Welsh rarebit (spelling based on folk etymology) or Welsh rabbit (original spelling) is a dish made with a savoury sauce of melted cheese and various other ingredients and served hot, after being poured over slices (or other pieces) of toasted bread, or the hot cheese sauce may be served in a chafing dish like a fondue, accompanied by sliced, toasted bread. The names of the dish originate from 18th-century Britain. Despite the name, the dish contains no rabbit meat.
Recipes for Welsh rarebit include the addition of ale, mustard, ground cayenne pepper or ground paprika and Worcestershire sauce. The sauce may also be made by blending cheese and mustard into a Béchamel sauce. Some recipes for Welsh rarebit have become textbook savoury dishes listed by culinary authorities including Auguste Escoffier, Louis Saulnier and others, who tend to use the form Welsh rarebit, emphasizing that it is not a meat dish.
Acknowledging that there is more than one way to make a rarebit, some cookbooks have included two recipes: the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book of 1896 provides one béchamel-based recipe and another with beer, Le Guide Culinaire of 1907 has one with ale and one without, and the Constance Spry Cookery Book of 1956 has one with flour and one without.
To make a Scotch rabbit, toast the bread very nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.
To make a Welsh rabbit, toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast, and with a hot iron brown the other side. You may rub it over with mustard.
To make an English rabbit, toast the bread brown on both sides, lay it in a plate before the fire, pour a glass of red wine over it, and let it soak the wine up. Then cut some cheese very thin and lay it very thick over the bread, put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.
Or do it thus. Toast the bread and soak it in the wine, set it before the fire, rub butter over the bottom of a plate, lay the cheese on, pour in two or three spoonfuls of white wine, cover it with another plate, set it over a chafing-dish of hot coals for two or three minutes, then stir it till it is done and well mixed. You may stir in a little mustard; when it is enough lay it on the bread, just brown it with a hot shovel.
Welsh rarebit blended with tomato (or tomato soup) is known as Blushing Bunny.
The first recorded reference to the dish was "Welsh rabbit" in 1725, but the origin of the term is unknown.
There is some suggestion that Welsh Rabbit derives from a South Wales Valleys staple, in which a generous lump of cheese is placed into a mixture of beaten eggs and milk, seasoned with salt and pepper, and baked in the oven until the egg mixture has firmed and the cheese has melted. Onion may be added and the mixture would be eaten with bread and butter and occasionally with the vinegar from pickled beetroot.
The word Welsh may have been adopted because it carries a now-archaic sense in English to mean "foreign, non-native" - an etymological phenomenon seen in its ultimate ancestor, the Proto-Germanic walhaz ("foreigner") and many of its descendants like the dated sense of German welsch (Romance-speaker). It is also possible that the dish was attributed to the Welsh because they 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." In Boorde's account, "cause boby" is the Welsh caws pobi, meaning "baked cheese", but whether it implies a recipe like Welsh rarebit is a matter of speculation.
The word rarebit is a corruption of rabbit, "Welsh rabbit" being first recorded in 1725 and the variant "Welsh rarebit" 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". The word rarebit has no other use than in Welsh rabbit.
"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 [...] . 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."
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)".
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...."
The notion that toasted cheese was a favourite dish irresistible to the Welsh has existed since the Middle Ages. In A C Merie Talys (100 Merry Tales), a printed book of jokes of 1526 AD (of which William Shakespeare made some use), it is told that God became weary of all the Welshmen in heaven, 'which with their krakynge and babelynge trobelyd all the others', and asked the Porter of Heaven Gate, St Peter, to do something about it. So St Peter went outside the gates and called in a loud voice ' Cause bobe, yt is as moche to say as rostyd chese ': at which all the Welshmen ran out, and when St Peter saw they were all outside, he went in and locked the gates, which is why there are no Welshmen in heaven. The 1526 compiler says he found this story 'Wryten amonge olde gestys'.
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 author also claims that Ben Jonson and Charles Dickens ate Welsh rarebit at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub in London. 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.
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."
In the Neil Simon play Plaza Suite, Act I character Karen Nash offers Miss McCormack a Welsh rarebit, in an effort to disrupt an impromptu meeting between her and Sam Nash, Karen’s husband. (Nancy Enterprises, 1969)
In the film Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017), Reynolds Woodcock orders a Welsh rarebit for breakfast with a poached egg, bacon, scones, jam (not strawberry), and sausages.
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