Food and Drink: Crumbs from my table

WHILE Carlyle might retire to eat his breadcrumbs boiled up in milk, we really do not know what ingenious cook first used breadcrumbs (originally stale bread for which a use had to be found) in cooking. While the chances are that stale, or even fresh bread was used early to fill out soups and stuff poultry or fish, the breaded cutlet or fish is probably a fairly late development. The first references in English are from the late 18th century.

Breadcrumbing a ham or chop probably began as a way of preserving the appearance of cooked meat that was not freshly cooked - rather like the scotch eggs that used to exist in pubs. Who with a long memory does not remember the cold breaded chop which was often all that a simple inn might offer in the pre-war years? It was an English and a German staple. Some of the more delicate uses of breaded food must have come fairly late, for the use of an egg to make the breadcrumbs adhere would long have been considered wasteful in domestic kitchens.

I take it, therefore, that the veal scaloppine, the milanese (which is a rib steak of veal and always contains the bone), the wiener schnitzel (which differs from the Italian scaloppine by using a much thicker slice of veal and a much older animal), are a late development in gastronomy. And a good one, too, providing you know how to make one properly.

The technique is applicable to all forms of meat. One of the favourites in my house is breaded tenderloin of pork, and I recently enjoyed breaded loin lamb chops in which the breadcrumbs had been flavoured with garlic, tomato paste and fresh herbs. But fundamentally, breading belongs to veal.

In theory (and in Italy) this means obtaining real veal, the meat of a calf which has not started grazing but has been fed on a meal of milk and eggs. The reason such veal is preferable for scaloppini is that the meat is very lean and its flavour is unalloyed with what the calf has eaten. Older veal will be pinker and its texture far coarser; it is also less sweet than very young veal.

A proper scaloppine is cut from the top round, the big muscle in the hindquarter. One calf produces only about 5kg (11lb) of top round, so it is an expensive cut; it is also, however, highly economical because there is no waste, particularly when it is cut, in the Italian way, extremely thin. My sainted mother, who was no cook but managed to keep some fine ones during the Twenties and Thirties, was an extremist on the subject. In her view, and she was right, a scaloppine should be no thicker than a piece of blotting paper. I will settle for a scaloppine that is eventually (for the meat must be beaten and thinned) the thickness of a Sunday supplement when advertising is lean.

Getting a butcher who knows how to cut veal that thin is not easy: at least not in Britain, not in a world where big is good and hostages dream of a good, thick steak. I suggest that if you are familiar with your butcher (and he has good veal) you challenge him, excite his curiosity, flatter his skills and stand over him to make sure he gets it right, for not only must the scaloppine be of the right sort of meat and the right thickness (no more than a quarter of an inch thick at purchase), not only must it be from the single muscle without joins or seams, but it must be cut across the grain. You want a curled up, tough, contracted scaloppine? No. Cut it along the grain.

Having got your meat, you then have to flatten it. A mallet or the broad side of a cleaver ought to do this for you. If you buy a quarter-inch scaloppine, it should reduce by half in beating; if you manage to get a thinner one it, too, should reduce by half. Thinner is better because it reduces cooking time.

Commercial breadcrumbs are fine, though I use home-made, coarser crumbs for the pork tenderloin which has to cook longer.

I suspect all of us know how to bread a piece of meat, dipping into the yolk of an egg (a soup-plate is ideal); but not all of us know how to make the crumb equal and properly adhesive. The secret is: first, to spread your crumbs evenly on a flat surface and clean your board between crumbings, even between the two sides; and second, once breaded, to place your scaloppini in layers and stick them in the fridge for an hour or so: that way they will not stick in the pan.

The rest is simple. A large ridged frying pan is required, because the meat spreads as it flattens and a good scaloppine will fill a plate. Quality butter is required, and in generous amounts, but it must not be allowed to brown by the time you put in your scaloppine; heat is kept medium to hot, but even, throughout the cooking: a minute a side will do for a thin scaloppine.

Although there are lots of fancy sauces for scaloppini, the breaded sort should be served very hot, with whatever remains unabsorbed of the butter and with a fresh lemon. Classic is best.