River Cottage's 'man with the ham' - Steven Lamb
PUBLISHED: 16:28 12 July 2016 | UPDATED: 16:28 12 July 2016
He's the man with the ham, bacon, loin, chop, shoulder and any other joint you can think of as long as it can be smoked or cured. Susan Clark meets River Cottage stalwart, Steven Lamb.
If we’d done a word count in the five hours I recently spent in the company of Steven Lamb in the kitchen of the original River Cottage farmhouse, I have a feeling that between the two of us we’d have generated enough foodie chit chat for an entire book.
It’s a real joy to spend time with a foodie soul mate and whilst I was there to talk to Steven, primarily, about the popular smoking and curing course that he runs at the idyllic River Cottage HQ site near Axminster, we managed to swap several hundred of our favourite foodie stories in between salting pork, smoking gurnard and making chorizo sausages.
Steven has been with the River Cottage team almost from its TV get go and came on board at the outset to help run a website to accompany Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s TV shows and bring his live streaming IT New Media (well, new back then) skills to the mix.
One of the features of the site was that you could buy signed copies of Hugh’s books online and so one of Steven’s weekly tasks was to pile the boot of his car with said books and head over to Hugh’s to get them signed. “We’d sit around the kitchen table while Hugh personalised the books and I’d then take them to the post office to send them to the customers. It was a real cottage industry and as you can imagine, Hugh and I got to know each other really well over that time.”
Trying to pin a job title on Steven Lamb is like trying to pin the tale on the donkey when the donkey is actually at another party. He just doesn’t have one, although he was once the company secretary and the only person (way back when) allowed to sign the River Cottage cheques.
“It’s a long standing joke that I don’t actually have a job title, but I guess I am the Smoking & Curing expert,” he says. “I also represent River Cottage abroad, giving talks and demos and I write some of the River Cottage handbooks.”
I am still quite intrigued about how ‘food’ entered his world – he says he was on a school trip when he first discovered the joys of a Continental breakfast and realised food could be so much more varied and interesting than anything he’d experienced in the Manchester home he was growing up in – and I think the answer to that question lies in his working relationship with an old fashioned butcher called Ray Smith.
Steven, now dad to three young daughters all under the age of six, spent five years in a kind of unofficial apprentice role to Ray when the latter was working at River Cottage with Hugh and says he learned everything he knows about butchery, smoking and curing from Ray who was known as a straight talking tough guy who pulled no punches. “For some reason, we really, really got on,” says Steven.
If there is a person Steven Lamb doesn’t get on with they should declare themselves a rarity. He is, as you’ve probably seen from the TV shows he’s taken part in, super chilled, super relaxed and super keen that visitors to River Cottage and those attending his Smoking & Curing course get as much as possible from the experience and, more than that, return home feeling inspired and confident enough to try smoking and curing for themselves.
Smoking and curing has been a home cooking trend for a couple of years now, but since it is a clever combination of science and art, it makes sense to spend some time with someone who really knows what they are doing and save yourself what could be an unpleasant experience - wastage at best and food poisoning at worst - if you try and go it alone the first few times you attempt to cure your own bacon or smoke your own fish.
Food Politics The Friendly Way
River cottage has perfected the art of encouraging people to examine their own values when it comes to food politics without scaring them off by making them guilty or uncaring.
And when it comes to getting across a pretty serious message in a more enjoyable way than being lectured at, Steven Lamb is one of Hugh’s best lieutenants.
So here comes the serious bit…
Why do you care about Hugh’s messages of sustainability, quality and provenance?
What really matters and works is that our message is based on something we can all achieve and it is amazing to be working in a sector that is centred on food, but which can have such a huge impact on issues that range from welfare to seasonability and taste.
Almost daily – and this is putting egos to one side – people tell me how River Cottage has changed their lives. This can only happen because the ethos we subscribe to and which Hugh drives us forward with.
How does food and drink help make community?
I can’t think of any better way of bringing people together, even it’s just across the table; however, if you follow through on this then it connects the grower or the producer to the chef or cook and so anyone who eats the finished dish is part of a true lineage.
I’ve also discovered that people working in food have a kind of innate sense of community and sharing – ask anyone for the recipe for a delicious dish you’ve just tried and they’re usually delighted to share it with you. It is ( without wishing to cause offence) the antithesis of the IT industry where I started my career and where not only is knowledge not shared, but people are left feeling stupid and utterly grateful to someone to someone who can fix their laptop but only in total secrecy.
What single piece of food legislation would you change over night?
I would like to see legislation that improved to the use of food waste – either feed it to those who need it the most or feed it to animals. Just don’t dump it! I am astonished by the amount of food that is thrown away just because it doesn’t meet some stupid aesthetic. And why are we turning so much land over to crops to feed animals when on the other hand, we’re throwing away enough food each day to feed the whole of the population of the UK?
It just doesn’t make sense. Oh, and I’d like to see the removal of nitrates in traditionally cured charcuterie.
Where would you like to see the River Cottage brand in ten years from now?
I’d like the brand to be a benchmark of quality both in terms of teaching and attitudes to aspects of food around the world. We have an international reach thanks to our TV presence, but it would to see the model of River Cottage replicated elsewhere as it is now in Australia. It will be important to keep the integrity of the brand and the ethos for which it stands, but I am sure we could branch out into new territories and markets.
For example, we’re planning a River Cottage Pop Up Canteen at the London ExCel arena for this year’s Grand Design Live show.
For Steve’s favourite Smoking & Curing recipes visit stevenlamb.net
The one day Meat Smoking & Curing course with Steve Lamb runs at River Cottage HQ on 9 & 30 June and costs £240pp which includes snacks and lunch.
To book visit rivercottage.net