Monday, 24 October 2011

River Cottage:Veg

You know there had to be a book
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's latest foray into food crusading was launched this week amid much advertising and apparent high expectation. Sadly the promised veg recipes and the idea of vegetarian food in this first programme, are a bland  all or nothing affair. 

Ah but to begin at the beginning. Hugh has decided to become a vegetarian for a few months, ostensibly to save the environment and perhaps to shut up his ultra vegan mates. He has however missed a brilliant opportunity to take up the call of those who reasonably ask us to eat vegetarian once a week at least. The scientists and activist are not demanding we stop eating meat, just that we cut down the amount we eat.  Ironically, he and me and we, those of us who don't order out every night or seem to be at Macdonald's every other day, are not the people these environmentalist are asking to curtail their meat intake. We as a rule eat smaller amounts of better quality meat that is where possible and usually is, .locally raised and fed and not factory meat. One might make an exception perhaps for the Brazilians who revel in all meat orgies that would kill an elephant, but I doubt this programme will run in Brazil.  For the most part, we , reasonable people who eat our fruit and veg, partake of fish and poultry without deep frying it and serving it with chips, are not the problem. 

Assuming Hugh is in fact targeting the processed meat deep fried hamburger KFC brigade, he's fighting a loosing battle with his adopted strategy. The best way to show this lot that veg is not vile, tasteless and bland, is to NOT prepare vile, tasteless, and bland food.  His first recipe is a so called, veg soup, consisting of a few things he's pulled out the garden and boiled to death. There is no seasoning as such, no onion, no parsley, no garlic, no nothing... In the bad old days when we mostly lived on the farm, but we couldn't afford to eat too many of our own eggs and had to sell off our best meat to live, this meal was called a Green man  soup and would have been in point of fact ,  a lot more filling  than the miserly unpleasant gruel that Hugh  produced and moaned over  like it was the greatest thing ever.  A recipe that originally included ginger, some kind of rice or noodle or pulse, if it was about, was turned into something my father would would have turned his nose up at when he was a guest of Comerade Stalin in Siberia. 

The next recipe he trotted out to satisfy the savage hunger was something his go to vegan mate in London claimed he personally invented, called Stuffed lettuce. Having been married to a Chinese woman for over 15 years, I can tell you it's nothing new and if you'd have served that to a Chinese family, they would tell you to start again. Not only was it a nearly invisible ( forget pale) imitation of a  brilliant Chinese delicacy served during feasts, it is part of a full meal that includes, fish, seafood, beef, pork and poultry in small bite size pieces, all mixed a huge amount of a variety of well seasoned veg. And just when I thought I'd seen the last of the red menace that is the pomegranate seed, there they were being sprinkled in to the so called stuffed lettuce. In Israel pomegranate is cheap as chips, and yet not a seed in sight, what they do do , is press the stuff into a lovely tasty juice. This bland parody that was pretending to be wholly original could hardly be the super weapon that will prove to veg shy people they should maybe forget their mam's boiled everything with no flavour.

River Cottage Veg is nothing but a rehash of all the old pretentious hippy types who discovered organic food but never did come around to actual flavour and viewed food from other places as something one did as a dare. And by the way, if you're going to give up meat to save the planet, why bother racking up the carbon footprint by flyng in pomegranates from far flung shores???? Better off eating some lovely local pork or beef or poultry which grew up within a 100 miles of you and had a happy healthy life. Honestly, the premise of  this series is so flawed as to be insulting and condescending.  The people we see on screen, are clearly over privileged suburban tree huggers who haven't known hunger since they ate pot noodle that one time they stopped over at a mates at uni. Real poor people are not clamouring to eat 1960's hippie food, they want nutritions meals that taste good and would in fact love to afford a nice piece of meat every couple of days. As it is, there are entire sections of our society that don't see meat for weeks on end.  Even from my own middle class Polish up bringing, we used meat as an accent on our plate and in our soups, maybe once a week it would be the star of the show. From starter to pudding to the tea to wash it all down at the end ,our meals were ( and still are) sufficiently interesting day in day out that we didn't need take away every other day to satisfy both taste buds and body. I suspect if you ask the child of any immigrant, you'll find the same is true. Traditional British cookery is equally varied and interesting but seems to have fallen victim to fast food and flash freezing.

If this show means to teach us about the full variety of fresh delicious veg we can add to our meals and sometimes even eat exclusively in one meal, it is an epic fail. Only Rabid vegans will feel pleased and even then, if any of them are like some of my veggie mates, they will be bored by the uninspired, bland food on offer. The rest will recognize the less than subtle, evangelical, we are right and you are a murderer tone that runs through the entire narrative  and most definitively is the main supporting plank in the experiment  Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is running. If he is in fact taking the piss, it's hard to tell,.but if he is, that's too bad. Veg needs to be better explained and served to an entire generation that only know the stuff from a  tin or a frozen bag. At the very time that family produce patches are becoming common and many are now keeping chickens, pigs and other eating animals in the urban and suburban world, this series turns the clock back 20 or 30 years when the only people eating veg were environmentalists  and recently arrived immigrants. 

Suffice to say that if you are a vegetarian, you will not learn anything new, if you are looking for great new or old recipes to add to your table and get your children eating veg, don't bother. The old stand bys like Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay will be a better place to look. Both the BBC and C4 have extensive and varied recipe sections that will guide you through a world of food. If you really want to try proper vegetarian food and you like a curry, try southern Indian food, if you like to see what a plate looks like without a steak or a burger taking up a quarter of your plate, try Chinese or or Indonesian food. Veg need not be a punishment, so do yourself a favour, pass on this year's River Cottage.

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