There was a slight scuffling at the mouth of the cave, a flicker of movement, and there it was, a real, live cave rabbit, the reason I had come to Ischia. It was larger than I had expected, with a fine pair of ears and a rich, velvety black fur. Presently, attracted by the branch of greenery that Silvia D’Ambra, the keeper of the flame of cave rabbits in Ischia had tossed down outside the entrance, came a second, equally large, and a rather fine stippled brown. I confess I held my breath.
The name, cave rabbit, has a certain exotic allure to it. Actually, the cave is less of a cave than a hillside burrow, in part man-made and in part rabbit-made. The technique of keeping rabbits in ‘caves’ was developed on Ischia by the chaps who went to work the vineyards on the higher reaches of the island’s ruggen interior. They couldn’t pop back for a timely lunch or, sometimes, restorative supper, so they created these living larders where they worked. It was also a way of managing the rabbit population on Ischia, whoch threatened to ravage the production of fruit and veg. The rabbits were kept in ‘cave’ enclosures and fed on a carefully maintained diet until they were needed for the pot.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this rather labour intensive arrangement – as Silvia explained, rabbit management isn’t quite as straight-forward as you might think, Hazards include high infant mortality, inbreeding, disease, diet and the habit of rabbits to try and escape – died out. However, about ten years ago Silvia’s father, the redoubtable Riccardo D’Ambra and one or two mates decided to revive the old practice as part of a more general program to develop awareness of the importance of Ischia’s agricultural heritage.
As he explained ‘When you say the name ‘Ischia’ to anyone, they automatically think of the sea. But what about the Terra of Ischia, the land where we grow the vines and vegetables and fruits? I say there are six continents on this island the size of the palm of your hand – zones with their own micro-climates and environments. Do you know that tomatoes ripen on one part of the island one mont – one month! – before they do in another a few kilometres away?
‘When I was growing up here, we had cave rabbit on Sunday, only on Sunday. So when we started our own program, we had to talk to the old timers to discover how it was done, create the caves, feed the rabbits and so on and so forth. Now there are three of us doing this, with the backing of Slow Food. The demand for these rabbits is far bigger than the number we can produce, but not many people want the bother of looking after the rabbits. It’s far too much trouble.
”But for us the rabbit is a symbol of the land of Ischia, of our – our! – agricultural and social history.’