The River Cottage TV show begins with a ridiculously cheesy cartoon showing a curly haired driver fleeing a polluted city for an idyllic paradise, complete with jumping fish, smiling cows, and some friendly pigs. During the course of three seasons of River Cottage and the many years of spinoffs, host Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall manages to kill and eat every single one of those creatures and many, many more. This isn't some hippie feel-good series. The River Cottage is an exploration of living off the land, butchering animals, and trying to eat as well as possible.
Hugh is a bonafide food celebrity in Britain, but here in America, he's still relatively unknown. Well, we think there is no good reason for this disparity. Hugh is one of our food heroes, a man who has inspired us again and again to take our food game to the next level. This blog would be half as interesting and a lot less ambitious without him.
Why do we love Hugh? Because he puts our fantasies to the test. If you've ever dreamed of giving up city life and moving to the country, where you can grow your own vegetables and raise some chickens, this is the man for you. Because he's done it, and he's let us come along for the ride. But that doesn't really explain why watching is so much fun. He is goofy, charming, academic, patient, and honest.
Meeting another American fan of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is like a secret handshake. It shows you've got food chops. So we decided it was finally time to put this post together. Here is our little guide to Hugh and his television-show-turned-food-empire known as River Cottage--a guide to each season and links to where you can find them. May you fall in love with him just as we have.
The basic story of River Cottage is this: chef in London decides that he's tired of city life and moves to the country to grow and eat his own food and live "off the fat of the land." He lands a few green acres in the British countryside, along with a cottage next to a river, then sets out to learn everything possible he can to eat well: how to raise and butcher pigs, keep chickens for eggs, grow organic vegetables on a little plot, make jam from his fruit trees, trap eels in the river, dive for scallops, make champagne from elderflowers, and the list goes on. He meets and charms locals in Dorset and throws down on cooking contests. He trades and barters food for favors. And challenges them to drinking contests.
Here's why it works: the purpose of all this is pleasure, not preaching. A show with some guy moving to the country and blathering about the moral imperative to eat organic food and raise your own pigs would grow boring quickly. No, Hugh is a hedonist, not an idealogue. He never forgets that the pursuit of pleasure via good food is one of life's great pursuits. He's a chef at heart: one of the first scenes in the series shows Hugh digging up any and all flowers on his property because if it doesn't put food on his plate, he's not interested.
We felt especially compelled to write this article because, quite suddenly, The River Cottage has become available on Amazon just in the last few weeks. You can buy whole seasons of River Cottage for $5.99 online, which is a screaming bargain. You can also preview a couple minutes of each, so you can see Hugh in action.
Make it a last-minute Christmas gift this year: give the gift of Hugh to your loved ones!
The actual house is a rented holiday home, and is nestled in a forest, surrounded by a traditional English flower garden. On the very first episode he rips up the garden and replaces them with edible plants. It's a warning. He also invests in two small pigs, which he plans to slaughter by the end of the year. And thus begins his slow progression from vagabond to settled farmer.
It sounds awfully boring, but the setting couldn't be better for Hugh, and about halfway through the first season of River Cottage he comes alive. He becomes gregarious, humorous, and the life of the party. Alcohol flows freely, and instead of suffering from the pressures of keeping up the farm, he becomes a hedonist. Every vegetable he picks becomes a part of a feast, and every fish he can catch becomes an adventure. He enters jam-making contests, cooks fish with a local fisherman in a portable burner on the seaside, spends an afternoon picking raspberries with immigrant workers from abroad.
But it's his pigs that become the heart of the story. He raises them well until the day they go to slaughter, in the last episode. While he feels conflicted about ushering away a couple of animals he helped to raise, his own justification is to utilize every bit of the animal. It only gets more intense from there. The next season he invests in cows, sheep, and chickens. And by the last season he has a polytunnel full of vegetables, and a veritable herd of animals. With such abundance, he decides to offset some of the costs by selling some goods at the farmers market, which he names, appropriately, The River Cottage Glutton.
And it's at this point where Hugh asks himself the poignant question: "Should I stay forever?"
You might also look into Tales from River Cottage, a compilation of scenes from the first three seasons, organized by topic.
After three years at River Cottage, the quaint little field he had for animals becomes too small, and Hugh decides to make a big change. He moves to a forty acre plot of land and also find and converts an old Dairy farm into a commercial operation. This transformation is chronicled in 10 one-hour episodes called Beyond River Cottage. It continues Hugh's gleeful embrace of the fat of the land, albeit with a stronger emphasis on teaching others, and turning a profit. It brings out the more pracitical, do-gooder side of Hugh. The food gets more ambitious, too.
He couldn't stay at River Cottage, and the expanded space does allow him to try all kinds of crazy projects he could never have attempted in the River Cottage series. We meet new characters and really start to cheer for them all. At times it's a little more serious, but that's tempered by his trial at starting a successful restaurant operation. His naive forays and ultimate success make for the best viewing.
Amazon link: Beyond River Cottage
The latest in the ever-expanding River Cottage series are mini-seasons of the seasons: 4 episodes for each, full of stories and recipes from the produce that's available at that time of year. The budget for these new series is vastly higher: long gone is the goofy opening cartoon of the very first season of River Cottage. Now there's heart-lifting and jumpy string music, gauzy large-aperture camera shots with blurred backgrounds, and some actual graphic design experience on the title sequence.
They're a lot of fun to watch, though the series is no longer just about Hugh. His cast of characters has expanded and a member of his chef staff — Gil, a good-looking young chef, or Ray, a classic British butcher with a wry sense of humor — is just as likely to star in a scene. It's more of a production and less about one man's journey. For the die-hard fans, it's a little bit disappointing, but the appeal is probably much higher for newcomers.
Hugh is also on a mission in these episodes — to convince people to like beets by sneaking them into brownies, or in the triumph of the whole year, to help British people take advantage of a common-use law and turn unused public land across the country into vegetables plots and places to raise pigs. Ultimately it's totally worth viewing, even if we feel like he doesn't drink enough.
A Cook on the Wildside is the erratic and slightly ridiculous program that preceded River Cottage. It's more for die-hard fans. Hugh drives around in converted jeep, dubbed his "Gastrowagon," which is outfitted with all kinds of kitchen gear. He ambles around Great Britain, eating what he can find for free. That includes scallops, baby eels, and a very infamous episode where he eats squirrel.
It's a hilarious concept, but its a little more serious and lonely than it sounds. It catches a more studious and serious Hugh. He meets people during his journeys, but no one stays long. This is probably the least accessible of his programs, but it has its rewards. The best moments are the quiet ones where he contemplates whether catching food in the wild is really worth the hardship. He often goes hungry waiting to catch fish — at one point trying to eat the very bait he was using to catch that dinner — which only makes his triumphs more inspiring.
Amazon link: A Cook on the Wild Side
Some of Hugh's books have also been published here in the U.S., which saves us the trouble of ordering his stuff from Amazon.co.uk, which we did for a couple years. His books are wonderful, more serious and sometimes political, and very informed. Meat, for example, is a massive tome with an even more massive steak on the cover. It's full of recipes organized by cooking method and some of Hugh's passionate explanations of why factory farming is bad for us now and in the long run. He writes with great expertise, and his recipes are rustic, primal, and delicious.
There is also a cookbook simply named River Cottage Cookbook. In it, you can learn how to do just about anything a small landowner might need: butcher pigs, grow fruit trees, cure salami, fertilize vegetables naturally, choose the right cow, forage for wild mushrooms, etc. Sometimes we like to curl up with the River Cottage and dream of a life like that -- what Hugh charmingly termed "downshifting" from city life to something more natural, in the very first episode.