Is it OK to eat?
Over the last year on this blog I’ve cooked meats varying from horse to crocodile, but there’s one meat that’s produced a little closer to home that I’ve never cooked or even tasted and that meat is veal. For years veal has suffered something of an image crisis, widely believed to be up there with foie gras when it comes to the least ethical food possibilities out there. Last week, though, this article appeared in The Telegraph suggesting the calf meat is no longer an unacceptable option. It’s hardly the first article of its kind, but it does beg the question of why, when we’re quite happy to eat a cute baby lamb (most of us anyway), we balk at a calf? And what has changed to make that OK? Most importantly, how does it taste?
“Ever since Roman times the Italians have been very fond of vitello, veal, which is the basis of most of their meat dishes,” writes Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in her engaging History of Food, “The Spanish find the milk-fed veal on which the best pre-war butchers of France prided themselves insipid. To the French palate, however, it was made even better by the raw eggs which the calves had been fed. It is hard to imagine such a state of affairs now, when calves are hobbled, battery-reared and stuffed with hormones. The veal they provide is still a pearly pink, but it usually owes that colour to artificial processes, and the Spanish – understandably enough these days – refer the veal of a grazing calf which has just been weaned; escalopes from such an animal, which they fry in plenty of oil, are a very pale red colour.”
It is apparent from this, therefore, both that veal enjoys a different status in different parts of the world (Rick Stein’s Spain refers to ternera, rose veal: “which is never more than a year old, is much commoner in restaurants than beef, both in braises like this and grilled”) and that it is not necessarily unethical in and of itself. It is modern intensive farming methods (as with caged hens opposed to free range ones) that makes veal unappealing.
According to McGee on Food and Cooking: “Veal has traditionally been valued for being as different as possible from beef: pale, delicate in flavor, with a softer fat, and succulently tender thanks to its soluble collagen, which readily dissolves into gelatin when cooked. Calf flesh becomes more like beef with every day of ordinary life. so most veal calves aren’t allowed an ordinary life: they’re confined so that exercise won’t darken, flavor, and toughen their muscles, ad fed a low-iron diet with no grass to minimize the production of myoglobin pigment and prevent rumen development, which would saturate and thus harden the fat.”
It is because of this desperation to not allow the calf to live in any way that might allow it to build muscle and fat that veal makes this kind of veal so unethical. The calves have a grim life before they are slaughtered very young. There are, however, other options that do not involve keeping a calf chained up in a dark room feeding them nothing but milk.
“It’s quality varies considerably according to the method of rearing,” is the opinion expressed by hefty French tome Larousse Gastronomique, however, saying that “High-quality veal” is: “When the calf has been fed exclusively on its mother’s milk (the most ancient and natural method for rearing calves), it gives a very pale pink meat smelling of milk, with satiny white fat having no tinge of red.”
These days, however, British rose veal, sort of an equivalent to the Spanish ternera, is becoming more popular. Even so, according to The Guardian, rose veal accounts for just 0.1% of the meat that we consume each year, so it’s no surprise that most of us haven’t tried it. Rose veal develops its pink colour as it is, unlike the white, milky veal, fed on grass and allowed to roam free. These calves are slaughtered at the age of about six months, which may still seem young but it is comparable to lamb or pig. Most significantly for those with ethical concerns, British rose veal has met with the approval of Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA’s Freedom Foods.
Part of the reason for this lies in the fact that the sheer quantity of milk that we drink in this country results in the death of tens of thousands of male dairy calves within hours of birth, as there is no market for males of dairy breeds. “Dairy calves are being shot at 24 to 48 hours old and if we drink milk we all have to share in this instead of leaving the burden of it to the farmers,” says TV farmer and Jamie Oliver buddy Jimmy Doherty, “Eating rose veal is utilising those calves and solving a problem.”
This all sounds great, but the reality may be a little more complicated. Laws in the UK require veal calves to have a comfortable straw bed rather than a confined cage and a diet that allows their digestive system to develop normally, but the image of them grazing outside in a grassy field is really only true in summer. Calves are still likely to be kept indoors during the winter months. Veal is, like lamb, a traditionally spring dish, so it’s not certain how well kept it would have been at this time of year. More importantly, there are no similar laws governing care of veal calves in much of the rest of Europe. What this means is that, for all that British veal has its stamps of ethical approval, much of the veal consumed in this country is imported cheaply from the continent.
The upshot of this is that the consumer has no way of knowing where their veal has come from in restaurants or hotels. It’s probably best, then, for people wishing to try the meat, to find a shop or supermarket that has committed to ethically sourcing it and names a British source on the label. Waitrose, for example, are keen to demonstrate exactly where their veal comes from, one particular farm in East Anglia, and how it conforms to ethical standards, as this bit of promotional fluff shows:
So, curious to try a flavour that I had not before and confident that Waitrose veal is as ethically sourced as possible, I bought a couple of escalopes and decided to have a go at cooking them. But, given it has been frowned on for years and so there are much fewer recipes for it than other meats, how is veal best prepared and what goes with it?
Modern recipe books may be in a quandary about whether to touch veal, but traditional ones do not have such a problem. Julia Child, previous cause of my culinary downfall, says that: “Veal is an interesting and delicious meat when it is cooked well, and like chicken it lends itself to a variety of flavourings and sauces”, although she also says to avoid anything reddish looking and that anything over 12 weeks old is useless until develops into beef, so perhaps her advice is not so useful in considering rose veal.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking has at least ten recipes for veal, including three different options for ways to use veal escalopes. Despite Child’s insistence that veal goes with a variety of flavourings, virtually all of these involve mushrooms, which neither myself nor Professor Plum are particularly keen on, including “sautéed veal scallops with mushrooms and cream” or “sautéed veal scallops with mushrooms and tomato”. Being another traditional French cookery book, Larousse Gastronomique has fifteen recipes for veal and, once again, it is big on creamy mushroom sauces. Perhaps French influences were not what I was looking for.
Recalling Toussaint-Samat’s assertion that a Roman love of veal is responsible for its continuing popularity in Italy, I decided to cook with more Italian flavours and ingredients. So, I turned to the ever useful Flavor Bible to look for suggestions of what might pair well with veal. According to The Flavor Bible, strongly recommended flavour matches include: garlic, lemon, mushrooms, oil, onions, pepper, salt, stock, tomato, and dry white wine. Ignoring the mushrooms, I decided to use most of these other ingredients.
As well as flavour matches, The Flavor Bible also gives “flavor affinities”, more complex sets of flavours that work together as a whole. Veal’s affinities are: “veal + asparagus + morels”, “veal + basil + lemon”, “veal + capers + lemon”, “Veal + cream + mushrooms”, “veal + cucumber + mustard”, “veal + garlic + parmesan + tomatoes”, “veal + gremolata + orange”, “veal + marsala wine + mushrooms”, “veal + orange + polenta”, and “veal + prosciutto + sage”.
Thinking about the Italian flavours I was looking for, I decided to use garlic, parmesan and tomato, as well as prosciutto and herbs, all of which I planned to pair with a sauce made from the recommended dry white wine and the often suggested cream. It may seem strange to pair something that seems almost beef-like with the likes of white wine and cream, flavours you may normally consider using with chicken, but that is the appeal of veal, that it is neither quite red meat nor white.
Considering my desire to use prosciutto, cheese and herbs, I decided to make involtini. Involtini are a variety of Italian dish made by rolling some outer layer of flat food around a filling (essentially like a savoury equivalent of a Swiss roll). So, I topped my veal escalopes with various herbs, prosciutto and grated parmesan and then rolled them up and pan fried them. Then I made a sauce from sweating shallots in butter and adding garlic, herbs, white wine and double cream.
So, how was my first taste of veal? Well, I enjoyed the dish as a whole, the flavours recommended by The Flavor Bible were well matched. The veal itself was a pleasant, lean meat, but not something that I was dazzled by. Now that I’m aware of the easy availability of ethical veal, there’s no reason why I wouldn’t try cooking it again, but equally it’s not likely to become my favourite food any time soon.
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: I’ve not had veal before either. It’s recognisably related to beef, though without the same strength of flavour. It’s a ‘white meat’ version of beef that goes well with white meat accompaniments. In some respects I’d be interested in trying a restaurant dish with veal, to get some more context for it (how rare should it be? How tender? etc) but the ethics of ordering it in a restaurant are complex. Maybe somewhere that prides itself on local food? It’s certainly possible to have ethically neutral veal – at least, veal that’s no less ethical than lamb – and I’d like to see it become more common, but it’s going to take a long time to bring people back round to it.