I have been procrastinating writing a review of this book for weeks, simply because I have been afraid I would not be able to do it justice, and it pains me to think I might lose the opportunity to persuade even one person from taking a good long look at this magnificent volume.
The River Cottage Meat Book could be (and certainly is for me), life-changing. Life changing not only for us as consumers of meat, but for the quality of life for the animals consumed. Given the despicable conditions of existence for the vast majority of creatures raised under the practices of industrial farming, this book has the potential to convert many people into informed and enlightened shoppers, who will learn to vote for humane animal husbandry practices with their grocery dollars, thus changing the marketplace permanently for the better. After reading this book, I have a new sense of the power to effect positive change and to bring an end to the untold suffering of millions of animals. That alone makes this book important.
The River Cottage Meat Book is written by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a British chef who resides at River Cottage where he raises and prepares a vast variety of meats (and other foods) with the utmost respect and quality. In his book, he shares his encyclopedic knowledge of the sourcing, preparation and cooking of meat in a straight-forward, engaging and simple (but never simplistic) manner. He includes everything from poultry, beef and pork to game, fish, and the use of offal (pig's trotters, organ meats etc) and each is discussed in depth. It is a spectacular achievement.
If you eat meat, this book will provide the foundation of everything you will need to know in order to recognize and prepare meat with the quality worth consuming. And the most important facet, indeed the essential core, of this book, is the profound and thorough consideration of the ethics of how we treat animals we intend to consume. For the humane treatment of animals and the resultant quality of the food that results are inextricably intertwined, as this book makes evident in every detail. Recipes and cooking techniques are plentiful for each type of meat.
The book is handsome as well. It is illustrated throughout with photographs of the animals, both in the field and not shrinking from the essential facts of butchering, hanging, carving and the like. One never loses sight of the sense of gratitude the author has for the life of the animal raised for consumption. How much more wholesome this is than the uncaring and cynical detachment toward animals that is fostered by the common grocery market and fast-food industry!
This book epitomizes my argument with vegans and vegetarians, who maintain that the only ethical answer to the animal cruelty of industrial farming is to refuse to consume meat at all. In fact that very argument is lived out daily in my own kitchen, for one of my sons is a vegan solely due to his refusal to collude with animal cruelty by eating meat. I certainly respect his intentions. However, my argument is that the industrial farming companies do not care in the least if my son is a vegan, for his decision renders him irrelevant to them. The odds of vegetarianism becoming the norm, world-wide, is virtually nil. On the other hand, if vast numbers of shoppers refuse to buy meat raised under cruel conditions, and are willing to pay more for the humanely raised (and higher quality on every level) organic alternative, then social change is inevitable. Surely that is worth doing, and the sooner the better!
By far, the type of meat I purchase most often is chicken. The River Cottage Meat Book discusses in detail what the term "free range" means, in real terms of square footage of space alloted to each bird, and whether or not the term is meaningful to the bird's quality of life. He discusses a variety of practices and how to read labels in order to get a product that is actually superior, not just a marketing ploy to assuage the conscience of the consumer while continuing to maximize profits at the bird's expense. Fearnley-Whittingstall discusses these issues in all their complexity so that a truly informed buying decision can be made, up to and including raising one's own poultry.
The River Cottage Meat Book will have you looking for a good local butcher, and will help you know what kinds of questions to ask to determine if he or she is competent to serve you well.
This book reaffirms my decision to purchase the highest quality organic meat products I can afford, not just because it tastes better, but because it is the right thing to do. The higher prices can be offset by eating less meat in general and increasing our consumption of vegetables, fruits, and grains.
The River Cottage Meat Book may not have you asking the butcher for pig's trotters or hanging fowl in your garage, but it will arm you with the information you need to eat well, respect the creatures you consume, and provide fascinating reading for the interested cook. In short, it is a classic, and a book for the millennium.