FOOD&DRINK: A rose-tinted spectacle

The veal dilemma might be resolved if we went back to eating the kinder redder meat, says Michael Bateman
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MANY cookery writers, preferring a quiet life, pretend there is no such thing as veal. Veal, what is that? They would no more present a recipe for cooking veal than they would for puppy-tail stew. Katie Stewart, doyenne of cookery writers, hasn't mentioned veal in a column for 20 years. "I wouldn't dare give a recipe for a veal dish. The complaints would pour in." Almost the only cookery writer to endorse Dutch veal is Caroline Waldegrave, wife ofthe embattled agricultural minister, William Waldegrave. Co-author of Leith's Cookery Bible (Bloomsbury, £25), published in 1991, she may now regret the hostage she gave to fortune when she declared: "Dutch veal is generally considered the best."

So it was a wildly unfashionable plea from author Andrew Grant-Adamson that suddenly arrived at our offices. "It may be a dangerous thing to say at the moment," he wrote. "But I've recovered my taste for veal. Before my house is blockaded by protesters let's make it clear I am not talking about the white, milk-fed meat loved in France and Italy."

What veal is this then? "There is another kind, the rose-coloured flesh we once ate in England and which remains an essential in Spanish cooking," he says. "It's called ternera, and it is bred outdoors humanely, and slaughtered at any age from eight months onwards."

Rose-coloured veal, indeed. It would certainly take a pair of rose-tinted specs to put a gloss on the moral dilemma we find ourselves in. Given the size of British dairy herds, and the number of unwanted male calves they produce each year - some 500,000 - we have a problem if we don't export them. Especially since British consumption runs at a minuscule 2oz per head per year.

We'd eat a lot more if we reared our own calves for veal, says Mr Grant-Adamson confidently. He went on to recall the happy days of yore when roast stuffed joints of rosy veal punctuated Sunday lunches, taking their turn with mutton, roast beef and roastpork. Then, quite suddenly, this traditional style of English veal dramatically disappeared from the shops in the late Sixties, never to return, except as a white ghost.

If we returned to roasting stuffed breast of veal, he claims, and learnt to enjoy Spanish estofados - the garlic and pimento-flavoured stews of Spain - the problem of exports and crate-rearing would simply disappear. "Market forces would see to that," says Mr Grant Adamson. "With demand for veal reared in reasonable conditions there would be no reason to ship the animals hundreds of miles to live out the remainder of their lives in crates."

Good thinking. So how did And-rew Grant-Adamson become a born-again veal eater? "The rediscovery of veal came when we went to live in the mountains of Andalusia. In our small market town, the only meat from cattle available was ternera, the red veal fromyearling calves."

But what exactly is his interest in promoting new-generation veal? To promote his new book, A Season in Spain, he cheerfully replies. A cookery book? "No, not at all. An account of how my wife and I uprooted ourselves to live in the Alpujarra, south of Granada." Groan, not another Year in Provence? "More Gerald Brenan's South of Granada," says Mr G-A, hopefully, adding hastily that he is serious about veal, getting behind Mrs Beeton and all that.

Mrs Isabella Beeton, you should be with us at this hour. This is what she says in 1861 of calves taken from their mothers to be bred for veal (in her book, Household Management): "The cow goes with young for nine months and the affection and solicitude she evinces for her offspring is more human in its tenderness and intensity than is displayed by any other animal. Her distress when she hears its lowing and is not allowed to reach it with her distended udders is often painful to witness."

Mrs Beeton deplored the practice of bleeding calves for several days before slaughter in order to produce whiter flesh. And she also noted with disgust the practice of eating baby animals," bobby calves. "In some countries, she writes, "to please the epicurean tastes of vitiated appetites it is the custom to kill the calf for food almost immediately after birth.

"We are happy to say that in this country, as far as England and Scotland are concerned, the taste for very young veal has entirely gone out and Staggering Bob, as the poor little animal was called in the language of the shambles, is no longer to be met with in such a place."

Having thus salved her conscience, Mrs Beeton goes on to list some 60 veal dishes. Baked veal, roast breast of veal, stewed breast, veal cake (a veal and ham mould), veal galantine, fricasseed calves' feet, collared calf's head, stewed knuckle (jarret deveau), minced veal, veal and ham pie, and so ony concluding with, good gracious, stewed veal tendons.

More than a century later, Frances Bissell, in her comprehensive Real Meat Cookbook (Chatto and Windus, 1992, paperback £6.99), also managed to square her conscience and listed a dozen veal recipes. But first she satisfied herself that it was possible tofind veal which was truly free-range and reared to high standards. It does exist. The diet "is solely mother's milk, grass and hay which produces pink flesh". Pink because it has red blood in its veins, not the pale, iron-deficient liquid that passes for blood in the flesh of crated calves.

British pink veal is reared in what is called loose housing, and sold through places such as Harrod's. You can also order it from The Real Meat Company (East Hill Farm, Heytes-bury, Warminster, Wilts. Telephone 01985 840436).

Is pink veal the kind of meat a top chef can accommodate? Willi Elsener, Chef des Cuisines at The Dorchester Hotel, says he's in an impossible position. On the one hand he tries to reflect the feelings of customers who find the idea of white veal repugnant. On the other there are also international customers, especially Italian and French, who expect to find certain dishes on the menu, made with pale, white veal. What do you do? So what does he do? He serves it.

Do any top chefs dare to serve pink veal? Certainly. Raymond Blanc, chef-proprietor of the two-star restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons near Oxford, refuses to handle veal from crated animals. "It has no taste. It is fibrous. It is immoral. I buy pinkveal from France, which has been fed on its mother's milk. It grows more slowly, so it's six months when it's slaughtered. And it's twice as expensive. But it's delicious and worth it."

Is veal really worth all this trouble? Most chefs would say yes. You have in France blanquette de veau, which is stewed veal in a blanket of lemon-flavoured sauce. In Austria there is wiener schnitzel, veal slices that are hammered thinly then coated in egg and breadcrumbs.

In Italy veal is the most prized of all meats. It's flattened into thin slices, scallopine, and wrapped in Parma ham. There is osso buco, the gently-stewed knuckle of veal. And vitello tonnato (vitello is veal), the famous boned roast leg or fillet of veal, served cold with a tuna mayonnaise.

And so on. Veal stock, gelatinous and gentle, is the most precious of all stocks in chef's kitchen. Veal offal is the most prized of all offal, veal kindeys cooked in their fat, veal liver cut in thin slices the Venetian way, not to mention veal sweetbreads and brains.

The Spanish, frankly, don't eat much veal as we know it. Ternera is basically young beef, and quite tough. Beef is usually sold at 14 to 15 months, and known as anejo. Mature beef is either vaca (cow) or buey (bull), also quite tough. Even if a Spaniardhas enough money to buy meat, he'd rather spend it on mariscos, seafood. What Spaniards do prize is pork, wonderful cured hams and the many varieties of chorizo sausage. However, in respect of the provocation of Andrew Grant-Adamson, here is his Spanishrecipe for a rose-coloured veal stew.

ESTOFADO DE TERNERA The garlic is partly pre-cooked by spearing it on a fork and turning it over a gas flame until it is well charred all round. As this can be rather messy, leaving flakes of black ash f!oating around the kitchen, it may be better to do it under the grill, over an open fire or in the garden with a blow-torch. Once the garlic is cool enough to handle, the individual cloves are easily popped from the remains of the charred skin. It is worth the trouble for the deep rich and distinctly Mediterranean flavour it gives this stew.Beef can be substituted for the red veal in this recipe, which has been adapted a little for British ingredients.

Serves 4 - 6

1kg/214lb of red veal 1 large onion 250g/12lb tomatoes 250g/12lb green peppers 1 complete head of garlic 50ml/3 tablespoons olive oil 10ml/2 teaspoons lemon juice 1 large glass of wine (rose or light red)

Bunch of herbs (bay leaf, two stalks of parsley and a sprig of thyme)

heaped teaspoon of pimenton dulce (or paprika)

salt and pepper Cut the veal into 3cm cubes, slice the onion, cut the peppers into strips and roughly chop the tomatoes. Char the head of garlic as described above and separate the cloves from their skins. Put all the ingrediects into a pot with a closely fitting lid, bring to the boil and, after the tomatoes have cooked down, add water to cover the meat and vegetables. Simmer for two hours (or until the meat is cooked).

Add salt and pepper to taste. The sauce will thicken during cooking but you may need to add more water.

In Spain estofado is cooked on the top of the stove because most ovens are virtually uncontrollable. Here, cooking can easily be completed in a slow oven (170C/335F/Gas 3).

! `A Season in Spain' by Andrew and Lesley Grant-Adamson will be published later this month by Pavilion Books, £12.99.