Osso buco, vitello tonnato, schnitzel - the names roll off the tongue as easily as roast beef, steak and kidney pudding and poached salmon. Yet veal has become a political football, with welfare groups clamouring to protect calves and the farming lobby desperate to find a market for the thousands born every year.
The veal crate system is an intensive method of fattening, involving the calf being tethered in a stall on its own and fed an intensive diet of enriched milk substitute. Veal crates were banned in the UK in 1990 and look likely to be phased out throughout Europe over the next 10 years.
The UK currently ships 500,000 live calves to Europe, most of which end up in the crate system. Two thousand tonnes of this meat is imported back into this country and 80% of it goes to caterers, according to Derek Andrews, catering development and promotions manager of the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC).
Professor John Webster, head of the School of Veterinary Science at Bristol University, is a leading expert in dairy cattle welfare and comments on the crate system: "It is one of the most bizarre and unequivocally cruel forms of livestock production...the animal's diet completely distorts the normal development of the rumen [the calf's stomach system]".
So what are the alternatives for chefs? Is veal to disappear, as mutton has, or can it be resurrected?
Whatever your moral position on this industry, customers are increasingly being made aware of the practice. The MLC has enlisted the help of chefs such as Jean-Christophe Novelli of the Four Seasons and Brian Turner of Turner's, both in London, to encourage chefs to feature veal on their menus.
"No one in this business wants anything to be treated cruelly," says Turner. "We need to create an awareness about veal. After all, if we can consume all we produce, there would be no need to export calves to a system over which we have no control."
Veal calves in the UK are a by-product of the dairy industry. From the chef's point of view, it is an opportunity to cook with a meat that is tender, succulent, easy to cook and relatively cheap - particularly if you use some of the more unusual cuts. But chefs cannot ignore the welfare aspects of veal production. So what is being done?
The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service (ADAS), which is running a welfare-friendly veal demonstration unit, sponsored by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in the West Country, has developed a system of loose-housed British veal. This allows 10-12 calves sharing a straw-bedded pen access to a milk-replacer diet on demand along with water.
Each animal has the equivalent of 3m sq of free area, and is exposed to natural light. Although the meat develops a pinky hue, the eating quality is similar to white veal. Profit margins are relatively low, however, so it is vital to develop a market outlet in order to persuade farmers into this kind of system.
This British veal currently accounts for about 5,000 calves per year (about 20% of demand). Most British veal goes into the retail sector (caterers traditionally demand white flesh) and the balance is made up of Dutch and French imports. The hope is that this 80% could be satisfied with British veal rather than imports.
Another initiative to encourage chefs to use British veal has come from the MLC. It has developed a way of butchering the forequarters of veal that used to be exported to France and has revised butchery techniques on the rest of the animal to give caterers a wider and more useful selection of cuts.
Kevin Bridges, head chef at St John's College, Cambridge, uses British veal on his menus for the fellows' high-table dinner. "We buy English home-grown veal which cooks well, is popular in the dining room and sufficiently price-competitive to make economic sense," says Bridges. "I wouldn't feel comfortable with Dutch veal, but I can confidently serve this knowing the animals have lived well."
Compassion in World Farming has some reservations about British veal but, according to director Joyce D'Silva, "It is certainly an improvement over the crate system". One of D'Silva's criticisms focuses on the removal of the calf from its mother.
Helen Browning at Eastbrook Farm in Wiltshire produces veal in much the same way as lamb. Calves stay with either the mother or a nursing cow and are taken off at between five and seven months. As with lambs, spring, summer and autumn are spent outside and in the winter the calves are loose-housed. There is no restriction on diet and the only addition is iron. The result is a darker meat, but with similar succulence found in white veal.
Barnie Haughton, chef at Rocinantes restaurant in Bristol, has been serving Eastbrook Farm's veal for some time now. "It cooks quickly, is moist and tender and can be remarkably cheap. Osso buco is a classic that continues to sell extremely well.
His favourite dish, however, uses shin or breast - cuts that butchers often find difficult to sell and which consequently tend to be cheap. He has recently been experimenting with ageing some of the rougher cuts, with considerable success. Haughton favours simple flavours with veal: sage, tarragon and rosemary work well, he says, but thyme and basil get the thumbs-down.
Justin Ashley, head chef at Harry Hare's in Cirencester, put veal on his menu just after the controversy over exports last year. "There was no discernible opposition from customers, but then I call it natural veal and can explain to any customer that the animal lives a free, largely outdoor life." Ashby buys his veal nearby from Gary Wallace at Chesterton's Farm Shop.
These calves are fed a milk-supplement diet with free access to roughage. This veal is also sold to the Conran Restaurants Group in London, which has just confirmed its intention to continue the trial order it has been running in the Butlers Wharf Chop House for the past few months.
Despite the enthusiasm caterers are supposed to have for white or crated veal, there is a small but growing trend towards welfare-friendly veal. Those chefs offering welfare-friendly or organic veal say the classic dishes of osso buco and escalopes sell well, as do the rustic braises and stews.
Encourage customers to taste spezzatino - a stew of veal, white wine, shallots and cream, as cooked by Haughton at Rocinantes - and you have one of northern Italy's most delicious dishes, with the added benefit that you may be doing more to prevent the export of veal calves than any protester.
Published by: The Caterer