'I don't want to be po-faced or on a high horse' - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on how he's changed his lifestyle
As he jets in for taste of Dublin, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tells Katy McGuinness about using TV stunts to further his food causes & why he's eating vegan
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall hasn't yet decided what he's going to be cooking during his demonstration slot at Taste of Dublin next weekend, but two things are certain. Firstly, the recipes will definitely be vegan. And secondly, he'll be using local and seasonal ingredients - "I can promise that there won't be any food miles between East Devon and Dublin."
Hugh came to prominence with his programmes for Channel 4 about life and food on his smallholding, River Cottage, in Netherbury, Dorset, the first of which was broadcast almost 20 years ago. Over the years, River Cottage moved location to a larger farm near Bridport and is now a successful brand that incorporates restaurants, cookery courses, food and cookery books, bespoke events and an annual summer festival.
Hugh may no longer live on site as he did at the original, but he is still very much involved, overseeing a team that's responsible for maintaining the authenticity and values of a business that's synonymous with integrity in food. The River Cottage website is clear to manage the expectations of those who visit in terms of the level of contact - if any - they can expect to have with its famous founder.
"I don't do as many cookery demonstrations as I used to, but I still enjoy it," says Hugh. "The ethos is very much that I want it to be like having friends around the kitchen table - something that I do on a very regular basis - and chatting away. Obviously, at a demo I go into more detail than I do at home but I do encourage a two-way conversation, and I like when there is interaction."
Hugh has lost count of the number of cookbooks he has published over the years - some of the best-known include The River Cottage Meat Book, considered a bible, and River Cottage Veg Every Day! the UK's bestselling meat-free cookbook, which includes a recipe for beetroot tarte tatin that has become a modern classic.
Hugh's latest book is Much More Veg and it's not just vegetarian: it's vegan.
"I planned for the book to be even more about vegetables from the outset, and I made a decision to put the eggs and dairy to one side," he says. "But then quite late in the day, I took honey out of the ingredients because I wanted the book to be vegan. Everyone can eat vegan; it's very inclusive. So the book is a tool for carnivores and omnivores to eat more vegetables.
"I feel that we are still only scratching the surface of what we can do with plants - and by that I don't just mean vegetables but spices, pulses, grains and herbs. We are getting better, but they should be the vernacular, at the front and centre of what we do in the kitchen. There is so much diversity of flavour and texture in terms of what we can do with vegetables alone."
Despite having upped his own vegetable consumption over the years, Hugh says that he still eats meat, but not as much as he used to.
"Personally, I have had a drift and shift away from meat-eating, but I don't see any contradiction in still eating meat responsibly. The premise of The River Cottage Meat Book [published in 2004, proving Hugh was ahead of his time, rather than being a bandwagon jumper] was that we are all eating too much meat and that we should focus on eating less meat of better quality and provenance. If you decide that you are going to have meat in your diet, then you have to be prepared to seek out an animal that has lived well and respect the principles of ethical farming. Meat consumption should be thrifty, not just easy wins."
That means that Hugh was one of the first to promote the idea of whole-animal eating - not just the prime cuts.
"My philosophy is to be parsimonious with meat and generous with vegetables. Many days, I eat as a vegetarian and some days as a vegan. It's particularly attractive at this time of year, as the vegetable season really starts to get under way. At home, I have the first of the new-season spuds in the greenhouse, and I try and time it so that the first of the spinach overlaps with the end of the kale. I keep the hungry gap [the period between the end of the winter vegetable season and the start of the spring season] as short as possible. I have a nice greenhouse and I ruthlessly deploy every tactic I can to extend the growing season.
"The first vegetable book was a reset for me: I shifted the dial. And the time I spent working at the River Café [at the start of his career, when he thought that he might become a chef], where they are very respectful of vegetables, was a help. When I was writing the first book, I started putting vegetables on the grill and barbecue, and roasting them in the oven. I became a vegetarian for five months while I worked on it, recalibrated the way that I cook, and increased my vegetable cooking skills."
For the new book, he says that he was determined to ring the changes and "up the ante from steaming and boiling and roasting a few roots". He started looking at the impact of applying heat in different ways, such as roasting wedges of cabbage and sprouts. "I serve roast hispi cabbage with a loose hummus or bean purée with toasted nuts and spices, like a dukka, to create crunch, creaminess and burnt caramelisation."
That sounds delicious, but is Hugh in danger of doing an Ottolenghi on his readers, with lists of obscure ingredients as long as his arm?
"I am a massive fan of Yotam… but that kind of food can turn into quite a lot of work," he says. "With this book I was determined that each recipe should not involve more than two processes, so I challenged myself to get variety and texture without lots of processes… Simplicity is the key."
Many of the recipes in Much More Veg are what Hugh calls "a bit more than a side, but a bit less than a main" and he suggests that preparing a couple of them together is the best way to enjoy them.
What the book does not include is vegan recipes that involve products such as seitan and other 'fake' meats, often used as a source of protein in vegan recipes.
"I never got involved with those. They may be a useful way to involve protein in a vegan meal, but I'm not comfortable with the idea of 'fake'. I respect tofu, which has its uses. But I'm not going to use vegan bacon or make vegan pulled pork. There's more than enough excitement in vegetables and you get protein from nuts and pulses; I think that they are more interesting in their whole form than when they have been industrially processed and turned into something else."
As well as a cookbook author, Hugh is known for his campaigning work and earlier this year fronted a series of three programmes for the BBC entitled Britain's Fat Fight, which focused on the obesity crisis and what can be done about it.
"The television shows were a very intense year of work, and I learned so much," he says. "They seem to have touched a chord. We got Nestlé to introduce the 'traffic light' symbols on their breakfast cereal packaging, which is simply about making it easier for everyone to eat healthier, and we are waiting to see how government and other big businesses will respond."
The decipherability - or lack - of nutritional information on food packaging is one of Hugh's prime targets, and one of the programmes saw Hugh trundling up to Nestlé HQ with a giant set of traffic lights on a trolley to help make his point, and stalking UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Jeremy Hunt at various events. (Spoiler alert if you haven't already seen the programmes: Hunt does not emerge well.)
"Making mischief is part of doing the thing on the telly," Hugh says. "I don't want to be po-faced or on a high horse. It's about getting big companies to compete in looking after us better, rather than giving us more calories."
Hugh has also worked with the Soil Association on its Out to Lunch initiative, which assesses the children's menus of the high-street food chains.
"We look at whether they have high fat and salt, and whether vegetables are included as standard. There's a league table, and league tables are great for filming; nobody wants to be at the bottom of a league table. We produce a draft and call up companies, and point out that they are in danger of being way down the table because of their bottomless fizzy drinks and give them a chance to improve their position. Really, we are putting it up to companies that they want to excel at looking after their customers' health, that it should not be an out-and-out sugar fest, and they should make sure that kids get vegetables. We have got to work with them - they are not going away, so let's communicate better and bring them with us."
During the course of the programmes, Hugh worked with two individuals who both achieved some success in tackling their own obesity. The on-screen relationships that he develops are quite touching, and he is clearly a man with significant emotional intelligence and empathy, not necessarily qualities that one would expect to find in someone from a privileged background, who went to school at Eton.
He says some of the lessons he learned have stuck with him and, at age 53, he is now 6kg lighter than when he started making the programmes a year ago.
"I have made some small, incremental changes to my own lifestyle. I am used to drinking a bottle of wine with my wife every evening, and I drink more of it than she does, but now I try to have two or three alcohol-free days a week. I don't always manage it, but I try. And I have a very sweet tooth, but now I have a chocolate bar as an occasional treat on the train - maybe twice a week rather than every day. I don't have dessert as a matter of course if I'm eating out in a restaurant. And sometimes I'll share a main course rather than have a whole one to myself - if my wife is up for that."
Hugh also started to run in solidarity with some of the participants in the show who were training for a 5k.
"Really, I am not a runner. I don't totally shun exercise, though: I play a bit of tennis and I like walking. But when I started running, I was out of breath after 200 yards, and I never really expected to enjoy it. But 80 or 90 of us took part in the Great North Run and I got around okay. Afterwards, I put the trainers away, but then weirdly I found myself thinking some evenings: 'I might just go for a run.' Now I go once or twice a week. I have friends who run much further and faster and I haven't progressed massively, but I have kept it going. I run through the country lanes and don't wear headphones: I just listen to the birds and watch the nature. I've started to enjoy it."
Hugh will be giving a cookery demonstration at Taste of Dublin, which runs at Dublin's Iveagh Gardens from this Thursday, June 14, to Sunday, June 17. To book tickets, see tasteofdublin.ie