River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
|River Cottage Cookbook by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall|
|Reviewer: Jill Murphy|
|Summary: The River Cottage Cookbook contains unfussy recipes, suited to the modern lifestyle. It will help you break your addiction to the pap served up in supermarkets. It's an interesting and inspirational read. However, the photography could be clearer and readers will need to have mastered basic cooking techniques.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 448||Date: October 2003|
My first virtual acquaintance with Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall came when I stumbled across his slightly surreal Channel Four series, TV Dinners. It's a rare talent, to be able to laugh at eccentrics without ever being nasty, and Hugh is a master of the art. At once, I knew we'd get along. The next thing I knew, he was playing at smallholding in Dorset in Escape To River Cottage. Watching his slightly dotty, but always entertaining, mad professor antics, Hugh became my hero.
The River Cottage Cookbook is a big, fat, chunky thing of almost five hundred pages. I've read it, cover to cover, at least six times. It's funny, it's entertaining, it's inspirational and it has some damn fine recipes. However, it's not perfect. And to call it a "cookbook" is rather misleading - less than a third of those five hundred pages are devoted to recipes. But Hugh's best quality is that virtue I first noticed in him - his tolerance. The River Cottage Cookbook is more openly political than the TV series, but it never preaches and it never tells you what to do. It gives you a rather Utopian ideal and how much you take from it is entirely up to you. Divided into five main sections - Garden, Livestock, Fish, Hedgerow, Directory - The River Cottage Cookbook takes you through anything you might ever care to put on your plate, advising you how best to buy it, grow it, rear it, kill it, cook it. Hugh's aim is to move leftwards on his "food acquisition continuum" - a self-mocking phrase typical of my wee pal. I'll let him explain:
"... at one end (the far right if you like) total dependence on the industrial food retailers to, at the other (far left) end, total self-sufficiency. My contention is that any thoughtfully executed move from right to left, however small, is a move in the right direction. It will bring benefits to the individual, in body and soul, benefits to the community, in spirit and commerce, and benefits to the land and those who farm it, in a more direct and profitable relationship with the end consumer. In fact, the only people who may not benefit are the industrial food producers and retailers. But as far as I'm concerned, they've had it their way long enough."
You all see where he's coming from, right?!
... gives sensible advice on choosing and buying fruit and vegetables and takes a deserved couple of swipes at the substandard unripe, flavourless offerings so often found at the supermarket. A good few pages are devoted to cultivating even the tiniest patch of your garden, or just growing an herb or two in a pot on the kitchen windowsill. From the recipes in this section, Hugh's basic recipe for courgettes has become a stand-by chez Murphy, especially when my father-in-law's garden produces its annual glut. From a simple stew of courgettes and garlic in olive oil one can make soufflé, soup, pasta sauce, or a wonderful topping for bruschetta. The Cranachan Trifle, a cross between a trifle and a summer pudding, is fiddly, but wonderful. And Hugh's "Cheaty Peach Ice Cream", made simply from a tin of peaches in syrup and a carton of double cream, gets eaten weekly around here.
... while incomplete for anyone truly contemplating leading the life of a smallholder - there's no mention of geese, ducks, goats - is possibly the most entertaining chapter of all as Hugh narrates his escapades at River Cottage. For most of us this chapter will be largely irrelevant, but it's great fun. Read it carefully though, for you may wish to think a little more about the meat you eat. Hugh thinks factory-farmed meat, aside from tasting bland, is a potential danger to our health and a blight on our civilisation. And I have to say, I agree with him. For those of you still prepared to eat offal (why don't more people eat offal? If you're going to kill an animal to eat it, it surely makes sense to eat it all) then the Lambs Kidneys with Chilli and Lentils is both easy and impressive. And it tastes wonderful. Always ready to eat good food, but always ready to eat EASY good food here at Murphy Towers, Hugh's Weeping Leg of Lamb with Root Vegetables has become a Sunday roast we eat at least monthly. Roasted directly on an oven shelf with the juices dripping down and basting a tray of vegetables, it's divine. Equally easy, equally scrumptious and equally impressive is the Roast Chicken with Honey and Couscous. Stick it in the oven, forget about it, do something else for an hour and a half and return to a feast. Just the way we like it!
... we should all eat more fish. We Murphys particularly, don't eat enough. In this section you can find out how to make sure that fish at the supermarket counter is worth buying and if it isn't, how you can land a few fish of your own for the table. It is to my shame that I haven't cooked more of the dishes here, but I can vouch for the yumptiousness of the crab linguine. It's another typical dish from Hugh: easy and unfussy to make; wonderfully tasty; unpretentious yet good enough to serve to guests.
... perhaps the most challenging of all the chapters for the Tesco aficionado. Omnivorous though I am, I could never use a gun to shoot my dinner. Could you? Here you'll find instructions - if you think you could - for finding and killing (and eating!) such wild meats as rabbit and hare, pigeons, squirrels, even snails. Well, I might be moving left on Hugh's continuum, but not that far left! Still, it's interesting to read, and in places I laughed out loud. A restaurateur known to Hugh, apparently, frequently serves squirrel, describing it as "flightless partridge". It's one of his most popular dishes! There's a lot of stuff too, perhaps more useful to the likes of you and I, about identifying and cooking wild mushrooms, wild greens and wild fruit and nuts. From the recipes here, I can vouch for the rabbit burgers (made by me from rabbit bought from my butcher!) and the wonderful autumn pudding that is his Blackberry and Apple Crumble Tart.
... if you're at all taken by Hugh and his insistence that industrially produced food sucks big time, then the Directory section could prove invaluable to you. Here, you'll find starting points to begin to put the sort of wonderful food on your table the author's described so enthusiastically throughout his book. There are online shops to find good food, information about how to start growing or rearing your own, and where to find food that others have grown or reared how you'd like it to be grown or reared. From the Women's Institute, through Farmers Markets to where to buy your kitchen implements, you'll find it here. Both Swaddles Green Farm and Somerset Farm Direct, who sell online and are mentioned in the directory, produce excellent meat. I know; I've eaten it!
Ack, but y'know; nothing's perfect. Hugh's book is great for lots of reasons: the man can write well and will hold your attention; he's endearing because he's clearly such a nice guy; his antics are often hilarious and always entertaining; he's obviously genuine and enthusiastic in the opinions he holds. The recipes in The River Cottage Cookbook are refreshingly unfussy - often what my mother would call "one-pot" affairs - which not only taste delicious but are suitable for the modern, busy lifestyle.
But, as with anything, there are drawbacks. Hugh is not Delia Smith - he's not going to tell you how to boil an egg. Consequently, to a novice cook, his recipes are a rather gung-ho affair. It's all very well to say "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" to a confident cook, but for someone who lacks knowledge of the basic techniques, Hugh's recipes may seem confusing. The River Cottage Cookbook may possibly be the book that "changes a life" in that its tone is so inspirational it may well convert a reader or two to self-sufficiency, or something like it. But if it does, then it's only a primer. You'll need much more information if you ever do decide to keep a chicken or two. And Hugh does make it sound awfully easy. Talk to a few smallholders around here, and you'll soon be told their life isn't such an idyll. And the book is rather um... well... modern, for one that advocates a return to more traditional methods of producing and cooking food. It looks very pretty - a designer's dream in fact - but you couldn't read the tiny typeface if you propped it up while you were cooking. The photographs, while lovely and funny, are too fuzzy and "lifestyle magazine shoot" in style to really be able to see how skin a rabbit, butcher a lamb, or even exactly how what you've decided to cook is going to look like.
Picky reservations aside though, I thoroughly recommend The River Cottage Cookbook. It's a great read, and I cook at least a dozen of the recipes inside it on a regular basis. I watched the series and bought the book as a person who already wanted to move my family and myself to the left of Hugh's "continuum" but it's certainly helped make that move fun (and tasty fun at that!) and not just a worthy duty. If, after reading it yourself, you're inspired enough to put one pot of basil on your kitchen windowsill or to try cooking the Weeping Leg of Lamb, then it'll be worth the purchase, I promise.
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