The Food Lab's Reading List, Day 10: The River Cottage Cookbook

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Author's Note: I recently built myself a new bookshelf in the kitchen, and in the process of reorganizing my ever-expanding book collection, I ended up blowing the dust off of more than a few majorly dog-eared pages. Old friends that carried me through college, my early days of faking it in fancy restaurants, my time as a test cook and writer, and some newer volumes as well. So, every weekday through the end of October, I'll be writing a short post featuring a food book that I really like. All of these books had a major influence either on my career or on my day-to-day cooking. They aren't necessarily the best or most essential cookbooks out there, but they are all worthy reads.

I can't remember when I first laid hands on my copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Cookbook (has there ever been a more British name?). It wasn't published in the United States until 2008 and my edition is the 7th printing of the original 2001 British version, which leads me to conclude that I must have picked it up in during the summer I spent living (and cooking a bit) in Northern England, back in 2003. It's certainly not the kind of book I would have bought in the US, or even expected to find particularly useful. It was years before I even realized that the book was based off of a successful television show of the same name.

The plot of the show is simple: British chef/writer with a funny name goes to live in a cottage where he grows food, raises animals, fishes, and forages as much as he can, learning about sustainable farming and our place in the food chain in the process. The applicability of the lessons Hugh shares are directly correlated to one's proximity to small cottages in England.

Back home in Boston, this was a problem. For one thing, the book is almost entirely populated with ingredients city-dwelling Americans unlikely to find without great difficulty (lamb's necks, puffball mushrooms, wild sorrel, etc). It's also full of techniques that are largely useless unless you have a British farm or a British hedgerow to forage in. (It turns out that reading about how to successfully remove the skin from an eel that has been smoked by hanging inside a chimney is a lot like reading about how to ride a bike—useless without a bike or, in this case, some live eels and a house with a chimney, to practice on).

So while I can confidently say that every single recipe I've tried from the book has been an unqualified success, I'll qualify it by saying I haven't actually tried any of the recipes in the book.

What, then, makes it worth reading? Turns out that the usefulness is hidden in its prose. It's Hugh's geeky but down-to-earth fascination with raising and foraging your own food that will either fascinate or bore you. For me it was fascination, and reading this book is why I decided to spend time volunteering on farms, learned how to slaughter and butcher whole animals, and acquired what little knowledge I have about gardening and foraging. Each of the four chapters—Garden, Livestock, Fish, and Hedgerow—starts with a lengthy study of not just how to grow and harvest vegetables, livestock, seafood, and wild plants, but also what has the best flavor when, and the environmental impacts of the various choices you can make.

It's these sections that I find really inspiring. Hugh has an infectious honesty about him. Other books I've read about sustainable eating and living, even those by well-established authors, tend to have an air of brand-building or even snobbery about them. "Sustainable eating is what educated liberals do these days, so I must write my volume on it and you should feel bad if you don't farm your own mouse melons." Hugh doesn't have to build his brand because he is his brand and his enthusiasm for each new project—whether it's planning his week around the slaughter of the two pigs he raised from birth (Monday starts with asking the "slaughterer to save the liver, heart, lights, spleen, stomach, and blood," and Sunday begins with "a civilized breakfast of sausages and black pudding"), or stuffing socks with balls of human hair and hanging them from his chicken coop (a surefire fox deterrent, he's heard)—carries the book along even without immediately applicable lessons or recipes.

In a way, this is actually a good thing. Rather than spelling out a step-by-step plan with a set of rules for you to follow, Hugh instead inspires us to think about the way we get our own food and to begin examining how we can comfortably start to refocus the way we eat.

"Each household," Hugh writes in the introduction, "operates somewhere on a 'food acquisition continuum' (a phrase I've just invented) from, 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." Most Westerners occupy a place close to the right end, while only a handful are truly self-sufficient, he continues to explain. "The continuum really does exist, and all of us have the choice to move ourselves along it, in either direction. 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."

It's a pretty simple and non-judgy philosophy, and one that's hard to argue with. If you find it in any way inspiring, then you'll probably love this book. By the way, The River Cottage Meat Book and The River Cottage Fish Book are equally incredible single-subject tomes that have the same delightfully rigorous-yet-light approach to sustainable eating. They also have the same potential problems for an American (and especially an urban American) audience—namely a Brit-focused repertoire of recipes and ingredients.

Also note that this review is specifically about the original British version, though I've thumbed through the American editions of his books as well. They're largely the same, but with American terms for cuts of meat (when applicable), American measures, and, notably, new diagrams for cuts of meat. In the British version, there are dotted lines superimposed over photographs of cute farm animals showing how each one will be broken down into dinner. In the American version those photographs are replaced with diagrams. I'm not particularly fond of this change.

You can buy The River Cottage Cookbook here.