Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on waste, eating animals and fishing for his Christmas dinner

We catch up with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at Plymouth’s River Cottage Canteen as he launches his latest book, River Cottage A to Z.

Your new book, River Cottage A to Z is a beautiful compendium of over 350 ingredients and recipes. Which one could you not live without and why?

Gosh, I don’t want to be contradictory but one of the whole points of the book is to celebrate the sheer diversity of ingredients that we have to play with and that we have enjoyed down the years here at River Cottage. So to single out favourite ingredients is almost contrary to the spirit of the book but of course there are things that are always special to me. I can’t imagine not having beloved, wonderfully aromatic bay leaves – I pull leaves off the bay tree almost every day. In terms of fish, mackerel is an outstanding favourite, and when it’s fresh there’s nothing like lambs liver.

Which ingredients do you think people in Britain should eat more and less of?

That’s a really good question… we should definitely be eating more seasonal vegetables and fruit – they should be at the very heart of any kitchen. And we should be eating meat and fish with care. They are fantastic ingredients and I adore them, but I don’t think we should be putting flesh on the table at every meal, or even every day. We need to balance things out better and there are far more entries in the River Cottage A to Z from the world of fruit and vegetables, be they things that we grow or things that we can gather from the wild, than there are fish or meat. That is how our diet should be.

How do you feel about the term ‘ethical carnivore’?

I like to think of myself as an ethical omnivore. Of course, I am a meat eater but a couple of years ago I didn’t eat any meat or fish for five months while I was working on the River Cottage Veg cookbook and TV series and that recalibrated my cooking. My whole family eats much less meat than we used to, but I almost never eat meat unless I know exactly where it has come from. Most of the meat we eat is from our own animals.

The politics of food have gone hand in hand with River Cottage since you began almost 20 years ago. If you were prime minister for the day and you could change one thing in the food industry right now, what would it be?

The issue of food waste still needs to be addressed because it is completely out of control. Actually only recently, I was in Westminster with my friend Tristram Stuart, a fantastic waste campaigner who featured on BBC One’s Hugh’s War on Waste. We were the first people to sit down with the government select committee on waste and we talked with them for two hours about these complicated issues as part of the Food Waste in England inquiry.

Many of your previous food campaigns have petitioned government and targeted the biggest supermarket chains, as well as the general public. Who has the most power to make change in the food industry: consumers, retailers, producers or policymakers?

It is really important that we don’t forget just actually how much power, in the end, if we choose to exercise it, lies with us the consumer, because the way we choose to shop and feed ourselves is what defines the food systems around the world and here in the UK. We often feel powerless. We often think that the choices we have are the ones we have been given, but if we shop and cook and eat in a more selective way, we can change things.

Provenance is one of your core messages but the choice between organic and local is something that we are all often faced with. Which would you choose?

I think there is a very good overlap – what I love about the organic label is that it is one of very few food labels that gives you genuine assurance across a whole range of things that we might be concerned about, including sustainability of production, animal welfare when its applied to meat products, and that counts for a great deal. But of course there are producers who choose not to farm organically but are nevertheless very responsible and we support them too. Here on our menu, it isn’t all organic but a lot of it is. We also work a lot with Piper’s Farm in Devon who produce some of the best high welfare meat, pretty much produced to organic standards but it isn’t Soil Association registered. Most of the veg comes from Riverford which is all organic. In the end it is more about knowing the story of where that food has come from and trusting the suppliers. The organic label is an excellent marker for trust, but then if you have a direct relationship with farmers and growers that you know personally, that is also very reassuring, and that is what we have with our local producers.

Who is your food hero?

From an inspiration point of view, I would have to say Keith Floyd. He dragged cooking out of the TV studio and celebrated the diversity of great ingredients and the commitment of the people who produce those ingredients. He went to meet farmers and fishermen and cheesemakers and celebrated their work at a time when a lot of TV cookery was quite sterile and studio-based, ‘here’s one I prepared earlier!’

You’ve done fish, ugly parsnips, coffee cups and now elephant ivory: what’s next?

We are starting a big new series at the beginning of 2017 and I can’t tell you exactly what it is about but we’ll be addressing many of the issues about health and our food system.

Lastly, if we were to come over to your house this Christmas, what would be on the menu?

Good question, well some of it is quite variable because we go on a family fishing trip just before Christmas from West Bay, Weymouth or Seaton. Who knows what we might catch this year! Fish will feature, maybe on Christmas Eve and I’ll get busy with the cold smoker, especially if we catch whiting or pouting. I also like to have some wonderful Teignmouth or Chesil Beach oysters at this time of year. The main meat event on Christmas Day is usually beef from one of my own animals. It’s a tradition for us to have roast sirloin with all the festive trimmings and a beef bone gravy, Yorkshire pudding and homemade horseradish.

River Cottage A to Z: Our Favourite Ingredients; How to Cook Them is published by Bloomsbury, RRP £40.




Anna Turns

Anna Turns

Since graduating with a biology degree from Oxford University, Anna has worked in TV and magazine production. She now works as a freelance journalist based in Devon, specialising in sustainability, food and marine issues and is an ambassador for Zero Waste Week in September.