It’s currently high conference season, which means I’m on the road more often than not the past few weekends. Since I haven’t been in the shop as much these last few weeks I figured I could forgo the meat cuts for a week and talk about a book that almost never leaves my side. This book has changed my life completely, and I think given the chance, it could change yours as well. It’s a hefty tome, full of ancient knowledge made relevant to the modern day. In many ways this book can prescribe a way to live your life, or at least a way to live it slightly better. I’m talking of course about the holiest of all books (for a butcher at least): The River Cottage Meat Book.
Voraciously collecting books may be one of the only healthy obsessions that chefs and butchers usually have – and it certainly is an obsession. If you were to enter the home of the average chef, you’d probably be greeted by piles of cookbooks covering a wide range of topics – me personally, I have three entire shelves dedicated just to meat. It all starts to get a bit crazy, as my wife readily reminds me. The common thread running through all of these collections, though, are a few classic books that just about everyone has. On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller, and for the really clued in enthusiast Modernist Cuisine, in all it’s 50 pound glory, all seem to show up invariably. And just as invariably you can add to that list Hugh’s excellent treatise on the joy and importance of properly raised, properly butchered meat.
One of my most prized possessions.
If you’re not currently familiar with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and River Cottage, step away from the blog this instant and go watch some of his videos on youtube. The whole first season of his show, Escape to River Cottage is on there, along with some great talks and interviews. Essentially the series follows Hugh, a British chef and food writer, as he escapes the big city and starts a small farm in the southwest of England. Over the years Hugh’s focus has broadened from producing excellent food for himself and his family, to changing the food system as a whole, but the commitment to quality and health has always remained. Today River Cottage has not just an organic farm, but also restaurants and a cooking school located at their greatly expanded HQ. Despite having a huge impact in Britain (and more recently Australia) River Cottage has yet to really make a huge splash in America (Hugh, call me!) – with the exception of the River Cottage Meat Book.
The first section of the book, entitled “Understanding Meat” is a thorough (almost 200 pages!) look at the ethics of meat eating, the process of rearing high quality, humanely raised meat, and what to look for when purchasing meat. Hugh writes with such passion about the virtues of high-welfare animals it’s impossible not to come away with a newfound respect for the farmers who raise these animals to the highest of standards, and the butchers who apply their skill to sourcing and preparing them for sale. To say that reading Hugh’s philosophy on meat eating changed my life is to put it lightly. Not too many people, shortly after graduating college, pick up a book by some British guy and decide to completely change course and devote their lives to an art that had begun to die out in Britain, and is all but dead in America.
The second section of the book is all about cooking meat. As is the River Cottage way, this is so much more than a mere collection of recipes. Hugh’s philosophy of respecting the animals that are raised for our consumption extends to how he prepares his meat as well. As I’ve said before there is so much more to an animal than just the prime cuts. To truly respect and honor the life of the beast that had to die so that we may eat, we need to utilize every part of it to the fullest. This includes not just eating offal (which no one, with the possible exception of Fergus Henderson, prepares with more love an attention than Hugh), but also elevating less desirable cuts to the highest possible level. Sure, a well aged Porterhouse steak is excellent, but so too is a slow cooked boneless beef neck, or shank – and they’re much more economical to boot.
My copy of the River Cottage Meat book is beat to hell, which really is the highest possible praise you can give to a book like this. The edges are worn from cumulative years spent in a backpack traveling with me, dog-eared pages mark particularly inspiring passages, and grease stains speak to it’s usefulness as a cooking reference. From the moral implications of well-raised meat, to a 20+ page long discourse on the perfect roast, the book covers the breadth of the meat world. I consider this book to be essential reading for anyone who wants to give any serious thought to their meat, the farmers who grow it, and the butchers who process it. I can’t promise that this book won’t completely change your life, it certainly changed mine.