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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall divides opinion. Bumbling posh boy? Preaching foodie? Privileged public school telling us poor minions to source gold-plated local cow? Or inspirational cook, passionate and diligent animal welfare campaigner, a man who may have had the backing of Channel 4 but who has still made a huge commitment and difference to the way people see their food? Possibly a combination of some or more of the above?
Regardless of how you interpret it, the chef / TV foodie personality who started out with Cook On The Wild Side and TV Dinners, shows which earned him a reputation for dining on roadkill and even more extreme forms of food, has regardless become a monumental success and cultural influence by turning what was an experimental lifestyle change into the foodie and ethical-living mecca that is Dorset's River Cottage empire. And I personally think he is downright awesome.
I realise not everyone wants to be told how and what to eat - but I don't think anyone can justifiably knock Hugh's commitment to the issues surrounding the way food is produced and the drastic, almost entirely negative influence on our country that comes from massive supermarkets setting prices that knock hard-working and skilled farmers, butchers and game keepers out of business. His passion for these issues, as well as showing full respect to any animal raised for food in giving it a pleasant, if short, life and then making the full use of the carcass is for me a lesson that a lot of people would benefit from, as is showing how home-grown veg is without doubt the most delightful taste experience you could wish for - and I assure you to anyone who hasn't tried to grow their own tomato plant, let alone anything else, that it really is.
Please note this is not me getting on my soapbox - I, like everyone else, feel the pinch, and as much as I would love to eat organic and free-range meat whenever I choose to eat it at all, I can't afford to either. So whilst I do when I can, there are of course times when I have to let my budget and the welfare of my family come first. It doesn't mean I have to like myself for doing it, and as soon as things are able to change in that respect, I will never look at a supermarket's meat shelf again. Its no secret on here that I ultimate aim to run a smallholding, and if I can make my enterprise even the tiniest bit as successful as River Cottage, then I will feel that I have done something worthwhile in my life. So as far as Hugh is concerned, whatever you may personally think of the chap, to my mind he's bang on the money with his lifestyle and his attitude. So he's made a lot of money out of it - well done to the man.
If you don't like him, however, you're not going to like me very much for a while, as I have slowly been gathering some of the man's DVDs from various stages of his career as both inspiration and also consolation in times when the urban drudgery seems an unescapable form of punishment for some heinous former-life crime (God, I must been a right so-and-so). So I product-suggested quite a few on here and hope I can do them justice. Here's the first one - effectively where it all began for River Cottage.
Widely available, from River Cottage direct or Amazon etc, you can pick this up for about £7 new.
***ESCAPE TO RIVER COTTAGE***
Alright, yes, the word 'Eton' appears on his Wikipedia page, but don't hold it against the man. Eton doesn't teach you how to raise a pig or make a small patch of land your livelihood - they generally expect their students will already have people to do that for them.
This is the first ever River Cottage series and it is a far cry from what we all know of the place today - for a start it's a whole different cottage.
A former long-term London dweller, Hugh had been contemplating an entirely different lifestyle in the countryside for some time and made the leap to River Cottage with Channel 4's camera crew hard on his heels in this show. I personally never saw this series when it came out so I was delighted to see it available on DVD as I was curious how the whole cultural icon which is modern-day River Cottage started out.
The series is broken down into six half-four episodes - with modern day shows from the series usually being an hour, this feels a bit short when you're used to twice as much, but it is in keeping with the jaunty approach to the filming, score and commentary. It also fits well with the humour - I'm sorry but there is nobody in the world who isn't liable to succumb to an amusing pig incident if you let them into your life - as well as allowing the show to focus on one thing at a time such as Hugh's ambitious approach to sourcing his own fish supply from the river after which his temporary home earned its name. And at the time, with Hugh yet to be a household name, I guess an hour on some curly-haired posh bloke chasing a piglet around a field and taking pot-shots at pigeons probably wouldn't have been the most enthralling of viewing if you're not into that sort of thing. But each episode has plenty packed in to it and seems to fly by.
Renting a cottage on an estate owned by a wealthy 'proper posh' couple, in episode one Hugh sets about removing anything that doesn't serve a purpose - so that flower bed is out, for a start. If you're a bit too pally with the flowers, look away now - that's valuable vegetable growing space right there. And then there's the question of where his meat is going to come from - so he seeks out the advice of a local pig breeder and instantly the River Cottage family starts to grow. There's also a chance to see some of the most stunning scenery of the Dorset coastline, and Hugh meets other people living the sort of lifestyle he is trying to achieve by way of a quick introduction to spear-fishing and vegetable growing. And, of course, there's cookery.
Episode two sees Hugh a month in to the River Cottage lifestyle. And its bad news for a local pike. Hugh has developed Chronic Veg Obsession Syndrome (it's a tough one to live with, trust me), and its fruit picking season in Dorset. Also, the River Cottage family is about to expand via the addition of a few feathered individuals and Hugh creates the first ever River Cottage-produce meal.
Episode three sees Hugh succumb to something all veg gardeners have experienced - slug rage. God, how he has my sympathy! The pigs are growing up and so is - some of - the veg and there's a hoard of strange visitors to the Dorset coastline. Then there's the life-or-death challenge that is vegetable shows - I have a friend who gets a bit obsessive about these, so I'm hardly surprised to find that the competition in the Dorset region has an almost Midsomer-esque air of intensity about it!
Episode four includes the eternal war between mice and the grow-your-own adventurist plus the help of some extremely open-minded mouse fans who would certainly challenge my sensibilities, as well as the topic of the culling and thus maintaining of a herd of deer. Prawn potting with a figure from Hugh's past and some sea-side cookery made me long for the coast, and some garden cookery just makes me drool as Hugh uses literally just-picked ingredients to make a gorgeous summer dish for the mouse hippies.
Eel trapping with a woven basket takes place in episode five, seeking to use traditional methods of farming the river which gave the originally River Cottage its name. As does the delicacy that is known commonly as...roadkill. Admittedly not for human consumption...its also autumn now and cider apples are hitting the ground with delightful regularity in the West Country...proper West Country at that. Oh, and some pint downing. And the first ever River Cottage pigs are nearing their date with a slaughterhouse.
In the last episode of the series, the fitting correlation is the slaughter of the River Cottage pigs. Does Hugh go with the pigs on the day its self, or does he stay at River Cottage and let the professionals deal with the job without the emotional wrench? Hugh takes the former option, a combination of sadness and pride behind him. Accordingly, the episode also covers pork meat products such as cured ham. Meanwhile Hugh's pigs, having been slaughtered, will not be wasted in the slightest - so its time for some butchery education. And its soon going to be Christmas - so its time for a fair.
I loved seeing how the River Cottage empire started and I think that as someone aspiring to own a smallholding this is worth seeing - as I've already said, for me Hugh is an inspiration and a great campaigner over modern food issues so its great that this was put on a DVD so I can see the story start.
I think what comes across here is a really open minded food writer / cook / campaigner learning a new way of life that he aspires to and I can't knock anyone for that. Making the change must have required bravery regardless of whether Channel 4 have got your back because at the end of the day you have animals reliant on you for a good life - and death. I look forward to meeting the challenge of giving animals a great life instead of being forced by modern life to take advantage of those that have not and with that will come things like the emotional quandary of whether to attend the slaughter of your own animals.
Equally inventiveness is required for this sort of lifestyle and on top of this the show introduces you to other people - and some proper West Country pub-goers - and really does seem, on all my knowledge as a farmer's granddaughter, to be a very open and honest representation of some country pursuits and traditions, from pheasant shoots to country shows.
With humour, honesty and openness, I think this was a great start to the River Cottage story. It feels more documentary-ish than the more modern River Cottage Spring et al, with their jaunty animated titles, but still has a charm which makes me long for a better and more honest life like this.
In short for anyone who likes good smallholding practise and respectful, at least semi-sustainable food practise, you should surely enjoy this. I recommend it wholeheartedly and have full respect for Hugh for making the jump from London to something entirely different - the fact that he has made it into a monumental success is a testament to the guy whether or not he had the backing of a few shows on Channel 4. If he has helped change the approach of the general public to food then I raise my glass to him and this is how it all started. Cheers!