Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall wants change. But we’ve got to help him.

Story first published in Devon Life, January 2017

The day before I meet Hugh, the journalist and environmental crusader was helping a parliamentary select committee understand the impact on food waste in England and the vital need for legislation in order to bring down its grotesquely high (a third of food we produce, never gets eaten) level.

Today, the 51-year-old founder of the River Cottage enterprise, which includes four South west canteens and the cookery school at Park Farm, a few miles down the road, has taken a break from his unremitting campaigning and subsequent filming to host a lunch event at the Axminster canteen, which is, along with Park Farm, “the beating heart of what River Cottage is all about”.

Hugh’s here to introduce, to a full and hungry house, the latest cook book in the River Cottage odyssey, River Cottage A- Z, a giant encyclopaedia-esque work, full of the River Cottage family’s favourite ingredients and accompanying recipes, some of which are being served up to diners this lunch time. The book is a celebration of all that has happened over the last decade at Park Farm, AKA River Cottage HQ, which has just celebrated its tenth birthday, from its burgeoning cookery school and apprenticeship scheme, to its inspiring events, fanatically underpinned with the message of sustainability and ethical food production – road kill supper optional.

Hugh’s milling around the canteen chatting to staff, and comes and joins me for a quiet few minutes. He seems relaxed and happy, and asks me at least twice if I’m OK for a drink and to check I’m staying to be fed. “The book is principally about celebrating and encouraging diversity,” he says. “It’s really about expanding people’s culinary horizons, and I hope it will encourage people to cook with all kinds of ingredients. There are new recipe ideas with familiar ingredients and exciting recipes with unfamiliar ingredients.”

He grabs the book and it falls open at the letter H where there are intriguing sounding recipes using hazelnuts, heart, hedgerow mushrooms, herrings and honey.

Hugh is here to spread the word about this very elegant and impressive looking work which champions the River Cottage ethos. This vital message of food sustainability has spread into our hearts and minds thanks to Hugh and River Cottage. Indeed, it is his campaign work which has propelled this well-bred, well-meaning maverick to the realm of national treasure, if he wasn’t already.

The father-of-four’s most recent documentaries include Hugh’s War on Waste, a three-part BBC series whereby Hugh took to task the gargantuan wastage of some of our most domineering chains, succeeding in cajoling some of our supermarket giants into selling tonnes of wonky veg rather than chucking it out, and confronting Amazon bosses about the company’s laughable over-packaging protocols.

Then, following the revelation that only one per cent of the 2.5bn coffee cups used in the UK each year are recyclable, Hugh forced the coffee chains including, Starbucks, Caffe Nero and Costa Coffee, to admit that, actually, their coffee cups aren’t as recyclable as they said they were.

“It’s really touched a raw nerve,” he says wryly. “Much more than we thought it would. “And I think the reason for that is because the public feel they’ve been conned.

“The pressure is on, it’s been talked about in Parliament, and if these companies think this is all going to go away, they’re mistaken!” he adds, with a mischievous look, confirming that another War on Waste film is scheduled for 2017 and the coffee cup scandal will be revisited. “And I won’t be shy about being clear about how they’re progressing,” he smirks.

Hugh moved away from food for his two-part BBC series, Saving Africa’s Elephants, which detailed the hugely corrupt and cruel catastrophe that is the illegal ivory trade in which 80 elephants a day are slaughtered for, at which rate, the African elephant could be extinct in 25 years. The documentaries shone a light on the UK and Europe’s apparent complicity; the UK currently sends its antique, or pre-1947, ivory, which is legal, to Asia, but Hugh fears this could be fuelling the trade. In response, environment minister Andrea Leadsom promised the UK government’s policy on ivory would be reviewed, but would not be taken to task on the country’s sale of its antique ivory.

“Politicians don’t move very fast, and they don’t like to look like they’ve responded to campaign pressure,” Hugh suggests. “The review signifies progress, but it’s getting them to extend the remit of the review to look at the problem we’ve exposed about antique ivory.”

As a result of the documentary, a petition urging the government to outlaw the trade was launched. When it reaches 100,000 signatures, a parliamentary debate will be promoted:

“I’m hopeful,” Hugh confirms. “The important thing about programme making is to shine a light on these issues that are under exposed and not in the public eye.”

But Hugh is the first to admit that bringing about change is a team effort, and after activating a groundswell of compassion, we, Hugh’s army, hold the power. “Politicians are much more accountable to a better informed public, who want to see things change,” he says. “The public is what motivates politicians.”

I wonder where he stood on the EU leave/remain debate, because Hugh is a prime example of how EU policy can be changed from within: following the launch of his Fish Fight campaign in 2010 to raise awareness that 50 per cent of North Sea fish was thrown back dead because of “crazy” EU rules, EU politicians voted to ban discards.

Hugh confirms he voted remain in the EU referendum debate “for so many reasons”. “Most of them were not actually connected to environmental policy,” he explains. “I believe in the idea of a united Europe and I think we should be more, not less, connected with our neighbours.”

And with that, it’s lunchtime and Hugh whirls away to chat to a line up of guests, no doubt all inspired by the fundamentally important River Cottage ethos that if we all lived by, could surely change the world.

River Cottage A – Z in Hugh’s own words:

“I hope these books will get dirty and grubby through use, as handsome as they are, they are meant to be filthy.

“It’s an alphabetical list of our favourite ingredients, we had to be somewhat selective, for example gorse flowers didn’t make it in, but it’s a pretty comprehensive otherwise.

“It’s a celebration of diversity; what we can pick in our hedgerows, grow in our gardens, rear on our farms, find on our seashores and shop for too. Diversity is incredibly important; what’s not good for the planet is using the same, massively produced, industrially manufactured products over and over again.

“I don’t think any ingredients should be inaccessible, obscure or elitist, and I hope the book will lead to more people being more adventurous and diverse in their cooking.

“These are grandiose ideas, but I genuinely believe there are few things more important as we head into an uncertain future than how we’re going to feed the planet, and how we’re going to feed the planet includes, first and foremost, how we’re going to feed ourselves. And we forget that each and every one of us has the power to change the system – if we buy into a system it continues, but if we buy out of it, then it can be changed.

“So if this book can make a small contribution to how we eat and feed ourselves differently, it will have been wholly worthwhile.”

Leave a Reply