V is for… Veal. Part of being an evolved race is recognising our responsibility to animals in our care. Thanks to the sterling efforts of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and the like, British consumers are much wiser to cruel farming practices. We may not all buy free-range chickens, but we know that they’re better for animal welfare.
There are some foods, though, that are regularly made using inhumane methods. Chief among these is foie gras, and veal is often another guilty party. Simply put, veal is the meat of calves (baby cows, for you townies, not the lower part of the leg). Although it can be taken from animals of either sex, it tends to be predominantly male calves born to dairy herds – they won’t be producing milk, so are otherwise useless. At its worst, veal farming deprives calves of space to move around so they don’t develop tough, red muscle. Sometimes, in America and Canada, they are raised in wooden crates, 70cm wide. They are tied to the front so that they can hardly move at all. Alone in the crate, they do not have any physical or visual contact with either their mothers or other calves.
The calves are not given bedding, in case they eat it, and their milk-only diet leads to constant enteritis and indigestion. Their haemoglobin levels are kept low by restricted iron in their food, leading to immunosuppression. When they emerge to be slaughtered, they are often so weak that they cannot walk.
Thank goodness, crates have been banned in the UK since 1990 and the EU since 2007. Veal accounts for only 0.1% of meat eaten in Great Britain; fewer than one in 100 households ever buy it. It is more popular on the continent, where dishes such as the famous Austrian Weiner schnitzel and Italian osso bucco are regular fare. But some British farmers are now producing high welfare veal which they hope will re-introduce it to our plates. After all, calves are an unavoidable by-product of the dairy industry and it’s surely better that we eat them, than just let their carcasses be incinerated?
If you are already a meat-eater (or a milk drinker), and you buy only the highest standard, there is nothing to be squeamish about when it comes to British veal. High welfare rose veal calves are suckled by their mothers, eat natural food and live outdoors. They are killed at about six months – older than many pigs. As with all meat, the better quality you buy, the better life it will have led.
On a lighter note, V is also for violets and, as it’s my name, I couldn’t resist adding a little about this fragrant flavour. Incidentally, in France, violets are often used as a garnish for veal. Edward I adored violet sugar, and a popular fourteenth century pudding was violet-flavoured rice pudding, served with almonds and cream. The Tudors ate flower salads made of violets, primroses and cowslips and the Elizabethans candied them.
The Victorians were mad on them, creating violet wafers which were served with lemon balm sauce. Prestat invented violet creams in the 1920s and Sarah Bernhardt, the celebrated actress, adored them. It is said that violets have such a delicate flavour, you cannot taste them after the first bite. Unashamedly old-fashioned, but deliciously light and floral, I think they are due a culinary comeback.