He has become an ardent supporter of the organic movement. River Cottage Spring ran from 28 May to 25 June on Channel 4 and in one of the episodes, Fearnley-Whittingstall demonstrated his "holistic" approach to cooking by slaughtering, preparing and cooking the entirety of a lamb. In one of the autumnal episodes, Fearnley-Whittingstall, together with his friend, John, embarks on a mission to catch crustaceans at a nearby beach with the use of pots. The pair seek to catch prawns, crabs and lobsters, in addition to the blue velvet swimming crab that is commonly found at the particular coastal location where they are based.
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These days, of course, it is not so much foreign gastronomy that is a mystery as what goes on with food produced under our very noses. He follows with a devastating critique of modern factory farming and British supermarket practice. You can either duck the issues around feeding animals large quantities of grain that could be used more efficiently to feed humans, and then killing them, or you can confront them. Having done the latter, Fearnley-Whittingstall wants you to enjoy your food all the more.
While admitting to great respect for vegetarians, particularly those who refuse to eat meat as a stand against the routine cruelty and suffering we impose on our livestock, he argues against the vegetarian position.
Historically, man has evolved eating meat as part of a mixed diet, but he acknowledges that is not enough of a defence today. In societies where food is plentiful, we no longer need to eat meat for health, and in a post-Darwinian world where our biological links to the rest of the animal kingdom are clear, animals undoubtedly come within our moral sphere. Humans inevitably affect animals and vegetarians are no different.
They upset the balance of nature too. Moreover, the dependency of domesticated meat species on us would not end just because we stopped killing them. They would not revert to the wild; we would still have to be responsible for their welfare and demise.
We could hardly abandon them to "tamelife parks", as he puts it. But our moral authority to kill animals for food can only be based on our offering them a better deal in life than they would get without our help. The prevailing system of intensive livestock farming is a complete abrogation of that responsibility. It is systematically abusive. Pain is routine, stress almost constant, disease widespread. There will be those who disagree with him, and some, like Matthew Scully in Dominion , who argue the opposite in greater depth, but Fearnley-Whittingstall is persuasive and direct.
His plea not to shirk "the moral dimension in your dealings with meat" is followed, logically and honestly, by full colour pictures of his calves being slaughtered, though, without the noise and smell, the glossiness of the images fails to convey the messiness of it all.
He explains how much beef today comes not from beef cattle bred to fatten beautifully but from dairy-cross cows, which have distinctly bony behinds and are the byproduct of the calving needed to keep dairy cows in milk year on year. We find out why supermarkets prefer to bypass the hanging period that traditionally makes meat tasty and tender - meat loses moisture as it hangs, which paradoxically keeps it more moist when it cooks because the water in wet, under-hung meat expands during cooking, stretches the fibres of the meat and leaches out, leaving it dry and tough.
We also learn why vacuum packing gives meat a nasty metallic tang - it cannot breathe but ends up marinading in oxidised blood.
The technical bits of the book are especially good and equip you with an understanding that is all too often absent from celebrity chef offerings. Detailed explanations of the main cuts of each animal are accompanied by full-colour pictures, and the sort of opinionated explanation that tells you just what you need to know. We learn that silverside is the classic cut from the back of the thigh, from the muscles that do all the hard work propelling their owner from one place to another ie, quite tough.
In some butchers, it is tied up and sold as a cheap roasting joint, but conventional fast roasting it is "a complete waste of time". Topside is from the inner thigh; cut as a roasting joint it will be too tough, unless roasted slowly with a little water in the tin. Sirloin, from the lower middle back, on the other hand, is one of the finest joints for fast roasting. Do not salt too soon - it only draws out the juices. Marinate sparingly, as it has the same effect as the vacuum pack above.
Scholar cook he may be but we are still in celebrity chef territory, so Fearnley-Whittingstall wears his learning with much more personality than David or Grigson would ever have allowed themselves. We see him humping carcasses around in his crumpled T-shirts, we hear him shudder at the thought of being dependent on supermarket meat, we watch his wild head of hair bent over a whole pig he is preparing for spit roasting.
For most of us this is the stuff of fantasy, but none the less infectious for that, particularly as it is delivered with lively writing and endearingly corny puns. The recipe section is not comprehensive but most of the classics are here and well presented, from the incredibly cheap but labour-intensive breast of lamb Sainte Menehould to the incredibly expensive and labour-intensive roast rib of beef with Yorkshire pudding.
My only cavil is that the book is too heavy.
The River Cottage Meat Book
Grate the garlic and fresh ginger into a small bowl and mix to a paste with the chilli flakes, ground ginger, brown sugar, salt, oil and soy sauce. Pound the five spices in a pestle and mortar or grind in a coffee grinder and mix 1 tablespoonful into the paste any left over will keep in an airtight jar; you could make larger quantities, if you like, and store. Place the pork shoulder, skin-side up, on a rack above a large roasting tin. With your fingertips, rub just over half the spice paste into the scored rind of the pork. Then remove from the oven and, using oven gloves or a thick, dry cloth, carefully turn the joint over to expose the underside.
The choicest cut