On the origin of species

Food obsessions: Paul West joins Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the kitchen.
Food obsessions: Paul West joins Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall in the kitchen. 

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is not keen on the word ''foodie''. ''It's a funny thing,'' says the face of multiple TV series, author of a gazillion books, failed (by his own admission) restaurant chef and journalist, who began his TV career by poking his nose in other people's cooking pots.

'''Foodie' suggests there's something a bit eccentric or obsessive in being interested in good food … But as far as I'm concerned, everyone should have the opportunity to get extreme pleasure from the food they eat. It shouldn't be seen as a curious take on life.''

When it comes to food obsessions, Fearnley-Whittingstall has plenty. He's just completed a second visit to Australia to help film a local version of his signature River Cottage TV series - called, appropriately, River Cottage Australia. But at heart he's a ferocious campaigner, someone who wants us to eat better, shop better and cook better. And ask lots of questions about where our food comes from, how it lived and what it was fed on.

His first career was in Africa, in conservation. ''I wanted to be David Attenborough,'' he told the audience at last week's preview of the soon-to-be-launched series, at which he introduced the ''Australian Hugh'', a likeable farmer-chef named Paul West from Murrurundi in the upper Hunter. Then came a brief stint in the rustic kitchen of London's famous River Cafe, that first TV series (TV Dinners) and, very quickly, the beginnings of a curious approach to food television.

He was an early adopter of the foraging trend, with his 1997 series, A Cook on the Wild Side, in which - as the Channel 4 blurb reads - the ''discontented urban foodie'' (there's that word again) roams the fields and hedgerows of Britain to eat everything from eel to wild rabbit to, yes, squirrel. He then moved to a cottage in Dorset (the original River Cottage) and began an on-camera experiment with self-sufficiency, attempting to feed himself from his own garden and, when he could find it, the fat of the land. It's an idea that has caught on.

''[The] Grow Your Own [movement] is huge in the UK,'' Fearnley-Whittingstall says, 15 years on, his hair neater, the message a little slicker but the convictions as strong as ever. ''It's taken off in the States, too, what they call the Farm to Plate movement. It's fantastic, wonderful stuff.

The pair indulge in local oysters on the far south coast of NSW.
The pair indulge in local oysters on the far south coast of NSW. 

''More and more people want to know the story of what they are eating and if they can participate in that, growing food themselves, meeting their food producers … there's no lies there. There's no meat wrapped in cellophane disguising the story of how it came to the plate. And that transparency and clarity of provenance is increasingly attractive.''

From teaching people to feed themselves to an expose´ of industrial chicken farming (Hugh's Chicken Run), a series devoted to converting fast-food addicts to cooking ''real'' food (The River Cottage Treatment) and the more recent Hugh's Fish Fight- which has resulted in a European Union ban on the mass-scale discarding of non-quota fish catches at sea - campaigns have come thick and fast. But still there are attitudes that need changing, things that irk Fearnley-Whittingstall about some people's approach to food.

''A lack of curiosity, really,'' he says. ''People for whom food holds no real excitement other than the immediate sensation of eating it … even just asking yourself why you like that, what's good about it. Once you start asking those questions, the world of food becomes so much more interesting and a much more balanced thing.''


So, what could food businesses and retailers change now that would improve our relationship with food, and our food future?

''They could tell us the truth,'' he says. ''Where is our fish from and how was it caught, how did our meat live and what was it fed on? As [American food activist and author] Michael Pollan says, 'You are what you eat eats.' Just tell us, so we know the facts and then we can decide. And the market will change, agriculture will change, as a result. That's been my mission all along. There's stuff happening that you need to know about.

''The first thing is knowledge. Show people how broiler [roasting] chickens are produced, how fish and bycatch are thrown away because of crazy EU policies. Tell that story and see how people react.''

West will live off the land in <i>River Cottage Australia</i>.
West will live off the land in River Cottage Australia

Meanwhile, there's a TV series to launch with his new friend West, filmed in the rolling hills of Central Tilba on the far south coast of NSW. There's been no roadkill just yet. (There was that badger in A Cook on the Wild Side … ) But, he says, there will be some ''lovely mushroom foraging and some fantastic seashore stuff. Oysters from the creek. Beautiful wild mushrooms.'' A few animals will be slaughtered. ''People need to understand there is no meat without killing animals.''

But there's no Australian Fish Fight or Chicken Run on the horizon just yet. ''If we get another series,'' Fearnley-Whittingstall ponders, ''I think some active campaigns will start to evolve.

''Paul and I have a couple of ideas of things that we would like to bring to people's attention … It's percolating. We're thinking about it. So, watch this space.'' And so we shall.

River Cottage Australia premieres on Thursday on the LifeStyle Channel.