Veal has something of an image problem here in the UK, yet British veal wins praise for its high-welfare standards and quality. We meet the Cotswold company bringing back ethically produced veal to our dinner tables.
Old TV footage of calves living in dark, concrete prisons, and memories of animals being transported in lorries for export amid public protests mean that veal continues to be out of favour with the British public. As it happens, veal crates were outlawed in the UK in 1990 (they were finally banned across the EU in 2007) and welfare standards are now greatly improved. Indeed, it might well be argued that the UK’s high-welfare veal is actually one of the most ethical meats you can eat, with veal now being marketed from calves reared according to RSPCA Freedom Food standards. In addition, veal production provides a use for dairy bull calves, a fifth of which are shot shortly after birth, while others are exported to the Continent. We speak with Chantal Brown of Cotswold Veal, one of the UK’s high-welfare veal producers, to learn why we should eat more veal.
What is Cotswold Veal?
We are a young and small operation. Our calves are currently supplied by the head of the National Farmers Union Dairy Board. He is an industry leader, an exceptional farmer, and is the most important part of Cotswold Veal.
The idea for Cotswold Veal came to me during my time working as an agricultural adviser in the southwest of England. I became aware of a major challenge facing the dairy industry: dealing with the bull calves born on dairy farms that are surplus to requirement because they are male. I realised there was a huge opportunity to rear these surplus bull calves in high-welfare conditions to produce premium veal.
Our farms are monitored by the RSPCA’s Freedom Food programme. The calves live in open barns with deep straw beds. They are kept in social groups and given nutritionally balanced food, and are raised in a stress-free environment. As well as giving these calves a kinder life, this approach also helps dairy farmers to profit from the surplus calves that they have to deal with.
Many people think that eating veal is ethically unsound…
Far from it! There’s still a stigma attached to eating veal, but the reality regarding veal produced in the UK is quite different. We’re working hard to set some of the misconceptions straight. First, veal crates were banned over 20 years ago in the UK. British veal calves now have free access to natural feed at all times, and their movement is never restricted. They are kept in open barns. The result is a relaxed calf and tasty meat.
Second, calves are not baby animals. Veal is seven to eight months old. This is older than the chicken, pork, lamb and turkey that we consume. It is only four months younger than meat often sold in supermarkets as “mature” beef. Without a veal market, farmers are forced either to shoot the bull calves or send them to Europe to be reared in lower welfare conditions, with the young animals enduring long, stressful journeys. I strongly believe that people who consume milk should eat veal – and support dairy farmers.
How is British high-welfare veal different from European veal?
Most European veal is still “white veal”, ie: the calves are fed only milk. It is important that calves are fed concentrate and straw to allow them to develop into ruminants (this is what gives the meat its pink colour). Keeping them on milk stops the rumen developing – this is unnatural.
There are some high-welfare farms on the Continent, but the calves are still kept on slatted floors, and with a lot less natural light. Our calves are on deep straw beds, so they spend a lot of time lying down in dry comfort.
Do you think Britons are ready to eat veal more regularly?
Absolutely. Consumers are far more aware today of where their meat comes from than they were even five years ago, and demand is steadily growing for higher welfare conditions. Many high-profile chefs are already aware of UK veal and its huge culinary potential. We have started supplying a number of top restaurants in London, and the feedback from them has been really positive.
The other great thing about veal is that it’s very healthy; it has the same protein as beef but is lower in fat, and it is higher in protein than other meats. I think the time is right to dispel some common myths and get veal back on the menu. When you learn the facts about UK veal, it’s a no-brainer.
So what does Cotswold Veal taste like?
Our pink veal has more flavour than white veal. It is similar to beef but, owing to its age and the calves’ relaxed lifestyle, it is extremely tender and succulent. By crossing with native British breeds, we get more fat through the meat, which is where the flavour comes from. That said, it’s still a lean meat – so it’s healthy and quick and easy to cook.
Where and how can we try your produce?
We supply a number of restaurants in London, such as Corner Room in Bethnal Green, and others local to us in the Cotswolds. You can buy our meat online, in butchers such as Meat N16 (Stoke Newington) and Moen & Sons (Clapham), the farmers’ markets in Cirencester and Stroud, and Hobbs House butchers in Chipping Sodbury.
Rib of veal
I season and sear, cook very hot (230°C/gas mark 8) for 20 minutes, then turn the oven down to its lowest setting for another 45 minutes. Tender, succulent, delicious – and it looks awesome on the table.
Veal shin (osso bucco cut)
This makes a nice hearty stew; all the bone marrow oozing out makes a divinely rich dish. I go classic with red wine and big herbs, or there is a strong argument for going light with white wine, lemon zest, shallots and gremolata on top.
I would brine the meat overnight with some warming cloves, cinnamon, fennel seeds, then cook sous vide at 60°C. The bones will just fall away. Take that flavoursome meat (honey glaze optional) and finish in the oven. Just amazing.