Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is well-known in Britain as a journalist and host of a long-running TV show based around the life of his River Cottage farm. He is also the author of many cookbooks, including the now classic River Cottage Meat Book (2008), which turned him into Britain’s most celebrated carnivore. As an active campaigner for better animal rearing and farming practices, Fearnley-Whittingstall recently realized his own diet needed reforming. The result was a vegetable-centric diet for him and his family, and the River Cottage Veg cookbook is the happy result. Published to enormous success in England in 2011, Vegetables encourages readers to push meat to the side and make veg the focus of their plate.
Your latest cookbook is entirely meat-free with a simple mission: “Let’s eat more vegetables.” How do you make vegetables an interesting main course?
The sheer variety of tastes and textures to play with across the seasons is enormous. It’s a much more exciting palate when you take the meat and the fish away, because you start to play with the vegetables in a much more bold way. There are reverential techniques that you apply to meat and fish that you start using on your veg. You start barbecuing them, you roast them, you fry them this way, you try frying them that way. You start layering things up, mixing the raw and the cooked and that’s what I do.
In your cookbook you write about the “tyranny of the meat.” What is that?
[Meat] pushes the vegetables to side-status, to being an also-ran. And that’s completely wrong. For me that realization was like scales falling from my eyes, and I wondered if I could make that happen for the people reading the book. That’s what I tried to do.
How has owning the River Cottage farm changed your attitudes toward what you eat?
It sets a benchmark. It means that I value every scrap and every last morsel of every animal. It makes me realize what a precious food meat is. That has to come with a bit of a reality check. While I want everyone to see meat like I do, I can’t soapbox it. I think in the early River Cottage TV shows, which are bucolic and present a rosy view of life in the country, there was, nevertheless, a Trojan horse-style message. We smuggled in some pretty strong views--that you should know where your food is coming from. You should remember that for every bit of meat you eat, there is something killed for it. We showed my personal, emotional struggle with sending my first pig to slaughter. Further down the line, we took some heavy junk-food meat-eaters, took them to the local slaughterhouse and then got them to make the burgers afterwards. That’s been very rewarding. And of course it’s stirred things up. And then I guess it’s paved the way for a more direct form of activism, which is what the fish campaigning has been about. (Fearnley-Whittinstall is the passionate leader of the Fish Fight/Save our Seas movement for better fishing practices across Europe. www.fishfight.net).
The U.S. is a big country, full of meat-eaters; if you could wave a magic wand what is the first thing you would do to get Americans on the path to healthier eating?
With the magic wand, let’s make half of America wake up vegetarian, or wake up with a revulsion to meat. But that’s not about to happen. I do think that slowly, slowly, we could make people be more excited about vegetables as a fundamental part of their diet and see meat as people used to: as a bit of a treat, and not central to everything. But that is going to be hard.
Let’s be practical. We need to teach people how to cook. We have raised a generation that doesn’t really know how. There are whole swathes of society that eat food that they don’t cook or handle or see in its raw state at all. That’s where a lot of this problem comes from and it has suited industrial food producers to rely very heavily on meat. It’s not necessarily part of an evil grand plan on their part, but I think an inevitable consequence of the industrialization of farming, you know, a chicken in every pot—no one foresaw the consequences of that one. I don’t think if I’d been around then I would’ve said, “Hey! Hang on everybody! A chicken in every pot! Do you know where this is going to end?” But people worked out how to produce 100, 000 chickens in 39 days in one shed. And having worked it out they thought: “Think of all the different ways we can market this product! It became a piled commodity like flour or sugar. It became something cheap that we have a lot of. Think of all the different ways we can extrude it, and up the value and it’s just been a bizarre and potentially quite tragic consequence of the history of the industrialization of food.
What made you shift to a vegetable-centric diet?
Oddly enough it was my home rearing of meat, which I’m very proud of. But the inevitable consequence of that is it means we’ve got first one freezer, then another, full of delicious joints of meat and homemade sausages, all ready to go. It becomes a very quick and easy solution to feeding the family. But I think I realized that as a chef and as a provider and cook for the family that I was a little out of kilter. I realized we were eating too much meat.
When you opted for this new diet you cut meat out all at once. Was that difficult?
We have a vegetable garden as well, which is great but even so, I felt I needed to push the meat out of the way for a while and recalibrate the whole approach. Now the meat has come back in a more balanced way and I feel better about it than ever.
Some of the time we have to build meals just from vegetables. We can’t hang on to meat as if meat were salt and put a few shards on top of the food or the meal is not complete. It’s a perfectly fun way to cook from time to time, but it’s the wrong mindset.
Did you like vegetables as a kid?
No, in fact some of the vegetables I hated the most I love now. I don’t think I could eat a mushroom until I was over 10. I was one of those kids who loved tomato ketchup but wouldn’t go near a fresh tomato. In fact, I would say that most of the fresh tomatoes that were on sale in the UK when I was growing up shouldn’t have been gone near. I remember when my mum and dad started growing veg and they didn’t have a greenhouse, but their friend did. We were invited to their house in the middle of the summer for lunch and I ate a tomato. I remember the first time putting a cherry tomato in my mouth and that explosion. And now I’m a fiendish tomato grower and I absolutely love them.
Kale seems to be the vegetable of the moment. The way arugula was the hip green in the ‘90s. What is the unsung vegetable in your garden?
Roots are a great big thing for me, because that’s where the substance [of a meal] comes from. They pack a lot of flavor, and they are very resilient. These are the veg that when they are young and fresh we can eat them raw and we can play with texture and cut them very thin or small. Then you can roast them in great chunks, or long tapering slices, where one end is almost burnt and chewy and the other end is soft and tender. You can grill them and barbecue them and muddle them up with a few leaves and maybe pulses and you’ve got a fantastic meal. Roots underpin a lot of dishes in the book and we do things to them that we more conventionally do to meat or fish. Get some caramelization on them! We know that’s what makes meat so irresistible. Let’s do that to our veg.
As a spin on the Desert Island discs concept, tell me what 3 vegetable crops you’d take with you to a deserted island.
Well, I’d take some spuds. I know this sounds very weird, but I’d take lettuces. I love to cook with them. Then it’s going to have to be a pea or a broad bean. So I’m not going to come up with anything outré. But between the pea and the broad bean, I think it would be the broad bean. There’s a complexity there. When they are very young they are almost as sweet as a pea, but you’ve got that slightly tannic note as well. When they get really really big you can dry them and use them as a dried pulse. I’m struggling a bit without any onion, without any member of the allium family… Maybe there are wild chives on my island?
Yes, wild tropical ramps!