The breeding and hunting of rabbit is a Maltese tradition which was established by the Knights of St. John. It was a regulated pastime where a licence was even imposed to permit one to hunt rabbit in the fields and valleys of rural Malta. A noble sport for fellow gentleman to meet and enjoy their quest to shoot and catch some wild rabbit.
After a successful day of hunting, cooks were put to task to butcher and cook a feast of rabbit. Born was the tradition of a ‘Fenkata‘, what we refer to in Maltese as a meal with rabbit.
There seems to be no indication of how a meal consisting of rabbit meat came into being. Yet it is now possible to appreciate how the early modern Maltese preferred to cook it.
Thanks to the evidence of Mastro Vincenzo Azzopardi, we gain a clear picture of how rabbit meat was prepared and eaten at the turn of the seventeenth century. The Apulian painter Gio. Mattheo Stagno is depicted as an exceptionally greedy individual who was grasso (fat) and consumed all sorts of food. He had a particular craving for meat which he ate even during Lent time.
On one occasion he scandalized his companions amongst whom the Florentine painter Filippo Paladini, Mastro Vincenzo Azzopardi and the Greek Papas Janni, since he consumed pezzi di coniglio e pasticcio di carne (pieces of rabbit and meat pastries).
Later, Stagno explained to the Inquisitor that he ate meat since it was prescribed by his physician. Stagno pointed out that he was a ‘familiar’ of Grand Master Verdalle (1582-1595) and continued to receive la pitanza (the pittance) for twelve years, until the death of that Grand Master.
The ‘pittance’ was, in reality, food left over from the Grand Master’s table which was then distributed to the familiars by the Mastro di Casa (house steward) of the palace. This means that the food had to be taken away and therefore, as the evidence given by Azzopardi seems to suggest, must in all probability have consisted of pasticcio di carne (meat pastries or pies).
Further evidence of consumption of rabbit-meat pies emerges in the case of Claretta Sguro. In 1603 Sguro was accused of having entered into the property of the noble Antonio Inguanes in the village of Dingli, together with a group of friends.
The party had a meal consisting of meat, cheeses and eggs – on lean days prohibited by the Catholic Church. Sguro said in her evidence that she was the only one who had such a meal, and insisted that she ate meat out of necessity, since it was prescribed by the doctor and approved by the Vicar General of the diocese. She reported to have consumed un pastizzo de carne de Coniglio (a pie with filling consisting of rabbit meat), some eggs and some ricotta (cottage cheese).
The Feast of L-Imnarja
Modern Maltese society often associates the eating of rabbit meat with the agricultural festival held on the eve of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, traditionally known as Mnarja, and celebrated at Boschetto, in the limits of Rabat. On this occasion, Maltese peasants congregate in the Boschetto and spend the night dancing and enjoying themselves, ‘in part of the garden where there was a very spacious grotto’.
This area, still central to the Mnarja festive activities, was already immensely popular in the late eighteenth century, as De Boisgelin recalls in 1804. There is no reference which suggests that the celebrants ate any rabbit meat. Yet we are told that ‘each family was seated under a tree, and partook of a meal, the principal dish of which was a pie’. Possibly in 1804 rabbit meat was still being eaten in the form of a pie rather than stewed, or fried as we commonly do today.
Although writers of the early British period, like De Boisgelin make no reference to the popularity of rabbit meat, it seems that the British facilitated hunting activities as soon as they set foot on Malta. This a decree dated 30 January 1801 enumerated five privileges that were to be granted to those who joined the militia.
One of these allowed volunteers to carry a musket for hunting purposes without having to apply for a permit. The edict seems to have remained in force despite the fact that two years later the Secretary of the Royal Commissioner directed, in another edict, that the old hunting laws were to remain in force.
The fact that militiamen were allowed to carry guns meant that they could hunt at will. By 1838, G.P. Badger was able to assert that the main pastime of young men seems to have been that of shooting birds. Rabbit hunting would have been an obvious pastime which did not have to wait for the migratory seasons.
One presumes that rabbit-meat continued to serve as the most available source of meat for peasants at a time when there was a sharp lowering of the standard of living. It might be that with the dwindling of the rabbit population in the countryside, the peasants took to the breeding of rabbits, a custom which might also have spread to the urban lower classes during the nineteenth century.
The availability of rabbit meat to all social levels seems to have enabled fenkata (rabbit stew) to become the acceptable meat dish to all Maltese, particularly of the rural population. This situation may have prompted a correspondent of ‘The Daily Malta Chronicle’ to write in 1930 that, ‘… For very many years the breeding and rearing of rabbits has been regarded as an occupation, bordering on a pastime… the breeding of rabbits for food consumption is common with the peasantry of most countries…’.
It also explains the relative popularity of rabbit hunting in modern time. A parliamentary question to the Minister of the Interior in May 1994 indicates a total of 294 licenses for wild rabbit hunting in Malta and Gozo.
Photos courtesy of The Malta Tourism Authority.
Text above is an excerpt from research thanks to Carmel Cassar – Fenkata: An Emblem of Maltese Resistance? (1994)