Mob Meets… Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

We spoke with the chef and campaigner about his approach to healthy living, the early days of River Cottage, and whether or not he thinks natural wine is a fad.
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall socials

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is an icon in just about every sense of the word. He’s the nutty professor of British food telly. The leader of the quack pack. The sultan of sultanas. The man who’s been asking the DJ to turnip the beet for decades and wants to book you on a one-way ticket to the farro islands.

From his days promoting animal welfare and root-to-fruit food ethics on the hugely successful River Cottage to his more recent endeavours into the realm of healthy eating, Hugh is a chef and campaigner who has always had his finger on the pulse of the pertinent issues surrounding what (and how) we eat and drink. His latest book, Eat Better Forever is half a cookbook and half a friendly manifesto that sets out to offer readers (that’s you and me) with a healthy and practical approach to eating better and living longer. Whether’s it’s through incorporating more whole foods into your diet or simply listening to your gut and smashing a glass of probiotic-packed kefir in the morning, there’s plenty of ways you can ameliorate your lifestyle without sacrificing on enjoyment. Well, there’s seven to be exact.

Yes, while Jesus had his seven miracles, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book contains his ‘7 Ways to Transform Your Diet’. Don’t fret, though, MOB – Hugh hasn’t got himself involved in the snake oil business or started any sort of religious cult. Yet. Eat Better Forever doesn’t proselytise about a miraculous one-and-done fix for your life but, rather, proffers a cluster of useful pathways that can help you get your eating habits on track. Think of it as no-nonsense advice from someone who’s older, wiser, and knows a lot more about what they’re talking about than the veneered shysters on your Instagram feed. Because that’s exactly what Hugh is offering: sound advice.

Turning your wine into water and reducing your alcohol intake, for instance, would probably do your pandemic stress-addled body some good but that doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy a glass or two every now and then. Diet culture can be dangerous and pervasive; Hugh’s philosophy is about eating better rather than eating less.

As an advocate for better food education through his work with the Food Foundation, the Soil Association, and initiatives like Veg Power and Food For Life, Hugh is a firm believer that the basic skills of cooking are a right for all and that it has to become easier for people to get ahold of the right ingredients. We couldn’t agree more with that ethos here at MOB Kitchen. In fact, we couldn’t agree more with Hugh, full stop. He really is quite an agreeable fellow. We hope, after reading this interview with him, that you’ll agree.

Your latest cookbook is a pretty big departure from some of your earlier stuff. Do you think the way you approach cooking has changed over the years?

Well, it certainly has changed and evolved over time but I don't think it's done a complete turnaround. People sometimes say, 'wow, so you wrote a book about meat fifteen years ago and now you're telling us all to eat vegetables, isn’t that a little hypocritical?' But, actually, one of the main principles of The River Cottage Meat Book was to remind us all that meat is an incredibly precious food and that it's something we should all be eating less of. Even back then I was very clear that we need to eat less meat of better quality from higher welfare animals. That's good for us, that's good for the animals, and it's good for the planet. I don't think I've contradicted myself by becoming much more emphatic about plants in the last five or six years. I’m someone who has always believed in the importance of provenance.

Ever since the first series River Cottage you’ve also been a vocal advocate of growing your own produce. That’s obviously not an option for people who don’t have the space. What’s the next best thing?

Well, the first thing I would say – before you've come to the conclusion that you can't grow any of your own food – is that, if you're really interested in food and you like the idea of growing your own veg, there are very few situations where it's literally impossible for you to grow anything. Even if it’s just getting some beans climbing up on a trellis planted in a window box or some nice hard herbs in a pot on the fire escape, I think there's always a huge amount of satisfaction from being able to put a pinch of something you've grown, even if it's just a small amount, in your cooking. You might grow some amazing Moroccan mint in a pot or a window box just to make a lovely mint tea that you can pick fresh out of your window. There’s something special about the stuff that you've grown yourself but if you can't get hold of an allotment, and you haven't got the garden space then, to me, the very obvious next-best-step is to go and buy your food directly from the people who have grown it.

So, for someone in London like myself that’d be a local greengrocer or farmer’s market, right?

Yes, that's what farmer's markets are at their best when they're done properly. Any decent farmer's market stand should be run by someone who's at least somewhat responsible for growing that produce or raising that animal or whatever it is. It’s important to have a conversation with the person that's grown your food. Even though I grow quite a lot of my food, I also buy a lot of stuff that way because I'm not self-sufficient. We all exist somewhere on a scale when it comes to how we eat. I once described that scale rather pretentiously as the ‘Food Acquisition Continuum’ – or FAC for short – where at one end you have the last vestiges of hunter-gatherer tribes or fully self-sufficient grow-your-own communities and, at the other end, far too many people who are completely reliant on a combination of industrially-produced foods, takeaways, and ready meals. That's the continuum, and we're all somewhere along that line. The River Cottage mission from the beginning has been to move people along that continuum away from being totally dependent on ultra-processed foods and more towards a lifestyle where you've got at least a basic knowledge about your food and where it comes from.

Why is knowing where your food comes from so important?

It's a lot about seasonality and sustainability; what’s local and in-season tends to be more sustainable and fresher, that's all great. But it's also about the stories. The story of where your food comes from is incredibly important and it's something that’s deeply ingrained in our psyche. If you think back a few millennia to when we were hunting and gathering – what were you going to talk about when you've tucked into that deer or those roots or that piece of shellfish you'd just scrabbled from the sea's edge in that particularly chilly low-tide in the middle of winter? You’d talk about the food and how hard it was or what the hunt was like or you’d describe what an incredible tree of figs you found in the forest. The story of the food comes back to the dinner table and, when it’s shared, it creates bonds and creates a feeling of connection around food. That's awesome. That's where a lot of our strong positive feelings around food come from. And that story can be very modern if you like. It doesn't always have to hark back to that ancient stuff. But if the story is literally: 'Oh, it comes out of a foil packet that I got out the freezer section of the supermarket,' I don't think that's a very nourishing story. And, as it happens, for other but connected reasons, that’s probably not a very nourishing meal either.

Can you give me an example of a more modern story around food?

Well, my lunch is a good start. There's some nice leftover chicken from our Sunday roast chicken that we’re going to have later – and it’s actually one of our own chickens. It broke its leg rather mysteriously a few days ago and that's why it was turned into our Sunday supper. I've made an amazing stock from it that I'm excited about – very excited about – because it was a laying bird. Not an ancient bird, it was still less than a year old, but it started laying a few months ago. So, I'm excited to eat the chicken but I’m also excited about the story behind the chicken!

Speaking of laying birds, how do you like your eggs?

My go-to is probably a fried egg. It doesn't need much oil in the pan at all and it's got to be over-easy for me. My favourite thing at the moment is eggs, either poached or fried, on toast with kimchi. With the kimchi, you've got to get it out of the fridge first so it's not too cold and, sometimes, if it's got really coarse chunky bits of cabbage I might put a blade through it once or twice as well. Hot buttered whole-grain toast with a nice spoonful of kimchi: on goes a pair of fried eggs, over-easy, a pinch of salt for the top of the egg and a twist of pepper. Sometimes I’ll even add a little dollop of yoghurt.

You mention in your book about not beating yourself over the occasional poor food choice. Do you think that cycle of guilt around eating is a problem with diet culture as a whole?

I think that there is a real problem with diet culture in that it essentially sets you up for failure because you're given a strict programme that you're supposed to adhere to and a set of behaviours that you're not supposed to transgress. What's particularly problematic is that most diets are expressed as one single idea or concept that you buy into – this kind of catchall approach, whether it's Atkins or paleo or low-carb or zero-sugar, where you're supposed to sign up to that deal as the one true God. That makes the idea of success or failure incredibly binary because there doesn’t seem to be a safety net if you do come off the rails even slightly. And so, I wanted to write a book about healthy eating rather than dieting; something about our diet and not the diet that we're on. I realised, at the time, that it was bucking the overwhelming publishing trend in diet books but I thought, "well, sod that," because, to me, that one-fix diet isn't working. Obviously, sometimes it works for some people but it's not what healthy eating is and it goes against the reality of thoughtful healthy eating.

I guess it's all about moderation?

Absolutely. That was why I wanted to introduce readers to loads of different tools that they can balance together. It's like making seven small New Year's resolutions instead of making one big one. If one of them is not quite firing on all cylinders, that's OK because you've got a bunch of other stuff going on that's also looking after you. If you're thinking about the diversity of the food that you eat and making sure you’re eating foods which are good for your gut and as "whole" as possible, that’s a great start. If you do that and you’re then mindful of the fact that things like refined sugars may make stuff taste nice occasionally but aren't really doing you any good, then you've got a much more balanced proposition that I think, over the long term, will look after you well.

I suppose you want people to come away from the book having more of an intuition about how to look after themselves...

Yes, that's right. And mindfulness is sort of the wrapping for all of them because, while you're following those steps, you should also be noticing what they’re doing to your body. We spend a lot of time eating food and noticing almost nothing about what we consume except maybe the leading-edge taste or the fact that it's making us feel quite full or whatever. We’re not really relishing it and certainly not thinking about its qualities or where it’s been grown. Mindful eating helps you to hold those things in your mind while you're eating. It can sound a little bit hippy-dippy but, really, it's just about being with your food while you're eating it. A lot of the time we're far too distracted and we're thinking about anything except the food we're eating.

Being present with your food is super important when you're eating but it’s also vital when you're picking it, buying it, and certainly when you're preparing it. Just reminding yourself of what it is you’re cooking, where it came from, what you're looking forward to about it, and just being with it a bit more can be really grounding. I'm absolutely convinced that the more you are mindful around food, the greater satisfaction you can get from it as well. Especially from subtler dishes that aren't necessarily coming at you with those highly calculated combinations of salt, fat, and sugar that we know we find irresistible.

You’re a famously big fan of offal like liver, kidney, and heart. What’s the best gateway recipe or dish to get someone into offal?

I like that phrase: "gateway offal". People's tastes are very different so part of the issue, if someone has got a bit of resistance to the idea of offal, is whether it’s a texture resistance or a flavour resistance. Either way, I would say that very fresh liver is a good start. People think they might not like liver because they think it's going to taste really strong but, actually, really fresh liver doesn't taste strong at all – it's got a sweet, creamy edge with quite a mild flavour. Talk to your butcher and get some fresh liver. Chicken liver is great but pig's liver or lamb's liver are hard to beat. Slice your livers thinly, combine them with some very, very thinly sliced onions and a tiny bit of olive oil and then maybe some cumin seeds and coriander that've been toasted and bashed. Leave that to mingle for a little bit – fifteen or twenty minutes, maybe, an hour tops – and then just chuck that thinly sliced liver with onions and spices into a very hot pan and stir fry it for a minute or two. Don't crowd the pan so that the juices have a chance to run and caramelise a bit. Eat that with some plain cooked lentils and a dab of yoghurt with a pinch of paprika.

I know you’re also a fan of organic and biodynamic wines. What is it about that the natural wine scene that appeals to you?

Yeah, I’m a big fan and I guess it’s just nice to see people pushing the boundaries of wine and allowing it to become something that isn't so rigid and, frankly, up itself. I do think there's a touch of the Emperor's new clothes about some natural wines, though, where you might be drinking something that’s had half a teaspoon of cider vinegar added to it so it tastes farmyard-y and gets a little bit cloudy. But "farm yard-y" also describes some of the most amazing of classic Burgundies as well; they really do smell of a farmyard and they've got that kind of incredibly rounded-yet-complex aroma. As if you’re walking through the countryside where you get a little bit of cow from over there and a little bit of cut grass from over there. I've really enjoyed experimenting and exploring the natural wine scene and, of course, it starts with being interested in organic production and knowing if your wines are not absolutely slathered in chemicals. We work at River Cottage really closely with Vintage Roots who have been ploughing that furrow for a long time.

Have you got any favourite merchants or producers?

I'm having a lot of fun trying all sorts of stuff out but I actually went, by complete chance, to the most incredible wine shop called Buon Vino last summer. It’s in the Lake District and it has the most wonderful organic and natural wine selection with the most amazing tasting notes. It's an absolutely mind-blowing shop owned by lovely people and, brilliantly, right opposite one of the best cheese shops you'll ever visit. In the English natural wine scene, I think that Tillingham are great and so are the brilliant people at Oxney Organic Estate. They do an amazing sparkling wine at Oxney and they’ve have got some really interesting things coming down the line.

What’s your favourite song to listen to while you’re cooking?

That's a no-brainer and it's a song that's been used – or even abused – in the soundtracks of various River Cottage episodes over the years. It's ‘Baba O'Riley’ by The Who. I realise that ages me somewhat but it's an unbelievable song and, of course, it's got an incredibly fitting opening line: "Out here in the fields, I fight for my meals, I get my back into my living." That pretty much nails it for me.

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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Eat Better Forever: 7 Ways to Transform Your Diet is out now. You should also definitely make sure to follow Hugh on Instagram – he goes wild swimming a lot and it's brilliant.

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