Feature first published in West magazine, January 2018
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s latest cookbook, River Cottage Much More Veg, is a compendium of how to eat more veg, simply and deliciously. It is also gives us one way to help save the planet, writes Fran McElhone
“Our relentless consumption of meat is just not sustainable,” chef, journalist, campaigner and founder of the River Cottage enterprise, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall asserts. “Our planet has limited resources and we’re using up a huge amount on producing meat: a third of all grain and plant crops worldwide go on feeding livestock. In America it’s half. The energy required is immense. And methane gas emissions from livestock have a far greater impact on global warming than carbon dioxide.
“It’s a pressing environmental conversation and one we’re going to be having more of.”
Hugh’s an omnivore but says we should eat more veg, much more veg in fact, because the future of our planet is at stake. And because it’s delicious. The environmental crusader and national treasure is as blunt in person as he is onscreen in his plethora of confrontational documentaries.
The 52-year-old father-of-four’s taken time out of his immensely busy schedule (no doubt plotting the next globally important issue to bring into our living rooms) to host a long lunch at the River Cottage Canteen in Axminster – “the beating heart of what River Cottage is all about” – comprising a medley of the book’s dishes.
Hugh’s already written a book about veg, Veg Everyday. So why have you written another one Hugh? “Yes, well, good question,” he laughs. “I was blown away by how successful the first book was. It was quite transformational for me and recalibrated everything I believed about veg being so important. I knew there was room for another outing, but I wanted to take it to another level.”
Unconsciously, at first at least, the book is vegan. Its compilation involved much playful experimentation with River Cottage group head chef Gill Meller and his long time food editor Nikki Duffy, who helped Hugh devise the recipes. The book is a creative take on combinations and techniques but is, most importantly, a series of delicious and simple dishes.
“The first book wasn’t written for vegetarians,” he continues. “And neither is this one – it’s written for everyone. I didn’t mean to make it vegan but things like cheese can appear to prop up vegetables, and I wanted to make the point that veg can be amazing just being veg.
“Twenty odd years ago the only veg that got roasted was potatoes, maybe if you were really out there you may have roasted the odd parsnip!” he smiles. “But I want people to enjoy veg raw, barbecued and roasted – you can even roast heads of little gem lettuce!
“And it’s not too cheffy when it comes to techniques. I’m a bit old school. I still love my box grater!”
I get the impression Hugh could talk about the endless potential of the humble vegetable all morning.
“The book is a celebration of the bounty of the plant kingdom,” he tells a full house later. “It’s really important we think of plants has having massive potential, and as delicious, not just as the virtuous food we think we ought to eat on the side. I wanted to show people that what you can do with veg is infinite and doesn’t have to be complicated. That’s really the book’s only agenda.”
Thus, veg plays a major role at the canteens (there are four including Plymouth, Bristol and Winchester), thanks to Hugh who works with the teams on their menus.
We can expect to see more of Hugh on our TV screens this year; he has been working on a programme on the UK’s obesity crisis (according to the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK is the most obese country in western Europe: 29.6% of the population are obese), due to be aired by the BBC in the spring.
And Hugh’s War on Waste, a three-part BBC series whereby Hugh confronts some of the world’s most domineering chains about their gargantuan waste, continues to be waged off camera.
Meanwhile his campaign to get the UK government to re-evaluate its approach to antique ivory – the subject of a two-part BBC series in 2016, Saving Africa’s Elephants – has proved massively impactful. In the autumn of 2017, environment minister Michael Gove launched a consultation into Britain banning the sale of ivory.
“There’s a genuine consultation this time,” says Hugh, who has been heavily involved “of course”. “Last time, there was a sham consultation, that wasn’t committed or sincere.”
And with that, he glances at his watch, makes sure I’m staying for lunch, and darts off to make his compelling case for veg with indefatigable enthusiasm, underpinned with a will to save the world.