Et tu, Hugh?

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall thinks it’s time we all went veggie (River Cottage Veg; Channel 4, Sunday).

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall thinks it’s time we all went veggie (River Cottage Veg; Channel 4, Sunday). Coming from a man whose favourite dish is human placenta marinaded in fruit-bat extract, who slaughters his own pigs with a pocket knife and dances naked in their gore as he turns them into 2,058 varieties of artisanal black pudding, and who recently confessed he wouldn’t mind eating the odd puppy if push came to shove, I suppose this is something we should take quite seriously.

Personally, I feel betrayed. As betrayed as I felt all those years ago when my most heavy-duty smoking friend Ewen gave up fags, which was so unfair because I’d been relying on him to die of lung cancer, not me. ‘Et tu, Hugh?’ it made me think. Because I like my meat, an awful lot. Not only does it taste good but it’s also the thing that has made us great. If it hadn’t been for meat, we would probably never have discovered fire. And it was that fire/meat combo which gave us the brainpower to become the dominant species we are today. Otherwise just imagine what might have happened: maybe we’d now be governed by sheep or lemmings or other similarly brain-dead herbivores. Imagine!

Anyway, Hugh’s vegetarian adventure started off quite poorly, I thought. He has many fine qualities, does Hugh, but his tendency to pontificate in that mannered, up-and-down trademark TV voice of his is not one of them. Pontification is not in and of itself a bad thing: I do it all the time. But for it not to be off-putting, there needs to be at least a hint of a suspicion that the pontificator is slyly, engagingly aware of his own fallibility and absurdity. Success has killed that in Hugh, as of course it does in everyone.

Consider the bacon sandwich stunt. Hugh bids his farewell to meat — his carnevale — by frying some of his best home-cured bacon and putting it between two slabs of fantastic-looking sourdough bread, slathered with Riverside Cottage (TM) organic über-butter, hand-churned at dawn by nubile Dorset maidens with accents just like the sexy rabbit in the Cadbury’s Caramel ad.

You think he’s going to eat it. But then he changes his mind and gives it to his gardeners instead. If he’s going to go veggie, he should do so in a positive frame of mind rather than dwelling miserably on what he’s about to lose, he declares. But though I can see that trope working, just about, in print, on film it looked stagey, portentous and a bit pompous. . . .


(to read more, click here)

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2 thoughts on “Et tu, Hugh?”

  1. Velocity says:29th October 2011 at 10:52 amWhy doesn’t Hugh just eat himself?Seems like the only ‘humane’ thing to do… afterall how many plants is he going to murder and torture to keep himself alive?Do it Hugh, top yourself mate, do us all a friggin favour and push up the daisies you bleeting retard
  2. NC says:31st October 2011 at 1:47 pmThe veggie idea scientifically is that it’s more efficient to eat vegetables than to feed them to animals to make protein. However, that’s a terribly flawed argument. I first got into trouble with science dogmas when trying to make sense of the calorie measurement of food. The theory is too simple: you dry and burn food in a special metal can called a calorimeter, and measure the temperature rise. Every 1 degree C temperature rise in a gram of water indicates the release of of 1 calorie of energy. Hence, you measure the calorie output from the temperature rise when burning food. Foolproof?No so. When you eat vegetables, you don’t convert it into energy it with the efficiency of a fire. Obviously the fibre which passes through the gut isn’t broken down. Cows can’t directly break down grass, they use bacteria in the rumen to do so for them. It’s not just indigestible cellulose fibres that’s wasted when we eat veg. Suppose you eat “high protein” beans. A lot of it is still bound to the fibre and only gets broken down in the gut, releasing methane gas (CH_4).So all Hugh is suggesting is a massive greenhouse gas emission by turning everyone veggie. It’s highly efficient if you fiddle your accountancy and pretend that eating vegetables is good for you. Sure, some fibre helps give avoid getting bunged up, but only because it passes through the gut undigested, keeping things moving. Sure, you get vitamin C and minerals from fresh veg and fruit, especially if they’re dirty (you can get loads more minerals by eating soil). But you don’t need to eat veg, a few fruit each day gives you what you need. It makes more sense to eat concentrated protein in the form of fish and meat, and leave the lower forms of life to eat vegetables. Hugh should start trying to convert animal carnivores into vegetarians as a clinical trial, before moving on to humans. If he succeeds in getting polar bears to survive on lettuce, I’ll admit I’m wrong and give up meat.

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Making a Difference

Many years ago, when I decided to ‘become’ a novelist, I shipped myself off to a village in south-west France called St Jean de Fos for three months, banned myself from reading any novels in English (lest they corrupt my style) and became an obsessive maker of French dishes like cassoulet because my first book was about a restaurant critic and I wanted to make it perfectly authentic.

Now that I am older and wiser, I look back on that era and think, ‘Poor naive young fool.’ I honestly doubt whether any of that elaborate preparation made the blindest bit of difference to the quality of the book I wrote. I could have stayed in London — or wherever — and quite possibly have written a better one, because I would have concentrated on things like getting the plot right and using my imagination instead of burdening myself with all this ritual and research and prissiness. Then, again, maybe not. You just never know, do you?

I feel much the same way about French cuisine. Does it honestly, truly make the blindest bit of difference whether or not you break the crust of your cassoulet three times, or use goose fat or duck fat, or include lamb or exclude it depending on whether it’s the cassoulet de Toulouse or the cassoulet de Castelnaudary or the cassoulet de l’other place whose name I’ve since forgotten? Or is the rigid formality of French cuisine — all the excessive training you have to go through, the regimentation in the great kitchens, the sublime arrogance of it all — just an elaborate front, designed to create the mystique which hides the unpalatable truth that, actually, Italian cuisine is way better?

This, more or less, is the question likeable New Yorker writer Bill Buford sets out to answer in his two-part series Fat Man in a White Hat (BBC4, Tuesday), but I’m not sure he’s entirely successful.

He certainly does the legwork — slaving in a number of mildly terrifying French kitchens; moving with his family to Lyon, the better to learn the chef’s art — but I suspect the inevitable book will be much more interesting than the TV show. Not enough of anything exciting happens; it’s too wordy; there’s no dramatic tension; it’s all served up too straight. Sure, one deplores this hideous new world in which every TV doc now has to involve major humiliation, serious stunt-action sequences, riotous colour and fake-countdown scenarios, in which unless the objective is completed within half a day the entire city will be destroyed. But that’s still no excuse for a return to the good old days of watching-paint-dry TV.

The scene that really exposed the flawed nature of the enterprise, I thought, was when Buford sat in a highly revered French restaurant eating poulet de bresse, stuffed with foie gras and black truffle, with a dash of Viognier and brandy, poached inside a pig’s bladder. Buford spent a very long time telling us how good it was. Yeah. I’m sure. But with ingredients like that, how could it not be?

Read the rest in the Spectator.

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