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The veal deal: The succulent meat has had an ethical and culinary makeover

They were the dishes that endeared Italian restaurants to our hearts: crisply crumbed escalope Milanese, sage-laced saltimbocca, saucy osso buco with its succulent pools of marrowbone and piccata, which performed such a seductive dance on the tongue with lemon and capers. Then, in an instant, the zeitgeist changed and it was no longer politically correct to eat veal or offer it to friends.

The succulence of calves' meat, so delicate by comparison with beef and such a fine foil for complementary flavours, was discredited by the horrible practices carried out to keep an affordable supply going for the Italians, Austrians, Germans – and Britons – who couldn't imagine life without it. "When I worked at the Ritz in the late Seventies, veal was what you spoiled yourself with when you went out to dinner," remembers Chris Galvin of London's Michelin-starred Windows. "Ours was a de luxe product, but a demand arose for cheaper veal, which could be brought to the market ever faster. That led to inhumane production methods, and the result was a flavourless product which rightly became socially unacceptable."

However, shooting bull calves at birth for lack of a market – a story that recently upset Archers fans – is as disturbing a scenario as exporting them in crates to be raised in darkness, packed too closely to move freely. Happily, a way forward has been found over the past five years as farmers, supermarkets and chefs have worked together ethically to raise veal that is tender, delicate and flavourful, even though it's pink these days rather than white.

"I source rose veal from the Lake District, where a band of farmers are supporting each other to raise calves humanely," says Stuart Gillies, who gets through 50 kilos a week at the Savoy Grill, where he is chef director. "We've got paillards which eat like butter when served medium-rare with an anchovy-caper sauce, or with morels and cream. Calves' liver and sweetbreads are classics, but because I'm passionate about using the whole animal, I've created an all-veal mixed grill. It'll have a slice of rump or fillet, liver, kidney and sweetbread, and a sausage made from what's left on the carcass when every possible cut has been taken."

Using the whole beast is also the aim of the Galvin brothers, who are lucky enough to have a brother-in-law who sends them a carcass from his organic dairy farm in Fletching, East Sussex, every so often. "It's gone in a day and a half," says Chris. "We fricassée the chuck and shoulder, make tête de veau for our bistro with the head, and poach and crisp up sweetbreads to serve with morels at La Chapelle. At Windows we'll serve an assiette, combining loin of veal with sweetbreads and a bit of tongue."

Galvin is one of relatively few chefs who has not felt obliged to take veal off his menu, supplementing family-produced veal with that from Limoges, which he considers the finest in the world. "It's made from herds bred specifically for their meat, and I've visited the area to satisfy myself the calves are reared in the best possible conditions," he says. "They're suckled twice daily by their mothers and given plenty of room to walk around. They reward us with dreamy meat which is a wonderful canvas for herbs, butter, cream and mushrooms. The price is sky-high, but the lesson we should take is to eat less and make what we do eat the highest quality."

Foodies are taking this fact on board in supermarkets, which have gone back to veal production in a big way. Claire Hodgson, food developer at Marks &Spencer, says the chain can't get enough veal fillet to satisfy demand in 200 stores, even though it sells for an eye-watering £35.99 per kilo. "After that it's escalopes, plain or breaded – it fits into the retro comfort-food category, like prawn cocktail – and calves' liver, with or without sage butter," she reports. There are also thick chops on the bone among up to 4,000 packs of veal sold by M&S every week, though not yet any osso buco. Lucky shoppers will find osso buco, along with more expensive cuts, on the meat counter at 25 branches of Sainsbury's, which two years ago pioneered the mass production of ethical British veal in conjunction with dairy farmers.

Veal sales are up by 300 per cent this year at M&S, and a more modest 22 per cent at Waitrose; both chains have made their dairy farmers sign pledges not to shoot or export their bull calves. Waitrose makes a "point of difference" in not selling rose veal, defined by its deeper colour, greater age (eight to 10 months) and hay in the diet. "Our veal is six months old, and mainly milk-fed, with some cereal added, which helps the health of the calf as well as its growth," says meat buyer Tom Richardson. "We feel it's a more delicate eat." While fillet and escalopes make for quick cooking, the finest-flavoured veal comes on the bone. Osso buco is delicious seared, then slowly braised in white wine with tomatoes and a little chicken stock.

But perhaps the finest cut – and one rarely seen in those Italian restaurants of the Sixties and Seventies – is the thick chop, which is considered the king of veal dishes in Italy, where it's known as a nodino or lombato.

"I have had it on my menu since day one, and people call to make sure it hasn't run out before making their reservation," says River Café alumnus Sam Harris, chef-patron of Zucca in Bermondsey. He serves it plainly grilled and dressed with peppery Tuscan olive oil and the juice of Amalfi lemons: "They perfectly showcase the meat."

Having not seen veal on the menu at the River Café, and being unable to find an adequate source in Britain – "I'd love to use homegrown, but I can't get hold of enough" – Harris did extensive research into ethical production practices abroad. "I found Dutch calves, which are 25 weeks old, fed by their mothers and reared in spacious, open-sided barns," he says. "They comply with standards set by Peters Farm, an industry association set up to monitor veal production." It isn't cheap, either, but Harris points out that the Italians have developed ways of making the absolute most out of every scrap of veal. "They'll eat a roast loin for Sunday dinner, then on Mondays slice the leftovers as thin as possible and make a sauce of tinned tuna, anchovies, capers and mayonnaise for that night's vitello tonnato."

Even more interesting than all the classic Italian treatments and British mixed grills are ethnic interpretations such as those being fielded by Karam Sethi, head chef at gourmet Indian restaurant Trishna, who encountered it in kitchens in the land of sacred cows. "I first came across it in Stuttgart, as a 15-year-old doing work experience, but it's imported into many five-star kitchens in India, and we used it at Bukhara in the Sheraton Maurya in New Delhi," he says. "I prefer milk-fed veal, which I get from the West Country, and it's the most ethically reared available."

He creates a paste of dry-roast spices added to mustard oil and yogurt to apply to a rack before grilling slowly over charcoal, and marinates fillet in turmeric, salt and lime juice before pan-frying in coconut oil with green chillis, curry leaves and aromatic seeds.

Neglected cuts also have their champions now: Sethi's supplier has a slow-braise recipe combining diced veal with sun-dried tomatoes, red onions and olives, and ethical veal farmer Roger Mason is supplying forequarter to the online luxury ready-meal supplier Look What We Found, which combines the meat with five kinds of wild mushrooms to make a creamy, ready-to-heat stroganoff.

While it may take a chef to make the most of sweetbreads and other offal, we all need to do our bit to use as much as possible of the animal if we want to keep the young and thriving ethical veal industry afloat, suppliers warn.

"Veal has gone from strength to strength now people understand it that instead of being shot at three days old, bull calves are being given a wonderful life for five or six months," says Dan Austin of Lake District Farmers, which has seen its business multiply threefold in two years. "But it does depend on knowing how to braise a shoulder and cook a veal breast. We rely on restaurants like the Savoy and Marcus Wareing who can commit to using every part of the animal. It's got to be about more than pan-frying an escalope or a slice of calves' liver."

How to make a meal of it

At The Garrison, Gerald Mirey slow-braises shin of veal and serves with a pearl barley risotto, flavoured with kale in winter or fresh green and broad beans in summer.

Antonin Bonnet garnishes grilled veal chops with wild dandelion leaves and chive flowers at The Greenhouse.

Massimo Mioli of Dego, a Soho wine bar specialising in the cuisine of north-east Italy, stuffs rabbit with veal and garnishes with summer truffle.

Angela Hartnett likes to roast whole veal fillet medium-rare and serve with bacon and breadcrumb-stuffed artichokes and potato gnocchi.

Michael Caines pan-fries medallions of veal and surrounds them with wild mushrooms, wild garlic and a creamy sherry sauce.

Heston Blumenthal has created veal and tartare sauce burgers for the supermarket chain Waitrose, punching up the meat with tarragon, shallots and the lemon, capers and anchovies, which make classic partners for veal.