Is this a mea culpa I see before me?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (or “Eatsitall”, as he’s been called), for so long television’s patron saint of meat and fish, has spent more than five months being a vegetarian. It’s as traumatic as Gordon Ramsay giving up swearing, or Nigella no longer licking her fingers.
Lawks a’mercy, as they say on the Dorset/Somerset borders where charming Old Etonian Hugh lives the life of a nouveau yokel with his French wife Marie and four children – Chloe, 15, the adopted daughter of BBC journalist Kate Peyton (who was shot dead in Mogadishu in 2005), Oscar, 12, Freddy, eight, and Louisa, 18 months.
There don’t seem to be any ill effects.
Tea and sympathy
He’s trim, sardonic, and neat short hair has replaced his unruly locks. “My version of a mid-life crisis,” says the 46-year-old River Cottage supremo softly as he sips peppermint tea.
“People may think it’s an odd thing for me to do, but I’ve always had a constructive dialogue with vegetarians – unlike certain colleagues who have been vociferously against them. No need to mention names. It’s also partly a personal challenge.
“I enjoy all aspects of cooking but like many chefs I’ve been lazy about veg. Meat and fish are tyrannical and dominate so much that anything else becomes a supporting act. The minute you put meat and fish aside you become much more creative with your veg.”
All this from a man who has eaten placenta paté, curried fruit bat, giraffe and calf testicles sautéed in sage. “It isn’t necessarily wrong to eat an animal from Africa any more than from England. You just have to be careful about the ones you choose.”
How about loin of labrador, or cat liver? He’s already enjoyed squirrel, and rabbit is popular enough. He looks startled. “Not unless I was on the point of starvation. In principle, but not in practice, I have no objection to a high-welfare organic puppy farm.
“You can’t object, unless you also object to the farming of pigs. It’s an artificial construct of our society, a cultural decision, to make pets out of dogs and meat out of pigs: both animals could be used the other way round, although pigs probably do make better meat than dogs and dogs better pets than pigs, but it’s not a foregone conclusion.”
He’s a natural show off and passionate campaigner – for sustainable fish (Fish Fight), against mass production of chickens (Chicken Out!), helping people grow produce on derelict land (Landshare) – with the distinct advantage of being neither smug nor pious. He now brings the same enthusiasm to vegetarianism.
“I was gently heading in this direction because I had a cholesterol issue. But we’re eating too much meat and fish for our own health and the welfare of animals themselves. We define ourselves as being either carnivores or vegetarians whereas we’re actually omnivores and my long-term aim is to produce many more delicious meals made only of vegetables.
“There’s no sense of withdrawal, or having cravings. I didn’t insist my family do the same, so there were moments when I was aware they were eating something delicious – barbecued mackerel, or one of our own chickens, roasted.
“I haven’t cheated, but when Oscar proudly shot his first pigeon with an air rifle, which he duly cooked and served himself, I couldn’t not acknowledge the event, so I dipped a bit of bread into the gravy to say I’d taken part in this important ritual.”
All the trimmings
I wonder if vegetarianism is a bit gimmicky, a search for a new trend to fill TV time and yet another book in his £1.9 million publishing contract with Bloomsbury.
“That money is for a series of eight or nine River Cottage handbooks, which I don’t write, so the money is shared,” he points out. “But I don’t think we’re gimmicky. I started by looking at where food came from, rearing our animals and growing our food. That’s what we’re still doing. I hope we have an influence and like to think we’re driving the agenda.
“River Cottage has always been first and foremost an entertainment, but our underlying politics, the drum we still bang, even though the way we put it across is slightly Trojan horse, is the industrialisation of food.
“I haven’t been as successful as I’d like with my chicken campaign. It’s not easy to stop intensive farming, with ridiculously cheap ‘two birds for a fiver’ offers, but we achieved a shift in the market from five to 15 per cent of chickens that are now high welfare. I doubt I’ve made enemies because I haven’t done anything particularly outrageous or campaigned too vigorously against things like GM food.
“It would be Luddite to say there can never be benefits from that kind of scientific approach, but I worry that the main interest of firms like Monsanto is not the betterment of agriculture but enhancing their own profits. They, and others, make crop-producing kits that sell to entire nations. That effectively gives them control over a country’s agriculture.”
Beneath the patina of blokeish amateurism there’s a shrewd business mind exercised with easy informality, which seems to characterise certain Old Etonians, such as London mayor Boris Johnson and David Cameron, who was a year below him at school and whose elder brother, Alexander, is married to a cousin, Sarah.
He read philosophy and psychology at Oxford, which he’s clearly put to good use in the gruelling business of making TV programmes, organising books, a restaurant, cookery school and shop in Axminster, Devon. “I know some people balk at the price of our organic sausages and bacon, but they’re made from animals raised to specific standards and that can’t be done cheaply.”
For Hugh, now, it’s back to the cabbage.
River Cottage Veg is showing on Sunday, 8pm on Channel 4