PUBLISHED: 09:18 22 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013
I'm at River Cottage HQ, about 10 miles south of Chard. Locations don't come much more idyllic. It's deeply rural and, by the look of it, untouched by modern agribusiness. The buildings - cottage, barns, outbuildings - look as if the...
I have arrived in the middle of a demo. Nick Fisher has just shown an enthralled audience how to fillet a mackerel - a mackerel, by the way, which the assembled students have just caught in Lyme Bay, six or seven miles away. Nick makes it look dead easy. A lady is invited up to have a go and manages to do quite a decent job. There is real knowledge being passed on here, yet the atmosphere is far removed from the classrooms of my youth, being relaxed, chatty and fun.
Nick's demo over, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall appears - he has been filming elsewhere on the premises - to talk about the technique of gravlax and its application to mackerel. First he explains the history of this method of preservation. Hugh, as everyone familiar with his TV appearances will not need telling, is a born communicator, and in that delightful laid-back way of his he goes on to show how the method has been refined to become a recipe. It's all very hands-on and there are lots of opportunities to taste and comment.
Later, over lunch - delicious mackerel, what else? - I talk to Hugh and Nick about their upcoming book 'The River Cottage Fish Book' and begin by asking them how they came to write it. Hugh, it seems, was a great fan of Nick's Channel Four fishing series 'Screaming Reels', and he sought out Nick with a view to collaborating on something fishy for TV. They became friends, and over the years they fished together, talked a lot and eventually decided to do a book together.
"We wanted to do something more than another recipe book," explains Hugh, who now lives just over the Dorset border in Somerset. "We wanted it to be a celebration of fish and we wanted it to deal with things like the ecological and moral issues of fishing."
I put it to them that were it not for fish and chips, the nation would hardly eat much fish at all. "The book aims to change that. We try to take the fear out of handling and preparing fish," Nick replies. "There's a lot of pleasure and satisfaction to be had from being able to gut and fillet fish, for instance, and there are a hell of a lot more fish out there than cod."
Hugh and Nick became friends, and over the years they fished together, talked a lot and eventually decided to do a book together
Fast forward a month and I have a copy of 'The River Cottage Fish Book' hot off the press. 'Wow' is a word I can't recall ever having used in connection with a cookery book before... until now. The book is a masterpiece. It contains more than 250 pages of recipes, but it is much, much more than a book of recipes. For starters, it's encyclopedic in size, running to some 600 pages. It's wide-ranging in its scope - when, for example, did you last read a fish cookery book that dealt with the ecological and political issues raised by modern, industrial commercial sea-fishing? Or one that that looked at individual species - we are talking sea fish, shellfish and freshwater fish here - in such detail, that the herring, for example, gets around 2,000 words.
As for Hugh and Nick, make no mistake about it, these boys know about fish and they know how to write about fish. They are enthusiasts for fish and that enthusiasm comes over in the writing.
I'll finish by making a prediction. 'The River Cottage Fish Book' will win all the awards going for the year's best cookery book. If it doesn't, I'll give up eating fish. Just kidding. If it doesn't, the judges should though. BY STEPHEN SWANN