Turning over a new leaf

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
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Celebrated carnivore Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has gone all vegetarian on us for his latest River Cottage book and TV series. Catherine Scott asks him why he’s turned his back on the ‘meat and two veg mentality’.

I remember one particular episode of his highly success River Cottage series when Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall managed to get a non-meat eater to chop up a pig. He then extolled the virtues of using every part of the beast in cooking, “from snout to tail”.

It seems strange, then, that the campaigning chef and television personality has given up meat and is now trying to persuade us all to eat more veg.

“It started off as a bit of an experiment,” says Hugh. “I wanted to really celebrate the vegetable. Not just as a side dish or an accompaniment to meat and fish but as the star of the event. It then became a bit of a challenge to see if I could spend the summer without eating any meat or fish.”

So where he once waxed lyrical about how to make the perfect pork pie, he now oozes enthusiasm about humus, vegetable soups and stews.

Not surprisingly, Hugh’s experiment forms the basis of the 16th series of his River Cottage cooking programme, to be screened on Channel 4 soon and also his new cookery book River Cottage Veg Every Day published this month.

“I’ve always loved veg and growing it at River Cottage has been a real passion of mine, but we seem to have a mindset that we have to have something to go with it; that a meal isn’t complete unless it has meat or fish with it. That was something I wanted to get away from and that’s why there is no meat or fish in this book at all.” He will have spent five months in total “meat and fish free” and says he has never felt better. He looks pretty good too, having shed quite a lot of weight over the last year. Some of that he puts down to less meat, although he admits that reducing the amount of his beloved butter, cheese, cream and ice cream has probably contributed more.

“I didn’t go on a crash diet or anything,” says the 46-year-old. “I decided that I needed to ease up a bit on my butter, cheese and ice cream.”

Although excited about his vegetable challenge, he did worry about his carnivore tendencies. “I thought that I would enjoy the veg but miss the meat and fish at the same time. But I haven’t missed meat and fish that much.

“If I have missed it, it’s because I’ve been round at someone’s house or when the family have had mackerel on the barbecue or when they have been eating one of our chickens.”

His campaign to get us to eat more veg, he says, stems from his abhorrence at the West’s intensive animal farming methods.

His high-profile campaigns to end intensive rearing of chickens, to change the Common Fisheries Policy and encourage more sustainable food production are well documented, his vegetable campaign is the next stage in that process.

“We eat far too much meat in the West. Too much for our own health, too much for the welfare or animals and also too much for the good of the planet. I believe factory farming is plain wrong – environmentally and ethically. It saddens me to say that despite some recent significant gains in the UK on poultry and pork welfare, the problems associated with the industrial production of meat are, globally speaking, as bad as ever. It is really very worrying for the future if we continue to be so meat-centric. Already a third of the world’s cereal crops are fed to animals – we can’t afford to give away that much land.

“We are faced with a challenging question,” he continues. “How can we eat really well everyday without contributing to global warming, the suffering of animals or the pillaging of our precious marine resources? Eat more vegetables.”

He says the crucial thing is to get people to make the mental shift away from thinking they haven’t had a good meal if it is “just vegetables”.

“We may be increasingly aware of the good reasons to eat less meat, but our cooking culture is largely based around it.”

He admits that at first he was worried that he would not get the flavours he needed from mere vegetables.

“In the past I have always been tempted to add a bit of chorizo or a scrap of left-over chicken to improve the flavour, but that is like clinging on to meat.”

Instead, he says, he found once he was free from the need to include meat in a dish, he felt liberated.

“It freed me from the meat and two veg mentality which seems to dominate our culture and harps back to medieval times where meat was seen as a domain of the wealthy.

“Without a piece of meat making everything else feel like the supporting act, I found a new pleasure in cooking for myself, my family and my friends. I am not and nor do I ever think I will be a vegetarian,” he says firmly. “I will probably eat more vegetables in the future and thereby eat less meat and fish.”

Hugh says ideally we should be eating vegetables that are in season. “Nature is amazing. In the summer we have peppers, tomatoes and aubergines then as we head to winter and need something more substantial we get squashes which when allowed to caramelise give the most amazing flavour and are really filling. Even when I got back to meat I will keep these recipes alongside.”

He then goes on to tell me about some mouth-watering recipes he has discovered in his travels for the new series. Hugh is a seasoned campaigner, but I do think he has his work cut out with this one.

It is all very well exposing the cruelty of intensive battery farming of chickens, or the madness of EU policies which means that perfectly good fish have to be discarded back into the sea, but it is a whole different ball game getting many of us to give up our beloved meat in favour of veg, even when we know it is what we should do.

But if anyone can, then it’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Born in London and brought up in Gloucestershire, Hugh was educated at Eton College and St Peter’s College, Oxford, where he read philosophy and psychology.

After graduating from university, he began a career in conservation work in Africa. He then spent a brief period as a sous-chef at River Café, but he says “being messy” and “lacking discipline” made him unsuited to working in the River Café kitchen. He regards it as an event that helped shape his current career.

He became a freelance journalist and in 1994 published his book Cuisine Bon Marché focusing on food in British markets.

In 1997 he moved into River Cottage, a former game-keeper’s lodge in the grounds of Slape Manor in Netherbury, Dorset, which he had previously used as a weekend and holiday home.

His early smallholding experiences were shown in the Channel 4 River Cottage series and led to the publication of the award-winning The River Cottage Cookbook and the setting up of River Cottage HQ near Bridport in 2004.

He lives close by on a 37-acre farm near Uplyme close to the Dorest-Devon border with his wife Marie, two sons, Oscar and Freddy, and daughters Chloe and Louisa.

It is always more than just cooking with Hugh. “I don’t think I could have endured 15 years of food on television unless I had an underlying message motivating me to do each programme.

“Although first and foremost River Cottage was a cookery programme, there has always been an underlying food principle to the show – understand where your food has come from. We like food grown by people with names. If you don’t know the history of your food, don’t buy it.”

This message intensified when he launched the Chicken Run campaign which highlighted the fact that some breeds of broiler chicken were reared for their meat in just 39 days. During the campaign he took on Tesco, even buying a share in the company so that he could table a resolution at their Annual General Meeting on the subject. It failed but the country saw a massive switch towards organic and free range chicken.

He had more success with Tesco in his more recent Fish Fight when he convinced the supermarket giant to only use pole and line-caught fish for its own-brand tins of tuna. The campaign also succeeded at government level. During six months of research away from River Cottage, Hugh discovered that half the fish caught in the North Sea was being thrown back into the sea, dead, because of EU laws on discards. So, he launched “Hugh’s Fish Fight” to try to change those laws.

In July, the European Commission published their proposals for a new Common Fisheries Policy including recommendations for a discard ban.

“I feel very excited to have been involved in the campaign, although I would have hoped that people would have seen the sense in it anyway.”

It is clear from his readiness to take on the big boys, even governments, that he isn’t afraid to speak up for what he believes in. “I am a fairly argumentative type,” he admits with that schoolboy grin. “I’ve always liked trying to persuade people to try new things and see things from a different perspective.” He will need all his powers of persuasion with his latest crusade.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall will be at Ilkley Literature Festival on Saturday, October 15, at 2pm in Kings Hall. www.ilkleyliteraturefestival.org.uk

To order a copy of River Cottage Veg Every Day! (Bloomsbury £25) from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop call free on 0800 0153232 or go online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing is £2.75.