I'm given to inventing crackpot theories at the flimsiest excuse, but I knew that this one had legs when I recently asked a friend how her brother was, and received the reply, "He's been trying to make his own haggis." To be fair, he is Scottish, but this exchange sealed my suspicions about a new culinary trend sweeping Britain.
My hypothesis goes like this: men of a certain age are struggling to find a role in their difficult middle years. Shorn of their traditional hunter-gatherer role and unwittingly feminised by partners who earn more than them (hello love!), we - I mean, they - seek reassurance.
However, it's not the trenchant analyses of Nick Hornby, Robert Twigger or even, God * forbid, Tony Parsons that are doing it for my generation. Instead they are finding solace, in their droves, between the covers of a cookbook which was published last summer.
On the front of the book, ever-practical author Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall sports a butcher's apron and holds a rib of beef so huge, only a few more would make a convincing security cordon for an American Embassy. Officially its title is The River Cottage Meat Book but, at a glance, you'll see only the fourth word, which is printed in red, in monster type. It's eye-catching and it's simple and it says MEAT. No wonder men like it.
Its author is bemused by its increasing cult appeal. "I'm aware of it," he says. "I wanted to write a thorough and uncompromising book. My anxiety was that by being so thorough it might have scared off some people, but not half the audience. I didn't plan to appeal only to men. I'd love to know what they found in the book that stirred them to action."
"It's the Haynes manual of meat, the first cookbook I've ever read like a novel," enthuses Fraser Lewry, a 39-year-old editor of a WAP-based entertainment service (that's something to do with computers, then). Like so many men, he spent years surviving on a diet of cheap flesh made palatable by strong sauces. For much of his twenties he roadied for a rock band, enduring warm Red Stripe and kebabs on a daily basis. It was years later that he realised how good meat could be. He had invited some Chilean work mates to one of his regular barbies, usually an excuse to sink beers and cremate some sausages on a roof in Cricklewood, north London.
"One of them turned up with a huge chunk of prime Argentine beef, fresh from a secret source at the embassy," Lewry recalls, offering detail that evokes all manner of cloak-and-dagger butchery. "He threw the meat over a flame, salted it liberally, then waited, just turning it occasionally. It was fantastic. My best friend broke nine years of vegetarianism on the spot."
Soon after, Lewry travelled to Chile for a holiday and was amazed by the respect accorded to flesh. "Even buying the meat was an event. In the supermarkets there, the meat counters were 30 metres long, and staffed by seven or eight butchers, all of them experts." Such reverence wasn't confined to retailers. "In my first week there I went to five barbecues. It was a tremendously macho thing. Men stood and cooked, women sat and chatted. I came back with the view that meat was special."
Now Lewry haunts London's Borough Market searching for cuts he hasn't tasted, which confirms Fearnley-Whittingstall's suspicions that, "Men love food shopping. My dad is a fanatical shopper - he nips out three or four times a day." Lewry 's attempts are snapped and displayed to the world on his highly entertaining weblog (www.blogjam.com). You can feel his disappointment with Lamb in Hay, (which apparently tastes of nothing more exotic than lamb and, well, hay). A giant pork pie fared better ("It's easier than you'd think," he says), but his signature dish is his own invention, "The Scotch Ostrich Egg". Fearnley-Whittingstall himself is aware of this gallery. "Now that is typical bloke cooking," he says, "showing off."
Perhaps more remarkable is how Meat inspired Mike Walter to don the apron. The fiftysomething architect spends a lot of time in kitchens - his design consultancy, called Daam, designed Tom Aikens' premises and has just started work on the London outpost of Neil Perry's renowned Sydney establishment Rockpool. But hanging out with chefs is very different from cooking for yourself, something Walter admits he's avoided for decades. Yet he treated himself to the book after he was impressed by the steak and kidney pie served at a friend's dinner party.
"It doesn't assume you've got a hi-tech kitchen," says Walter, who has spent time in several, including a night when he observed Gordon Ramsay ("It's like a laboratory. All that shouting is for the cameras," he says, confirming a nation's suspicions). So far each weekend, much to his partner's amazement, he's worked his way through recipes including the irresistible spag bol and the Aromatic Shoulder of Pork "Donnie Brasco", so named because you can "fuggeddaboutit" during the 24 hours it cooks. He carves the latter with two spoons.
"Besides the meat content, one of the reasons the book appeals is that it tells you how to do it, but not in a precise way. I haven't got anything wrong yet," Walter says, already planning Roast Duck and Beetroot.
Fearnley-Whittingstall, a man who once prepared a roast of 10 stuffed birds for the TV cameras, has his own suspicions. "I think men enjoy something you could loosely describe as 'project cookery'. They like to take on something that's quite elaborate, a dish that will impress people and they'll get a lot of credit for doing. Cooking on any serious scale seems to appeal to men." That explains the appeal of his recipes designed to serve "10 to 30".
The male gift for debating the tiniest detail is key too. "They love to get involved with classic dishes. When you hear arguments about what should and shouldn't go into a cassoulet - a splash of white wine, tomatoes - it's almost invariably men arguing."
Yet he has to concede that it's men who are driving his meat message home. "In Dorset, where we run our cookery courses," continues Fearnley-Whittingstall, "the meat ones are definitely subscribed two or three men to one woman," a statistic which might entice any carnivorous single ladies.
"Our meat courses are pretty full on - we do a whole pig in a day, turning it into pies and salamis and hams. Maybe that scale of enterprise appeals," he says, proudly.
That's way ahead of my father-in-law's rudimentary attempts at home butchery. After trying to follow a diagram with limited success, he ended up labelling his handiwork with tags which bluntly read "a bloody big bit of pork".
Somehow that fits the Meat ethos perfectly. But be warned. You won't find any haggis in there. Although he admits to enjoying the classic dish sourced from the finest butchers, not even Fearnley-Whittingstall has tried to make his own. *
For further information on the cookery courses, visit www.rivercottage.net; 'The River Cottage Meat Book' is published by Hodder, priced £25. To order a copy for £22.50 (including p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897Reuse content