Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

The idea of a chat with Hugh about his current preoccupation with vegetables was hatched at an informal gathering celebrating the epic, thirty-six hour firing of Tim Hurn’s huge wood-fired kiln, at his pottery in the grounds of Bettiscombe Manor.

Bettiscombe has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth to spend a clear summer evening, looking out over the Marshwood Vale, a patchwork of fields and copses strewn with hamlets and villages. From this perspective the farming that’s shaped the landscape looks bucolic, especially since the hills and valleys of West Dorset aren’t suited to factory farming and small farms survive by combining mixed land uses; grazing dairy herds and rearing poultry, sheep, pigs and cattle for smallish-scale meat production. More recently, enterprising new smallholders have successfully navigated the planning laws to live on the land and grow fruit and vegetables for box schemes, markets, and local restaurants as well as rearing a few animals and getting added value from their products with on-farm processing of yoghurts, cheeses, preserves, sausages and charcuterie.

In reality it isn’t bucolic but incredibly hard work and the financial rewards for these farmers and smallholders are often precarious, but this is exactly the vision of local food production that the River Cottage brand re-imagines and packages in its gung-ho and balmy all is fun-tastic-down-on-the-farm kind of way. Some of this was running through my mind when I bearded Hugh about talking to People and Food Magazine; he was keen so it was just a matter of finding time in his eye-watering schedule.

Top of the agenda right now are the new book and TV series – River Cottage Veg Everyday – due for publication and transmission this autumn. Staggeringly, the TV show will be the sixteenth in the run of eponymous series since Escape to River Cottage first hit the small screen back in 1998, while the book is the latest instalment in the multi-book deal signed with Bloomsbury in 2006 and extended to include further titles in 2010.

In addition to the River Cottage experience in TV or book form, there are the seminal courses at the Park Farm cookery school – meat, fish, baking, foraging and veg – and if you just want to eat the River Cottage way there’s the Canteen and Deli in Axminster (a second is due to open in Plymouth in September) or you can choose from several River Cottage products to buy and enjoy at home. If you can’t make it down to Park Farm in person, you can have the virtual River Cottage experience via a range of on-line courses or download the new River Cottage Everyday App; they’ve got it pretty well covered!

In the week we were due to meet when Hugh was already flat out filming the new series, potentially positive developments in the Common Fisheries reform policy put Hugh’s Fish Fight campaign back under the spotlight and he was in demand for national news appearances and press calls. Despite this Hugh’s PA somehow managed to arrange not just a tiny window for People and Food Magazine, but a chat over a delicious lunch at Park Farm.

I’d heard on the grapevine the pretty astonishing news that Hugh – he of the flambéed placenta, road kill for supper and enthusiastic consumer of the bits of animals we’d rather not name – has, shock-horror, gone vegetarian, and Lally, my oldest daughter, who is vegetarian, came along to see what Hugh has to say about this. She’s back home for the summer from Uni and a few days earlier we’d knocked up some wild cherry-plum jam with fruit scrumped from a tree in a neighbour’s garden. We’ve brought along a jar for Hugh who immediately whips off the top, scoops out a finger-full, sucks – and beams with delight. I’m genuinely touched by this and very struck by how well he’s looking. The incipient jowls have vanished and he’s tanned and svelte, wearing a lovely green linen shirt, and the trademark locks are tamed and attractively tousled.

As he sits down Hugh announces, “I think when I last saw you I was a week or so into not eating veg”, does a double take and snorts with laughter. “That’s a good start … I mean Meat!” It transpires that Hugh hasn’t actually gone vegetarian but has stopped eating meat and fish while the new Veg series is in production. “I don’t want to be saying one thing on camera and doing another thing at home. I’m not giving up meat and fish for good but just for now because I wanted basically to get that much closer to the veg and be very focused on being as creative as possible and exploring all the different possibilities of cooking with it. The basic premise of the book and the series is that we all need to eat more veg. We don’t have to become vegetarian but collectively as a planet we do need to eat less meat and the only way to do that is to eat more veg.”

Doh! This no-brainer statement makes me gulp and want to hug him at the same time. Although I’m sure Hugh’s completely up to speed with the complex arguments about eating and not eating meat – moral, ethical, economic and especially the issues about sustainability – while the debate continues he’s getting on with promoting a pragmatic approach to the problem.

We’re sitting on an outside terrace, this time overlooking the beautiful Devon country and Hugh explains, “What I enjoy about the veg approach is that it’s a much more democratic way of eating because you don’t have a tyrannical piece of meat dominating the table but tend to have several different dishes, might be two or three, might be four or five different dishes of more of less equal weight…” Right on cue a trio of scrubbed up, bushy-tailed chefs sweep outside bearing wooden platters of food, beaming and almost breathless with excitement as they announce the lunchtime spread: “Mixed cheese straws, beetroot tarte-tatin and beetroot humous, potato frittata, a salad of tomatoes – we have some lovely Golden Champions, some Tigers, some Coeur de Boeuf, with just a little olive oil, salt and pepper – salad leaves from the garden and flatbread.”

We tuck in with gusto as Hugh expains, “The Beetroot Tarte Tatin is a recipe from the new book and the Beetroot Humous is actually from the previous book – River Cottage Every Day. By far the biggest chapter in that book was the veg chapter and apart from the books that I’ve written specifically about meat and fish, actually the balance of my cooking has always been very vegetable heavy, right back to the original River Cottage Cook Book. The introduction to the Meat Book is quite a hard piece of moral philosophy and the first line explains that we should eat less meat. The new book is the counterpoint to that, it’s complementary to the meat book because in order to be true to that meat philosophy we actually need to eat lots of meals without any meat at all.”

Is he trying to have his cake and eat it? It could be tricky selling this message of more veg and less meat to legions of enthusiastic, partly River Cottage inspired carnivores who may well have skipped the philosophy the first time round and Hugh seems to recognise this. “It’s about breaking a vicious circle. Most of us are so focussed and fixated on the meat and fish aspects of our diets that vegetables are always playing second fiddle. Collectively as a society, certainly in the West we eat too much meat for the health of the planet; for the welfare of the livestock to be consistently high – it’s an industrialised product now – and a lot of us eat too much meat for our own health. I include myself in that.”

But the Meat book was fantastically successful, even being ‘translated’ for the American market and it’s still difficult to switch off the memory of Hugh rearing his own livestock, taking it to the slaughter house and then whacking great chunks of it into the oven – while salamis and hams bobbed overhead – and focus on what he’s now saying. “Sure, you can be a bit sparing with meat; you can eek it out a bit, have sprinklings of chorizo on top of your scrambled eggs, but actually that approach doesn’t get you far enough. I think you actually have to say that several times a week I’ll eat meals that don’t have meat in them at all.”

The problem is that because meat is now a completely commodified product, the industrialised version of it is almost as cheap as chips and as bad for us – and the planet. Over 30% of all cereal crops produced in the world are now being fed to livestock – that are also crammed full of antibiotics and growth hormones and reared and slaughtered in appalling conditions – and it’s predominantly this ubiquitous ersatz meat that many of us sit down to at just about every meal. The new book and series will explore Hugh’s journey into a meat-free world and his mission is not just to get more out of vegetables but to promote a much more considered appreciation of meat and fish as ingredients that should be used sparingly and thoughtfully, never squandered and never just as a lazy fallback.

But isn’t that very laziness a problem in promoting cooking and eating more veg? It takes significant extra effort to cook a whole meal with veg from scratch rather than slapping something meaty or fishy on the grill, boiling a few spuds and opening a bag of frozen peas. Hugh’s both undaunted and unapologetic, “It’s undeniable that it takes more effort to put together a well thought out and interesting meal without meat than an easy meal with meat. But frankly this is an enterprise for people who are interested in food – it’s very difficult to engage with people who aren’t particularly bothered about what they eat – they’re probably not going to tune in or buy the book in the first place.”

Given Hugh’s passion for the provenance of the food we cook and eat, it’s also a dead cert that the vegetable stars of the new book and show won’t be jet-lagged, plastic sheathed and tasteless but straight out of the Park Farm garden, grown by other local small holders or at the very least tracked down in a nearby Farmers’ Market. So is this new adventure in vegetables only going to be accessible to those who’ve already embraced the local food ethos? “In a sense that is my constituency and it’s very hard to shake off the anxiety that for quite a bit of the time I may be preaching to the converted. That fear is always there but if you chase down different directions, do this over here and that over there, you do draw people in who have previously not been caught up.”

The River Cottage brand burgeoned very fast and furiously from the avowed downsizing beginnings of the first series and in recent years there have been rumblings of a jaded appetite and some disillusionment at the disconnect between living the good, simple life and the exponential growth of the River Cottage food and media empire. The gainsayers complained that it was just cashing in, selling a fantasy ‘lifestyle’ product to media-groupies and bankers with bonuses who had spare cash to invest in hedge funds and heirloom tomatoes; while the majority went to hell in a trolley piled high with two-for-one offers and ready meals.

But then in 2008 along came Hugh’s Chicken Run – his contribution to C4’s Big Food Fight Season – in which he set up three chicken farms, partly because no battery farms were keen to let him film, to compare the welfare – and eatability – of intensively reared and free range birds. The community farm in Axminster was staffed by local volunteers almost all of whom were eventually persuaded to find a way of stretching their tight budgets to include chicken that had not only lived well but tasted good too. The subsequent Chicken Out campaign raised a chunk of cash, augmented with £30,000 from Hugh’s own pocket – to buy shares in Tesco so that Hugh could attend a shareholders’ meeting and put forward a motion to improve chicken welfare across a range of Tesco products. It wasn’t carried, but Tesco did subsequently make changes and supermarkets across the UK reported significant increases in sales of free-range chicken over the intensively reared option.

Hugh’s impact during this campaign and in the subsequent Fish Fight campaign that’s lobbying for change to the European Fisheries legislation on quotas and especially the annual discard of almost a million tonnes of ‘by-catch’ – perfectly good, edible fish that can’t be landed and is chucked, dead, back into the sea – simply wouldn’t have been possible without the high profile developed through River Cottage. Correspondingly, sticking his head above the parapet to protest and lobby for change – that’s so demonstrably ethical and sensible – has captured public attention and probably hasn’t done the River Cottage brand any harm either.

Although Park Farm has extended the educational arm of the operation, as Hugh readily acknowledges a good deal of the River Cottage output is unashamed entertainment, “It’s a bucolic vision of life in the country where everything is pretty good fun most of the time and I accept that it’s not wholly realistic. The campaigns are overt and unapologetically soap-boxy but I would probably argue that in terms of influencing change River Cottage has had more influence than the campaigns, over time, in terms of changing the way people eat. The agenda for River Cottage has been a bit more Trojan Horse.”

Hugh maintains that there never really was a plan; not with the early interest in wildlife conservation; or the lemon tart audition for the job at River Café in London – he was fired for being too messy; or the journalism that just seemed like an easy and obvious thing to do after that, and happened to coincide with food journalism taking off “so it was a pretty nifty bit of timing”. Even the Escape to River Cottage was just about pursuing a line of personal curiosity. “Frankly, fifteen years ago, I wasn’t that interested in growing vegetables but I was curious and found it incredibly rewarding and it took me on to the next thing and the thing after that. None of this was planned; it was just like let’s do one thing, gosh, that seemed to go well, I’m curious to go to another level and explore something else, so let’s go and do that. That’s the process.”

Disingenuous? No matter, I’m more interested that right at the very beginning it was the peppermint creams that did it, made with his Mum when she was exasperated by his restless moaning that it was raining outside and he had nothing to do. There’s an unusually tender and nostalgic tone to Hugh’s voice when he muses, “I think that something about cooking got under my skin when I was really very young” and it’s not difficult at all to imagine him as a little boy, discovering as he describes it, “a language I understood and felt very comfortable with.”

The way Hugh chose to use that language and what he had to say may have elevated the River Cottage brand to iconic status but it’s also had a really significant impact in popularising the importance of local food, awareness of how it’s produced and why this matters. Unbelievable as it now seems, when he shipped out of River Café in the early 90’s the importance of food provenance was a very new idea. Ruth Rogers and Rose Grey were in a minority who thought it mattered and were inspired by Alice Waters and what she’d been doing at Chez Panisse in California since the late ‘70s. A handful of other chefs were also getting interested. But these were all restaurant chefs extolling food provenance for a limited clientele of restaurant guests.

Hugh’s work and his great success has been in championing local food for daily use in feeding ourselves and our families at home; inspiring us ordinary cooks to give our loyalty cards a rest every once in a while; go to a farmer’s market, sign up for a vegetable box, have a go at making some jam or cheese or salami at home. And one thing does lead to another – what about growing some veg ourselves, getting an allotment, keeping chickens in the back garden. That is how it’s worked and little by little Hugh has probably had more influence in popularising the ‘local food movement’ than anyone else.

“I want to make TV programmes and write books that hopefully make people feel that some of the good choices, in the ethical sense of the word, are also some of the good choices in the sense of pure enjoyment. Ethics and enjoyment can go together. You do feel better about meat that’s lived well and fantastic veg that’s been grown in the ground not far from where you cook.” Time’s up and Hugh needs to get back to the Veg.

Postcript: Later that afternoon on the way to the Permaculture Festival, Lally – the vegetarian Human-Ecology student – turned to me beaming, “He’s a nice man Mum, and he’s got the right idea; I’m glad we gave him the jam.”

‘River Cottage Veg Everyday’ will be published on 19 September. The series, with the same name, is expected to start on Thursday 13 October though this date is unconfirmed at the time of going to press.