Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Healthy eating is not about pinning everything on a single approach
Writer and broadcaster Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall talks to Katie Wright about his holistic approach to health, and staying positive during a difficult year
IT’S just past lunchtime and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is already thinking about tonight’s family dinner plans.
“I think we’re going to have cauliflower steaks with cauliflower cheese – my son loves cauliflower cheese,” he tells me on the phone from Devon. “I’ve just grown the most enormous cauliflower, probably the biggest one I’ve ever grown. I’ve had to stop short of the mentality of somebody growing vegetables for show.”
No stranger to the vegetable patch, of course, the River Cottage founder has enjoyed having more time to tend to his crops during the pandemic, and also took the opportunity to add three farm animals to the fold.
“During the beginning of the spring [last year], we decided to get some goats. We got a nanny for milking and two wethers, which are castrated male goats. We reared the boys for meat and we got some lovely milk every day. We made goat kefir and we actually made some lovely goat’s cheese from the kefir, which was really delicious.”
Stirring up batches of gut-boosting fermented drinks like kefir and kombucha, the writer and broadcaster is practising what he preaches in latest book, Eat Better Forever, which sets out seven principles of a healthy diet, rather than offering a single quick-fix solution, as health gurus often do.
“Newspapers love to jump on a food story or a diet story or a food health thing, and it’s blown up into the new thing or the latest thing,” Fearnley-Whittingstall says. “Sometimes those things are misleading.”
The author realises that adhering to seven tenets – which include eating a varied diet, as many whole foods as possible, feeding your gut and reducing refined carbs – may not be feasible for everyone, so suggests picking “the ones that you think make sense to you and are going to work for you. The whole point is not to pin everything on a single approach,” he adds.
The final chapter makes the case for mindful eating, something the 55-year-old admits he’s struggled with in the past.
“I’d be happily thinking about other things, while tucking into crisps or eating a sandwich on a shoot, or automatically popping the cork when I get home from work in the evening.
“I’ve learned to manage that by always being more thoughtful – well, not always, because goodness knows this is not about perfection. It’s about being in touch with your thinking about your eating, and therefore about the eating itself.”
Likewise, while Fearnley-Whittingstall has found that intermittent fasting (reducing one’s calorie intake on certain days) has helped him lose weight, he recognises it’s not for everyone.
“If I’m dashing about making a programme, or I’m on my feet all day, if I don’t have something to eat fairly soon in the morning I’m a bit stressed and a bit grumpy,” he says.
“Whereas I find I actually enjoy fasting a little bit when I’m having a quieter time. So I’ve been able to do that quite a bit recently.”
‘Go whole’ – eating more whole foods – is the first principles of the Eat Better Forever approach. After a TV project slated for shooting was postponed, Fearnley-Whittingstall spent most of 2020 at home in Devon with his wife Marie and four children, Chloe (24), Oscar (21), Freddy (17), and Louisa (10).
“It was tense at times because all the kids, including the grown-up ones, were at home for at least the first three months, and that doesn’t normally happens these days apart from Christmas.”
With the River Cottage cookery school and restaurants forced to close due to restrictions, he says the business side of things has been “really tough. We’ve decided not to reopen one of our restaurants, which is really sad.”
But he’s trying to look on the bright side: “At a personal level, I have to say elements have been really amazing. I’ve had amazing time at home with the family, growing [vegetables] and cooking and walking, looking after the goats.
“I’ve made a bunch of recipes, which my son Freddy filmed and we put up as a part of the River Cottage Instagram – stuff like that to keep people engaged and keep in contact with our supporters through these strange times.”
When the great flour shortage of 2020 hit, Fearnley-Whittingstall got to work coming up with a baking alternative.
“It was quite a nifty recipe for chickpea cookies, which seemed to go down quite well, and I still make them because they’re actually really delicious.”
Identifying a gap in his botanical knowledge, he set about photographing wildflowers on his daily walks in the Devonshire countryside.
“For a couple of months, I was doing a daily wildflower tweet on my Twitter feed, which people seemed to like. I’ve photographed and identified over 170 wildflowers all within two miles of my front door. So that was quite fun.”
Now, with a smidgen of hope (dare we say it) potentially on the horizon, Fearnley-Whittingstall wants to use the opportunity to keep on doing the things that have brought him joy during this turbulent time.
“Probably there are lots of people who do want to get back to just how things were – and that definitely applies [for me] – to seeing friends, spending more time with my mum and dad, stuff like that,” he says.
“There are other things that are very special, and I’m keen to take them take them along into the post-lockdown world.”
Eat Better Forever by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, photography by Simon Wheeler, is published by Bloomsbury, priced £26 (bloomsbury.com). Below are two recipes from the book for you to try.
CHUNKY BEEF CHILLI RECIPE
Olive or vegetable oil, for frying
About 200g free-range pork belly (rind on or off), cubed
800g chuck or stewing steak, cubed
150ml red wine (optional)
2 medium onions, halved and thinly sliced
4 medium carrots, halved and thickly sliced
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1tsp dried chilli ?akes
2tsp each cumin and coriander seeds, crushed (or 1tsp each ground)
1tsp smoked paprika
1 star anise (optional)
½-1 fresh red chilli, sliced (optional)
A few strips of pared orange zest
3-4 sprigs of thyme (optional)
400g tin tomatoes
About 1L hot beef stock, or veg or chicken stock
1 large sweet potato (300–400g), peeled and cubed (or you can use squash)
2 x 400g tins beans (cannellini, kidney or butter beans), drained and rinsed
Sea salt and black pepper
Set a large heavy frying pan over a high heat and add a dash of oil. When hot, add the pork with some salt and pepper. Cook briskly for several minutes, turning the meat from time to time, until browned all over. Transfer to a large ?ameproof casserole dish. Repeat the browning process with the beef, doing it in two batches so as not to crowd the pan, seasoning it as you go and adding a dash more oil to the pan if necessary.
When all the meat is browned and transferred to the casserole, reduce the heat under the pan to low and pour in the red wine (or 150ml of the hot stock). It will bubble and hiss. Stir the liquid, scraping the pan with a spatula, to release all the caramelised meaty bits from the base of the pan. Bring to a simmer and set aside.
Meanwhile, add the onions, carrots, garlic, spices, chilli if using, orange zest, a pinch of salt and a twist of pepper, plus the thyme if using, to the casserole with the browned meat. Cook over a medium heat, stirring often, for eight to 10 minutes to soften the veg.
Tip the liquid from the frying pan over the meat. Add the tomatoes and hot stock; if the liquor isn’t enough to cover everything, add a little more stock or boiling water. Bring to a low simmer and cook very gently for one-and-a-half hours or until the meat is becoming tender.
Add the sweet potato and beans (with a little more hot stock or water if needed) and cook for a further 30 to 45 minutes. Check that all the meat and veg are nice and tender, tweak the seasoning and the chilli is ready to serve.
RYE AND BANANA COOKIES RECIPE
(Makes 15 or 24 ‘bite-sized’ cookies)
125g dark rye flour
150g porridge oats
½ tsp baking powder
1tsp ground mixed spice
75g brown sugar
2tsp ground flaxseed
120g raisins or chopped dried apricots
100g roughly chopped nuts or mixed seeds
2 ripe medium bananas, mashed
100g extra virgin olive oil, or coconut oil (melted)
Preheat the oven to 180C/Fan 160C/Gas 4. Line 2 baking sheets with baking paper.
Put the flour, oats, baking powder, spice, sugar and ground flaxseed into a large bowl and mix thoroughly. Add the dried fruit and nuts or seeds and mix well again, separating any of the fruit if it’s sticking together. Add the mashed bananas and the oil and mix again, really well.
Put tablespoonfuls of the mixture (dessert spoonfuls for bite-sized cookies) onto the prepared baking sheets, shaping them roughly into thick, round cookies. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until golden and starting to brown on the bases.
Leave to cool a little and then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight tin for up to five days, or for a few months in the freezer.