The quirky name of a delicious dish; I just had to find out more about the name. For those not familiar with the dish, it is a savory sauce of melted cheese and ale, poured over toasted bread. What is not to love about that?!
The Welsh people have been particularly fond of toasted cheese for centuries, even as far back as the Middle Ages. From what I could gather, the recipe was first recorded as Welsh Rabbit, in 1725 by John Byron in his book Literary Remains. Byron stated ‘I did not eat of cold beef, but of Welsh rabbit and stewed cheese.’ There are many theories of the use of the word "Welsh". Some claim that the Welsh peasants could not eat rabbits caught in hunts on the estates of the nobility. Instead, they used melted cheese as a substitute for the meat. A more likely story of the name comes from the 17th and 18th centuries. The term "Welsh" was often used to describe any inferior grade, or as substitution for a genuine article. For example, a Welsh pearl was one of poor quality, perhaps even counterfeit, and to use a Welsh comb meant running your fingers through your hair, instead of using a comb. Welsh rabbit may have started life as a dish resorted to when meat was not available.
So where does "rarebit" come from? In 1747, a cookbook by Hannah Glasse, the Art of Cookery, called the dish by the famous name Welsh Rarebit. The word rarebit has no other use in Welsh language, life or literature. It is possible that rarebit was originally rearbit, something eaten at the end of a meal, but that is speculation. All so complicated, so leave it to the French for a solution. They simply call the dish "le Welsh".
During my research, I found some alternative recipes and names:
• Welch rabbit. Toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast, and brown the other side of the cheese. You may also rub the bread with mustard.
• English rabbit. Toast bread on both sides, pour a glass of red wine over it, and let it soak the wine up. Lay a thick layer of thinly cut cheese over the wine soaked bread. Place it in the oven until toasted and brown.
• Buck rarebit. Welsh rarebit served with an egg on top
• Blushing Bunny. Welsh rarebit blended with tomato or tomato soup
• American cheese rarebit sandwich. A quarter of pound of melted American cheese, blended with the yolks of two eggs, two tablespoonful’s of cream, a dash of salt and red pepper, and a teaspoonful of Worcestershire. Spread the mixture on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread. Put the two slices together and garnish with an olive.
• American rabbit. Same as above but with whisked egg whites, instead of yolks.
• Irish rabbit. With onions, gherkins, vinegar, and herbs
• Yorkshire rabbit. Topped with bacon and a poached egg
In my cookbook, A Thyme and Place, Medieval Feasts and Recipes for the Modern Table, I used classic medieval ingredients for this dish; mead, cheese (stilton), and figs.