Food for Thought

23rd March 2018

Having made his name scrambling amongst the hedgerows of Britain in his never-ending search for the freshest of produce, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall knows a thing or two about how to get the best from Mother Nature’s pantry. And as his River Cottage brand continues to grow, the ecological aficionado is on the frontline when it comes to tackling some of Britain’s biggest culinary challenges.

Ian Faulconbridge finds out more…

Having spent his entire career arguing for the benefits of local produce and environmental sound eating, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is still troubled by the sheer size of what he is up against.

With decades of TV experience, and his unique River Cottage brand behind his efforts, the Hampstead-born foodie may well be Britain’s most passionate advocate of organic meats and hand-picked vegetables. In spite of this, he’s under no illusions that the obesity epidemic currently gripping this country is a result of money-making machinations that span the entire food industry.

“The obesity crisis is the crisis of our age and what it’s rooted in is that the food industry is full of inexpensive ingredients,” the 53-year-old nods. “We’re talking about sugar and refined carbohydrates – especially wheat and things like potato starch and soy, cheap animal fats and vegetable fats. These can be spun into endless combinations and given a zap of flavouring, and they’re made to be almost dangerously palatable.

He believes they’re just not good for us, and worries that for so many people they are becoming the basis of diets. “At their absolute best, they should only be ‘treat foods’… cakes, biscuits, chocolate bars, sweets, creams, sugary drinks. Every single one of those things is a treat and they’re not delivering any goodness. They have a bit of energy, but they’re not delivering anything else.”

Thankfully for the future waistlines of every Briton, Fearnley-Whittingstall has previous form when it comes to tackling big business. From his 2008 campaign to move the hospitality industry away from their preference for battery-farmed chickens, to his 2015 ‘War on Waste’, the curly-haired crusader has always made a point of blaming corporations over consumers.

“There is an enormous money-making machine with the power of marketing behind it,” he explains. “The power of scientific research says that if they test it on certain people and put a little bit in a little place, then wrap it all together in an attractive package, then a lot of people are going to buy it and they’re really going to love it. Is it going to do the consumers any good? That’s not really the sellers’ problem. But that’s not people deciding to do wrong things, that’s just a consequence of people finding out that they can make money by spinning these foods in a seemingly endless way.”

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, and the journey to a healthier society can be an exceptionally tasty one too. Says Fearnley-Whittingstall: “We can cook our way and eat our way out of this crisis if we make the right decisions.”

And this thesis forms the backbone of the chef’s proudest achievement to date: The River Cottage culinary brand that spans from the West Country to Winchester, with its latest venture being a café in the heart of Whipsnade Zoo.

“River Cottage has been about showing people ways to make healthy differences to your food,” he enthuses. “It could be a pizza oven in the back garden, it could be shopping at a farmer’s market where you can meet the people who grow the food – it’s all about giving you confidence, offering provenance and creating a meaningful link between supplier and consumer. It’s about saying: ‘I met the guy who grew this…’”

That’s not a luxury you get if you purchase food at the supermarket, although you can still connect in a sense through fair-trade, organic foods or artisan products. That’s still a lot more progress compared to anonymously packaged stuff.”

Like everything he espouses, true change begins in the kitchen. And after campaigning in the past for people to ‘get fussy’ over where their meat and fish originates from, Fearnley-Whittingstall’s newest mission concerns the incorporation of more vegetables into our daily diet.

And even if you’re not a vegetarian or vegan, experimenting with roots, pulses, fruits and leaves can not only improve your cooking, but keep you fit and healthy at the same time.

“We have been incredibly lazy as vegetable cooks down the years,” he smiles. “Vegetables are the bit on the side, the boring junk, the thing you put there because it’s virtuous. It’s such a mad mindset because the reality is that plant foods easily have the widest range of tastes, textures and aromatics. Obviously when you include fruits and seeds, nuts and spices, this is the palette that allows great cooking.

“I’m not a vegetarian, but what I have realised and what I think is a good thing, is that making and putting plants front and centre is the way to go.

“There’s no sense of deprivation about that, it really is a celebration!”

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