Caciu all’argentera: Sicilian ‘rabbit’

Sunday evening, the day after you’ve hosted a Saturday night dinner which has, yes, been a lot of fun but which, also, bequeathed a lot of clearing and tidying up in its wake.  Amazingly, there are hardly any leftovers … and you think that you are not very hungry anyway, not after last night, so it doesn’t matter much, you don’t worry.   All you want to do is relax and have a quiet evening and maybe skip supper altogether.  And what happens instead?  At around 8:30 p.m. your tummy starts rumbling and intimating that it is expecting to be fed, and let’s not pretend otherwise!  What’s worse, you’re in no mood to rustle up a little bit of this and that … you just want to eat something quickly and be done with it.

Answer?  The Sicilian equivalent of Welsh Rabbit or to cheese on toast.

It should properly be made with caciocavallo cheese from Ragusa but I didn’t have any and used whatever my fridge provided (emmenthal); moreover, it should be prepared with tongue-in-cheek swagger.  The legend goes that a silversmith from Palermo who was going through hard times could no longer afford to eat rabbit or other meat that was traditionally prepared using white vinegar and oregano.  So he — or more properly his wife –substituted the meat with the cheese, the clever thing, and the aroma that wafted about was still reminiscent of the meat-based dishes and so the neighbours never suspected a thing.  Hence the title “caciu all’argentera”, caciu standing for ‘caciocavallo’ and argentera for ‘argentiere’ or silversmith.

The ingredients are cheese, naturally, olive oil, garlic, white vinegar, dried oregano, salt and pepper.

The real recipe does not call for toasted bread but I added that because of its comfort factor.

Drizzle plenty of olive oil (evoo) in a frying pan.  Add one or two cloves of garlic and cook them on a low heat until they turn golden.  I also added two small bayleaves and some pepper just because … Then cut the cheese quite thickly.  My mistake, as you can see in this photo, was to cut the slices too thinly.  I would say that half an inch (roughly 1 cm) is the best thickness.  Anyway, cook the cheese slices on one side until they start to melt …

Then turn them over and cook a little on the other side.  Finally, remove the cheese from the frying pan and place it gingerly over the slices of toasted bread.

Sprinkle plenty of oregano and pepper too, if you like it …

Put the slices of cheese-bearing toast back in the frying pan …

Get ready to brandish your white wine vinegar …

Pour the vinegar mainly over the oil … and it will sizzle and splutter, so be careful and stand back.  Cook for just under two minutes, then remove from the pan and serve.

Here is the final dish.  Not much to look at but the doctor’s orders in terms of touching the hunger spot and solving the dinner problem.  This was my first attempt and some of the cheese stuck to the bottom of the pan and overcooked.  I had to scrape it off.  There it is on the piece of toast on the right.  Don’t quote me but … that was good too!

So … human nature is such that keeping up with the Jones’s is a habit that percolated all the way to the kitchen too, even in the distant past.  Cheese on toast was called Welsh Rabbit because, most likely, poorer people could only afford cheese and not meat.  (And now that I think of it, isn’t the surname ‘Jones’ a particularly Welsh name?).  What brings a smile to my face now is that beans (‘the meat of the poor’) and cheese (again the main source of protein for those who couldn’t afford meat in the past) are now firmly ensconced on the menu without any thought of rank and hierarchy — for a simple reason: because they taste delicious!

For those who might be interested in the origin of the term “Welsh Rabbit” … read on :

Origin of the names

The first recorded use of the term Welsh rabbit was in 1725, but the origin of the term is unknown.[2] It may be an ironic name coined in the days when the Welsh were notoriously poor: only better-off people could afford butcher’s meat, and while in England rabbit was the poor man’s meat, in Wales the poor man’s meat was cheese.[13] It might also be understood as a slur against the Welsh: if a Welshman went rabbit hunting, this would be his supper.

It is also possible that the dish was attributed to Wales because the Welsh were considered particularly fond of cheese, as evidenced by Andrew Boorde in his Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge (1542), when he wrote “I am a Welshman, I do love cause boby, good roasted cheese.”[14] In Boorde’s account, “cause boby” is the Welsh caws pobi, meaning “baked cheese”. It is the earliest known reference to cheese being eaten cooked in the British Isles but whether it implies a recipe like Welsh rarebit is a matter of speculation.

[edit]Rarebit

The term Welsh rarebit is evidently a later corruption of Welsh rabbit, being first recorded in 1785 by Francis Grose. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Welsh rarebit’ is an “etymologizing alteration. There is no evidence of the independent use of rarebit”.

Michael Quinion writes: “Welsh rabbit is basically cheese on toast (the word is not ‘rarebit’ by the way, that’s the result of false etymology; ‘rabbit’ is here being used in the same way as ‘turtle’ in ‘mock-turtle soup’, which has never been near a turtle, or ‘duck’ in ‘Bombay duck‘, which was actually a dried fish called bummalo)”.[15]

The entry in Merriam-Webster‘s Dictionary of English Usage is “Welsh rabbit, Welsh rarebit” and states: “When Francis Grose defined Welsh rabbit in A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1785, he mistakenly indicated that rabbit was a corruption of rarebit. It is not certain that this erroneous idea originated with Grose….”[16]

In his 1926 edition of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the grammarian H. W. Fowler states a forthright view: “Welsh Rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh Rarebit is stupid and wrong.”[17]

The word rarebit has no other use than in Welsh rabbit[2] and “rarebit” alone has come to be used in place of the original name.[18]

[edit]Legends and humour

A legend mentioned in Betty Crocker’s Cookbook claims that Welsh peasants were not allowed to eat rabbits caught in hunts on the estates of the nobility, so they used melted cheese as a substitute. The cookbook writes that Ben Jonson and Charles Dickens ate Welsh rarebit at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub in London.[19] There is no good evidence for any of this; what is more, Ben Jonson died almost a century before the term Welsh rabbit is first attested.[2]

According to the American satirist Ambrose Bierce, the continued use of rarebit was an attempt to rationalise the absence of rabbit, writing in his 1911 Devil’s Dictionary: “RAREBIT n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad in the hole is really not a toad, and that ris de veau à la financière is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she-banker.”[20]

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About myhomefoodthatsamore

Community celebration via food, wine and all beautiful things.
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