Sentiment fails to sour Europe's taste for veal

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The Independent Online
IT IS another bustling evening in The Falstaff, a crowded city centre restaurant that keeps the good people of Brussels well-fed and contented 24 hours a day.The waiter's eyes betray not a hint of concern as he takes the order, taps it into a cra fty piece of hand-held technology and zaps it off to the kitchen.

"We sell a lot of it.Yes," he says. "And we cannot understand what the British problem is."

We are talking veal.

In Britain the issue has become to the1990s what fur coats were to the 1980s. In Belgium as in most of Western Europe veal is just veal, or rather it is escalopes, kidneys, sausages, rolled joints, knuckles or chops.

Veal is very popular in Europe beyond Britain. We eat about 2,000 tons a year or roughly 0.1kg each, according to David Lewis of the Meat & Livestock Commission. That is 0.5 per cent per cent of total meat consumption, about 64 kg per person per year. This has hardly changed since the war and Mr. Lewis doubts it has changed much for a century or so.

In the other 14 EU states consumption of veal averages 2.1kg per person per year - 20 times as much.

It is one of the ironies of the great veal war that Britain probably eats less of the stuff than anywhere else in Europe. "It's never been something we liked. We prefer more mature meat," Mr Lewis said. In fact the Italians prefer older calves, of about seven to eight months, which have more flavour and colour. It is the Netherlands,Belgium and France where there is a taste for white veal and for young meat.

"In France, especially, the customer wants the veal to be white," said Costa Golfidis, head of the animal division at Copa, Europe's farming organisation The diet of veal calves is what mainly determines taste, texture and colour. Milk-fed veal - whetherbrought up in a crate, in a group house or with its mother - is light in colour, with a soft yielding texture and a mild taste. Not surprising, then, tha t many of the recipes for veal include milk, including the Great Blanquette de Veau. There is also a vast range of grilled or fried veal dishes, often in breadcrumbs, which includes that national icon the Wiener Schnitzel as well as the Scallopine Milane se.

The breaded fried escalope was probably introduced to Milan in the16th century by the Spanish and taken back to Vienna by the Austrians after Marshall Radetzky and his soldiers occupied northern Italy.

Because the flavour is subtle and light, veal lends itself to marriages with stronger flavours. Vitello Tonnato (cold veal with a sauce of tuna fish) is one of many Italian dishes that combines it with fish. But it is Italy which has the largest variety of veal dishes. According to Mr Lewis, two-thirds of the veal eaten in Britain is sold in restaurants, mainly Italian trattoria British cookery writers in general give the meat short shrift or ignore it altogether. Michael Barry, the cook for BBC2's Foodand Drink programme, substitutes turkey in his book, with some sniffy comments about foreign veal. Delia Smith - not normally one to worry about a few extra pennies - says veal kidneys are very expensive outside "the big cities", making them sound like uncut diamonds or caviar. Elizabeth David gives veal little more than a passing reference and a critical comment on the use of mallets in producing a good escalope.

Yet there is one customer for veal across Europe who will carry on loyally chomping away, passing no word of criticism except occasionally to regurgitate a stomachful or spray it across the kitchen. For one of the most widespread uses of veal - light andlean as it is - is in baby food.