A real good thing
INTERVIEW:River Cottage food writer and activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wasn’t always so driven and focused. ‘I never had a career plan,’ he tells MARIE-CLAIRE DIGBYover dinner
His food activism campaigns have changed the way millions of us shop, cook and eat, but it seems there’s only one thing people want to know about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and it’s got nothing to do with fish quotas or stressed chickens. No, it’s his hairstyle that has people talking.
Stephen Fry once described it as “the silliest hair in Europe”, which the food writer and TV presenter says is “a bit harsh – I had quite long, curly locks, like lots of people.”
Not any more, though. Sipping a pint of Guinness in a Dublin hotel, HFW sports a sleek short back and sides, and the transformation is quite remarkable.
“I actually just felt like a haircut for quite a while, and I couldn’t do it for about a year because of continuity; I can’t get a haircut in the middle of a series. When we began filming the first Fish Fight series two years ago, there was a window of opportunity.”
His French wife, Marie, who was a reporter for the BBC World Service in Africa when they met, approved of the change, but “the children were quite disconcerted for a while, though, because I looked so different.” The couple have four children, ranging in age from 16 to two.
They don’t live in the quaint farmhouse often seen in River Cottage TV footage – their home is another property nearby – so they weren’t at risk when in February of this year, a renovated barn and kitchen at Park Farm, the River Cottage HQ, burned down. It was 36 hours before Fearnley-Whittingstall, who was away filming Fish Fight, learned of the setback. “It was quite a surreal feeling. I was 500 metres from an iceberg, watching the penguins and seals while digesting the news of the fire.”
Putting that inauspicious start to the year firmly behind him, Fearnley-Whittingstall is in Dublin to promote his latest book, Three Good Things . . . on a Plate.
“It started as an idea that just popped into my head about how many great plates of food seem to comprise three good things that go together well – such as the great Irish classic: bacon, cabbage and potatoes, which has always been one of my favourite plates of food.”
“I think the book is packed with original combinations, because once you’ve set the idea rolling it does encourage experimentation, and that’s most of all what I hope the book is going to do for readers and for cooks at home.”
At his own home, Fearnley-Whittingstall will be bending the rule of three to embrace a Christmas of plenty. “Because my wife is French and her parents and brother will be with us, it is quite full-on from a culinary point of view as the French will expect the big festive meal on Christmas Eve and then of course the English want it again the next day. We tend to have a fishy Christmas Eve and a meaty Christmas Day.”
So will it be turkey and all the trimmings, or will the cook formerly known as Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall, who has previously advocated the consumption of road kill, human placenta and puppies, have something more challenging on the menu? “This year we’ve had a very good year of raising our own meat at home, so I’m not going to go out and get a goose or a turkey. It’s going to be beef – sirloin – cooked very rare.”
But wait a minute, wasn’t it just last year that he eschewed his carnivorous ways in favour of a meat-free diet, appearing on the cover of River Cottage, Veg Every Day with shorn locks, sculpted cheekbones and a sissyish plate of salad?
Yet here he is, enthusiastically working his way through beef carpaccio, Carlingford oysters and venison – pausing only to enquire if it is Irish – for dinner in Fallon Byrne. It’s clear that if he did become a vegetarian, it was a short-lived experiment.
“There is an interesting, and possibly pedantic, semantic point there, because I would say I didn’t become vegetarian, because it was never my intention not to go back to meat and fish. But I did four months that summer with no meat or fish, with almost no exceptions.
“I’ve never had any truck with the vegetarian-bashing that some conspicuously carnivorous chefs and food writers have gone in for in the past. I don’t get it, as if there’s something inadequate about not being a meat-eater. I completely respect it.”
Respect is something that is central to Fearnley-Whittingstall’s belief structure. He puts his food activism down to a combination of things. “On one level it’s probably a family thing – my parents have always been a little bit politically engaged. They’re both thoughtful people; they brought me and my sister up to question why we do certain things.
“Also, at university I studied philosophy and one of the things that interested me most was the ethical side of philosophy. When I first started rearing my own animals, I felt a huge sense of responsibility for that act of raising meat for my own plate. We all have a responsibility there and once you’ve gone down that route, there’s no going back.”
He wasn’t always such a driven, focused individual though. His mother, the gardening writer Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall has said: “There were times we despaired of Hugh ever finding a proper career.”
But he was unaware of his parents’ concerns – “they were always very supportive” – even as his early career segued from animal conservation in Africa to cooking at the River Cafe in London – a position from which he was let go, he says, due to his lack of discipline in the kitchen; others have said he was a famously messy and disorganised cook.
He also worked in the media, as a sub-editor and as a restaurant critic. There was a spell on the obituary desk at the Telegraph, where he prepared Michael Jackson’s obit, among others.
“I’ve never had a career plan and to some extent I still don’t. Of course I have to plan ahead a little more than I used to and I have a big responsibility to the many people I work with, but a lot of what we all do together is talk about what shall we do next, what would be an interesting line to pursue.”
Next up, he is taking the River Cottage model to Australia, having signed a deal with Foxtel and the Lifestyle Channel,which has launched a hunt for “the Aussie Hugh”. There are two more River Cottage Canteens and delis on the agenda too. So can we expect a River Cottage Canteen in Ireland?
“Wouldn’t that be lovely. I’ve got a real soft spot for Ireland, which I haven’t explored very much. But probably not just yet,” he says.
If the warm reaction Fearnley-Whittingstall got on this visit to Dublin is anything to go by, a River Cottage Canteen would give Jamie’s Italian a run for its money. Midway through our chat, a young admirer – more biker than baker – bangs on the window to give him an enthusiastic thumbs-up. In Fallon Byrne, where he insists on checking out the butcher counter before dinner, he’s followed around the shop by fans.
He seems relaxed about the attention, but being in the public eye hasn’t all been positive. “I have had a little bit of flack for being a posh boy , for having a double-barrelled name, for hectoring the nation on eating organic food, or whatever. But I can take that. I can’t change who I am or where I came from,” he says with the conviction of a man who’s comfortable in his own skin – and his regulation corduroys and cardigan.
Three Good Things . . . on a Plate is published by Bloomsbury, £25