15 Years ago I stumbled upon a little know London chef who would go onto make some of my favourite TV programmes and write critically acclaimed, voluminous books that would change many people’s conceptions of not only cooking, but the food industry in general. It was a Sunday afternoon of nondescript televised drivel that had me endlessly flicking from one station to the next like a child at the pick and mix. such options paralysis can never lead to any good in my opinion, however via this infuriating method I happened upon a scruffy looking middle class urchin!
- The first words from the urchins mouth were ” Hi, My name is Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall, I’ve decided to go back to my roots and if I find them, I’ll probably eat them!” My eyes opened wide and I immediately turned the channel over feeling somewhat perturbed by this rich boy telling me he would eat “His roots” whilst dressed like a Hippy. For some unknown reason I was compelled to turn the channel back to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Why…….? Why did I want to watch this guy eat anything and everything? Maybe it was is articulate, erudite middle class accent that I felt was quite paradoxical, whatever it was, I was watching and have done so ever since.
Hugh Christopher Edmund Fearnley-Whittingstall whom I shall call Hugh hence forth Was born on 14th February 1965 in Hampstead, London, to Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall and Robert Fearnley Whittingstall. He attended Summerfields School in Gloucestershire before moving onto Eton and then St Peters College, Oxford, where He studied philosophy and psychology.
After a brief period in Africa Hugh moved back to London to pursue a career in catering, he worked as a Sous-Chef at The River Cafe’ in London but by His own admission was very undisciplined and messy, the hectic, pressurised environment of a commercial kitchen didn’t suit his laid back style so he left later reflecting that this period of working in a busy professional kitchen was what shaped the rest of his career. For a brief time Hugh worked as a freelance journalist having articles published in Punch, The Times and The Evening Standard.
It was in 1995 that Hugh was approached with regards to making “A cook on the wild side” It was this programme that hooked me forever into the fascinating world of foraging and cooking free offerings from the hedgerow, riverbank and road side.
Other Television work
Escape to River Cottage.
Return to River Cottage.
Beyond River Cottage.
Treats from the Edwardian House
The view from River Cottage.
The River Cottage treatment.
River Cottage gone fishing.
River Cottage seasonal special.
River Cottage everyday.
River Cottage Three good things.
A cook on the wild side.
The intention of this programme was to highlight that living by foraging could be a viable way of sustained living, however the pros and cons have to be evaluated. Hugh made no qualms about the dangers of picking free offerings that hung from bushes and trees or grew by waterways and hedgerows. An early episode showed Hugh getting an in-depth description of the myriad poisonous plants that can be encountered in the British countryside. A great thing to remember to avoid nasty and potentially fatal accidents is – “If it smells like Almonds or Peaches and isn’t an Almond or a Peach then its best avoided”
Having been told of the pitfalls, Hugh took the plunge and with His converted Jeep, complete with Shower, Pull out Kitchen, under boat roof sleeping facility and many kitchen utensils He started out on his journey, a journey that would take him the length and breadth of the British isles, into the Scottish Highlands, through the Calder valley, over to the west at Morecambe bay and throughout the midlands before returning to London.
For practical purposes Hugh would allow himself enough money only for the fuel required to get him through his journey, also, he allowed for a few basic cooking ingredients that would make for a more wide-ranging gastronomical experience. The staples he took were – Flour, oil and salt.
After leaving his London home Hugh made his way to a Welsh river where he met coracler Bernard, a no-nonsense Welsh fisherman who showed Hugh the art of netting for salmon. alas the pair had no luck, so, they tucked into Minnows and hogweed shoots cooked by Hugh at the river side. Bernard, after a few glasses of his parsnip wine admitted that the hogweed was excellent but the minnows were a little dubious!
After leaving the Welsh river Hugh offered his services to a local farm in return for a little produce. After a few difficult hours with goats he was rewarded with a dozen eggs and a jar or two of honey. Leaving the farm he went in search of some protein. The minnows didn’t really hit the spot, so he went in search of wild rabbit.
With the aid of Malcolm, a poacher turned gamekeeper and ( Nobby the ferret ) Hugh was presented with a fine plump specimen that became “Bunny alla runny Honey” served with Jack by the edge a garlic like herb. The recipe for this dish appears in Hugh’s 2nd book “A cook on the wild side.”
Having whetted your appetite (I hope) for Hugh’s foraging to survive challenge, I will now highlight my favourite aspects of this endearing TV programme; Attempting a full critique would require a blog of epic length!
One of my favourite episodes of ” a cook on the wild side” featured Hugh fishing on the river Thames a few hundred metres from a power station, the name of which was never divulged. The theory goes that fish enjoy the warm water created by the station, ( has an Angler Myself, I can vouch for this, ) and feed well throughout the day. With his companion Hugh managed to catch roach, perch and small carp. One of the Carp was earmarked for an unusual and a wonderful cooking method!
On returning to The Gastrowaggon Hugh produced a paperback book entitled “Manifold destiny” written by Chris Maynard.
The book explains that the heat of a car engine, or indeed a jeep engine can be used in a controlled manner to cook most meats, but in particular fish. Hugh placed the Carp onto some oiled tin foil, scattered some salt, wild fennel and parsley over it then closed the foil over and around the fish creating a neat parcel. He then snuggly fitted it between engine and convenient pipe, referred to “Manifold destiny” before disclosing that a Carp of lb would need a steady 45 mph for 30 minutes.
Off He went!!
30 minutes later He pulled over and parked on some double yellow lines, Hugh is a rebel, what can I say? On opening the bonnet of the Gastro Waggon he gleefully noted a wisp of steam emanating from the fish parcel, he opened the parcel and broke open the flesh of the carp, “Well, the creamy white flesh of this carp is perfectly cooked and delicious” proclaimed a jubilant man! Unfortunately before the fish was fully enjoyed a Traffic Warden full of his own self-importance only obtainable by a desire to be a police officer but without the wherewithal, appeared in the distance with intent, so Hugh re-wrapped his free meal and drove away.
It was when Hugh travelled to the Scottish Highlands & Islands that He discovered Guddling which is a traditional Scottish word describing the art of collecting Oysters, scallops, mussels and other shell-fish from the Lochs. On The isle of Mull he met Linda, a 3rd generation crofter who was his guide for the day. Being clumsy and slightly eccentric Hugh decided to go bare footed guddling and proceeded to slide all over the kelp, falling on his backside a few times whilst Linda went on her merry way in a pair of stout waders.
After Hugh and Linda had enjoyed a loch side feast of freshly collected delicacies Hugh proclaimed he was falling in love with Scotland, so, he would be staying around for a few days. I will leave this part of the episode by saying, when Hugh asked Linda ” You’re not single by any chance are you?” she replied ” I am at the moment yes, I think you’ve had to many Oysters Hugh, maybe it’s not a myth!” he smiled broadly and said “What an incredible stroke of luck!”
Heather Ale (Fraoch)
Before Hugh left Scotland He made a batch of this traditional Scottish Ale with professional brewer Bruce. He was subject to some gentle Anglo – Caledonian banter when the team of heather pickers all questioned his name, masculinity and his ability to fill two sacks with heather tops. Some three hours after the Scottish guys had made their quota Hugh finally joined them for a campsite drink and sing-song. The day after, he made his own batch of ale.
5lb milled pale malted barley
8oz milled crystal malt
small pieces of lard
8 large handfuls of bog myrtle leave
2 tsp brewers yeast
1 level tsp honey per bottle
The link below is the footage of the brewing process employed on the day. To describe the method to inexperienced brewers is difficult and would be quite churlish!
The only change from the above list of ingredients and the one used during the filming was an extra handful of heather to start the fermentation process. ( rather than the yeast.)
Returning to London
Has I previously asserted, to fully portray this wonderful TV show would take 30,000 words and I would suggest, that would no longer be a blog, rather a short book! Ironically its books that I will leave you with as Hugh has written some of the most critically acclaimed food/politics books of any Chef. His books are not recipe books per se, more, in-depth chronicles of food production, animal welfare and the pros & cons of life has a Carnivore and occasional vegetarian!
The list below is a Chronological summary of Hugh’s literary work
TV Dinners: In Search of Exciting Home Cooking, (1996)
A Cook on the Wild Side, (A Channel Four book) (1997)
The Best of TV Dinners, (1999)
The River Cottage Cookbook, (2001)
The River Cottage Year, (2003)
The River Cottage Meat Book, (2004)
Preserved, with Nick Sandler and Johnny Acton (2004)
The Real Good Life: A Practical Guide to a Healthy, Organic Lifestyle, with the Soil Association (2005)
Soup Kitchen, with Thomasina Miers, and Annabel Buckingham (2005)
The River Cottage Family Cookbook, with Fizz Carr (2005)
Hugh Fearlessly Eats it All: Dispatches from the Gastronomic Front line, (2006)
Little Book of Soup, with Thomasina Miers, Annabel Buckingham (2006)
The Taste of Britain, with Laura Mason, and Catherine Brown (2006)
The River Cottage Diary 2008, (2007)
The River Cottage Fish Book, with Nick Fisher (2007)
River Cottage Diary 2010, (2009)
River Cottage Every Day, (2009)
The River Cottage Bread Handbook, (US Version) with Daniel Stevens (2010)
The River Cottage Preserves Handbook, with Pam Corbin (2010)
River Cottage Veg Every Day!, (2011)
Three Good Things on a Plate, (2012)