Monday, 29 November 2010

Veal: Yes we can (and why we should...)

‘We shouldn’t eat veal, should we, Sebastian?’, is a question people almost never ask me.  But I know that many of them think it.  And, like many, indeed most, of the questions people ask, the answer is not as simple as they assume.  No, we should not eat some veal, just as we shouldn’t eat some chicken and some pork, but while most people are familiar with free range chicken and outdoor raised pork, and (the carnivores at least) recognise these as good things, there is still a widespread assumption that all veal is a bad thing.  Which it isn’t, not if we accept the eating of meat at all.  If you are a carnivore, and perhaps more particularly a consumer of dairy products, the properly ethical position to be taken is  - and this may be uncomfortable for some - probably not only, yes, we should eat veal, but almost certainly also that we should eat more veal*.

There is a good case (that’s good as in logically and morally consistent, not good as in one I necessarily agree with) to be made against all consumption of veal, but in order to make it you’d better be, or be prepared to become, not just a vegetarian, but a vegan, because the argument to be had there is to not do with how we feel about the meat industry, but about the dairy industry**. Rose Prince, in her excellent book, The New English Kitchen goes so far as to cover veal not in her chapter on meat, but under the heading of Dairy, which I think is slightly perverse, but not so very much.  Because veal, while obviously meat, is essentially a by-product of the dairy industry. 

A dinner table with no veal.
As long as there is a dairy industry there will be excess production of calves, and if nobody’s going to eat them, those calves aren’t going to be sent away to live on a farm, like your mum and dad told you your old dog was when you were a kid.  Your old dog wasn’t sent away to live on a farm either.  And there is no Santa Claus.  Sorry, once you get started it’s hard to stop.  The point is that the dairy industry relies on calves being born, most of which (and pretty much all the males) are always going to be slaughtered whether we eat veal or not.  So if we want milk, and cheese, we really should be eating veal as well.  Otherwise all those calves, which are going to die anyway, will simply go to waste.  And as long as we eat pink, or rose, veal, which British veal has always tended to be anyway, then the animal welfare issues that are commonly, and inaccurately, associated with all veal production, do not arise.  The thing to avoid is white veal, the meat of calves fed exclusively on milk (or, more to the point, milk “products”) and kept in the dark, in spaces too confined to move, in order to keep the meat pale and soft.  Why anyone thinks this is a good idea is quite beyond me, because – quite apart from the unspeakable cruelty - the meat produced this way really does taste, at best, of nothing, at worst of stale milk.  I find it vaguely, and unsettlingly reminiscent of that old free school milk taste and smell that still haunts me from my infancy, and which to this day means that an innocent glass of milk is one of the few things widely consumed by mankind that I cannot even countenance passing my lips. That, of course is a question of taste, and, it must be acknowledged, that the notorious crates commonly associated with (most commonly Dutch) white veal production were banned by the EU in 2007.  Neither of these acknowledgements, however, make intensively reared white veal OK.

As a rule the pinker the meat, the less intensive the rearing, and the more natural, and therefore 'happier' the life of the calf that produced it.  So, as we've established that the calves are going to be born anyway, the more ‘good’ veal we eat, the less incentive there is for dairy farmers to either destroy them out of hand, or to ship them out to the producers of ‘bad’ veal.  It's one of the clearest examples I can bring to mind of the idea, first expressed to me by my sister Helen, a re-converted carnivore, that if your concern is the welfare of animals, it is much more effective to be an ethical meat consumer than to be a vegetarian.  Because meat producers really don't care what people who don't buy meat think.  Choosing to buy pink veal, well sourced, is good, both in the sense that you really don’t have to feel bad about eating it - quite the opposite - and in that it tastes good - and not of stale milk from the 1970s… 

The 'good' veal I bought the other day was yet another of Waitrose’s forgotten cuts (this blog is honestly not meant to be an advert for Waitrose, it’s just I like to try new cuts of meat, and they happen to be a good local source.  And hopefully local enough to many/most(?) of my readers, because this blog is not meant to be too esoteric or ‘cheffy’ either.).  This time it was even a cut that was not only properly forgotten, I hadn’t even heard of it in the first place, or at least not the name for it.  It was labelled as veal goose skirt, and it was clearly the same cut of the calf as a skirt, or bavette steak would be of the cow – a long, thin blade of lean, fibrous meat, so called, allegedly, due to its resemblance to a goose’s wing.  It was recommended as ideal for slow cooking.  I’m sure that’s true, but I also couldn’t help but think it would be a waste.

With bavette, as with onglet, or hanger steak – a similarly lean and fibrous cut – there are basically two ways to go with the cooking of the meat to achieve a deliciously tender end result: hot and fast or slow and low.  If going the low and slow route there are so many other (generally cheaper) cuts you could use – shin, shank and shoulder, cheek or tail – that will produce as good, if not better results, then it just seems a shame not to take the hot and fast alternative, just searing it and serving it good and rare.  Particularly in the case of a veal steak which is not only similar to bavette, but is in effect a younger, more tender, more delicately flavoured bavette.

roast squash and lentil salad
golden crusted boulangere potatoes

Rose Prince, in her aforementioned book reckons that due to it’s richness, you don’t need to serve as much veal as you would beef, about 150g per portion being plenty, which turned out to be just as well, as my friends Darren and Christabel, having just moved in around the corner from us and being, as yet, without kitchen facilities came round for dinner at short notice, and the two goose skirts I’d brought home, which I’d thought might be a bit over generous for two, would, by that maths just about stretch four ways.  To make sure nobody would go hungry I made a substantial warm salad of roasted butternut squash and lentils and baked a big dish of boulangere style potatoes, with onions and beef stock, to serve alongside.

The goose skirts I salted and peppered, and rubbed in sunflower oil on both sides, got my frying pan smoking hot and seared them for just a couple of minutes a side.  I took them out to rest on a board while deglazing the pan with sherry and adding a splash of beef stock to make a gravy. I served the steaks sliced – which is always a good trick for making a small portion of meat appear more substantial – alongside the salad and potatoes.  It was plenty.  Really good.  And almost obscenely tender.

Veal goose skirt. Seared briefly, to rare. Rest and slice to serve.

* Unless your view is that we shouldn’t eat veal because calves are simply too cute and adorable and baby to eat.  But I really don’t believe that the majority of people who will happily eat lamb but have genuine concerns about veal are that hypocritical, although there will, of course, be some.  Any sample population will always have its share of self contradictory moral hypocrites, and there’s no reason to suppose that just because somebody holds a view that is reasonable, they don’t do so for incredibly stupid reasons.  The assumption that just because somebody happens to agree with you then they must necessarily be smart, is one of the most flawed one can make, on so many levels… 

** In the course of my research for this piece I have certainly not been tempted to become either vegetarian or vegan, you probably won't be surprised to discover.  I have however come to the conclusion that I will probably make more of an effort in future to buy organic milk and butter, and organic and ideally unpasteurized cheese, wherever possible.

Should we all, ultimately, agree that the dairy industry is insupportable, and veal, as a result becomes unavailable, or prohibitively expensive, that will be a shame, although stick with this blog (ignoring the post about the best toasted cheese sandwich ever) because entirely by chance, and thanks to Becca’s allergies, it could show a way forward to a bold, new dairy – but not meat, obviously – free future.  

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