped tomatoes, and simmer on low-medium heat for approx. 35 minutes, covered, until cooked through.
Adjust seasoning and remove bay leaves before serving. Serve with baguette or couscous.