To tie-in with the release of his recent book; ‘The River Cottage Handbook No.14: Pigs & Pork‘, Country Endeavours caught up with River Cottage‘s Group Head Chef, Gill Meller.
Your first River Cottage Handbook recently hit the shelves (Pigs & Pork – No.14), it’s clear a lot of love and detail has gone into it! How did you find the process of putting the book together and can we hope for more handbooks from you in the future?
The subject was inspiring which made it a real pleasure to work on. I already knew quite a lot about pigs and their subsequent cooking, as we’ve always kept a few each year at River Cottage, but through my research for the book, I learnt things about the pig I didn’t know before. Curious details about it’s history, the intriguing variation between our rare and traditional breeds. The complexities of large scale pork production and the harrowing conditions many pigs suffer within factory farms.
I hope to start work on another handbook in the not too distant future. I think they are fantastic little guides, practical, informal and packed with information.
In the book you recalled the moment you had a close encounter with a wild boar whilst out hawking on Powerstock Common in Dorset. There was a time when boar was commonplace as a staple meat. Why do you think it fell out of favour with public opinion?
I remember it clearly. That wild pig gave me quite a fright.
Yes, Boar was a popular meat, but that was before numbers fell away and truly wild boar died out in England. The domesticated pig was far more practical anyway. You didn’t need to go out hunting it for a start.
Today we eat a lot more boar as there are managed wild herds and farmed boar too. But it’s still not everyone’s cup of tea.
We cook and serve boar fairly regularly at River Cottage and you’ll find boar chops and green herb sauce on our menus in our canteens. It’s rich and well flavoured. It has a slight gaminess and a darker colour to the meat.
You’ve worked at River Cottage for over 10 years now – has it changed you as a chef?
Working at River Cottage has taught me so much. Not just about cooking, its taught me a way to think about food and about people.
For me, the process of cooking starts with people. The people who grow, the people who farm and the people who catch, forage and hunt for the ingredients that we use day to day in our kitchens, ingredients we cook for our guests or prepare for our families.
Without these people and their passion, care, skill and knowledge we wouldn’t have the wonderful variety of vegetables, fruits, salads, herbs, grains, meat and fish that we are so privileged to work with.
It’s from these people I’ve learnt respect for the ingredients I cook with and it’s from these ingredients that I’ve learnt respect for the people who produce them.
As a father, what have been some of your successes and failures when it comes to trying out new dishes with the kids, and have there been any meals you were pleasantly surprised at their reactions to?
Both my children love to eat, they love good food, but they can be sceptical about some of my stuff. If I serve up pork sausages for supper they tend to be received with some suspicion. ‘What’s in these really?’, they say ‘goat hearts, liver or minced badger’?
I understand that the sort of food I make in my professional life isn’t always what the kids want to eat when they get home from school. Of course, they’ve tried rabbit and oysters, artichokes and mutton, but for now, they still prefer my home made pizza on a Friday night.
Do you have a guilty food pleasure?
I must say, I’m also keen on my home made pizza on a Friday night!