At River Cottage in the velvety depths of the rural Devon/Dorset border, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is wearing a threadbare shirt and the faintly boggle-eyed look of a man struggling to believe his good fortune. Outside the windows of the TV chef’s centre of operations, cows graze in meadows, tractors chug down country lanes and wood smoke curls around scattered stone cottages.
Hugh, 51, weathered, well matured and prosperous, is about to mark ten years in this now-celebrated location – nearly 20 from the original cottage where it all began – and although he has achieved a lot, he realises that the big battles are far from won. For while all this rustic wholesomeness is real enough, it is also, in a sense, an illusion.
The farmlands around here, and across Britain, are run to the ferocious dictates of what Hugh calls ‘the industrial food machine’ – the powerful conglomerates of manufacturers and retailers who essentially dictate what the nation eats.
Grow a carrot that doesn’t look sufficiently carroty – one that might have a minuscule deviation from the approved elongated orange triangle – and it will never see a supermarket shelf. Pluck a tomato that you couldn’t mistake for a billiard ball, and the chances are you will be stuck with it. According to Hugh, up to 30% of all the fresh produce grown in Britain is thrown away, mostly for cosmetic reasons. And that doesn’t include the food we needlessly throw away ourselves.
Related: Read Hugh's top 10 tips to reduce food waste
‘It’s a disgrace,’ he huffs above the crackling of a wood stove and the mewling of assembled cats. ‘We can’t afford to carry on like this. We’ve got people going hungry in this country, and we’re chucking food away on a crazy scale.’
Indeed he lives what he preaches. He sprinted our photographer around immaculate vegetable beds and through his beloved polytunnel looking for suitable backgrounds, conversing earnestly with the River Cottage gardener on the way. He picked a handful of chard and a beautiful curl of kale to be photographed with but, before he left for his next appointment, he darted back into the kitchen to ensure someone was going to cook and eat the greens after he’d gone.
An intriguing blend of Earth-spirited ardour and Old Etonian insouciance, Hugh has grown River Cottage into a multi-threaded franchise that extends into cookery courses, books, DVDs, special events and a cluster of award-winning West Country canteens. It all makes for a punishing schedule, which has to be fitted around the demands of raising a large family. ‘I’ve become much better at taking time off than I used to be,’ he says. ‘A while back I messed up a book deadline and that messed up a summer holiday. So I had to promise that in future I’d take the whole of August off, and I’ve lived up to that, even though it means a mad dash to get everything else done.’
He married Marie Derome, a journalist, in 2001. ‘I actually met her through a French guy I’d become pals with on a holiday in Greece. He took me out fishing a few times, and later he turned up at my flat in London and ended up kipping on my floor for a while. The only other person he knew in London was Marie, and he introduced us, and it took off from there. So it’s all due to that Anglo-French-Greek fishing connection!’
Secure in their rural idyll, the Fearnley-Whittingstalls have four children, including an adopted daughter, Chloe, now 15, whose mother, BBC journalist Kate Peyton and a close friend, was killed on assignment in Somalia. All the FWs appear to be handy cooks, although, says Hugh, ‘we don’t fight over it. Marie’s a great baker, and she makes amazing soups and breads, and although I love to cook at home I’ve learnt to be a little less tyrannical in the kitchen. Now the kids like to get involved too, and to me it’s a parent’s dream when they say: “Why don’t you two take the night off and we’ll cook?”
‘We live a few miles from here, but the set-up is similar, with a bit of land where we can grow our own food. It’s a sanctuary. Sometimes we will chill out there, but we love going to Scotland, the Hebrides, wild beaches, cold seas. Great.’
As celebrity cheffing has steadily fused into showbusiness, it is easy to forget that what we eat is a very serious business. With the enduring success of his Channel 4 River Cottage shows, Hugh has emerged as the closest thing his trade has to a conscience. He tub-thumps for honest producers, natural ingredients, traditional kitchencraft and the cause of animal welfare. River Cottage, snuggled in a valley near Axminster, has become the pulpit from which his evangelical take on food is proclaimed.
He didn’t set out to be the Jedi quartermaster rallying the rebels against the rations of the Empire. When Hugh left Oxford in the Eighties, clutching a philosophy degree and a bunch of worthy but ill-formed ideals, his plan was to make a career in wildlife conservation. He spent some time in Africa but, fired up with a new idea of being a chef, returned to a job in London’s fashionably counter-cultural River Café, where he was sacked for taking too long over a pear-and-almond tart.
Relating, in one of his later books, the trauma this setback caused, Hugh says he was forced to face the big question: ‘How much point is there, really, in working in a hellhole dungeon of a kitchen, having your head dunked in the stock pot, and being called a “talentless ****” a hundred times a day by some caffeine-addicted ego-maniac chef who will happily sacrifice your body, social life and sanity in pursuit of his third Michelin star? On balance, I thought, not much.’
And so, deflated but not yet despairing, he set out, via a pioneering stint as a food writer, on the path that took him to the original River Cottage, near Netherbury, Dorset, in 1998. He ran the place as a smallholding, showing how good food should be cherished from seedbed to saucepan, and has been cajoling, encouraging and inspiring us to eat better ever since. But he knew the power of the opposition.
‘The big food machine marches ever onwards,’ he says. ‘It has a lot of money and a lot of clout, so in a way we’re always fighting a rearguard action. But we have a growing number of supporters, and we have passion and belief. Plus, especially over the past ten years, we’ve seen more and more people who care about their food and want to know where it comes from. I’m certain that the next ten years will be even more dramatic and surprising.’
He is reluctant to claim personal credit for such progress, but his War on Waste campaign, launched on BBC One late last year, is clearly having an impact. In one programme, he visited a farm in Norfolk where 20 tons of parsnips had been condemned to the rubbish tip on purely cosmetic grounds.
‘The idea that a parsnip should be selected under some kind of beauty-contest rules is absurd,’ he says. ‘Often you are talking about a size variation of a couple of millimetres, and this is the sole basis on which the stuff is being rejected.’ The big supermarkets, having long claimed that consumers won’t buy unshapely produce, now appear to be backtracking, with Asda launching a range of wonky veg under the ‘Beautiful on the Inside’ label, and Waitrose selling the kind of knobbly tomatoes you usually see only in Continental markets.
‘We shouldn’t kid ourselves that we can solve anything just by making a TV show about it,’ says Hugh. ‘The best we can do is to raise awareness of these things. The real answer is to have demanding customers, properly informed, who can shape the retail trade. But, of course, the retail trade prefers to shape us.’
He has little sympathy for the supermarkets’ argument that they are merely giving customers what they want. ‘There are aspects of their business that are clearly doing damage. When you see huge amounts of perfectly good food being ploughed into the ground purely on the basis that it doesn’t meet someone’s cosmetic standards, you understand that this is a moral issue.’
Barely pausing for breath, he launches into a plummy-toned tirade against the wickedness of the food giants, accusing them of deliberately subverting consumers’ tastes – particularly those of children – with ‘addictive products’ that are ‘sold cheap and piled high, and which basically consist of extruded forms of fat, sugar and refined flour with a bit of artificial flavouring’.
He knows the stock comeback to this kind of argument. ‘People say: “Oh, you went to Eton and Oxford, you’ve got plenty of money and this big place in the country where you play at farming. It’s OK for you”. And I don’t deny any of that, but what I’m trying to say is that good food is relevant to everybody’s lives and it doesn’t have to be expensive.’
As a society, he says, we have become casual about what we eat. In the Fifties the average British household spent 30% of its income on food; today it is barely half that. Not only affluence, but availability and convenience have turned us into a nation of binners. We need to revisit the past and learn from it.
‘We have lost those precious, thrifty instincts that other generations had,’ he says. ‘Back then people understood the value of food, learnt how to eke out leftovers, wasted almost nothing and chucked out as little as possible.’
Related: Try Hugh's recipe for arancini, a delicious way to use up leftover risotto
There has always been a radical edge to his cooking – in one infamous episode of River Cottage he fried up a woman’s placenta with garlic and shallots and served it on toast – but today the radicalism appears to have a tighter focus. Is he drifting towards politics?
He says not, whizzing up a smoothly worded assurance that he doesn’t ‘identify’ with any political party, preferring to favour particular policies. His mother, the garden designer Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, was active in the Liberal Party, while young Hugh was at Eton with Conservative luminaries-to-be David Cameron and Boris Johnson. He has had kind words for the Greens, and applauded Labour’s pre-election pledge to support marine conservation.
Related: Read our archive interview with Jane and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
He says he has no direct contact with David Cameron these days, although the PM’s brother Alexander is married to one of his cousins. So, if he did have a hotline to Downing Street, what would he plead for? Hugh looks vaguely uncomfortable when put on the spot like this. He says he is upset about the Tories’ lack of commitment to renewable energy, and thinks there should be a stronger focus on teaching food skills in schools, then changes the subject to the barely-less-touchy one of squirrels.
He is fond of the branch-hopping rodents. Especially braised in a tomato and red wine sauce. But in telling the world a while back that his teenage son, Oscar, shoots them for the family pot, he crashed into one of the complex sensitivities that surround our attitude to food. A rapidly confected media storm saw him accused of ‘cruelty’ to wild animals, and even encouraging ‘gun culture’. Anyway, went the story, squirrels are cute, furry and fun to point out to your children in parks.
Hugh is too polite to call all this hypocritical bunkum, and settles for saying that the fact of squirrels being wild is one of the better reasons for eating them. ‘Look,’ he blinks, ‘what would you rather have? A chicken that has been stuck in a cage or a squirrel that has spent its life outdoors doing healthy squirrelly things?’ He struggles to understand why we think it is fine to eat, say, cows but not horses, and pigs but not puppy dogs.
Nevertheless, he has cut back on his meat consumption, and these days is nursing a new enthusiasm for veggies. ‘The food world has always been rather in awe of things like beautiful fish and prime cuts of meat, and vegetables get treated as something of an afterthought,’ he says. ‘I’m trying to change that, and make the vegetables the central plank, with the meat or whatever as a complement to them.’
As he sits talking fast at a rickety table, with the whiff of farmyard manure seeping through the window, it is hard to imagine him running out of enthusiasms. Certainly, he seems besotted with life at River Cottage, and has plans to expand its horizons, including an outdoor cookery centre.
‘What the whole River Cottage thing is about for me,’ he says, ‘is enabling people who come here to learn something more about where food comes from, and giving them skills to do new things. Not so that you are going to turn into some hair-shirted type, growing all your own food, but about cherry-picking the things that you find fun and exciting.’
Related: Exclusive River Cottage Saga cooking day offer
At the heart of all activity is family life. Like many modern parents, Hugh fears the future will be a lot tougher for the next generation. ‘I wouldn’t feel I’d done my job as a parent if I hadn’t equipped my kids with some idea of how to cook. Give them the knowledge and the cooking skills and you give them resilience. In other words, the work of River Cottage is far from done.’
This article was first published in the April 2016 issue of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.