In 1997, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall moved into the River cottage in Dorset, England and began his long experiment living as a largely self-sufficient smallholder. It’s certainly paid off for him – more than 15 years, 7 books and 10 TV series later he’s a household name around the world. In this series, Hugh passes the baton to Paul West, a Tasmanian chef who wants to set up his own River Cottage in an old dairy farm on the Tilba Downs in New South Wales, Australia.
Fearnley-Whittingstall fans may be disappointed, as there’s actually not much of Hugh in this series. He helps Paul to set up some gardens in the first episode, then disappears back to England until the final show, popping up occasionally on Skype calls in the interim. Fortunately, Paul’s a pretty engaging host in his own right.
Paul’s experiments and adventures are pretty wide and varied. As well as growing his own produce, he quickly moves to stock his little farm with animals. Hugh starts him off with a pair of chickens, then a collie puppy (named “Digger”) arrives, followed in short order by a pair of cows, a small herd of pigs, extra supplementary chickens, and a pair of Muscovy ducks. This entails plenty of work putting together or repairing enclosures and planning out land use so that the animals can help prepare each bit of ground for its next job. There are also expeditions to acquire fresh mussels, fresh oysters, fresh fish, wild rabbits, “junga” (native octopus) and native fruit like the Australian finger lime.
This is real comfort food TV – there’s not much to confront you, and a lot to be drawn in and fascinated by. On the topic of confronting things though, a warning – part of the River Cottage philosophy is knowing where all of your food comes from, including the meat. The pigs and chickens raised on the River Cottage farm are there to be eaten, and there are some scenes that revolve around the slaughter and butchery of animals. They’re not especially graphic (if you’re OK watching nature documentaries you should be OK with this) but if you’re squeamish they’re still probably not for you.
If I were to have a criticism, it’s that shows like this gloss over the initial cost of setting up your own “River Cottage”. It makes sense to focus on the fun and interesting stuff, but watching this, you can end up feeling guilty for not raising all your own food, until you realise that both Hugh and Paul were already successful chefs before they made the change, and are getting paid to make the show in addition. It’s also a bit weird how “white” this show is, given how multicultural Australia as a whole is. There’s a visit with the local Aborigines in the first episode, and then nothing but white faces as far as the eye can see. These are minor criticisms though, and things that could be said of cooking/lifestyle TV and Australian TV generally, rather than specifically targeted at this show.
All in all, if you like cooking shows and you’re into self-sufficiency (even just as an idea) there’ll be a lot here for you to enjoy. Recommended.
River Cottage Australia is available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.