The year is 2012; the place is Longley Farm, East Sussex, where I'm standing in wellies trying to resist the affectionate attentions of a four-year-old Fresian Holstein. Steve Hook, the farmer, stands beside me, chuckling. "Ada is our PR cow." She's certainly friendly, I smile nervously, gingerly petting her nose.
Ada, I'm told, has recently given birth to a calf, after two months' holiday on the ancient Pevensey pastures. "Where is she?" I ask eagerly. "He," Steve corrects. "He's a bull calf. We're raising him for veal." I gasp, cast my eyes around for some small wooden crates, then stammer "You're producing veal?" But I thought you were all ethical?!" "Absolutely. That's just why we do it," comes Steve's simple but bewildering reply.
A quick tour round the rest of the farm shows that my fears are unfounded. There are no crates, no pained cries, just some gangly calves cavorting around an airy, straw-strewn barn with their mates. Nevertheless, in the months following my visit I still struggled to evangelise many of my friends at home. Fast forward to 2017, and the idea that veal could be ethical is almost normalised in London, if not quite the rest of country.
The sight of British veal on the menu no longer prompts the horrified reaction I had then: the meat is served at The Savoy; grilled at Gordon Ramsey-owned Bread Street Kitchen; dished up at Dabbous, and stewed with coconut at Vivek Singh's Cinnamon Kitchen, as chefs and customers become increasingly aware of the reality of ethical veal – high welfare, sustainable, delicious – and the grisly alternative awaiting male calves.
"For a long time," Paul Shearing, Bread Street's spirited head chef explains, "it was more profitable for farmers to simply shoot male calves at birth. They weren't worth the cost of grain and shelter." Forget Darling Buds of May visions of Barbour-clad farmers striding about in sunshine, Shearing continues. "It's a very hard life. Most dairy farmers are on pitifully low incomes. It's utterly heartbreaking for a farmer to shoot their animals, but, until recently they were perceived to have no value at all."
They can't lactate – for obvious reasons – and there was until recently scant appetite for them within the UK, where veal had little precedent. Veal milanese, wiener schnitzel, osso bucco – these were the culinary heritage of the continent, not us little islanders.
We keep a handful as studs, but to rear the rest to an age where they could be sold as beef involves dehorning and castrating: expensive vet procedures on which the farmer would get little or no return, and that's before you count the cost of shelter. Dairy bulls have a low meat-to-bone ratio in comparison with beef bulls, so they are poorly valued at market. What's more, the veal protests of the early 1990s brought to light the horrifying conditions in which some calves were being kept, putting most consumers off.
The reporting on veal was devastatingly misleading, Nadia Stokes of Gourmet Goat in Borough Market recalls darkly. "The media sensationalised a horrific problem that was very small here, and largely confined to European countries." She was in the UK at the time and like many non-natives found our attitude baffling: even outside of Europe there aren't many countries producing dairy, while at the same time recklessly rejecting their veal.
Vivek Singh cites Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and even southern India (before it was banned there) as having a rich veal tradition. Stokes is Greek Cypriot, and grew up eating veal. "Selling rose veal here as well as goat felt like a natural progression – it's authentic and, like kid goat, it's a resource that would otherwise be discarded. Yes it's a short life – but at nine months old, it's older than most lambs and pigs are when they are slaughtered." Better a short happy life, runs the rose veal argument, than none at all.
Still, images of dark, tiny crates with slatted floors; of animals being wrenched, screaming, from their mothers within 48 hours of being born and kept in solitude; of their milk-only diet, imposed in order to keep their flesh snow white and tender, had caught the public's imagination.
"Since introducing our rose veal we've had a few people say they didn't fancy it, and some nasty comments on Twitter," says Stokes sadly, "but when I explained to them what the law is here, and where we get our veal from" – the RSPCA-endorsed Weston Farm in Devon – "they tended to change their mind. Now it's outselling the goat kofta, which is our star dish. People are going nuts for the rose veal."
Like Longley, Weston Farm's veal is about as ethical a meat you will get in this country, so long as there's an appetite for milk and cows to provide it. Vegetarianism's all well and good until you realise that cheese-stuffed mushroom you're chowing down on in place of roast beef indirectly contributes toward the slaughter of thousands of bull calves each year. "You can't eat dairy and not deal with the consequences of that," says Nadia Stokes of Gourmet Goat.
"We would never advocate eating more meat in general, for environmental reasons, but unlike with most meat, rose veal and kid goat are a no-brainer." Eat veal, she says – preferably in the form of one of her slow-roast veal wraps with grape molasses and smoky pepper sauce – or reconcile yourself to the fact they will either be shot at birth, or transported to the countries where they have a longer tradition of whiter-than-white veal, softer legislation around farm-animal welfare, and thus less of an issue with veal raised in conditions that, while not as bad as those described above, are still lamentably poor.
"Veal crates were banned in Europe in 2006, but on the continent many cows are still kept in barren houses with slatted floors and no straw bedding," the RSPCA's Farm Assured scheme informs me. They are kept in confined isolation – a purgatory for these cows, for whom social interaction is vital for mental health. Being transported to the continent means the calves travel for up to 18 hours in hot lorries, unable to lie down and with little more than an hour's rest. In many cases, their diet remains deficient in iron and fibre in order to achieve the silky texture, anaemic colour and milky-sweet taste of traditional veal.
"Straw provides a source of fibre which helps the animals' digestive system develop properly. Continental veal cows are often given a diet without fibre, which can cause ill health," the RSPCA continues. On the contrary, RSPCA Farm Assured veal suppliers – of which Weston is one, Longley another – must be fed a diet with sufficient iron and fibre to keep them healthy, and kept in high-welfare conditions informed by scientific evidence, rather than a blind adherence to Larousse Gastronomique and haute cuisine.
Of course, things are not rose and white with veal, especially as far as cooking's concerned. Michelin-starred wunder-chef Ollie Dabbous is a passionate advocate of rose veal, but he does not dismiss its paler cousin out of hand.
"People think immediately of the containers of the 1980s and 1990s that calves can't turn around in when they hear continental veal – but they've been banned there since 2007," he points out. Yet rose veal "gives calves in this country a purpose" and, slow roasted, the skin crisped up as crackling and served alongside runner beans from Kent and some Spenwood cheese pistou is his "perfect example of modern British cooking"; but milk-fed has its place in his heart and on his menu.
"It's milder and milkier – more like chicken or quail than beef, really – and is perfect for more delicate dishes." Within the EU, though the barbaric regimes described above are still widespread, the number of farmers turning to more humane methods is rising slowly.
Both Dabbous and the Ginger Pig, for example, source Limousin veal, a high-welfare meat from Rungis market in France which has "no comparison" with the rose version. "While rose veal is a worthwhile and hugely necessary use of bull calves from the dairy industry, Limousin is reared just for its eating quality."
"Calves are reared outside with their mother until slaughter, Ginger Pig founder Tim Wilson continues, so their meat benefits from both their mothers' milk and pasture grazing. It has all the qualities a top chef like Dabbous might look for, while at the same time boasting some of the highest veal welfare standards in Europe .
There are British equivalents. The Telegraph's food writer Xanthe Clay cites Mike Brend, a dairy farmer in Devon as one such example of a British farmer producing paler veal. Writing for cooks as well as responsible consumers, she describes how Brend's calves are kept together in an airy barn and fed on a diet of just milk and barley straw – making for a veal that is "closer to traditional, old-fashioned veal in flavour, but without the appalling welfare issues" one associates with this fare.
Brend supplies his veal and milk to Sainsbury's, as part of the supermarket's wider efforts to provide higher-welfare veal while making their dairy supply more sustainable. "White veal, as we call it, was chosen to ensure the best tasting product was produced. The RSPCA Assured white veal system that we have set up marries the excellent quality and flavour of traditional veal with the high welfare systems of today that our customers expect," a Sainsbury's spokesperson told me.
To date, only six of the company's 320 dairy farms use their male calves for veal – a mere trifle, in other words, but sales are rising and, since 2014, 209,000 packs of veal have been sold.
Elsewhere, the majority of veal you'll find labelled British will be rose veal: reared, like Weston's, on a varied diet with other calves and space to roam around in. "Our veal calves are kept in groups of 12 in large barns with plenty of straw for bedding and rough forage, and fed on homegrown barley as well as milk," fourth generation farmer Neil Weston explains. "They've room to play and hang out with their mates."
our veal calves are kept in large barns and have room to hang out and play
Having joined his father William on the family farm in 2005, in 2011 he set out to keep their young jersey bulls as stud animals so they could cease the buying of studs from outside and thus keep closer management of their herd. "He said I could, provided I could find a market for all the rest of the young bulls – and it was around that time he saw Gordon Ramsey on The F-Word promoting British rose veal" – a concept almost unheard of back then, but which caught the young farmer's attention. "I thought we could give it a try – and we did, and people liked it. It went on from there."
Today, along with the award-laden Gourmet Goat, Weston's client list includes such illustrious establishments as The Ledbury, the Portland and The Clove Club. Lizzie Vines of Wild Beef, who stock Weston's veal and an even rosier outdoor-reared version, tells me they simply cannot get enough of it; its versatility – "lean, tender, delicious," she enthuses – renders it hugely popular with the market's foodies.
"It's incredibly versatile. It can really hold flavours," agrees Paul Shearing, who sources his from Lake District Farmers and suggests braising, roasting or grilling it and serving with truffle mashed potato. It might not get past some of the stuffier gentleman's clubs or the House of Lords, he continues, grinning mischievously – "they'll want the pale Dutch veal, which will naturally be softer. But this is English veal. It's a by-product. If the flavour profile is there, why wouldn't you? We've 30 different palates in this kitchen, and when we tasted this meat the other day we were all laughing."
Even the texture, the alleged sticking point of rose veal when it comes to culinary principles, is rendered – at least to the uninitiated – almost indistinguishable from white, thanks to the practice among British veal producers of hanging the meat.
He is about to go on talking, but at this point he's interrupted by the arrival of my first veal cutlet, Josper-grilled to a juicy tan coat just shy of crispy, with sweet, soft flesh blushing crimson within. Shearing, wisely, looks quietly satisfied and says no more. He doesn't need to. He knows that one mouthful of this meat will be enough to convince me that when it comes to sustainable, ethical and high quality food, British rose veal ticks all the boxes – and let's face it, it's not often you can say that about a meat.