Waste not

Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall turns left­overs into lunch

The Courier-Mail - QWeekend - - UP­FRONT - STORY janice turner

Can Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall make us eat fish skele­tons? Even sea­soned with “soft thyme leaves” and cumin seeds “bashed about a bit”, fried and plated with lemon wedges, even art­fully pho­tographed in his new book, they don’t look exactly yum. But Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall isn’t happy when I query their ap­peal: “I served them to 150 peo­ple,” he says, “and they were de­voured. We fried up the skin, too. I call it fish ba­con. Fan­tas­tic!”

Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall’s ca­reer is founded on his om­niv­o­rous dar­ing. Com­pared with squir­rels, road­kill, gar­den snails or pla­centa pâté, the potato-peel soup and turkey ris­soles in Love Your Left­overs are quite main­stream, if a bit fru­gal. Yet his new book aims to chal­lenge ap­palling food waste by cham­pi­oning a cook­ing credo in which no scrap is binned.

This, he says, re­flects his own way of cook­ing at home: “A con­stant rein­ven­tion of what I ate the day be­fore”, where a bit of sur­plus spag bol is chucked in an omelette, or a chicken is a roast, a pi­quant Asian-in­spired salad, then a stock. His mother, Jane, a land­scape gar­dener, never wasted a thing. His ru­ral French mother-in-law, Denise, takes it a stage fur­ther. On hear­ing that Fearn­leyWhit­tingstall has just had ten cock­erels slaugh­tered, she has vol­un­teered to make her rus­tic cock-head soup, al­though Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall says he had planned to make a cockscomb ragout.

The idea of keep­ing your own chick­ens or re­turn­ing home with a bib­li­cal her­ring catch has a pri­mal ap­peal to sub­ur­ban dwellers. Fearn­leyWhit­tingstall’s River Cot­tage brand, which has spawned more than a dozen books and TV shows, in­clud­ing River Cot­tage Aus­tralia on Fox­tel’s Life­style Food chan­nel, gives a taste of self­suf­fi­ciency and ac­cord with na­ture to those of us who would die of bore­dom liv­ing at the end of a muddy track 16 kilo­me­tres from a shop.

Lon­don cab­bies, he says, seem to be great River Cot­tage devo­tees. “They all go back to Es­sex, where they have al­lot­ments, and they all go fish­ing at the week­ends and stuff like that. Peo­ple like to dab­ble. River Cot­tage has al­ways been a ru­ral en­ter­tain­ment. Look at all the funny things that peo­ple do in the coun­try. Ac­tu­ally, some are rather de­li­cious, and here’s a few ways in which you can do them at home.”

We meet at River Cot­tage. I’m dropped off ten min­utes from Axmin­ster, a town in county Devon in south-west Eng­land, by a taxi driver who won’t risk his sus­pen­sion go­ing down the rut­ted track. I clam­ber through fields to the bot­tom of a lush val­ley with woods be­yond, the Dorset coast just over the fur­thest hill, to find a cat sun­ning it­self on the

beet­root peel chips are on the menu when Bri­tish food au­thor and broad­caster Hugh Fearn­ley-Whit­ting st all steps up to the food-waste plate.

“When you get older, it be­comes bla­tantly clear that what you eat is go­ing Wto af­fect how you feel… I do be­lieve that starv­ing is an ef­fec­tive way to mit­i­gate that .”

HUGH FEARN­LEY-WHIT­TINGSTALL

kitchen-gar­den wall. There are pigs rolling hap­pily in a dusty field, a few cat­tle, rasp­berry canes, veg­eta­bles at their late-sum­mer end.

But this isn’t Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall’s home. His real house, where he lives with his wife, Marie, and four chil­dren, is about 20 min­utes away. A few years ago I in­ter­viewed fel­low Bri­tish foodie broad­caster and au­thor Nigella Law­son, then mar­ried to Charles Saatchi, in a fac­sim­ile of her fem­i­nine fairy lights and frou-frou home where she filmed her first TV se­ries, now recre­ated in a Bat­tersea in­dus­trial es­tate. And like­wise, this is Hugh’s stage set. He films his pro­grams here, holds food events, and I pass a group of vis­i­tors learn­ing about smok­ing meat or for­ag­ing in a gor­geous barn fit­ted with pro­fes­sional work­sta­tions. A chef in the smaller, fam­ily-style kitchen is test­ing recipes and mak­ing my leftover-based lunch: chicken and mint salad, carpac­cio of broc­coli stems, and crisps made of beet­root peel.

Hugh shows up in his muddy Mit­subishi hy­brid, trim and ca­sual in a T-shirt, with a sil­ver ar­row­head neck­lace on a leather thong, the quin­tes­sen­tial hip­pie en­tre­pre­neur. He greets his fe­male staff with hugs, his male chef with a bro’ back slap. (I should say we’ve met be­fore: the last time I saw him, at the drunken 50th birth­day of a mu­tual friend, we ended up arm wrestling. He won.) All bouncy bon­homie, he shows me around his es­tate, where two em­ploy­ees are hoe­ing. Does he till the soil him­self these days? “Not much. A lit­tle bit at home.” Rather, he is busy run­ning his River Cot­tage em­pire, which now in­cludes four restau­rants across the West Coun­try, the near­est in Axmin­ster in a for­merly derelict pub. In to­tal, he reck­ons, in­clud­ing part-time wait­ing staff, he em­ploys about 150 peo­ple.

It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary ed­i­fice to be built on his whim back in the ’90s to rent the orig­i­nal River Cot­tage, a game­keeper’s lodge in Dorset, as a week­end re­treat. He has al­ways flit­ted be­tween a posh, louche, west Lon­don cir­cle and the coun­try set. His fa­ther was an ad­ver­tis­ing copy­writer in Lon­don, where Hugh and his older sis­ter were born, but the fam­ily moved to Glouces­ter­shire when they were five and six. “It had a veg gar­den with peas and car­rots and a few fruit trees and things, and I re­mem­ber us sit­ting on the grass with a bowl of peas that we were pod­ding and eat­ing raw,” he says. “I think that stayed with me. I’d wanted a slice of that to be a part of my life ever since.”

Aged eight, he left his “mildly bo­hemian” house­hold for board­ing school. Too young, he agrees: “You have to wres­tle, ear­lier than you should, with the idea that peo­ple who seem to

have noth­ing but un­con­di­tional love have made the de­ci­sion that you’re not go­ing to sleep un­der their roof.” Hav­ing dis­liked prep school, he loved Eton. (Bri­tish PM David Cameron was in the year be­low, and his brother, Alexan­der, mar­ried Hugh’s cousin.) And for all his shaggy un­con­ven­tion­al­ity, Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall has that clas­sic Eto­nian trait: be­guil­ing, easy­go­ing charm and silken man­ners, un­til the mo­ment he is chal­lenged or isn’t get­ting what he wants – then, abruptly, you feel a cold force of will.

He stud­ied phi­los­o­phy and psy­chol­ogy at Ox­ford. Then, af­ter trav­el­ling in Africa, he got a job at the one-star Miche­lin-rated River Cafe at Ham­mer­smith, Lon­don, de­spite no for­mal train­ing. He had the en­thu­si­asm but not the rigour of a restau­rant chef and was sacked, in essence, for be­ing too messy. This is still a com­plaint at home. “I think it’s safe to say that I don’t tidy up as I go along. I will tidy up at the end, but if some­one’s push­ing me out of the way say­ing, ‘Oh, for god’s sake, what a mess,’ and gets in­volved in tidy­ing it up, I won’t stand in their way.” To main­tain do­mes­tic har­mony, he and his wife have a clear divi­sion of labour: Marie is in charge of toma­toes and bread (she is an ex­cel­lent baker). And when oth­ers cook, he tries to re­sist the temp­ta­tion to in­ter­fere. “I have learnt to let peo­ple do it their way a bit. There’s a fine line be­tween me shar­ing my knowl­edge, skills and ex­pe­ri­ence in the world of food with my part­ner and chil­dren, and just ir­ri­tat­ing the hell out of them.”

Af­ter the River Cafe, he started to make a name for him­self as a food writer. I re­call an early piece he wrote for the Lon­don Evening Stan­dard –a paean to his favourite choco­late bar – writ­ten with enor­mous wit. And his mis­sives from River Cot­tage played to ev­ery com­muter who dreamt of green space. Al­though a fa­mously wild Lon­don par­ty­goer, in the late ’80s he and Marie moved full-time to the coun­try. They have four chil­dren: sons Os­car, 16, and Freddy, 12; daugh­ters Louisa, 5, and Chloe, 19, now at univer­sity, whom the cou­ple adopted a decade ago. Chloe’s mother was Kate Pey­ton, a BBC jour­nal­ist shot dead while re­port­ing in Mo­gadishu; her fa­ther is a Con­golese cam­era­man. She main­tains con­tact with her African fam­ily, “al­though it’s hard for com­pli­cated rea­sons”. Chloe, he says, is de­lighted to be liv­ing in Lon­don, al­though the oth­ers live a happy, feral coun­try life.

Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall’s books have

steadily moved from be­ing pri­mar­ily en­ter­tain­ments to pro­mot­ing a mes­sage and mis­sion. His meat book was to en­cour­age us to value the an­i­mals that die for our table; his veg­etable book – one of his most enduring sell­ers – had a strong sus­tain­abil­ity mes­sage. “I would hope that ev­ery cook­book I’ve ever writ­ten has some sort of agenda be­yond de­li­cious­ness,” he says.

Grad­u­ally, the en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paigner has started to eclipse the cook, with his pro­grams on fish­ing and bat­tery chick­ens. He tells me he’s been try­ing to pitch a se­ries on wa­ter, “be­cause, glob­ally, I think it is a mas­sive story”. And along­side Love Your Left­overs he is presently film­ing a BBC se­ries on food waste. “It is just un­ac­cept­able that 30 per cent of the food we buy is col­lat­eral dam­age to your cre­ative en­deav­ours in the kitchen. It’s non­sense.” I men­tion Jamie Oliver’s re­cent pro­gram, which has led su­per­mar­kets to stock pre­vi­ously dis­carded knob­bly fruit and veg. “We’re look­ing at sim­i­lar ter­ri­tory,” he says.

Their sub­ject mat­ter of­ten over­laps and they worked in tan­dem seven years ago to op­pose bat­tery farm­ing with Hugh’s Chicken Run and Jamie’s Fowl Din­ners. And while Oliver has a joc­u­lar every­man style that ca­joles rather than crit­i­cises, Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall ended up sound­ing rather pa­tri­cian as he chided a woman on a low in­come for buy­ing a cou­ple of chick­ens for a fiver. But Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall ad­mits Oliver can cam­paign on “a big­ger scale than I do, and I take my hat off to him”.

Un­like Oliver, who will talk with­out minc­ing his words about fat kids or school din­ners, Fearn­leyWhit ting st all is so cau­tious–per­haps ner­vous – about sound­ing con­de­scend­ing it can some­times feel like in­ter­view­ing a gov­ern­ment min­is­ter. Does he sup­port a su­gar tax? “Um … I’m not sure.” How would he tackle obe­sity? “I don’t know … I have to talk to a lot of peo­ple and see what prac­ti­cal op­tions are.” What do you think of the ha­lal de­bate? “Again, I just … I don’t feel qual­i­fied to en­ter it, really.”

He won’t even come down de­ci­sively on fox hunt­ing, al­though adds: “I’ve taken aim at a fox, as he was dis­ap­pear­ing down the end of the field with one of my chick­ens in his mouth, but I didn’t pull the trig­ger.” And like­wise on bad­ger culling: “I did have a bad­ger once who made his way into my chicken house, ate two of my chick­ens, and then fell asleep in­side. I came back late from see­ing some friends and I no­ticed that the chicken house was open, so I just closed it and went to bed – and I locked the bad­ger in­side. Next morn­ing, two chick­ens were dead, one in­jured and the rest were pre­sum­ably trau­ma­tised for life. And I let that bad­ger out.”

Oliver has just pub­lished a healthy-eat­ing book (and Nigella Law­son is about to), per­haps an at­tempt to cap­i­talise on the lat­est food trend, the “clean-eat­ing” virtue cook­ing of newly pop­u­lar young Bri­tish fe­male food writ­ers such as the Hem­s­ley sis­ters, Jas­mine and Melissa, and Ella Wood­ward. Fearn­ley-Whit­tingstall says he’s never used a spi­raliser so I as­sume, given his nonon­sense Hugh Fear­lessly-Eat­si­tall im­age, that he is against the no-gluten, no-dairy fusspot­tery.

I’m wrong. “I think wheat is not a mas­sively help­ful in­gre­di­ent,” he says. “It doesn’t kill us – or it doesn’t kill many of us – but the global food cul­ture, es­sen­tially through bread, pasta and noo­dles, is hugely de­pen­dent on highly re­fined wheat.” And wheat, he says, in con­junc­tion with corn syrup and veg­etable oil, pro­duces the cheap, worth­less food that is mak­ing the world fat.

“I love good bread. When my wife makes a de­li­cious loaf, I can­not leave it alone,” he says. “But now, bread is like cake for me. I will only eat bread if it looks de­li­cious. But I don’t eat it ev­ery day.” How­ever, he in­sists he’s not gluten-free.

But now he’s 50, the days when he ate pigs’ trot­ters and French cui­sine as a food jour­nal­ist have been re­placed by a mid­dle-aged ab­stemious­ness. He lost a load of weight on the 5:2 diet, which he still fol­lows now and then, be­liev­ing that it al­lows the body time to re­pair it­self. “When you get older, it be­comes bla­tantly clear that what you eat is go­ing to af­fect how you feel. It may be that you just get reg­u­lar in­di­ges­tion, or fur­ther down the line you get ul­cers or can­cer or what­ever, and I do be­lieve that starv­ing is an ef­fec­tive way to mit­i­gate that.”

Con­scious that, hav­ing cre­ated the River Cot­tage ma­chine, he must con­stantly think up ideas for it to pro­duce, he drives him­self hard. “This is a com­plex or­gan­ism to keep go­ing; it doesn’t throw off huge amounts of money, I can tell you. It’s re­source­heavy.” He has forced him­self in re­cent years to take Au­gust off. But he ad­mits he is “slightly ex­trav­a­gant” with money – not on gad­gets or cars, but what he calls “projects”: cre­at­ing a won­der­ful or­chard or a swim­ming pond at his home.

After­wards, we eat the left­overs lunch made by his chef. It is de­li­cious, al­though I’m not sure how a shaved broc­coli stem would go down in my house of glut­tons where there are, in any case, few left­overs. Then Hugh drives me to the sta­tion very fast, clip­ping his wing mir­ror as he squeezes past a bus, and tells me he never locks his car. “It has only been stolen once,” he says breezily. “And then it reap­peared with dozens of pairs of ladies’ stock­ings stuffed in the glove com­part­ment.”

Very odd, I say. “Yes,” says the lord of left­overs, “but that’s the coun­try.”

River Cot­tage: Love Your Left­overs by Hugh Fearn­leyWhit­tingstall (Allen & Un­win, $45, hard­cover), out now.

over­lap­ping agen­das … WITH friendly ri­val JAMIE OLIVER: “he cam­paigns on a big­ger scale than i do, and i take my hat off to him,” says FEARN­LEY-WHIT­TINGSTAL.

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