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May. 16 2019

Lievre a la Royale: A royal pain in the…

“Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea,” I thought. There’s really no other phrase that comes to mind when the bloody, four-pound corpse of a wild animal rests on your kitchen counter, regardless of your original intentions, be they culinary, satanic or somewhere in between. In my case, I was attempting to prepare one of the most famous—and famously difficult—French dishes, Lièvre à la Royale: a wild hare stuffed with foie gras and truffles, braised in a decadent sauce of red wine and its own blood and served atop buttery mashed potatoes.

First harsh realization: A hare is not the same as a rabbit. The meat isn’t white like a rabbit’s, but a deep crimson. And not only is it considerably larger than a rabbit, a hare—after being sprayed with lead shot somewhere in the Scottish countryside, cleaned, frozen, and shipped to me in New York—looks more like a roadkill raccoon. It smells like one, too. My wife, pregnant at the time with our first child, was armed with otherworldly expecting-mother olfactory abilities. She could have smelled the hare when it was still hopping around Scotland.

“Are you sure about this?” she said with contorted face, and quickly retreated to the farthest point in our house from the kitchen.

I was sure. Attempting Lièvre à la Royale was by no means a whim. The dish kept coming up as a subject of personal or professional conversation. Each time, it would trigger some quick research on the dish, its origins or its difficulty. The fact I kept returning to was how Lièvre à la Royale was a favorite of King Louis XIV. I can’t tell you the difference between him and any other French monarch, though it’s safe to assume they all had a taste for excess, no? So how could Lièvre à la Royale possibly be anything other than ethereal? And the process of creating it could be nothing short of a clinic in culinary art, it seemed—especially if you retrace my obsession with Lièvre à la Royale to the beginning, long before I found my kitchen countertop stained with hare blood.

Five or ten years ago

I’d first heard of the dish when, as an editor at Wine Spectator, I was invited to a dinner hosted by French winemaker Jean-Luc Colombo. A celebrated négociant and hired-gun consultant winemaker, Jean-Luc is also a world-renowned party animal. I’d attended a couple of his gatherings, one on a Manhattan rooftop and the other aboard a boat off the coast of Arcachon, France, where Jean-Luc shucked oysters, served caviar in ice-cream-size scoops, and dolloped and spread foie gras like it was peanut butter. Alas, I was unable to attend one dinner in New York where he’d convinced a restaurant to make Lièvre à la Royale for his guests and serve it alongside his critically acclaimed Cornas.

Cornas is the small slice of France’s Northern Rhône Valley that, depending on whom you ask, is the best spot in the world for Syrah. The wines are as complex as they come, marrying flavors and aromas of fruit, flowers, and peppery spice, with a subtle note of cured meat. As it happens, a Cornas red is the classic pairing for Lièvre à la Royale—and Jean-Luc crafts the very best Cornas.

I interviewed Jean-Luc for Wine Spectator, and in the conversation he was adamant that when making wine, he always thinks about the situation in which it will be enjoyed and the food it should be served with. That guides his every decision, from when to pick the grapes, to the yeast strain he chooses for fermentation, to how long the wine will age in an oak barrel. Essentially, he always aims to create the perfect Cornas to uncork with Lièvre à la Royale. Of course, I had to attempt it.

Finding a hare online proved no problem, and then the recipe research began. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to be found online in English—and not even in French. I eventually stumbled across a couple of French YouTube videos, both of which made the process of deboning the hare appear relatively impossible to untrained hands such as mine. A chicken, I can do. But a hare? Watching a French chef struggle with tweezers as he avoided piercing the meat was enough to scare me straight. There was no chance I’d be able to manage a successful deboning without making my kitchen look like the carnage in a John Wick movie.

Keeping the meat intact is critical. Think of Lièvre à la Royale like beef wellington, only with hare meat in lieu of puff pastry, and the foie gras, truffles, and giblets where the beef tenderloin would go. The hare meat is laid out flat, the stuffing placed on top, and then you roll it up and wrap it in cheesecloth for braising. Just like a wellington, you slice Lièvre à la Royale crosswise, then serve. But if you penetrate the meat even a little during the deboning, you need to call Scotland for a new hare.

Then, a revelation. I saw an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown in which he was treated to Lièvre à la Royale in an ice fishing shack by famous Montreal restaurateurs David McMillan and Fred Morin, owners of Joe Beef. Not only was their version of Lièvre à la Royale deconstructed, it wasn’t a roulade like the classic preparation I’d been researching. Upon further digging I learned that a different, spoonable version of the recipe had been created for Louis XIV after he’d lost all his teeth (that sexy beast). I even found a French YouTube video of a special Lièvre à la Royale dinner where both preparations, the classic and for the toothless, were served side by side. Both versions take at least two days to prepare, but the latter—requiring a long, slow braise in which the meat falls off the bone—I could pull off … maybe. And fortunately, Joe Beef’s recipe was available online.

It’d require the full 48 hours, dozens of ingredients (who has juniper berries and pig trotters on hand, anyway?), two different sauces (one to hold the meat together, the other a finishing sauce on top), and an insane amount of patience and perseverance.

Showtime: T minus 48 hours

So there the hare was, and here I was, first trying to figure out how the heck this thing was going to fit into my largest stockpot. It wouldn’t. So I held my breath (and nose), and set about dismembering the animal, crudely. My knifework resembled that of the fictional serial killer Dexter had he been trying to shake off the effects of hallucinogens and an inner ear infection. I learned nothing of leporid anatomy—only of my own limitations.

The hare, red wine, and a host of other ingredients stewed in my oven for the next several hours, filling the house with a scent that some would call gamey, others would describe as New Jerseyian. My wife left for most of the day. I hid from my own concoction in the basement. Eventually, with some open windows and an open mind, I returned to the kitchen and was able to separate the meat from the bones, shred it, and begin work on the first sauce.

Be my guest! T minus 2 hours

When dinnertime and our guests arrived the next evening, I was still hard at work. For the toothless version of the recipe, I had to form the shredded meat into two burger patties per person, sear a lobe of foie gras for each, sandwich it between the patties, then wrap them in caul fat netting to hold everything together as it roasted in the oven.

That small Tupperware on the counter? Oh, ignore that. It’s the hare’s blood I’ll need for the finishing sauce. Yes, it’s been in the fridge for two days, and yes, I’m going to whisk it with egg yolks—you might want to look away—before I add it to the pan with red wine, yesterday’s cooking jus that stunk up the fridge, heavy cream, butter, brandy and red wine vinegar. Just bear with me.

Despite my best efforts and the hood fan set to the highest speed, the feral smell—who am I kidding calling it “gamey” at this point?—permeated every corner of our house. I’d like to say my guests didn’t mention it on their arrival … but how could they not?

Wow. Smells…interesting.

Two hours later

It’d be nice to claim that when it came time to place each person’s portion on the table, the dish was met with oohs and ahs. But it was more a sense of, “Are we doing this? We are, aren’t we … ” The momentary delight of fresh black truffles atop a dish can only go so far in disguising the climate of the room: genuine, heartfelt concern and trepidation.

In truth, plates were not cleaned ravenously, and were instead picked at precariously. The Cornas flowed more continuously than it probably would have, perhaps to numb the senses a bit—and this is also why I can’t really recall with any specific detail everyone’s reactions to my two days of labor and five years of research and longing. Clear as yesterday, I remember every detail of the work that went into my Lièvre à la Royale. The consumption of it? Not so much.

Will I ever attempt it again? Definitely not. But today I can sear a slab of foie gras perfectly. Slice a truffle paper thin with a chef’s knife? No problem. Reduce and adjust a sauce to just the right consistency? I’m no saucier, but I’m confident.

In fact, a small container of the sanguine finishing sauce still sits in my freezer to this day, several years later. Every so often, on a refrigerator cleanout, my wife asks, “What is this again? Do you need it?”

Yes, yes I do. It serves as a semi-regular reminder that, as Morin mentions to Bourdain in the ice-fishing shack, “painful nostalgia” is, in itself, the greatest reward of a certain kind of undertaking. The journey and the process are what matter. The end result, though possibly satisfying, isn’t the place to find meaning—no matter how many truffles you pile on.

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