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Hugh Fearnley –Whittingstall: Three Good Things (I am not so sure)

Tom Winnifrith
Sunday 14 October 2012

Three Good Things is the new book by celebrity cook and all-round good guy High Fearnley-Whittingstall. Hugh is a blog roll hero of mine and as such I trundled along to hear him speak on Friday lunchtime. The hall was packed. I emerged far from convinced about both the book and, I am afraid, about Hugh.

I will always delight in watching River Cottage. It is not on the BBC and it is cracking TV. The idea that one can preserve the countryside and create real food at low cost is incredibly appealing. The idea that folks must understand that to eat meat you must kill animals is one that I push to all my Townie mates but they still do not get it. Hugh is a great presenter and loves his subject. But now I turn to my concerns.

Firstly the new book. You can buy it here. The thesis is that all good meals can be made with three good things. Hugh cited in his introduction on Friday, fish, chips and mushy peas. I take that as an example. Mushy peas are in fact peas + butter + cream. The fish, well that comes with batter (milk, flour, butter). So is this really three ingredients? A bacon sandwich with brown sauce is another Hugh example. Bread is made from…. you get my gist. Rhubarb crumble and custard – is that really Three Good things?

Whilst Hugh says this is his opus magnum I find it all rather contrived. The man has knocked out dozens of books each with a TV series to promote it. I am not sure that this adds greatly to the sum of human knowledge but am sure it will add to the HF-W bank account.

And that is my second gripe. I am a capitalist and so the fact that Hugh coins it in is something I admire. But cooking is the new rock n’ roll. His image is of a scruffy man who has got back to nature and bumbles along looking, er scruffy and being an all round good chap. That image is carefully maintained. On Friday he looked even scruffier than I did. And to his credit Hugh does not lend his name to promote any old supermarket product in the way that some celeb chefs do. Well done him.

But as I sat on my seat I sat on a nice brochure from River Cottage Inc. Want a medium cost recipe book? Want some wholesome food at his cafe? Want private dining at the cottage? Want a corporate away day? Want a joint bar-mitzvah for your nephew and coming out ceremony for Uncle Saul? Here is the dedicated booking line at River Cottage Inc. Okay I made up the bar-mitzvah and coming out bit but I am sure that at a cost Hugh’s empire would oblige. The image is scruffy wholesome Hugh, the reality is that this is a big business. And so churning out yet another book, however contrived its theme, is a bottom line function.

I do not deny Hugh his wealth but the careful image creation has only one aim.

And finally, I really squirmed as Hugh answered a question from some pompous Guardian-reading harridan. The old trout started off with a two minute verbal blow-job for the man but then asked how “poor people” could afford good food and surely we needed to deal with poverty as a pre-requisite for the vital cause of making the poor eat in a more healthy way.

Hugh knows the answer. It is cheaper to buy raw healthy ingredients in bulk and to cook them than it is to buy turkey twizzlers and readymade pizzas from Tesco. That too many people in lower income brackets opt not to do this is their call. Giving those who opt for turkey twizzlers more taxpayer’s cash (as the Guardian reading harridan clearly wants to do) will still leave them eating twizzlers.

Indeed chatting to a sociologist pal of mine (yes, I mix in strange circles) there is a debate about how we define class and one measure might be what you stick into your body. Lucian Miers and his mates in the Newham tower blocks chose to smoke, drink cheap lager and eat turkey twizzlers, readymade pizzas etc and very little (if any) fresh fruit and veg. That makes them working (or non-working) class. You and I might dabble in nicotine but we drink wine or mineral water and do eat far more fruit and veg, very few pre-prepared meals, we eat (proportionately) less meat. That makes us middle class.

Hugh started with an answer involving how poor folks could eat in a more healthy manner but he has a book to sell and soon stopped that answer and trailed off with murmurs about how there is real poverty in Britain today and we must deal with it.

He knows that is wrong. In absolute terms we have less poverty than ever before. That poor folks choose to eat crap is their call. Some rich folks make the same call. It is their choice. That is the honest answer and Hugh knows it. But River Cottage Inc has books to sell and you just know that the Guardian-reading harridan will have lapped up his words on poverty and will now be buying a copy of Three Good Things.

Having skimmed the book there do seem to be some interesting recipes. Black pudding and peach (and something I cannot remember) seems a good little number. So you could probably do a lot worse (well you could, if you bought anything written by Delia) but is this a ground-breaking tome? I doubt it. As for Hugh: I am sure that he is a lovely fellow but I cannot quite view him in the same light any more.

Should you wish to buy Three Good Things you can do so here.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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