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Torching the template

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall explains why it’s time to ‘rejuvenate our entire culinary culture’
Torching the template

This article appears in the autumn issue of Magazine, distributed with the Guardian on 27 October 2017. Click here to read the full digital issue online

Hugh Fearnley-WhittingstallOne thing we could all do to be healthier, feel more energised and have a better relationship with our environment, is this: eat more veg.

It’s a no-brainer, right? We all know we’re supposed to eat our greens; veg is incredibly good for us – full of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and complex carbs that our bodies need.

But there’s more to it than that. There are several compelling reasons why a plant-based diet isn’t just a good thing to aim for – it’s absolutely imperative.


For a start, there’s the simple fact that consuming more health-boosting plants leaves less space in our diets for foods that actively harm us. More veg means less sugar and processed foods, for example, and cutting back on those, it turns out, is pretty essential.

Refined sugars and ‘empty carbs’ are now widely recognised as leading causes of the obesity and ill health that overshadow millions of lives worldwide.

More veg also means fewer animal-based foods, meat in particular – and the consequences of eating less meat, for the entire planet, could be colossal. Not only is livestock farming massively resource-hungry, swallowing up great quantities of crops, power, fuel and water, but meat production is a key factor in climate change.

The farming of animals – particularly in an intensive system – releases huge volumes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Last year, researchers at Oxford University concluded that a global switch to plant-based diets could ‘save up to 8 million lives by 2050, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by two-thirds, and lead to healthcare-related savings and avoided climate damages of $1.5 trillion (US)’.


But we shouldn’t be eating more veg just because it’s The Right Thing to Do. We should do it because it’s life-enhancing in every way: veg is glorious, colourful, full of flavour. It expresses the seasons, anyone can grow it and it’s easy to cook.

I am not vegetarian. I still enjoy animal foods. But I am, these days, very much veg-led. I did need to make a few adjustments to my thinking along the way. And if we’re to eat more veg as a nation, we’ll need a shift in attitudes, too.

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Many of us grew up seeing vegetables as things that were boiled then put on the side of the plate: gravy-smothered adjuncts to the meaty main event. A lot of vegetarian cooking has sought to it into the same paradigm, creating ‘substitutes’ that slot into the traditional meat-and-two-veg template. I say: let’s torch that template.

Why not feast on a heap of three or four different veg, roasted with spices, trickled with a lovely dressing and scattered with nuts? Or garlicky, herby broad beans tumbled over hot baby spuds? Or a bubbling, oat-topped winter veg gratin, served up with nutty, earthy lentils? Let’s make vegetables the tasty, tummy-filling heroes on our plates.


Welcoming more veg into your life can change how you eat, as well as what you eat. It’s certainly led me to question the convention that says one main dish must dominate at every meal. Led by the example of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, I frequently lay out a few different veg dishes to be shared and passed around.

The mezze-model, as I think of it, is an incredibly sociable, enjoyable way to eat. Eating more veg could rejuvenate our entire culinary culture.

It’s not difficult to make this happen; we just have to set aside the old conventions and put plants first in our kitchens. Think of it as reflecting their role in the natural world. Thrusting, fast-growing and abundant, plants form the basis of the food chain: they are the bedrock of our ecosystems – in our gardens, in agriculture, in Nature itself.

The American journalist Michael Pollan summed up the best approach to a good diet: ‘Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants’. The tenet sank into my consciousness when I first read it and it’s remained there ever since: brilliantly simple and, in my view, incontrovertibly right. In recent years I’ve come to see it’s also an invitation to the most healthy, vibrant, varied, planet-friendly cooking you’ll ever enjoy. Dig in!

Master the art of veg cookery with a River Cottage course! Click here for more.

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