Country Calling talks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and spends a day at River Cottage HQ.
Even on a grey, rain lashed day, the River Cottage homestead seems pretty magical.
It’s not just the sight of that famous farmhouse or the green and rolling East Devon backdrop. No, there’s something really quite uplifting about this place and I think it’s down to the fact that River Cottage HQ seems true to its TV persona: laidback, unpretentious and fun but with a serious message to take away with you. This is somewhere to regroup and make small but life-changing decisions. Let’s face it, you’re not going to spend a day here and then screech into Asda for a ready meal on your way home.
It seemed a fitting way to celebrate Country Calling’s first anniversary, learning to cook in Hugh’s fearless, take no hostages style – butchering a rabbit, filleting a seabass, whipping up a panacotta (more of which later). And then the man himself took time out of his frenetic schedule – campaigning, TV cheffing and an all day board meeting – to chat to Country Calling about his trajectory career and his favourite East Devon haunts and West Country food producers (see our interview below).
It’s quite incredible to see how his simple dream of the Good Life has escalated into such a huge venture and yet it doesn’t feel that way as you bump your way down the long pot-hole riven lane that leads to River Cottage HQ at Park Farm, just outside Axminster.
Inside the farmhouse it’s a buzz to see that infamous kitchen - with a lo-fi, lived in feel that doesn't seem at all contrived.
There’s a lot going on at Park Farm these days.
The cookery school – currently held in a huge tent since a fire swept through the barn in February – has courses pretty much day in, day out. You can learn how to bake bread, cure pork, build a clay oven in your garden or spend a whole day cooking veg. With Catch and Cook, you’re out on a boat on the Tamar Estuary fishing for whiting, pollock and mackerel, then learning how to skin, gut and fillet the fish on board. I like the sound of seashore foraging with River Cottage’s foraging expert John Wright – a day hitting the coast to find crabs, edible seaweed, sea beet and kale before returning to cook it,
Whatever the course the message stays the same – River Cottage wants to reignite our love of simple, seasonal eating and show us how to rely less on the outside world for our food.
There are events here too, expounding those same principles of food integrity but always in an enticing, non-preachy way. I’ll be signing up for the Autumn Fair a foodie nirvana of cookery demos, farmer’s market, workshops, produce swapping and cider quaffing.
Today though I’m on the One Day Cookery Course run by head of events Steven Lamb and chef Rob Jessop along with a roomful of women (mainly in their 30s and 40s) and a surprising number of men (all that ripping flesh apart with your bare hands, I guess).
Within minutes of arriving I’m kneading my own dough, which is the first of many firsts.
The course is brilliant – you are constantly learning useful and inspiring stuff but the vibe is fun and upbeat rather than educational.
Steven and Rob are both very funny and the day is peppered with weird curveballs - "anyone know what a skinned cat looks like?" (same as a skinned rabbit apparently) and the occasional evangelistic rant. Steve tells you how River Cottage spends 10 days curing its bacon and you privately vow never to buy the packaged supermarket stuff again.
Back to the rabbit which we quarter and casserole with that home-cured bacon and cider. Next we're whipping up a 'snack' - panfried broad beans and spring onions with goat's cheese on bruschetta. It is ridiculously quick and totally delicious.
Filleting a whole seabass was pretty challenging but strangely life-enhancing at the same time. This is the kind of thing I would never have dreamt of trying but after Rob's expert instruction i'm seeing the fishmonger's slab in a whole new light. We eat the seabass grilled on a bed of lentils and drizzled with salsa verde; simple and brilliant.
The rabbit's good too and again I find myself thinking about sending my son out with his air rifle at the weekend. Skinning and gutting a rabbit? You know what, I'm beginning to think I could.
We bake our own shortbread and whip up a vanilla scented pannacotta (mindblowingly good) and on the way home I'm full of resolution to live a little bit more the River Cottage way. Why wouldn't you?
Below Country Calling talks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
CC: You've built a career out of your passion for good, local food. Has the concept of eating well and the provenance of food always been important to you?
HFW: Not exactly – I was brought up on burgers and fish cakes and beans on toast – like so many kids in the 60s and 70s. But my Mum was a good cook and I used to help her make the puddings for her 70s dinner parties – chocolate rum gateau, profiteroles, pavlova, that kind of thing. The big change for all of us was when we moved out of london to Gloucestershire. I was seven years old. Suddenly we had a veg garden, and I was munching raw carrots and popping pods of peas – and both my parents got really into it. Much later, when I went to work at the River Cafe in 1989, I quickly understood how vital good ingredients were to great cooking. The whole River Cottage ideal is really a combination of the simple pleasures of growing your own food and the excitement of cooking with it, and sharing it with family and friends.
CC: You've weaned people off battery chickens, ready meals and non-sustainable fish - what' s next?
HFW:Right now I’m not sure there is a next. We still have so much to do with the Fish Fight campaign. The politics of fishing is so complex, and change is so badly needed. I have a feeling this is going to take some time!
CC:Country Calling showcases the best of life in the West Country. Why did you move here and what do you most love about it? Could you share with us some of your favourite local hidden gems?
HFW: I used to come to Dorset on camping holidays as a kid – staying near Ringstead Bay. I went out with a local fisherman called Mr Cheesemen and helped him haul his crab and prawn pots. It made such a deep impression on me. Now I’m in Devon – my favourite “local” is the Railway in Honiton –really outstanding food, and a great family atmosphere. Their take away pizzas are blinding too. Ganesha wholefoods is where we stock up on organic ingredients. And I’ve got a soft spot for the café down at Axmouth harbour next to the tackle shop. They’ve always got a much needed cup of tea when I come in from fishing on our boat – and they do crab sandwiches too.
CC: Which West Country food producers do you really rate at the moment?
HFW:There’s so many great ones -: My favourite at the moment is the wonderful Rusty Pig, a café come deli in Ottery St Mary. They do their own charcuterie and other porky delights made from local rare bread pork. Veg from Fivepenny Farm, amazing ciders and cider brandies from Burrow Hill; unusual and delicious ciders and wines from Polgoon in Cornwalll; woodland poultry and pigs from Riverwood Farm; great cheeses like Harbourne Blue, Godminster; Brown Cow organics for their amazing yoghurts and panna cotta; Trealy for charcuterie… I could go on and on!
CC:Your River Cottage experiment began 15 years ago as a simple return to Good Life Now as well as the books and TV shows, you have restaurants, a cookery school, husbandry and gardening courses, even weddings. Did you ever envisage that RC would become such a huge venture?
HFW:Definitely not. I never had a grand plan. Things have just happened, one project at a time. It’s true that we’ve got a lot going on now, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been a rapid expansion – but quite a gradual, organic one. It started fifteen years ago, after all! And of course, none of this would have happened without the support and collaboration of some truly inspiring and determined people – River Cottage in all its forms is very much a team enterprise.
CC:Having achieved so much do you think you might tire and need to do something completely different with your life?!
HFW: Not just yet!