Has Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall roasted his last haunch of venison? Could Britain's most famous foodie, pig farmer and author of the River Cottage Meat Book, be about to become a vegetarian?
The television presenter has suggested he is thinking of renouncing meat in a column in Channel 4's home design magazine, 4homes, which has excited campaigners for Britain's three million vegetarians. But is he serious?
Fearnley-Whittingstall is an excited consumer of organically reared meat, and is regularly pictured on television extolling its virtues and happily turning pigs into sausages. This summer he urged diners to start eating veal again.
Reconsidering his philosophical position in 4homes magazine, the old Etonian recalled a conversation with his son Oscar about how some dinosaurs were vegetarian and whether humans choose to eat meat.
"What I didn't say to Oscar is that I have been thinking about the whole vegetarian/carnivore thing," he wrote. He mused: "Why exactly do I eat meat? I don't think it's particularly good for me (partial as I am to the fattier cuts). I abhor the way most of it is produced. And, much as I enjoy eating it, I don't imagine life without it would be unbearable."
He conceded that his image as an "enthusiastic muncher of small furry animals" might suggest he would not turn vegetarian. "But honestly, I'd give it all up - even the bacon - if I was properly convinced it was the right thing to do," he added.
"Recently, I've been considering the matter and soon hope to have resolved [it] to the satisfaction of my own conscience - one way or another."
He asked readers what would happen to all the animals in a democratically decided vegetarian society. And, in a sign that the philosophy graduate may have been thinking aloud, he asked: "Would the carnivorous minority be allowed a last supper of the slaughtered corpses?"
Nonetheless, the Vegetarian Society was entertaining the possibility of a dramatic volte-face. "That's much stronger than anything he has said before. That's amazing," said Liz O'Neill, head of communications at the Vegetarian Society, on learning of the article. "He's one of the few people who get wheeled out in opposition to us."
She added: "It's very interesting. He always struck me as a very moral person. I have always had a couple of problems with his position. While he takes a very ethical approach to his meat sourcing, the people who watch his programmes and buy his recipe books don't. They can't. There is not even enough organic meat for people who claim they eat organic meat."
The society "would be thrilled" to welcome Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose conversion would surprise many in the food world, though he is greatly interested in animal welfare and husbandry.
He has investigated factory farming for his new television series, which confronts junk food addicts with wholesome food and which he was editing yesterday.
At his River Cottage HQ on the Dorset/Devon border, his personal assistant, Jess Upton, suggested that his words should be taken with a "pinch of salt" but highlighted his concern about meat-eating. "I don't think he is thinking of becoming a vegetarian, but nothing he does surprises me," she said. "I think [his comments are] more about the moral wrestles you have in your mind."
Could the comments be a stunt to promote the new series, River Cottage Academy, or the book Hugh Fearlessly Eats It All? Or perhaps the cook is reappraising his beliefs - he recently relived in print his sacking from the London restaurant The River Café in 1989.
Whatever the motivation, the Meat and Livestock Commission was sanguine over the potential loss of a meat pundit. "What he does about his diet is a matter for him," said a spokesman. "I am glad he is thinking about it because he will have to make provision to get those vitamins and minerals you can't get in a meat-free diet and balance his diet accordingly."
"Best of luck to him," he added. "But I am sure he will come back."Reuse content