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A History of Rabbit in Malta

A History of Rabbit in Malta

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We take a closer look at one of Malta’s most enduring culinary legacies, and examine its fascinating relationship with the islands’ population

The origins of rabbit in Malta are thought to date back some three and a half thousand years, with the mammal most likely introduced to the archipelago by the Phoenicians — a civilisation that existed from approximately 1500 BC to 300 AD situated on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, primarily in modern-day Lebanon. It is thought the Phoenicians brought the animal to Malta from its natural habitat on the Iberian Peninsula, in order to secure access to fresh meat while stopping off in the islands mid-journey across the Mediterranean.

Malta’s first breed of rabbit, which came to be known as Tax-Xiber, held its place as the country’s dominant species until the introduction of the New Zealand White and Californian breeds much later. Recognisable by its sandy appearance, Malta’s local rabbit is now thought to be on the brink of extinction due to the overwhelming commercial popularity and prevalence in the modern day of these other breeds. While wild rabbits are still relatively common in Malta, they remain elusive — preferring to venture out for food at dawn or dusk due to centuries of being hunted.

During the rule of the Knights of St John, various restrictions were placed on the hunting and consumption of rabbit, with meat primarily reserved for Malta’s ruling elite — the local population instead mainly subsisting on a diet of bread, fish and vegetables. Due to the lack of widespread public access to this famously prodigious breeder, by the second half of the 18th century, Malta’s rabbit population had exploded in number, leading to widespread crop degradation and a revolt known as the ‘Rising of the Priests’ in 1773. Three years later, in 1776, these restrictions were eased, allowing rabbits to be hunted on private property and, due to huge numbers, introducing a readily available and cost-effective source of meat to the local population.

In the modern day, fenkata (rabbit stew) is a Maltese favourite, typically served across two courses including a rabbit ragu and spaghetti starter, before a main course consisting of either fried or boiled rabbit served with chips or roasted potatoes. Often taking place as part of a celebration, the serving of fenkata is a sociable occasion, and, like most good meals, is traditionally washed down with generous servings of red wine.

Those wishing to experience this delicious Maltese dish are advised to visit the west of Malta in particular, with the areas of Mgarr, Rabat and Bahrija known for their excellent restaurants serving sumptuous and hearty fenek fare.

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