Review: The River Cottage Cookbook
Every other weekend, I review a cookbook in an attempt to lend some guidance in a field that has become overrun. These days everyone is writing cookbooks and it’s incredibly upsetting to buy a dud and have it sit on your shelf for years – staring at you, mocking your poor judgment.
I think this book, “The River Cottage Cookbook” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a bit mislabeled. By my count, there’s just a little under 100 recipes in this book (a very good amount), but it’s over 400 pages long! So what’s going on here?
In similar fashion to his Meat book (my review), Hugh goes deeper than just the recipes in almost every case. By deeper I mean that he encourages us to all get closer to our food.
I think this quote from the intro basically sums up what he’s trying to do here.
“In terms of the way we purchase or acquire our food, each household or family unit operates somewhere on a ‘food acquisition continuum’ (a phrase I invented) from, at one end (the far right if you like), total dependence on the industrial food retailers to, at the other (far left) end, total self-sufficiency…
Of course, the vast majority of Westerners occupy a place on the continuum very close to the far right. And probably only a handful of households in the entire country could claim to be truly self-sufficient. Nevertheless, that continuum really does exist, and all of us have the choice to move ourselves along it, in either direction. My contention is that any thoughtfully executed move from right to left, however small, is a move in the right direction.”
There are four major sections in this book and each chapter starts with the basic assumption that as a Western eater you won’t be getting whatever he is writing about from your backyard. So he writes first about how to buy that food and what to think about when you’re shopping.
He goes a step further almost immediately and write about how one could grow or raise the subject of that chapter in their very own backyards… if one was so inclined. So really this book isn’t a cookbook at all. It’s more of a food book.
Let’s go a bit deeper into some of the sections:
It should go without saying that the garden chapter focuses around delicious fruits and vegetables. Hugh starts the chapter off by detailing some general tips about buying produce from grocery stores, farmer’s markets and other sources.
The really interesting part of this chapter (and all the chapters in my opinion) is the DIY (do it yourself) parts which span at least a few dozen pages. Everything from how to set-up a garden to how to know what kinds of seeds will grow well in your area.
It should be noted though that this section and the others are mainly an introduction to the subject of DIY food. Hugh’s goal is to give you enough information to get started and the resources you need to really dive in. He doesn’t try to do too much and what he does present is incredibly interesting.
All four sections have a number of recipes. If you were to look at the total pages devoted to recipes versus the pages devoted to growing and sourcing the food, you’d quickly get the impression that the recipes are just an afterthought. But I don’t think that’s true. The recipes are all very unique and all showcase the spoils of the section they’re in. For example, in this Garden section there’s a ratatouille, the River Cottage Chutney (an amazing mix of zucchini, tomatillos, raisins, sugar, and spices), and a very simple and sinful recipe for strawberry sandwiches.
Basically this chapter made me a bit upset that I live on the third floor of an apartment building.
Hugh starts out this chapter with a quote that makes me think he might be my long lost English brother:
“Given that I am always happy to nail my flag to the mast as an enthusiastic carnivore, what I have to say at the beginning of this section may seem a little illogical. I think we eat far too much meat in the U.K. (USA also people). There, I’ve said it.”
His goal in this chapter is to try to convince people to get as close to the animals as possible and, yes, that means he argues for actually raising your own. He argues that really everyone benefits from this. The animals are better treated and you’ll become a much more informed eater. It also happens that the results will be more delicious.
He covers all the bases here: pigs, sheep, lambs, cattle, and chickens. I was reading this chapter next to Betsy and when I finished I asked her if she would ever let me raise pigs assuming we had the land to do so. She seemed okay with it although she also probably thought I was joking.
But I wasn’t. He really made me want to do it which is super cool.
The recipes in this section aren’t really your typical meat recipes. He assumes that if you’ve taken the time to read about buying meat or raising meat, you probably know how to cook a pork chop. Instead he focuses on things like headcheese, steak tartare, corned beef, and other old world dishes.
This chapter is actually one I could relate to. I used to go fishing with my Dad pretty frequently. I know how to gut and fillet a fish (I think I can remember) and definitely know the signs of fresh fish at a market.
He writes about three different areas of seafood though in this chapter. Besides the freshwater fish that I’m most familiar with, he talks about sea fish and shellfish. My favorite part of the chapter, by far, was the discussion on cuttle fish and how it was best to clean them in one’s bathtub because of the huge amount of ink.
There were photos. It was very interesting. I don’t even know where I could get a cuttle fish.
One thing about the recipes that I haven’t talked about yet is that a few in each section are devoted to curing and storing food. After all, if you really are growing your own veggies or raising your own pigs, you’ll want the fruits of your labor year around so he tries to give you the recipes to do so. In this chapter that means some salted fish recipes like Gravlax. But also there are some very unique recipes like Scallop Tacos.
This section involves finding food in the wild. It includes wild game like rabbits, birds, and squirrels and lots of wild greens and nuts. Obviously you should be very careful if you’re going to go foraging for food, but he lays out some great ground rules to get you started.
As with all the sections, there are recipes. Some of my favorites from this chapter include a nettle soup, rabbit burgers, and a poached egg on toast with sorrel. Delicious stuff and FREE if you can catch it!
I think this book is for a very specific group of people. If obviously not for the person who’s trying to make a quick meal. It’s also not for the person who want to know 40 different ways to use ground beef. I think “The River Cottage Cookbook” though is perfect for anybody who’s at all interesting in learning about and possibly growing or raising food. Don’t buy this book for the recipes, buy it for the information. The recipes are just a big fat bonus.