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Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall talk

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall feature“It all started with a fish”, when his Dad decided that it was time for his six-year-old son to learn to fish… in west London with a length of bamboo, a piece of string, a bent nail, and a piece of Mother’s Pride as bait. He sent a bored Hugh off to look for worms, and a minute later called him back to help with a monster catch. Hugh later identified it as a mackerel – laughter – a fish largely reputed to live in the sea but according to his Dad had obviously swum up the Thames and taken a wrong turn. Ten years later, the truth of that day finally emerged – the clandestine trip to the fishmongers, the smuggling on to the nail while Hugh was off worm-hunting, the hit on the head with a stick before he realised it was already dead and gutted.

But it was still a gift, as Hugh wouldn’t otherwise be campaigning about fishing in the North Sea. He made a connection that day. The best food is food with a story, that you feel connected with in some way. That brings us to a place of eating enjoyably, healthily and sustainably.

Honey is an amazing food if you think about it, coming from so many plants around your own landscape. It’s so much nicer to eat a home-baked cake, or to buy it from a local baker who makes the food. And to buy veg from a local organic farmer such as our sponsors Shillingford Organics – there were vegetables changing hands in the Great Hall earlier!

Mackerel is the great democratic fish of the British coast, as anyone can jump on a boat for an hour and have a good chance of catching dinner. Proust had his madeleines, and Hugh has his mackerels – not at all pretentious! Mackerel, like Hugh, are fantastically broad-minded eaters. They’ve been successful, and until recently had the status of being among the most sustainable fish in the North Sea. The Marine Stewardship Council has defined a sustainable harvest equivalent to 5-6 portions per year for every person in Europe. But there have been almighty squabbles and agreements have fallen down, and because fish is big money, the quotas have been exceeded by 30-40%. So the MSC is withdrawing its sustainability mark.

So what can we do? Hugh has decided to spend one more season cooking, eating and feeding mackerel to his family, and serving line-caught mackerel in his restaurants, while keeping an eye on the situation. And us? Keep catching that fish, and raise a new generation that is connected with our food.

We’re on a continuum between plastic processed food that we have never touched and hunter-gatherers. We need to move closer towards the hunter-gatherer end, and in doing so move towards a more sustainable food future.