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Dirty hands and good wholesome food

Friday 10 November 2006

Our countryside and rural affairs columnist John Sheard thanks Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the TV chef and country food guru, for his campaign to restore real food to the British menu … but doubts if the modern cook can handle it

WHEN I was nobbut a lad, it was the worst of times and the best of times, to misquote dear old Chas Dickens. World War 11 was drawing to an end, the first atom-bombs were about to be dropped, and I was living in my grandmother's big pub on the edge of a prosperous city with open countryside 100 yards up the road.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Real food guru: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Photo: rivercottage.net

This was a time of chronic food rationing - which was to get worse after the war! - and my gran had access to whisky and cigarettes from the pub and all sorts of game, veg and fruit from the countryside. I don't think she was a big-time black-marketeer, in that she didn't trade for money, but our hanging larder was often well stocked with hare and rabbit, pheasant, partridge and pigeon, and even the odd leg of venison thrown in.

Young cooks (if there is still such a thing) should turn away now before I reveal by the age of six I could pluck and draw a chicken, clean and fillet a pike from the local lake, and when out in the fields with my mates would cook and enjoy many species of egg: water hen and wood pigeon were favourites.

This is why I have been watching the latest River Cottage TV series on Channel 4 in which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the celebrity chef and country food guru, has been sickening weak-stomached townies by showing them the real facts of death when it comes to breeding, rearing, killing, butchering and cooking animals for food.

For the fact of the matter is that most town dwellers today are in denial about where their food comes from unless they happen to be vegetarians. The Duke of Westminster once told me that when he threw his Cheshire farms open to school trips from Liverpool, many of the kids thought that milk actually arrived on this planet in bottles.

Jamie Oliver, another TV chef I admire (most of his rivals are either po-faced suburbanites or foul-mouthed bullies) emphasised the point in his recent series on school dinners by asking children to identify certain vegetables - and was horrified when they did not know the names of staples such as leaks, broccoli and several types of bean.

But dear old Hugh is taking on a much bigger challenge because talking about cooking, blood, guts and all, will most likely offend the majority of modern squeamish tastes and add yet another barrier: cooking like this could be hard work, and to today's young people twisting the knob on the microwave is already a big effort.

...it might actually arrest the tide of mealtime mediocrity which has swept the nation since the 1960s

That said, I wish Hugh all the best in his endeavours because even if he can get a few thousand Brits back to understanding of the culinary basics which my grandmother taught me when I was five, it might actually arrest the tide of mealtime mediocrity which has swept the nation since the 1960s.

For a start, it could make life a little easier for our battered and bemused farmers (See News, Wednesday) and growers by causing more people to shop with small, locally owned butchers and grocers who pay their suppliers a living price, unlike the supermarket chains determined to reduce our food producers to abject penury.

With even more luck, these newly TV-educated couples might even begin to feed their children real food, so that once again we could produce a generation that understands that meals do not come sealed in plastic and might begin to spend their household budgets more wisely.

For here is one of the great bonuses of real food: it can also be incredibly cheap. Yes, my grandma fed me on pheasant or hare, when she could get it, but also on liver and bacon casseroles, cow-heel pies, tripe and onions, Lancashire hotpot and Irish stew, gorgeous dishes created for the working poor from offal or the very cheapest cuts.

These were cooked slowly for hours, often overnight, in an oven next to a coal fire and were as tender as fillet steak. Such ovens are few and far between, these days, so could I suggest a modern alternative which is almost as good: pop your evening meal into a slow cooker with a bundle of herbs before you go to work in the morning and it will be melting in your mouth when you get home at night.

Thanks to a war and my gran, food has always been a serious matter to me, something to cherish with time and effort, a skill to build on the more you cook. I greatly admire Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for their efforts and wish them every success. Even if they turn a mere few thousands to the joys of real food, they will have done an important job.

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