Webchat with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Award-winning cookery writer, broadcaster and founder of River Cottage, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall joined us for an eagerly anticipated webchat in September 2011 to answer questions about his new book, River Cottage Veg Everyday, his other recipe books, food production methods and his campaigning.
River Cottage Veg Everyday is out now.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Hugh here, fresh from the studios of Loose Women. Not sure if any of you were watching, but please be gentle with me! Anyway here I am, ready and willing to answer as many of your questions as I possibly can. It's great to be talking to Mumsnet!
Aristocat: Are you really a veggie?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Rumours of my being a veggie have spread far and wide so it's time to front up. It's true - I haven't eaten meat or fish for over three months now. Instead, I've been immersing myself in the wonderful world of veg and I've been loving it. A few more weeks and I'll be back on the flesh but I think this experience will have changed the way I cook forever.
AuntieMonica: I thought the River Cottage 'thing' was about using the whole animal, not just the prime cuts etc, but learning how to use the 'cheaper' cuts, like offal. After making a career out of telling people they can cook with meat within a budget, you've now gone vegetarian. Can you explain the about-turn?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I'm not suggesting for a minute that anyone else should give up meat. I wanted to do it because I felt it would make me a better at cooking veg, and it has. But the fact is, most of us are eating too much meat, and I've been saying that for a very long time. Too much for our health, too much for the health and welfare of our farm animals, and frankly, too much for the future of food production on the planet to be sustainable.
As well as cooking good meat thriftily and wisely, we also need to give meat a rest from time to time. Of course the way I think about cooking has evolved over time and I make no apology for that. I'm looking forward to going back to cooking the cheapest cuts of the best meat; they'll always be a big part of my diet. But they will be accompanied and interspersed with many more veg in future.
MissWing: I was raised by veggies, so for us the 'high quality meat once in a while' thing is second nature. I have a theory that frozen veg are actually very sustainable and environmentally friendly as we'd run the freezer anyway, there's less waste as food doesn't go off, it's produced intensively therefore less carbon per calorie and the are vitamins nicely preserved too. Any thoughts?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I'm not sure about the carbon per calorie argument. Intensively farmed veg are often shipped long distances, and I would say local is best, but the freezer is a very useful device for keeping good veg in good nick, and actually anyone who grows their own veg knows that you need a freezer to take care of those gluts of peas and beans.
We've got a huge tomato glut at the moment and I'm roasting kilos at a time with garlic and herbs, rubbing them through a sieve and freezing this delicious nectar by the litre. I'll be using it in soups, stews and pasta sauces right through the winter and beyond.
Bagelmonkey: I'd like to know if there's anything two incompetent adults and a baby could grow to eat in an apartment with a small balcony. We have a lot of light, but it would need to be very low maintenance and safe. I was hoping for something a bit more adventurous than cress, if possible.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I think everybody who wants to grow food should be able to do it. If you haven't got a garden or can't find an allotment, you can grow herbs and salad in a window box, tomatoes or courgettes in a big pot in a sunny corner of a room, or even grow climbing peas and beans up your fire escape. You might not be able to grow enough to make you self-sufficient, but even a little home-grown veg is good for the soul.
Kveta: If you were starting a veg garden from scratch, what would be your key fruit and veg, and which would you avoid? I've just bought a house with a north-east-facing garden. It's not very big, but I've managed to harvest a couple of potatoes, a handful of peas, and a glut of courgettes. I've also got a plum tree and a fig tree.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: As I always say, it entirely depends on what you personally want to get out of it - there's no point in growing fruit and veg that you can't get excited about. For me, the fruits would be apples, raspberries, plums and greengages. If you haven't got much space, I'd avoid onions and potatoes as you can easily buy really good locally grown ones anyway.
MakemineaGandT: If you could only grow five types of veg in your garden, what would you choose?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: The secret is to grow the veg you most enjoy eating or that are better when you've grown them at home than when you buy them from a shop. For me, that means baby peas and broad beans, tomatoes, asparagus and artichokes, but of course it's different for everybody.
Ladymalham: How can I learn to love cabbage? It keeps popping up in my veg box and then sits there for ages. Is there a simple way of cooking it to make it inspiring and tasty for myself and my three-year-old?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: You need to cook your cabbage as soon as possible after your veg box arrives, so it's lovely and sweet and fresh. Try steaming it for just a few minutes then frying some chopped garlic and a teaspoon of caraway seeds in a little butter and a dash of olive oil, then toss the cabbage in this delicious butter. Cabbage will never be the same again.
ColdSancerre: Can you suggest a vegetarian main course that we could all have a go at making in our new Mumsnet Recipe Club?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: The Porotos Granados from the new River Cottage Veg book is a lovely, heartwarming, spicy squash, bean and sweetcorn soupy stew from South America. Serve it with homemade garlicky flatbreads and a red cabbage, parsnip, date and orange salad.
Papworth: Do you have an exciting idea for runner beans? There always seems to be a glut of them.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I love cooking them now with garlic and tomatoes into a lovely luscious bean stew. That then keeps for quite a few days in the fridge and is still delicious every time you reheat it. I've also just done a delicious recipe for the new show of runner bean tempura with a sweet-and-sour chilli dipping sauce.
Ouryve: Due to the vagaries of the weather up here on the North East coast, we always end up with a heap of green tomatoes at the end of the season, and inevitably end up making a load of River Cottage Chutney with them.
Unfortunately, I'm the only person in this house who likes chutney, so while chutney-making time is fast approaching, and despite giving loads of the stuff away, I've barely made any inroads into last year's batch. Do you have any other suggestions for what I can do with my annual glut of green tomatoes?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: If you've never tried the classic American dish of fried green tomatoes, it really is worth a go.
ComradeJing: What is your favourite recipe in the new book?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Right now I've got two favourites - perfect autumn dishes as the weather gets a bit chillier: Porotos Granados - a lovely South American stew of squash, beans, sweetcorn and spice (p146) and chachouka, a delicious North African spicy tomato and pepper stew with eggs baked on top.
Jerseyellie: My husband and I keep chickens and grow our own veg. We grew a tremendous amount of radish this year. What would you do with excessive radish? Also, are you really vegetarian now?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I never get bored of munching a few raw radishes especially with a little butter and salt, but thinly sliced and stirred into yogurt they make an excellent pepper raita. And it's true I haven't eaten any meat and fish whilst I've been making the TV series to go with the new book but I will be returning to meat and fish in a few weeks. Although I think I'll be eating less of them than I used to now that I've discovered the true joys of veg!
ColdSancerre: You described the Porotos Granados (from the new River Cottage Veg book) as a 'lovely, heartwarming, spicy squash, bean and sweetcorn soupy stew'. Is there a recipe somewhere we could all share?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: To make Porotos Granados:
- Fry up a sliced onion
- Throw in half a kilo or so of cubed squash, then sizzle for a while with a teaspoon of sweet paprika
- Add a sprig of thyme and a pinch of chilli, then cover with veg stock and simmer
- When the pumpkin or squash is almost tender, add the kernels sliced off two corn cobs, a handful of sliced green beans and a tin of cooked beans, such as pinto or cannellini
- Give it a few more minutes, check the seasoning and dish it up with flatbreads or a good crusty loaf
You can dot a bit of sour cream on it and scatter a bit of grated cheese over it, too, if you like.
soandsosmum: I've had very good responses to my plumbeena plum drink, and this year have made it with pear as well. Which other fruit have you found make a popular beena? Elderberry?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I haven't tried elder but blackberries make a brilliant one. It's almost too late this year, but not quite. If you're also growing raspberries in the garden a mixture of raspberries is absolutely brilliant.
Rhubarb0: I hate fish as does the rest of my family. No matter what recipe I've followed and what fish I've tried, we just hate fish. The trouble is that they're just so damn bony, and I hate the fishy taste. I've tried it with lemon and herbs and tomatoes and goodness knows what else.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Fish doesn't have to be bony - your lovely friendly local fishmonger will happily fillet it for you. Fillet of fresh mackerel are hard to beat and so easy to cook: you can even drop them into a tray of roast potatoes for the last 10 minutes of cooking. Season with a little salt and pepper and herbs and you've got a brilliant homemade alternative to fish and chips. The recipe is in River Cottage Every Day - give it a whirl.
HumphreyCobbler: Any tips for making black pudding that slices rather than crumbles? Ours tends to disintegrate into the pan, although it tastes delicious.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: You can add oatmeal to the mix for a more traditional Scottish black pudding, and that should firm it up a bit. Good luck with the next batch.
saffronenvy: I'm a total novice with food. We have some ex-battery hens in our garden, and so are currently overrun with eggs. Could you suggest any egg recipes other than omelettes, as we are getting rather bored of those!
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: My current favourite egg recipe is chachouka; it's a lovely North African stew of tomatoes and peppers and spices simmered down to a rich pulpy sauce. You then crack eggs over the top and pop it in the oven for ten minutes. Absolutely lovely - give it a whirl.
5inthebed: My six-year-old loves fish, he would eat it every day if I let him. He wants me to cook him a whole fish - head and everything. Any simple recipes that I could cook for him? He doesn't really do strong tastes, but I don't want to serve a plain fish either.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Baking a whole fish in foil is one of the most easy and rewarding ways to cook a fish, and you just need a few herbs and a squeeze of lemon, maybe a smear of butter, to get a lovely hot juice to spoon over the finished fish. It works brilliantly with plate-sized fish of a pound or two such as bream, gurnard, mackerel, mullet or bass.
JustineMumsnet: Anything interesting I can do with walnuts, Hugh?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: One of my favourite dishes is a walnut and beetroot houmous-y type paste. Blitz the cooked beetroot with walnut breadcrumbs and a little garlic and loosen with some olive oil and most importantly add some toasted cumin seeds roughly bashed and mix it altogether. Yes, there's a version of it in the new book.
HorseHairKnickers: I didn't agree with Hugh's Chicken Out campaign. I don't think chickens should live in crowded conditions, but the decision to buy free range is really a matter of cost and budget for a lot of people. If you buy a free range chicken and a caged (not free range) chicken, how is it possible to get more meat from the free range than the caged if they are the same weight?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: A free range chicken will be leaner but better in flavour - you'll get more taste even if you don't get more meat. I wouldn't dream of roasting a chicken without making a stock afterwards, which gives you a lovely soup or risotto to which you can add leftover chicken meat as well as plenty of good veg.
Blatherskite: I've only bought free range - or at least Freedom Food - chicken since the Chicken Out campaign and find that my regular supermarket has more on offer than before, but still lagging far behind compared to what they supply in caged meat. It's often slim pickings when I go to choose my chicken and I have only ever seen them supplied in one size (which happens to be too big for us so we end up eating chicken all week) whereas the caged birds come in a variety of sizes and cuts.
Is the Chicken Out campaign still running, and will you be doing anything to persuade the supermarkets to supply more free range chicken options?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: The campaign is still going strong, as is the website, which I began running in conjunction with Compassion in World Farming. The campaign has been a great influence on the market as higher welfare chicken has moved from about 5% to 15% of the market. Of course I don't think that's enough and I continue to talk to the industry behind the scenes to see how we can make it even better.
MonkeysPunk: Do you plan in advance what you are eating each day, or do you just decide and make whatever you feel like eating when you get hungry?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: A bit of both to be honest. At this time in the year I tend to wander out in the garden an hour or so before supper and grab handfuls of whatever looks best. But when we've got people coming over there may be a bit more planning. Until recently I would be thinking about getting a nice piece of our own home-reared meat out of the freezer, but in my current veg-loving phase, I like putting three or four big veg dishes on the table to pass around and share. It's a really nice mezze-style of eating. For example, the spelt salads and big trays of roast veg in the book are brilliant hearty dishes, and with a simple tomato salad and a few hunks of bread you've got a feast.
HowlingBitch: Why did you cut your hair? <cries>
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I'm sorry if the shorter locks have distressed you, but generally they seem to be going down well. My wife likes my new short hair and that's the most important thing. The fact is, I've been thinking about getting a haircut for several years, it was just a question of grabbing a moment between filming projects to avoid any unfortunate continuity problems.
Wickedwaterwitch: Which chefs, food writers or cooks inspired you?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I started cooking from cook books at a young age, mainly cakes, puddings, biscuits and sweets, and I cooked my way through the greedy section of Katie Stewart's Times cookery book, until the pages were all stuck together with chocolate, custard and meringue.
As I got more serious about teaching myself to cook, I moved on to Constance Spry and Elizabeth David. I still think they are three of the best cookery writers to get anyone started. But the biggest inspiration has always been my mum, she got me cooking and I loved making the puddings for her 1970s dinner parties. Profiteroles, black forest gateau, meringues, pavlova...
Thingumy: In lieu of your newfound vegetarianism, can I have a refund on your overly priced Meat book?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Certainly not. I assume you've had it a while and hope you've gotten great use out of it. The way I see it, the two go hand-in-hand. The first line of the meat books says that we've all been eating too much meat for too long and we've got to change. The flipside of eating meat thriftily and using every part of the animal is cooking less meat altogether and using more veg. I see no contradiction there at all.
MrsBuntysStrangeCuldeSac: I'm always intrigued by people who cook and write about food for a living. What's your favourite everyday meal and favourite 'special' meal?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: My favourite everyday meal is a poached egg on toast, with creamed spinach. My favourite 'special' meal is anything made with lovely fresh fish that we've caught ourselves, for example a ceviche of fresh bream, followed by barbecued mackerel - the kind of thing I'm looking forward to getting back to after my period of self-imposed veggiedom!.
Gazzalw: Knowing that many of your fellow ex-Etonian peers went down the directly political career trajectory, I wonder what inspired you to go down the garden path instead?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Well, frankly, I find the garden a much more stimulating and enjoyable place to be than the Palace of Westminster. Actually though, the politics of food is always lively and so important for us - for how we live - and has consequences ultimately for the whole planet, so I don't feel that making a living in the world of food is entirely indulgent.
HorseHairKnickers: I'd love to know what the waxy potato was you were talking about on Loose Women this morning…
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Ratte! Strange name, lovely texture.
Crispyrolls: Where can I find out more about sustainable living and the benefits of Land Value Tax in Wales? I would like to build a sustainable home and smallholding.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Try the Centre for Alternative Technology website; there're also some good magazines now, including, I think, one called Sustainable Living. There's a lot of good info out there now on the internet. You might also want to drop into the River Cottage website and get chatting to our regulars, they've got all sorts of brilliant tips and ideas.
Fivegomadindorset: Will my chickens be OK living in a stable?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: They'll be fine living in a stable for a while but they'll want to get out and get some sun on their backs as often as possible. Also try and make sure they've got some nesting boxes or at least some nice cosy piles of straw to lay their eggs in.
Hennypenny11: I am a forager. I love to take the children out in all seasons to see what we can find to eat. The one thing I am not sure about is mushrooms - especially with the children. Where is the best place to start as it seems a shame, when there are so many edible varieties out there, not to use them.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: You're right to be cautious, as nobody should ever eat a mushroom unless they are certain what species they have found. But it doesn't take long to build up a confident repertoire of a few worthwhile species. Chanterelles, field mushrooms, wood blewitt, shaggy ink caps and parasols are probably good ones to get your head round.
You'll need a book to get started, and obviously the one I would recommend is John Wright's River Cottage handbook. As well as being a brilliant field guide, it's very witty and a great read.
ireallyagreewithyou: Hugh, I don't give a toss about sustainability, organic, veg, anything. Persuade me to care...
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: I've spent a good chunk of my life trying to persuade people to care about these things, so I'm not sure what I can do for you in a few seconds... Saying you don't care about sustainability is the same as saying you don't care about your children's future. Are you really a mum?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Goodbye Mumsnet, thanks for having me, it's been lovely chatting with you and let's do it again soon. Meanwhile, big up the veg - you know it makes sense.
Last updated: 2 months ago