Janet Street-Porter interviews Hugh Fearnley – Whittingstall

JSP gives Hugh Fearnley - Whittingstall a good grilling

After leaving the upper-class grooming ground of Eton, Hugh studied philosophy and psychology at Oxford, then travelled to Africa, working in wildlife conservation. Back in Britain, he went for a job as a trainee chef at the River Café and, without any formal training, landed it on the strength of a gorgeous tart he rustled up at the interview.

When he moved to Devon and started his version of The Good Life at River Cottage, Hugh became a crusader, making us aware that the animals we eat deserve the very best life we can give them. In January, he launched an aggressive campaign to get us to eat more free-range chicken, kicking off with Channel 4’s Hugh’s Chicken Run, in which he intensively reared battery hens to see for himself what our appetite for cheap meat really means.

JSP When you cried on Chicken Run because you had to kill a sick bird, I did, too. That same week, Germaine Greer wrote about how Hillary Clinton blubbed to appeal to female voters. But when you cried, it was out of utter distress.

HFW I am a bit of a crybaby.

Really? What makes you cry?

Any soppy film. I’m the canary in the coal mine when it comes to movies – I’m the first to go.

Did you cry when your sons [Hugh and his wife, Marie, have two sons, Oscar, eight, and Freddy, five] were born?

Yes. They were born at home, and that was unbelievable. It’s exhausting as well. It was total exhaustion when I cried over the chickens – it wouldn’t have taken much for me to cry at that point. I’ve killed quite a lot of animals one way or another: on the farm, I’ve rung chickens’ necks and regularly driven my animals to slaughter. It was quite emotional when I took my first River Cottage pigs to the abattoir; now, I can do it in a fairly brisk and businesslike way. As soon as they’re done, I’ll take the offal home and the blood in a bucket to do the black pudding or whatever. Quite full on, but I can do it. But on Chicken Run, that wasn’t the first sick bird that I’d seen that day. I’d already killed one that morning; this was the second one that I was going to have to kill, and it just got to me.

Is your goal to increase the proportion of free-range chickens that we buy to 30-40 per cent? [Currently, less than 10 per cent of the chicken bought in the UK is free range.]

We could easily go completely free-range if everyone accepted that eating chicken is a special treat. In Britain, we produce 850 million chickens a year. Now, for all of those birds to be free range, we’d need all of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire covered in chicken farms. But it was only 20 years ago that we were producing a fraction of that amount of birds.

Do you think the people in Britain eat too much meat?

Of course they do.

But you wrote The River Cottage Meat Book…

I am an enthusiastic carnivore, but we should pay more for better meat and eat less of it. If we’re going to kill animals for food, we’ve got to give them a decent life. That means giving them a life roughly like the one they are biologically designed to lead. That hasn’t been happening with chickens or with intensive pig farming, and there are issues in dairy farming, too. As soon as you intensify and industrialise meat production, you start to compromise basic animal rights.

Some vegetarian campaigners on the internet want to convert you into a non-meat eater.

Because I’ve written so much about how important it is to use all of the animal if you are going to kill it for food – what to do with a pig’s head or a cow’s tongue, for example – people imagine I’m eating tongue for breakfast and pig’s head for lunch. But we don’t eat a huge amount of meat and, when our vegetable garden is going great, days go by when we don’t eat meat at all.

What if one of your children said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to eat meat any more.’ Would you

feel like you’d failed in life?

Oscar is already out there after school, roaming the hedges with a home-made spear hoping to catch a rabbit. He has gleefully sat around since he was a little boy, watching me and Ray the butcher cutting up a pig and turning it into sausages. But Freddy says, when he grows up, he wants to save all the animals and stop people eating them. So one of them will become a vegetarian at the current rate. But at least all of my kids will have grown up in the full knowledge that the meat on their plate comes from animals from our own home.

What about Chloe? [Hugh and Marie also have an adopted daughter, Chloe, 12, whose mother, the BBC journalist Kate Peyton, was killed in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 2005.]

She’s an enthusiastic carnivore.In her culture [Chloe is half-Congolese], meat is a great celebration and you wouldn’t dream of wasting a scrap of it.

Do you let your wife cook?

I do most of the cooking; it helps me relax. I love when Marie cooks for me, but I have almost alienated her from the kitchen, which is completely my fault.

Do you interfere when she’s trying to cook?

I admit, I do give her those looks.

I bet you say, ‘You’re not going to do it like that, are you?’

She says, ‘Every time I try and cook for you, you criticise what I’m doing.’ And my answer is, ‘I’m not criticising. I’m just telling you that if you do it like this, it will turn out better.’

That is criticising!

I know – I’m beginning to understand that saying stuff like that does count as criticism.

Your recipes are either very simple – grilled fish with vegetables – or mega fatty. There is no middle ground.

No, I think that’s probably right. But I think it’s perfectly acceptable to eat indulgent foods, especially in the winter.

Doesn’t your wife moan about putting on weight?

She’s French, so she’s a very relaxed eater. She’s a bit greedy when she’s hungry, though: if she doesn’t want to wait an hour for me to finish cooking supper, she’ll get a nice piece of cheese out of the fridge. That drives me nuts, but it doesn’t actually stop her tucking in

when supper’s finally ready.

Has she ever gone on a diet?

No. Never. The only thing either of us has done remotely approaching a diet is giving up drinking last year. It was meant to be a month, but it lasted eight.

For information on Hugh’s Chicken Out campaign, visit chickenout.tv

This is an edited version of the full interview, which appears in the eco-chic June issue of Marie Claire.

Reading now