Known for his campaigning approach to making films that tell it like it really is, with programmes as diverse as Jamie Oliver’s American Road Trip to The Secret Policeman, double BAFTA award-winning television producer, Simon Ford, takes just as keen an interest in where his food comes from. This month he looks at the fate of veal calves.
In Britain there are few foods that people will genuinely die for. Veal is one.
It was February 1995 when Jill Phipps lost her life protesting about the export of veal calves to Europe. She died beneath the wheels of a lorry transporting live calves to Europe. Her martyrdom achieved something few protesters ever do. It helped change the law on keeping claves in crates and meant few regretted the end of the trade when BSE meant all British exports of beef were banned in 1996.
But it also helped stigmatise veal for a generation. It is still setting back attempts to popularise a meat that deserves far greater popularity. We should be eating more because it is both absolutely delicious and can be a more humane and sensible way to cope with the inevitable consequence of drinking milk.
It is still the case that if you mention veal is on the menu in polite company you are likely to encounter a shudder of distaste, and if you probe further, a vague sense that if you are someone who “cares” you shouldn’t eat it.
Jill Phipps was right about much of Europe’s production then and now. The facts turn your stomach. Back then half a million calves were being shunted across Europe from Britain, and then, if unlucky, packed into slatted crates with no room to turn, kept in semi-darkness and fed only reconstituted milk powder. Despite new rules on crates the Dutch veal trade is still not much better.
The result of all this sensory deprivation of infant animals is unsurprising. A bland almost white meat, pale because the calf died anaemic and tender because it had never stretched its muscles. It is not very exciting to taste and not at all appetizing once you know what it has suffered.
But for centuries true gourmands have savoured veal. You can trace a far pleasanter journey than that of the veal calves through European cuisine. Starting across the channel you find the ‘Fond de Veau’, that is veal stock. A well made stock of roasted then long simmered veal bones is the base of all great French cuisine (and indeed any haute cuisine). The bible of French cooking the Larousse Gastronomique has one hundred and fifteen recipes devoted to veal. But it is not just found in high places, the meat is used in more lowly peasant fare such as ‘blanquette de veau’. I remember as a 15 year old French exchange student nervously sitting “a table” for my first meal with my new family. I nervously stumbled through the pleasantries till offered a plate of stew, as I tasted it I was truly lost for words. I have searched for the same sublime delicacy of taste and texture ever since. It is just as good as you head to Italy and sample the ‘saltimbocca’, beaten escalopes wrapped with sage and parma ham, so delicious and well named that they literally jump in your mouth. Or head to Spain to sample the ‘albondigas’, meatballs, which take every self-respecting Spainard straight back to their mothers’ kitchen. That’s before you come across the Germanic staple of the ‘Weiner schnitzel’, chicken nuggets for grown ups.
Unfortunately the British are different. The “roaste beefe of ye olde Englande” so beloved of John Bull was much like him, an ample and well fed beast that roamed on lush pasture. Huge haunches, marbled with fat and well hung.
Perhaps that folk memory explains why it was so easy to put us off eating young cows once it became controversial. One particularly red-blooded butcher I spoke to put it bluntly, veal doesn’t hit the spot, because it is ‘like kissing you sister’.
It was our ambivalence about eating the meat that led directly to Jill and her fellow campaigners to protest against the movement of several hundred thousand new-born calves from the UK each year. Since we didn’t have a huge appetite for it, simple economics meant that if money could not be made from surplus calves in this country, they would be sent abroad: live. Producing the meat here and selling it to Europe on the hook, and not on the hoof, was not an option as it was more expensive, thanks to our higher welfare standards. The cages had been banned here in 1990 and we were at a competitive disadvantage, and higher welfare veal didn’t attract higher prices in Europe.
Why did our fellow Europeans develop such a taste for veal? Again straightforward economics. In hotter countries where grass is not so abundant, it was madness to follow John Bull and keep huge numbers of beef animals to full maturity, each one needing more than an acre of pasture and consuming at least 20 kilos a day of dry food or hay when bought inside for winter.
In European peasant farming each family could keep a couple of milking cows to provide them with milk and cheese and the calves born each year could either replace the milking cow or be eaten. It made sense to eat them when young tender and not consuming valuable pasture.
Our reluctance to eat veal, or young beef as some of its fans have re-styled it, is more than just an historical culinary footnote.
To find out why it matters now, I went to discover the fate of some of the direct relatives of the calves saved from their depressing and degrading haul across the Channel, the Fresian Holstein dairy cows. They make up 93% of the nearly two million stong UK dairy herd.
My first stop was Rob Lemmey’s organic milk herd near Halstock, West Dorset. His family have spent nearly fifty years at the well named Liberty Farm trying to popularise and bring wholesome and ethically produced organic milk to our attention. The farm is set in strikingly beautiful country, a generation of careful land management has created lush and productive pasture dotted with content and healthy looking milkers. But the reluctance to eat veal is a lost opportunity to make their farm more viable.
Rob lives the precarious maths of dairy production every day, but as he says “The figures are simple. Say I need to keep a hundred cows producing milk year in year out, each has to have a calf every year to keep producing milk. So I end up with fifty male calves.
The problem is that pure bred modern Holstein-Freisia diary cows produce male offspring that resemble their mothers, a bag of bones with a huge udder. Only without the udder – and without the capacity to produce gallons of milk every day they are not much use.
Genetically they are incapable of producing the kind of mature beef we relish. He gets round the problem by breeding his heifers with a beef bull. These cross-breeds can make good beef. But because he also needs to replace twenty per cent of the diary herd each year he still needs more than forty per cent of his milking cows to be bred to a dairy bull. That leaves more than twenty pure-bred Holstein male calves and thirty cross-bred Holstein meat bull crosses. One group can be sold on, to be fattened for beef and the others are virtually valueless from birth. The Holstein Freisian is now so highly bred that there isn’t even a job as full-grown bull to service the heifers, nearly all are artificially inseminated, a tiny group of prize winning pedigree bulls doing the work.
To illustrate his point he bends down and grabs two three day old calves who are taking their first bambi-like stagger on the grass. The first was bred from a Belgian Blue bull, a meat animal. He points out the two pin bones in its rump, they are spread broadly apart and you can see the plump muscles between them. The second has the same bones poking up but is far narrower across the rump, you can barely see any muscle development. If you ignore the cute front end and just look at the Belgian Blue’s hindquarters, the dedicated carnivore can’t help but start feeling hungry.
The stocky Belgian Blue cross will soon be a valuable commodity. At thirty days it might sell at market for £200. While his lean friend might even end up costing Rob, when he goes to market on the same day. That’s because both animals will generate paperwork. Both need a passport and ear tags at ten days, approximately £5 worth of administration. It will cost another fiver to get them to market and both will need feeding and watering for a month. At a recent cattle auction in Frome some of these male milk calves sold for £1, the average was £28.
No wonder then that for years now many male dairy calves are shot at birth. The end of the live veal trade, and again while export of British beef was banned during the BSE crisis, saw the bottom drop out of the market. When the calves are worthless the local hunt would provide a service to the dairy farmers. They would turn up shoot the calf and take it away to be fed to the hounds. It was common practise but few farmers relish the thought of taking the life of a perfectly healthy young animal simply because it has no value.
There is another market. Bull beef or barley beef, where the animals are kept to maturity. However the poor quality of the meat and the incredibly tight margins that operate in this sector mean that too often there are compromises on welfare. It is no surprise that this is the type of beef that ends up in fast food. This method of beef production resembles the US feedlot production systems wasteful of resources, and no surprise that it is the mainstay of slurry burgers and TV dinners. It didn’t seem to me to be much of a solution to the over production of male milk calves.
Liberty Farm offers a very different answer to this intensive and industrial approach to the problem. Rob and his family wouldn’t countenance wasting any animal and the milk bred bulls get their chance to grow out at pasture. They have even managed to put to use some of their more elderly milking cows who, as they age, begin to develop low level mastitis. The presence of positive antibodies in their milk means it can’t be added to the other cows milk. Nevertheless they can place a veal calf on the old cow and it will thrive, and two animals that were economically unviable acquire value again. But greater demand for veal would help to create a useful extra income, even if it would never be the main purpose of the farm. For the calf, suckling naturally in open pasture is surely the destiny it would choose, if it could.
Rob does manage to sell some of his veal but it is a lot easier to shift when he demonstrates how delicious it can be. So we spent an afternoon cooking together, and persuading doubtful members of the public to try it. Like most meat it is best cooked either fast or very slow. We started with small escalopes, but instead of disguising it with breadcrumbs (which if done badly tastes of deep fried cardboard) we flash fried them in a very hot pan for less than 30 seconds per side and dressed them with a gremolata of parsley, lemon zest and garlic as they left the pan. As an experiment I tried the same technique with a escalope of pork, and although good, the texture was chewier and somehow coarser. Children in particular adored it cooked this way, as it is the perfect combination of tender and tasty.
Our more patient approach was ‘osso bucco’, long cooked shin of veal. A dish that typifies the peasant ability to get the maximum from the least promising. The shin is sawn across to reveal a circle of bone with its marrow within and the meat around it. After several hours of being very gently stewed in a light tomato sauce the meat becomes meltingly tender. Eaten in combination with the marrow, livened up with the same gremolata and then placed on top of a spoon of saffron risotto, it is a dish of extraordinary refinement as it is rich but not overwhelming, the gelatin from the young bones makes the sauce unctuous without being syrupy or cloying.
The evidence of our cooking session was that once the public fastidiousness is overcome, anyone who enjoys food will positively enjoy eating this ethically produced meat. They won’t just be doing it because it gives a nice worthy feeling of saving a calf from a needlessly early death.
To find if it was possible to earn a real living from veal alone, I went to meet Eric and Liz Sealey and their son James, at Fossil Farm, near Lulworth Cove. Theirs is not so much a business as a well planned military campaign to persuade us to eat more veal. But they too came to it because of the uncompromising economics of dairy farming. Six years ago Jim became fed up with losing money running his milking herd, so he packed it in. The night he returned to the farm and there were no dairy cows in the barns he was met by the eerie sound of silence.
Now the soft shuffle of hooves in straw and the gentle lowing of cows is heard again. The Sealey’s are growing exclusively Holstein Freisian calves on a commercial scale and creating a market for their rose veal. Instead of trying to eke a bit of value out of a near worthless animal they are creating a premium product that can sell for a premium price, nearly double the price of beef.
The Jurassic Coast Meat enterprise is now in profit and before long they hope to bring a thousand calves from farm to table each year. As a family they control the whole process. Rearing the animals, growing their food, taking them to slaughter, butchering and packgaging the meat and operating their sophisticated telesales operation from their mobiles.
As the Sealey’s began to build their new business they had two strokes of luck. Their farm on the Lulworth Estate is in the middle of a group of farms who milk over two thousand head of cattle (and so produce a lot of surplus milk bull calves), and their oldest James had recently graduated form Cirencester Agricultural College with a dissertation on the use of surplus milk calves in his back pocket. The combination of a good idea, the raw ingredients and the latest thinking on how to put into place proved irresistible.
Their finished rose veal comes from animals who are eight months old and have reached a quarter of a tonne in weight. When butchered it lives up to its name and looks lovely, bright pink, like spring lamb or pork, very different from the insipid white meat of the continent.
Although their animals don’t get to graze on grass, Fossil Farm is a world away from the intensive veal systems in Holland or the bull beef operations – the type of set up where the animals are either crowded together or penned alone, and then dosed routinely with high level of antibiotics to fend off the inevitable infections and encourage growth.
This is a high welfare farm. Their starting point is to begin with healthy stock from farms they know. The calves are kept together in social groups of twelve where they are gradually weaned, they pass through each stage together. It is a peaceful environment, far removed from the clank and roar of a dairy farm.
The calves have plenty of room in their pens and are housed within brand new light and airy barns.
James explains that everything is designed to make sure the animals experience no stress. Stress, besides being unpleasant, sets back the growth of the animals. Illnesses like pneumonia, which calves are incredibly susceptible to, changes in diet, having to establish new hierachies if new animals are introduced, or even routine practices like removing horns, all slow growth. These calves are in a race against time; for the Rose veal to be economically viable the animals need to reach 250 kg before they are eight months old.
If they go over that age they are no longer classed as veal, the meat darkens – it starts looking like ordinary beef – and the Holstein Freisian is caught once again in the same depressing pattern. It can’t put on weight like a pure beef animal no matter how long it is kept, and it will soon be costing the farmer rather than earning a premium price.
The Rose veal calves are in a virtuous circle. They stand as rare examples of animal welfare and economic viability going hand in hand. Whether you see de-horning or castration, (another process which sets an animal’s growth back) as small indignity, or a painful episode, these veal calves avoid it and many other standard procedures.
Inevitably the doe-eyed veal calves grow into horny teenagers, and the hormones kick in. One reason that they aren’t in the fields is that, uncastrated, they might not stick around for long, especially if they got the scent of a heifer. And at Fossil Farm there are a lot of young bulls around to knock down fences.
As we stare at one young individual intently he returns our gaze, and holds it. I ask what advice they have if charged by a bull, the unanimous chorus is “Run”.
Looking closely at my new adversary, and not having a red cape handy to join battle, I find it hard to believe that the skinny weakling I saw at Rob’s place could grow so quickly into a mature and recognisably beef-shaped animal. Face to face with a nearly eight-month old bull calf, the squeamish objection that it isn’t nice to eat a baby animal collapses with the evidence of your own eyes. No wonder that both Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA see no problem with eating veal, provided it has been raised to the highest standards.
All is not entirely rosy at Fossil Farm. There is still the problem of ‘carcass balance’. A technical term which means that we hugely prefer particular cuts from the animals we eat, which means in reality many of the tastiest parts of a beast have little value and can go to waste. To satisfy consumer demand, pigs would need to be walking loins, lambs have six legs, and the Sealey’s veal calves have double sized rumps to cut the escalopes from – and if possible an extra sets of kidneys and a spare liver.
The answer of course (as in all meat eating) is to encourage nose to tail eating; unless, that is, you have a touching faith still in genetic modification. The Sealey’s are aware of this and that is why they have focused on selling Rose veal to professional chefs, they at least can build the European gastronomic tradition of using every part of the animal. Their logic is that once we get used to eating well cooked veal in restaurants, we might start to buy it and cook it at home.
I hope they are right but I think there is a deeper problem. We associate veal with the newborn calf and not the 250 kilo animal at 8 months.
Campaigners have recently succeeded in turning people against battery chicken production, that work was done years ago for veal. But with veal there has been nothing since to move the argument on, in part because there hasn’t been the balancing presence of a thriving free range or organic sector, as there is with eggs. Until now there was no guarantee that veal was ethical and that the ethical version definitely tasted better.
Next time you fancy roast beef think about giving Rose beef a try. If you still have your doubts when you next tuck into your Sunday joint, at least consider this. The spring lamb you eat at Easter is no older than five months and probably only three, your roast pork between four or five months, and the roast chicken could be as young as thirty-nine days. We relish all these meats because they are moist and tender and not too strong flavoured. We have bred them and fed them specifically to be edible while still infants, but we shun a meat that has similar qualities but would otherwise be going to waste. Where’s the logic in that? Don’t let the veal calves die in vain.