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Is it Welsh Rabbit or Rarebit? 
Is it edible? And what intriguing utensils are involved in its cookery that would bring it to this column? Depending on the length of your memory, you may recognize it as a kind of melted cheese on toast and may even recall having wondered, as I did in my youth, what all the fuss was about. Eighteenth-century English cookbooks reveal that it was then considered to be a luscious supper or tavern dish, based on the fine cheddar-type cheeses and the wheat breads, which were central to English cuisine. Surprisingly, it seems there was not only a Welsh Rabbit, but also an English Rabbit, an Irish and a Scotch Rabbit, but nary a rarebit. Carried to the New World by colonists, it survived through most of the nineteenth-century in its many forms with such names as Toasted Cheese, or Yorkshire Golden Buck. By the late 1800s it had achieved elevated status as rarebit, one of the period's newly-fashionable and often pretentious chafing dish presentations. Although the rabbits by any name boasted slight variations, the theme was the same--lovely toasted melted cheeses.

Despite their similarities, the original Rabbits took a more luxurious form than the modern American melted cheese sandwich or French Crocque Monsieur, resembling Swiss Fondues or Raclettes more than anything. Their ingredients were simplicity itself, as the cheese itself was the star. Traditionally a good Cheshire was enhanced by the addition of wine, ale, or beer, mustard, salt or pepper. In its later Ameri can forms, eggs and milk replaced the wine and ales, perhaps because of the temperance movement and the dish's place in family suppers. Likewise blends of mild and strong cheeses were suggested to balance flavor and meltability, and thereby approached the white and bland character dictated by the culinary ideals of the day.

Rustling up a Rabbit two hundred years ago required a virtual circus of technologies and the pressing into service of a whatever you had at hand. You would need, at the very least, a toaster to cradle and heat the slices of wheat manchet (white bread) or common dark loaf, sliced and toasted slowly to a perfect stage of golden crispness. The English were serious about their toasts, one of the key culinary forms of their early cookery. They did various kinds of toasting calculated to bring out appropriate textures and flavors, according to a recipe's requirements. Mrs. Martha Bradley's directions for Rabbit (The British Housewife, London. 1755) specified "Bread crisp and soft." The toaster she would have used was a long-handled, swiveling, four-legged open cage of wrought iron. She would have propped it on the hearth before the fire with bread slices slipped into its slots.When the bread was toasted an one side, the cage was spun 180 degrees to do the other side. Long, slow toasting for hard toasts required several turns.

Next the crisp toast was arranged on a plate or platter, sometimes with crusts removed, sometimes buttered, and sometimes sprinkled with ale or wine. Over this you arranged the cheese or cheese mixture.

Now consider the cheese. Some early recipes asked the cook to cut or shave the cheese in slivers for melting, with or without beer or wine. Others simply required an intact slab for direct toasting. In the first case, the cheese might be piled on the toast and melted in a tin reflecting oven at the fireside, or melted with wine or ale in a small pipkin (ceramic or bronze saucepan). Slabs of cheese were sometimes toasted, in a buttered dish over which a heated implement was passed. This kept the cheese in its slab shape and firm enough to flip it and toast on the other side. In either case, most Rabbits were given a final toasting, during which the surface bubbled slightly and a lovely golden-brown glaze formed.

The tool of choice for this was, the salamander. This mystically-named implement was a thick plate of iron attached to a long handle with two feet, or rests, arranged near the heavy end for propping into the heat. Its purpose was to absorb and hold a substantial quantity of heat so that when it was passed, glowing red, over a dish such as Rabbit it would in effect broil it quickly. Its name apparently refers to the small red woodland amphibian which, according to ancient legend, could survive a fire and return to life, phoenix-like. Certainly the shape of the implement suggests the little creature, its glowing red body, long tail, and feet. Antique salamanders are most elusive today, suggesting that they were not staple cookware in the past. I see a number of "slices" and "peels" called salamanders in apparent ignorance of their need to hold intense heat (usually by people unfamiliar with cooking or hearth cooking experience--a plug for combining documentary sources with hands-on information)
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Adapted from J. Seymour Lindsay,
“Iron and Brass Implements of the English House”, London, 1970


Not everyone owned a salamander. Presumably it was a highly specialized tool, originally expensive because of its considerable mount of iron. However, the was not enough to deter one's craving for a rabbit, as you might make do with more plebeian tools. As Mrs. Bradley suggested, "Put a Salamander in the Fire, or a large Poker, or the Bottom of a Fire-Shovel heated red hot will do." With comparable versatility, the recipe adapted well also to early tin reflecting ovens, dutch ovens, chafing dishes, and table braziers; today the ubiquitous toaster oven does the job well.

Once prepared, it was essential that the dish be served up and eaten quickly, as the Rabbit was at its best hot and melted. Now the wealthy had an advantage, as their plates could be preheated in a fireside plate warmer, an open-backed, shelved metal box on legs. And they could use water platters with hollow bottoms designed to hold boiling water and fitted with high domed lids.

With the flexibility of its technology, Rabbit was a dish that could be eaten by anyone who could afford the cheese. Surely, the better quality cheeses produced better Rabbits ,but a modest batterie de cuisine was no obstacle. Then as now, it had the virtue of requiring very little preparation time, and therefore was appropriate to light supper demands or tavern needs.

Which brings us to the mystery of its name. Why Welsh Rabbit? According to "Toasted Cheese and St. Peter," an early fourteenth-century tale by Boorde, the Welsh were turned out of heaven because they were babbling and undeserving. St. Peter lured them out by calling "Caws Pobi, Caws Pobi" ("roasted cheese") and thereby earned for himself the post of Porter of Heaven.

The following early recipes need very little changing in a modern kitchen. Where it says salamander, think broiler or toaster oven. Despite what sounds like daunting cooking equipment, the modern cook will have very little trouble adapting from these almost interchangeable procedures.
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A Welch Rabbit

Cut a handfome Piece of Bread and an even Slice of Cheefe, let the Bread be of the Shape of the Cheefe, put a little larger every Way. Put a salamander in the Fire, or a large Poker, or the Bottom of a Fire-Shovel heated red hot will do.
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A Scotch Rabbit

Cut a Slice of Cheefe very large and handfome, cut a Slice of Bread, without Cruft, juft of the Size of the Cheefe; I toaft the Bread an both Sides, and butter it, then toaft the Cheefe on both Sides, and lay it evenly upon the Toaft and Butter. Send it up hot without Muftard. This fhould be made larger than the Welch Rabbit, and fent up fingle, one in a Plate, as that fhould be two.
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An Englifh Rabbit.

Cut a handfome Toaft of Bread without Cruft, and have a good Quantity Cheefe very fine.
Set a Tin Oven before the Fire, and have in Readinefs a Glafs of red Port Wine.
Toaft the Bread carefully on both Sides, then pour the Wine upon it, and turn it.
When it has foaked up the Wine fpread the fcraped Cheefe thick upon it, lay it in the Oven, and place it before a good Fire; the Cheefe will do very quickly and very finely. 
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Stewed Cheefe on Bread

Cut a large Slice of Bread of fuch a Shape as to lie handfomely in the Bottom of a Plate without filling it up; a Round of a threepenny Loaf, with the Cruft pared thin off, is very proper; toaft this carefully and lay it on a Plate, pour on it half a Glafs of red Wine, turn it, pour an another half Glafs, and then fet it before the Fire that it may keep warm while the Chafe is doing. Rub the Bottom of a Pewter Plate with Butter, cut tome Cheefe in moderately thin Slices, fpread thefe evenly upon the Plate, then pour in a Quarter of a Glafs of white Wine. Cover the Plate with another, and fet it over fome hot Coals in a Chaffing-difh; let it ftand about four Minutes and it will be very well done. Put a Shovel on the Fire to be red hot; ftir in a little Muftard among the ftewed Cheefe, fpread it carefully upon the Bread, and then brown it by moving the red hot Bottom of the Shovel flowly over it. Send it up hot.
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Her English Rabbit (somewhat richer)

Cut a handsome Toast of Bread without Crust, and shave a good Quantity of Cheese very fine.
Set a Tin Oven before the Fire, and have in Readiness a Glass of red Port Wine.
Toast the Bread carefully on both Sides, then pour the Wine upon it and turn it.
When it has soaked up the Wine spread the scraped Cheese thick upon it, lay it in the Oven, and place it before a good fire; the Cheese will do very quickly and finely.
Send it up very hot..
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Mrs. Bradley's Welch Rabbit (London: 1756)

Cut a handsome piece of Bread and an even Slice of Cheese, let the Bread be of the Shape of the Cheese, but a little larger every Way. Put a Salamander in the fire, or a large Poker, or the Bottom of a Fire-Shovel will do. While the Iron is heating toast the Bread carefully on both Sides, without making it hard or burning it. Then toast the Cheese on one Side, lay the Bread in a Plate, lay the Cheese upon it with the toasted Side downwards, hold the red hot Iron over the other Side to toast and brown that.
Put a little Mustard on it, and send it up very hot. Two should go up together.
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Alice Ross brings 25 years as a dedicated food professional teacher, writer, researcher and collector to her Hearth Studios, at which she teaches workshops in various aspects of hearth, woodstove and brick oven cookery. She has served as consultant in historical food for such noted museums as Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and The Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. Ross wrote her doctoral dissertation in food history at the State University at Stony Brook. Currently, she is involved in a major kitchen report on Rock Hall Museum, a 1770’s Georgian mansion on Long Island. Dr. Ross’ e-mail address is aross@binome.com. Her web site is www.li.net/~aross
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