How We Met: Patrick Holden & Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

 

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, 47

Known initially as the TV chef willing to tuck into everything from squirrel to flambéed human placenta, Fearnley-Whittingstall (right in picture) is most famous for his River Cottage TV series and books. The author and food campaigner lives at River Cottage Farm in Dorset with his wife and children.

We met on the west coast of Scotland about 20 years ago, on a beach by the Sound of Mull. We were at a wedding party at a nearby house and Patrick and his girlfriend had been swimming in the sea – even though it was December. All my attention was on her initially: she was like a mermaid emerging from the water.

I was in charge of the cooking, stirring the stockpot, and I later got chatting to Pat. I knew about him already, as I had some loose involvement with the Soil Association [which Holden had worked for since 1988]. We were both passionate about food, where it comes from and getting the best out of the land, so we had lots to talk about.

He has an extraordinary energy; if you're an environmentalist, there's a lot to be gloomy about, yet he is never gloomy. There's a glint in his eye and a boundless enthusiasm that picks me up – though he can get very angry if he's talking about things that seem unjust.

Patrick loves talking about the minutiae of things, from carrot-farming to the cheese-making on his farm in Wales, which focuses on the rediscovery of an old culture that creates a more mellow and delicious flavour.

Where we differ, I think, is how we see ourselves. People might say I come across as self-confident, but when I'm speaking publicly I'm often racked with nerves – but I don't see that in him at all; he's always ready to talk about anything.

For me, his biggest achievement over the past decade has been raising awareness of the provenance and healthiness of food, as well as being one of the biggest influences on the organic food movement. On [a smaller scale], hopefully I've had an influence on the practical problem of what goes on our plate. Neither of us are arguing for the world to go vegetarian – we're both enthusiastic carnivores. But we both believe that a huge global commodity market of cheap, filler fast food is a dangerous direction for the planet.

Patrick Holden, 60

After serving 10 years as director of the Soil Association, where he spearheaded food campaigns around BSE, pesticide residues and GM food, the organic-farming campaigner founded the Sustainable Food Trust in 2011; he is now CEO. He lives in Bristol with his wife.

I first met Hugh on 30 December 1992, the day before our mutual friend's wedding, on the west coast of Scotland. I went for a walk down to a cottage where I found Hugh reducing chicken stock over a stove. With all his long hair he looked like a rebellious schoolboy with gravitas – he had the atmosphere of a man who was going somewhere.

There was something feral about him when he was making his early food programme. It was the way he'd catch and prepare food and do all the nasty bits [in front of the camera]. And he challenged taboos such as our false sentimentality with animals: he cooked squirrels when for a lot of people they were cuddly animals that they wouldn't dream of eating.

The past half-century has been characterised by how progressively removed we've become from what lies behind the death of an animal. So I really admire how he has succeeded in telling that story and shifting people's attitude about what they eat. As a food campaigner he's even succeeded in changing policy, such as with his fish-fight campaign [to stop the discarding of caught fish that are over quota]. I'm someone who, for decades, has tried to get policy changed to make farming systems more sustainable – and largely failed – so to me that's really impressive.

A good meal is one of the most civilised activities, and Hugh deeply understands that. I had one of his delicious lunches at the River Cottage recently: it was a slow-cooked beef stew produced at the farm, with cabbage and delicious parsnip mash. Meals like that induce a sense of wellbeing.

There's not a great deal [of difference] between us: we're both frank and tell it as it is and we probably see food through the same lens. But he's more confident then I am as he has a natural authority; he's slightly happier in his skin.

Has he changed? His physical appearance may have – he's cut his hair – but while his rise to celebrity may have been meteoric, inside he's the same guy, and that's what's so attractive about him. He's still a radical thinker and prepared to challenge orthodoxy. And on a good day, that's something I relate to.

'Hugh's Three Good Things' (£25, Bloomsbury) is out now. For more information on the Sustainable Food Trust, visit sustainablefoodtrust.org

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