The time Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall ate squirrel

"In the end, the solution is cooking" … Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

"In the end, the solution is cooking" … Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

When Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall worked in the kitchens of London's storied River Cafe, his favourite job was cleaning calves' brains. Particularly when he had a hangover. As he caressed the brains under running water, peeled off the membrane and picked out traces of congealed blood, he would imagine he was cleaning out his own sore head.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's food history will turn some people's stomachs. The English celebrity cook has prepared and eaten human placenta pâté. He's enjoyed impala, giraffe, roadkill and squirrel. Early on in his food television days, he acquired the nickname Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall.

But don't mistake his cooking and eating preferences as mere attention-seeking. As Fearnley-Whittingstall has shown in his River Cottage television series, his food choices invariably carry a political message and always have ethical foundations.

The impala? He was a young Oxford graduate then, living in South Africa, writing a paper about wildlife conservation for a non-government organisation, and taking his camp-fire cooking seriously. "If you're camping in a game reserve and you go to the camp shop, you've got steaks of impala and things like that because the wildlife is being sustainably managed," he says. "That involves occasional culls and part of that is to make sure the meat is used."

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The squirrel? Fearnley-Whittingstall showed viewers how to cook it during A Cook on the Wild Side, his first food series for British television in the mid-1990s. Looking down the barrel of the camera, he brandished a tiny, skinned, skewered beast and, in a nod to Beatrix Potter, said, "It's bye-bye Squirrel Nutkin and Hello Squirrel on a Stick."

Then he addressed his critics. He was, he said, happy to take flak from serious vegetarians because they stuck to their principles. "But those of you carnivores who are pointing a finger at me should maybe take a look in your own fridge. Any bacon from intensively reared pork? Any eggs from battery chickens?" Squirrels were natural food, wild food that ran around a forest eating nuts, he said, and farmers regarded them as pests.

The placenta? It was a controversial feature of his second television series, TV Dinners, and, according to a BBC article at the time, was blended into a pâté before being served with focaccia to a family group gathered to mark the birth of a baby called Indi-Mo Krebbs. Fearnley-Whittingstall said at the time that the program reflected "different approaches, including people who feel the need to break a food taboo".

And then came River Cottage and its spin-offs, which has firmly established Fearnley-Whittingstall as a sort of food saint for the chattering classes. He has introduced his viewers to guerrilla gardeners in a pretty Pennines mill town. He has visited Gordon Ramsay at home to deliver a bag of grains to fatten up the chef's Christmas turkeys. "You've just about got enough space here for a pair of pigs," he told Ramsay as they headed out to a backyard turkey coop. "I'll let you break that one to the missus," replied Ramsay.

He has filmed in bucolic English countryside and lush vegie patches: "You can grow a ridiculous amount of food in a small space." He has held fluffy baby lambs and happy hens and stroked cows, then told his viewers that our addiction to meat is unsustainable and will wreck the planet. "A third of the world's grain crops are being fed to animals and, in the US, it's 50 per cent. Meat has become a cheap, bland commodity," says Fearnley-Whittingstall, who recently went for four months without eating meat to "recalibrate" his cooking.

His work has earned him a bunch of Australian disciples. "We get tons of Australian visitors coming to do our courses," he says. Alongside television and book releases (next up, River Cottage Fruit Every Day!), the River Cottage empire includes "canteens" in Axminster, Bristol and Plymouth, a restaurant at River Cottage HQ on the border of Devon and Dorset, a cooking school for professional chefs and another open to anyone. (Classes are offered in subjects such as shoreline-fishing, beekeeping, "pig in a day", meat-curing and -smoking, bread-baking, and hedgerow- and seashore-foraging.)

Fearnley-Whittingstall visited Australia for the first time earlier this year. He spoke to a rapt audience in Sydney and for Foxtel Lifestyle filmed River Cottage Australia, in which young Tasmanian chef Paul West builds a sustainable small landholding on the NSW far south coast.

It was there that he had what he describes as his most revelatory Australian food experience: he hooked some Australian salmon (Arripis trutta). The coastal fish bears some resemblance to mackerel and is not related to the pink-hued Atlantic salmon. "It's what the anglers call a 'neighbour fish'; they give it away and it's hard to find on a restaurant menu," says Fearnley-Whittingstall, who baked it on a bed of roasted potatoes, onions, bay leaves and lemons.

The Australian salmon ticks all of the chef's boxes: it has lived as it was designed to, been killed humanely, is sustainable and its origins are clear. For Fearnley-Whittingstall, the decisions we make about food carry a heavy weight of ethical responsibility. "I won't eat meat unless I can pretty much pin down where it comes from, or at the very least that it's free range."

In the UK, his fierce campaigning against industrial food has had some results. His "Chicken Out!" campaign, for example, focused attention on chicken welfare. He says that, as a result, the "higher welfare end of the poultry industry" has gone from 5 per cent to nearly 20 per cent of the market.

No surprise then, that he's no fan of supermarkets. He told his Sydney audience that, if consumers change the way they shop, supermarkets have no choice but to change, too. "We are much more powerful than we think."

Fearnley-Whittingstall thinks, though, that the answer to many of the issues surrounding food is very simple. "In the end, the solution is cooking," he says. "People are starting to realise that time spent in the kitchen, maybe with a glass of wine and a few nice raw ingredients in front of you, is quality time."