We shouldn’t be surprised that “The River Cottage Canteen” sounds a lot like the “The River Café Canteen”, the latter is one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s almae matres (Eton and St Peter’s College, Oxford being the others), though he left under a cloud after just eight months. Indicatively, eight months in a restaurant is about the time it takes to go from dishwashing to glass polishing, and these responsibilities might have hastened Hugh’s downfall. Perhaps, like Narcissus, he just became too obsessed with his own image isometrically projected onto the posh Riedel glassware, a big face on a small bowl; and maybe in these moments of studied reflection he and his employers simultaneously saw another future for Hugh, one that required him to leave the River Café with immediate effect.
The River Café’s loss was Channel 4’s gain. There have been nine series of The River Cottage, which in terms of broadcast hours and screen time puts Hugh right-up there with the likes of Rodney and Del Boy. Better still, for Hugh, are all the spin-offs that come from the series: a stack of books, two Canteens and a cookery school. Nobody seriously wanted to follow the Trotters into Nelson Mandela House, but we all want a piece of Hugh and his living, breathing larder. Just like one of those battery hens that Hugh is always trying to save, The River Cottage just keeps on laying.
The success of the BBC’s Pot Black was put down to the advent of colour TV, when the snooker balls finally broke-free from all the black and white camouflage. Likewise, the nine series of The River Cottage have coincided with the arrival of bigger, surround-sound versions of the sitting-room TV. Over nine years, Hugh’s image has become engorged by plasma, his veg impossibly green, and the instruction to boycott the value-aisles sounds like a personalised message to me and our dog, Roly. Because The River Cottage isn’t just family viewing with the foul-mouthed gags of the celebrity guests edited out along with the Dorset rain and fog: as with all the campaigning, it crosses the species divide.
My wife’s interest in River Cottage isn’t the same as the dog’s and mine. She loves the japes, the guests, the “vintage” affectation, and the forager camping it up in the hedgerows. She seemed saddened by Hugh’s recent haircut; maybe she just wanted to run her hands through those draping curls that in HD resembled a pair of dagged spaniels’ ears. If Hugh wanted someone for Elope to River Cottage she would be there with Roly, who seems fixated by the story of the piglets; after hours of viewing and repeats his feeble dog mind has pieced together a chronology of events that runs like a children’s rhyme, weeners-pigman-knackerman-pork. Together, on the sofa, as man and dog, we have become obsessed with the crisp, marmaladey rinds of “Spice” and “Baby” that appear from Hugh’s antique Aga; the mouth-watering golden sunset of fat at the end of the hour-long River Cottage day.
The Axminster Canteen lies on the East Devon border, but most importantly it provided me with an opportunity to play the top predator at the head of River Cottage’s televised food chain. John Updike, once asked the question “Why does Nature demand so much fucking?” and after nine series of The River Cottage and the incessant comings and goings of the pigman and the slaughterman I have realised that it’s not Nature but people like me who are driving this crazed treadmill of bestial sex and mortality. From the very start, Hugh may have been developing a well-reasoned argument for improving animal welfare, but from my side of the television screen, the amber vision of all that crackling had begun to possess me. Axminster was destined to be an epic encounter between me and the three little pigs. Waiting at the table, I conjured-up the movements of the slaughterman, urging him through the gates of River Cottage, and then parking him up, over by the sty.
Endlessly repeated episodes of The River Cottage had brought me to this point. I looked around the restaurant: there was no Hugh, and no sign of the Chef whose whiskers seem forever stuck in that scratchy stage. Perhaps they were at Tesco, or the new Dorchester Poundland; another campaign, with Hugh foisting himself like the Ancient Mariner on Axminster’s shoppers as they sleepwalked their way towards the brutalised BOGOF carcasses. The shame was that if they had been at the Canteen, then surely they wouldn’t have allowed my food to come out as it did. Long roasting should bring a sepia tint to a haunch, but this pig’s fat had been braised into a mottled, pale ghost of my expectations; whilst the veg appeared as blanched and colourless as the snooker balls on those old black and white TVs.
I suspect the latest series of The River Cottage will be much like the old one. When I think of West Dorset now, I don’t think of Hugh’s husbandry, or the personable forager; instead, I think of deep space, and whorls of stars spiralling towards an abysmal fate. Just as black holes drag everything into themselves, distorting time and space, so The River Cottage sucks everything in, before filtering and spitting it out the other side. I feel like I’m being fed something Hugh has already chewed-over in attempt to make it seem more palatable, like baby food, only it tastes like that pulped gruel they served me at Axminster. Daft professions, old utensils, the Citroen 2CV, yurts, jam-making, things out of their time and place, all mashed together, whilst the world beyond of Vauxhalls, bad jobs and Hugh’s wife seems strangely absent.
If I’m down on Hugh it’s because I was disappointed with his food, yet at home I am the only dissenter. My wife, daughters and dog still enjoy the show, and a happy family is as important to me as happy pigs and chickens are to Hugh. After nine years the wheels had come off the Trotters' Reliant Robin, yet the River Cottage keeps on rolling along. Being good at something requires dedication. Hugh spent eight months trying to be a chef, and eight years making TV programmes. The continuing popularity and re-commissioning of his show underlines the fact he is rather good at the latter. Just make sure you don’t confuse the River Cottage Canteen with the fabulous River Café Canteen, or think Hugh is a great chef, because he isn’t.