I began watching the various River Cottage television series about three years ago. With a full-sized kitchen to myself for the first time, the cooking bug had bit me and I was eager to enjoy preparing and eating my own food, rather than looking at my cooking endeavours as purely the creation of fuel for work and study. Before discovering Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall I had drawn previous inspiration from cookbooks, memoirs and food writings by Alice Waters, Julia Child and Michael Pollan, but I had never really felt that what these people knew about food and cooking would be easy to bring into my own kitchen. In addition, most cooking shows on television, with their “here’s the ingredients, here’s how I prepare them” approach, somehow failed to attract me.
River Cottage added something new to the mix: narrative. When Hugh wants to tackle a new cooking challenge, he draws on the experience and knowledge of those in his community, the results being more about personality and adventure than “now add 300 ml of milk.” In fact, unless I’ve blocked it out, most of Hugh’s cooking on the program is very loose on the measurements, something that reminds me of my father’s technique of pouring ingredients into his palm until it looks like “about enough.” I like this, the idea of cooking on instinct, and I’ve learned lately that even when your instincts are wrong, most efforts are salvageable.
After falling in love with the story of cooking, as told by River Cottage, I snapped up each new River Cottage cookbook that came into stock. I learned the basics of artisanal bread-making from The River Cottage Handbook No. 3: Bread (I can now confidently make flat bread and foccacia as well as standard loaves). I learned other ways to prepare fish besides breading and frying from The River Cottage Fish Book (my first ceviche felt like a revelation). I made dog biscuits for our greedy-guts greyhound from River Cottage Handbook No. 8: Cakes, as well as a ginger loaf that, I hate to brag, could have been sold by the slice in a cafe. Most recently, I’ve adopted a new repertoire of meat-free dishes from River Cottage Veg Everyday.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that River Cottage recipes are fool-proof, or that I’ve never tweaked the ingredients list to adjust the flavours to my own palate, but, in my experience, the River Cottage series of cookbooks is perfect for people who, like me, aspire toward becoming foodies, but maybe not enough to want to deal with any fiddly techniques or anything that requires going out to buy a food processor.
If you’re considering getting into cooking for the first time, or are wanting to take advantage of either growing your own or raiding weekend veggie markets, I’d highly recommend starting with The River Cottage Bread Handbook and River Cottage Veg Everyday. There is something almost scarily satisfying about your first successful loaf of bread (there’s a reason Cervantes said “All sorrows are less with bread”). And of all the River Cottage cookbooks I’ve amassed, Veg Everyday has most helped me to look at a refrigerator and pantry full of…not much…and see possibilities. I can’t ask for more than that from a cookbook.