Television: Cuisine sauvage

Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall is set to introduce some novel recipes which will challenge your palate - and the strength of your stomach. James Rampton manages to steer clear of the red toadstools
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A roast-squirrel breast, sir, to go with your lightly-steamed hogweed shoots? Or perhaps a little fried sand-eel with lily salad, madam, washed down with a carafe of oak-leaf wine? No, this is not a long-lost Monty Python sketch, but a selection of dishes from A Cook on the Wild Side, a new travelogue-cum-cookery programme.

Over the next six weeks on Channel 4, writer-presenter Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall travels the length and breadth of Britain foraging through hedgerows, streams and burrows in search of lunch. His philosophy is: if it moves - or rustles - cook the damn thing. A disillusioned townie, he is determined to leave behind the staple supermarket fare of "cellophane and sell-by dates" and delve into the wild larder to create a cuisine sauvage (food writing always seems to bring on a severe dose of the purple prose). A former food columnist for the Sunday Telegraph and a one-time chef at the River Cafe, he foresakes his creature comforts for this series and drives around the country in a custom-built Gastrowagon - a Land Rover with a sleeping compartment strapped to the roof and a kitchen that folds out of the back. Heath Robinson would have been proud to have designed such a vehicle.

Over a rather conventional meal of asparagus and sea bream (I must admit to some relief that he didn't offer to rustle me up a quick platter of fried minnows), the game presenter recalls that he only turned his nose up at one delicacy: lugworm. "I just couldn't face it. If I had cooked it, though, I would have just stripped out its guts and fried it. It would have been leathery - like any worm - but almost anything is tasty if it's deep-fried in batter and crisped-up to oblivion. It's the same principle as frogs and snails. They don't taste of much in themselves - it's all in the sauce.

"You can pretty much eat any animal," he continues blithely, "but plants and mushrooms are a different matter. There's no point dicing with death just for the sake of it. Channel 4 are really worried that viewers are going to go out and poison themselves - to the extent that at the end of every programme, there'll be a 'don't try this at home' warning. Television companies have to cover themselves against the moron factor. There'll always be someone who goes and chomps a red toadstool with white spots on."

Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall has the name and attitude of a courageous 19th-century explorer, manfully hacking through the undergrowth of hidden Britain and boldly eating what no man has eaten before. Like French and Saunders's bluff countrywomen in headscarves, he has a refreshingly robust view about food; you can almost hear him dismiss viewers' worries with a snorted "stuff and nonsense" as he munches on a hedgerow salad of broom buds and sorrel.

He has no time for precious suburban scruples about what you can and can't eat. "The cute furry animal syndrome is big in this country, and I know some people will be upset by seeing me eat a squirrel. Since the Carling Black Label advert with the squirrel, the cuteness factor has shot up one hundred per cent. I'll take criticism from radical vegetarians, but most of those who'll complain will be people who don't think twice about eating a battery-farmed chicken. They shouldn't then turn round and say that I can't eat a squirrel because it's so cute. There's a lot of hypocrisy about the killing of animals. Whether some real militants will fire-bomb my house, I don't know."

The tone of the series is generally light, but the presenter does admit that "if we've got a half-serious mission, it's to get people to think about the origins of their food. Twenty years ago, people were unquestioning; they'd pick something off the shelf and not care about where it came from. Now if you catch your own fish, you're very much aware of where it comes from. And it's a bit nicer than buying a fish-finger from the supermarket". So Fernley-Whittingstall is a culinary crusader, hoping to make us see that in the deepest countryside lurk not hidden terrors, but our next meal. Recipes will, of course, be available on 4 Tel, Page 322 after the show.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the series, however, is that Fernley-Whittingstall was never once ill during the making of it. He struggled with the sand-eels, and feared the worst at a vegan feast in Cornwall. "I ate this salad of raw leaves and flowers and was just waiting for the stomach cramps to kick in. But in fact it was delicious. The lilies were especially tasty - crunchy like iceberg lettuce with sweet flavours and the pollen bursting in your mouth."

Sojust what does it take to make this iron-stomached adventurer queasy? "Normally what makes me sick is going to an expensive restaurant in London. Really rich food - that's much more likely to do me in."

'A Cook on the Wild Side' starts Wednesday at 8pm on Channel 4

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