Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall turns leftovers into lunch
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 .”
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.