TV companies vie for rights to long-lost Cumbrian cookbook

Willie Fowler was never terribly optimistic about his chances of making it as a food writer and, in his own lifetime, his expectations were right. His book, Countryman's Cooking, published in 1965 and detailing culinary exploits in his own Cumbrian kitchen, failed resoundingly and was out of print within a few years.

Though the down-to-earth Cumbrian always railed against self-styled gourmets - thay had a habit of jeering at those "who prefer egg sauce with their salmon instead of shrimp", he always said - Fowler's book has now become one of Britain's most improbable culinary hits, after a publisher in the foodie's paradise of Ludlow, Shropshire, bought the book for 50p in a charity shop and decided to republish. David Burnett expected a few hundred sales but is not far off 10,000 - and rising - and currently on his fourth reprint in as many months.

William Menzies Weekes Fowler flew Lancaster bombers in the Second World War and was a PoW in Stalag Luft 3 before returning to Eskdale, in Cumbria, at the end of the war. His book - which offers little for the vegetarian - combines recipes on such delights as roast pheasant, tatie pot, mutton stew, salmon cakes and fried sea trout, with musings on agriculture which are extraordinarily prescient. For instance, Fowler lambasts intensive farming, with particular reference to insecticides, artificial fertiliser, pellet-feeding and antibiotics. "Nothing will ever be done about it, even if these things are proved to be harmful," he concludes. "Too many people are cashing in. Farmers are just about as callous and selfish a body of men as you could well find."

Mr Burnett said: "A writer who spoke of the dangers of pesticides, injecting animals and antibiotics would have been seen as a bit of a crank in 1965, when the book was published. The fact that he turned out to be right makes him more relevant and appreciated by those who have found the book now."

The success of the book has prompted inquiries from three television companies - including Jamie Oliver's - though Fowler, who was educated at Durham School before joining Bomber Command, is far removed from today's TV chefs. When not flying planes, he was a dashing ladies' man in Cumbria. "He was so bloody handsome it wasn't true," said his second wife, Toni Richards, 84, who knew him for more than 30 years and who was his wife for 12 of them. "He simply loved women, and women loved him." Fowler died in 1977.

Fowler provides tips based on old, country habits. His breakfast fry-up must not to be undertaken while "making the coffee or feeding the hens". Fat should be applied to the pan twice before the bacon descends: the first quantity, to heat the pan, should be removed and the pan wiped with crumpled up newspaper before clean fat is introduced. This ensures the finished product looks and tastes better.

Not all of Fowler's views were modern. He refuses to prepare salads or to make pastry, for instance, suggesting that women (Flakey Flossie and Luscious Lettie the Salad Queen, as he describes them) should do so. But there is no disguising his expertise with game - and for its proposed TV programme, Oliver's company plans to ask a chef specialising in game to hunt and cook game, the Fowler way.

First remove several flagstones ... a selection of Willie Fowler's recipes

* FRIED EGGS

After cooking bacon, remove the pan from the hot stove before cracking the eggs in, as they fry better in fat which is hot, but not boiling. Keep the pan at an angle [Fowler used a piece of coal to keep the pan tilted] to create a reservoir of fat to ladle over the top of the eggs, which are best cooked both top and bottom. At the first sign of an air bubble over the yolk, remove the eggs.

* CUMBRIAN TATIE POT

This traditional Cumbrian stew [said to be huntsman John Peel's favourite dish] must not be produced without black pudding. Mutton, or lamb, potato, and onions are the other essentials. Stew for five or six hours.

* LOBSTER

Cover the kitchen table with newspaper, go into the garden and remove several flagstones. Scrub them and have one for each place at dinner, along with a hammer. Cut the lobster down the centre and invite those dining to hammer their pieces. After dinner, roll up the newspaper and replace the flagstones.

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