Review: The River Cottage Meat Book
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.
This is going to be a hard review to do in one post. “The River Cottage Meat Book” by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, if you’ve never had the pleasure of laying your hands on a copy, is a serious tome. It’s broken into two large sections, the first on “Understanding Meat” and the second on “Cooking Meat”. Both sections could easily be their own books, but given the connection between understanding meat and cooking it, it makes sense to make this one complete work.
I’m going to show my cards early in this review and just say that I love this book. I love it because it explains perfectly to me what it should mean to be a meat eater. But maybe more importantly, it reminds me how much I have to learn about the meat we eat, or the meat we should be eating.
When I started reading this book, I started with the introduction obviously and as I was reading it I was thinking, “Wow. I wish I could just quote this whole introduction.” I also wish I would’ve read this before I wrote my Meat Rules a month or so ago. Not that I would’ve changed any of my rules specifically, but he just does such a great job of clearly stating some of the problems with meat production today and, in my mind, he asks a lot of good questions.
Luckily, he roughly reproduces (although not word for word) the entire two page summary on the River Cottage site, so I encourage you to go read it!
Meat and Right
Before the author gets into the actual different meats, there’s a very complex chapter on the philosophy behind eating meat. It’s only about 13 pages, but it’s extremely well-written and I find his arguments very compelling (obviously because I eat meat). He does something that is rare in books these days that I completely respect – He had a 3 page photo spread of the slaughter of two North Devon beef cattle. He says it’s important to start a book on meat with a reminder “that there is no meat without the death of a warm-blooded, sentient animal – and that those who eat meat must take responsibility for these deaths.” Obviously, it’s something that is justifiable in his (and my) mind.
I don’t want to linger to much on this section, but whether you agree with him or not, it’s hard to disagree that as meat eaters, we should be familiar with the process.
There’s about a ten page chapter that I think I can sum up quickly: The quality of meat we consume is horrible. As he says, “we appear to be happy to buy poor meat, so poor meat is what they keep giving us.” Note that he didn’t say cheap meat. He said poor meat, which implies quality. Most consumers focus solely on price and ignore completely where the animal came from, what it ate, how it lived, how it died, how it was stored, cut, packaged, and even cooked.
The next 130 pages is basically a bible to meat. Each section is dedicated to an animal and it goes into extreme detail on how to select that meat, what different varieties are available, and the different cuts of meat for that animal. There are detailed charts for the visual learners. And in the margins of these chapters, there are specific references to meals later in the book that use that cut or variety of meat.
It’s all very well done and he’s such a good writer that it’s actually pretty easy to read. I’ll be honest, I didn’t read every section because it’s enormous and I’m only one man! I think it’s best to take it in parts, but it’s an incredible reference.
One of my favorite chapters is the one on Offal. It goes into great depth describing each cut of offal which is sometimes seen as a mysterious category of meat. Frankly, I love offal of all sorts and wish it was easier to come by in everyday life. I do think it’s easier to find than a few years ago even so maybe we are headed in the right direction.
If you’ve made it this far in the book, and you’re like me, you will be very hungry and ready to check out some recipes. And the book does not disappoint. There’s over 200 pages of recipes split up by cooking technique. So there’s a whole section on roasting (a large section), slow cooking, barbecuing, and preserving and processing.
The recipes have a certain sense about them. They aren’t overly complicated in any way and they all focus on the flavor of the main subject: meat. There’s very few fancy preparations or careful cutting. Most recipes come down to buying the best meat you can find (and you’ll know how to do that by referring to earlier chapters) and doing a few right things to the meat. Then you’ll be very well rewarded for your time, effort, and money.
The one thing I will say is that if you happen to have The River Cottage Cookbook (which I’ll be picking up as soon as possible after reading this), it looks like there are more than a few recipes duplicated between the two books. The author fully acknowledges this and just includes them because he thinks they fit nicely into both pieces. I definitely don’t think this is a problem as there are still tons of new recipes and also because this book is about a lot more than just the recipes.
If you are interested in learning more about meat, this book is an incredible value and resource.