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Don’t be a chicken… ditch the turkey says Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall thinks it’s time to ditch the turkey this Christmas. But before you rise up in protest at one of our most famous chefs ripping up a sacred yuletide tradition, he says it’s because we’re all feeling the pinch and people want to save money.

‘Some of the old-school recipes ask you to keep the bird in the oven for half a day,’ says the River Cottage cook, campaigner and television star, who’s well aware many people are struggling with energy prices this year. ‘You might as well take a chauffeur-driven limo to The Savoy for Christmas dinner!’

He’s joking of course, but the point is serious. ‘There’s a massive trauma associated with cooking this enormous bird. If you’ve put the stuffing in the turkey as well, the heat has got to penetrate even further, to get right to the middle. That can take hours and hours. And they’re expensive birds.’

That’s why the creator of the River Cottage cafe, cookery school, cookbooks and television shows has included a couple of fine alternatives to turkey among the Christmas recipes he’s given Weekend today, including a festive squash roasted and stuffed with mushrooms, fennel and peas, and a two-chicken roast, which is what Hugh and his family will be having at their Devon farm.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (pictured) thinks it’s time to ditch the turkey this Christmas – because people are ‘feeling the pinch’ and want to ‘save money’ 

‘Chickens cook in under two hours so they use less energy than a turkey, it’s cheaper, and less stressful. You’ve got so much more control,’ says the 57-year-old, his voice typically charged with enthusiasm. ‘This year we’re going to have a pair of our home-raised birds on the table. I can’t really be more excited about food than that.’

Last year I managed to get a knockdown price on a wonky tree with a bend in it. I put it on Instagram 

They started life as eggs laid by the hens on his farm. ‘We always have something we’ve reared ourselves. I know that’s not something everyone can do, but that’s my life, that’s what I’m about.’

Indeed it is. Hugh made his name in the 90s as a long-haired, slightly posh radical with a Channel 4 show called A Cook On The Wild Side, in which he cooked anything he could get for free, including roadkill. He became known as Hugh Fearlessly-Eats-It-All. But then he set up the first River Cottage at a former gamekeeper’s lodge in Dorset and turned into a champion of hearty country food, homegrown where possible or using ethically produced ingredients bought locally.

But what about those of us who are counting the pennies this Christmas and not fortunate enough to have our own chickens running about the place? ‘You could try asking the local butcher or track down a small-scale farmer online, or buy a pair of organic birds from the supermarket,’ he says, insisting you will still save money compared to a traditional oven-buster. ‘There’s a depth of flavour in a slow-grown, free-range or organic chicken that will really deliver for your Christmas table and still come in under the cost of a turkey.’

There’s no tree up yet at the farmhouse where Hugh will celebrate Christmas with his wife Marie and four children, Chloe, 26, Oscar, 23, Freddy, 19, and Louisa, 12. ‘We tend to go pretty late on the tree, we might not get it until the 22nd or 23rd. I like compressing Christmas into a fairly intense week or so. I’ve rarely done any work for that seven or eight-day period.’

The campaigner and television star said that some of the old-school recipes ask you to keep the bird in the oven for half a day

The campaigner and television star said that some of the old-school recipes ask you to keep the bird in the oven for half a day

He’ll be hoping for a bargain too. ‘Last year I managed to get a knockdown price on a wonky tree that had been rejected by everybody else because the top had a bend in the middle. I put it on Instagram. No one else understood why I was excited.’

There’s no need for his family to buy new baubles either. ‘We’ve got a wonderful motley collection of hand-me-down Christmas decorations. Some seem to be of Indian origin, painted bits of wood that I think come from a trip my mum made in the 70s.’

I struggled when my kids took over the festive cooking – but I’m now ready not to be a control freak in the kitchen 

Hugh’s love of food began back then during a relatively affluent childhood in rural Gloucestershire, when he helped his mother make Black Forest gateaux and profiteroles for her dinner parties. His father worked in advertising, and was wealthy enough to send Hugh to Eton at the same time as future Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson.

After studying philosophy and psychology at Oxford, the young Hugh landed a job at the legendary River Café restaurant in London, but only lasted six months. ‘I learnt how to bone a leg of lamb, clean squid and prepare fish, but I was not as quick as others and not very good at tidying up,’ he once said. ‘I was maybe having too good a time.’

Nevertheless, he went on to create the River Cottage brand, which is now based near Axminster, although Covid hit Hugh hard and forced the closure of three of four restaurants he once ran, as well as the sale of his television production company.

Still, he remains comfortably off and is well aware there are many people far less fortunate than him this Christmas. ‘Some families are being forced to make decisions about food, where they’re so frightened their kids are not eating well that they just want to fill them up with calories. Ultimately, that doesn’t serve them well for their health,’ he says. ‘We need the government to pull levers that make it easier for everyone to get healthier food in their diet.’

His easy charm, confidence and eloquence have been harnessed for some massive campaigns in recent years, against battery farming, over-fishing, food waste and the obesity crisis. But his most recent book, River Cottage Good Comfort, is a deliberate return to celebrating the good things in life – and even making them healthier.

Hugh proposes making a Christmas pudding out of lemon and raisins, while he also argues that chickens are 'cheaper and less stressful'

Hugh proposes making a Christmas pudding out of lemon and raisins, while he also argues that chickens are ‘cheaper and less stressful’

‘We all want comfort food because it makes us feel better, but I want that to be true physically as well as emotionally. These are tried-and-trusted family favourites, simple combinations that have stood the test of time, whether that’s a shepherd’s pie, a chilli or a favourite cake. We can adapt them to make them healthier without sacrificing the pleasure.’

And now Hugh has applied the same principles to Christmas, exclusively for Weekend. Rather than a traditional Christmas pudding, he proposes one made with lemon and raisins. ‘This is based on what’s gone down well with my family over the years, with people saying one by one, “You know what? I don’t really like Christmas pudding.” Lots of people are very happy with the idea of a spongy, fruity steamed pudding, but they’d like something a bit lighter.’

He uses half the amount of sugar that might be expected. ‘Most of our cakes and biscuits have quite a lot more sugar in them than they need.’ And that’s something to be wary of at Christmas, he says. ‘If in the space of three or four days we eat as much sugar as we normally do in a month, that’s not going to make us feel good.’

What about those of us for whom Christmas means munching on chocolate? ‘The idea of having a Christmas pudding then eating half a tin of Quality Street or After Eights is scary, so for the same hit but less sugar I make a mousse that is basically just melted chocolate and a little bit of cream. The sweetness of the chocolate does the work,’ he says. ‘It goes back to the kind of mousse my mum used to make in the 70s and that we’ve always loved as a family.’

This year it will be an extended family Christmas at River Cottage. ‘My wife is French and her mum and brother and his son are coming over; they’ll be here for a week. We tend to have something fishy on Christmas Eve, because that’s quite a French tradition: a whole baked fish and a few oysters maybe.’

He catches himself and laughs. ‘I’m saying this as if I’m in charge, but a few years ago there was a kind of intervention, when my kids said I should stop. Not in a loving, supportive, you’re-working-too-hard kind of way, but more like, “You know what, Dad? You don’t have to decide what we’re going to have for every meal for the festive period. We’re all quite competent cooks now, we’re going to take over for a couple of days.”’ How does he feel about that? Hugh smiles. ‘I might have struggled with it initially, but I’m now ready to give myself over to that experience of not being the control freak in the kitchen.’

There’s one thing his offspring have no interest in taking on, though. ‘There will be cold-water swimming on my part, in the sea or the pond that’s a short walk from here. I’ll probably get Marie in, but the kids won’t go near it.’ Even on 25 December? ‘Yes, I’ll have a swim in the pond on Christmas Day. I do that a couple of times a week.’ He picked up the habit after filming a series about health hacks with Steph McGovern two years ago. ‘I was hooked. It makes me feel good, it starts my day well and it’s become a ritual.’

To keep warm today, he’s wearing a woolly sweater in Christmas colours. ‘This is my festive jumper. It hasn’t got an image of a tree or a snowman but it has been beautifully mended. I wish it was my handiwork, but it was my wife’s,’ he says, showing a patch on his sleeve. This is all part of the Fearnley-Whittingstall approach to life. ‘Over the last two years we’ve revisited all sorts of threadbare things, our scarecrow clothes if you like. This is nearly 20 years old and was knitted from the wool of the first flock of Jacob sheep we kept. So I’m in a festive mood.’

Now try Hugh’s delicious cut-price Christmas recipes, including crunchy brussel sprouts and mouth-watering pies

Now try Hugh’s delicious cut-price Christmas recipes, including crunchy brussel sprouts and mouth-watering pies 

That’s good to hear, because there’ll be a sadness this Christmas that must be acknowledged. One of his dearest friends will be sorely missed. The writer Nick Fisher went missing from his home in mid-November. Hugh joined police appeals for help on Twitter, posting, ‘It’s so unlike Nick to do this and of course we are very worried for his safety.’ A body has since been found in Dorchester. ‘He was one of my best friends, so I’m incredibly sad,’ says Hugh, and it’s clear the loss has hit him hard. ‘We’re missing him so much.’

Nick was a journalist and screenwriter whose stories drove Holby City for a decade and who won a BAFTA for his children’s drama The Giblet Boys, but he first caught Hugh’s eye in the 90s when they were both presenting maverick shows on Channel 4. Nick’s, about fishing, was called Screaming Reels. ‘I set out to make friends because I enjoyed Nick’s work so much,’ says Hugh. ‘I thought we might collaborate on a project, but we spent three or four years just making friends and doing stuff together before we got around to any kind of professional collaboration.’

They loved to go sea-fishing together, a passion that led to Hugh’s successful TV campaign for a change in the law to stop trawlers throwing away millions of tons of catch every year because of quota rules. So Nick was an inspiration, he says, but most of all he was a mate. ‘I’ve had lots of messages from friends who only met Nick once or twice and they all say talking to him was amazing because he gave you all his focus. He was really interested in what you were saying. You had a real conversation that ended up getting somewhere, and that’s very unusual. Nick had that gift.’

So does Hugh, and as we come to the end of our absorbing conversation I can only express my condolences at his loss, admire his enthusiasm for life and wish him – and you – a Christmas that’s as happy as it can possibly be.