Scarred by images of tethered calves, British consumers have long steered clear of veal. But, says Borough Market demonstration chef Luke Mackay, the rose veal sold at Wild Beef is actually a highly ethical product
One of the first ‘posh’ (ie not at home or school) meals that I ever ate was veal saltimbocca in an Italian restaurant in a small town in County Antrim. It came with a chipped side dish of almost liquefied broccoli and leathery, raw-yet-burnt roast potatoes, acrid with ‘caramelised’ garlic. I don’t think I really knew what veal was then; I suspect I just liked the sound of ‘saltimbocca’. It was soft and white and a bit chewy and, like all mystery meats, tasted like chicken. Then in Switzerland—Interlaken to be precise—my heart was broken by a 14-year-old Dutch girl and I had Wiener schnitzel to make it better, rustled up in a campsite restaurant by a chef so ‘buxom’ he cooked sitting down in his leather pants.
And so it continued throughout my teenage years—veal was a treat in Italian restaurants or on camping holidays to Europe. But I was always aware of veal representing something bad, something cruel, something less than wholesome. Sales of veal plummeted in this country after a well-known animal rights group published undercover photographs of veal calves, tethered, unable to move in small crates. Such was the groundswell of public opinion that veal crates were in fact banned in this country in 1990.
I feel that I must be honest at this point. My love of delicious food has always outweighed any moral principal. I have plunged thousands of live lobsters into boiling water. I respect your right not to eat a lobe of perfectly seared foie gras with a glass of Sauternes and some mostarda di fruttas, but I’m going to, should I be given the opportunity.
My argument, however, is with animals raised in terrible conditions that don’t even taste nice. I won’t ever eat battery farmed chicken—it is cruel and unusual and the meat is flabby and wooly and other things that you shouldn’t associate with protein. And the same goes, in my opinion, for veal—developed to satisfy an odd European obsession with soft, pale meat. You have to wrap it in ham and sage or deep fry it in breadcrumbs to get it to taste of anything.
I was lucky, five years ago, to spend a year on an organic farm run by Helen Browning, one of the pioneers of organic farming and animal welfare. Her farm is a magical place, nestled amongst the ancient and mystical plains of rural Wiltshire, with great white horses carved into the hillside, monolithic standing stones and a gentle calm pervading all. Although primarily a pig farm, there are also dairy cows. And dairy cows are the problem when it comes to veal.
It had never really occurred to me what happens to male dairy calves. It is just about within my intellect to realise that males of any species are incapable of producing milk, but I had always assumed that meat cows and milk cows were fundamentally the same and baby boy milk cows just grew up to be meat cows (I wasn’t joking about the intellect). It turns out that male dairy calves are unsuitable for beef due to their low muscle tone and so they have tended to be killed and disposed of. In 2007 around 260,000 young, male dairy calves were condemned as “waste products” in the UK.
Helen Browning launched the first organic veal system over 15 years ago, deciding that killing day-old male dairy calves was negligent, inhumane and wasteful. Rose veal farmers like Lizzie and Richard Vines from Wild Beef now raise their veal calves for eight months. This is not the traditional milk-fed ‘white veal’; think of it rather as ‘young beef’—meat that is a healthy, rosy pink colour, naturally very low in saturated fat and delicate in flavour. From an ethical standpoint, if you drink milk you are almost morally obliged to eat British rose veal. And it’s bang in season, right now—as Lizzy herself says “This is an increasingly popular choice for veal lovers, due to the more humane conditions under which it is produced.”
Interestingly, and I suppose ironically, we now find ourselves in a situation whereby animal rights groups, which once campaigned to get it off the menu, are now shouting from the rooftops to get veal back on British dining tables. The RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) are trying to redeem the meat in the eyes of UK consumers—most of whom now view veal as the ultimate ethical no-no. “Veal shouldn’t be a dirty word,” said Rowen West-Henzell, food business manager for CIWF. “There is a process of re-education that needs to occur. British rose veal is something we are happy to endorse.”