I first saw natural veal offered at the Amherst farmer’s market by Chase Hill Farms, a fully organic dairy operation in Warwick that sells cheese and meat. I asked Jeanette Fellows of Chase Hill about it. Veal cows are males, she explained. In a dairy operation, you don’t need many bulls. “They would just go to the auction anyway,” she said. Then most likely they would be raised as either conventional veal or beef.
With the exception of perhaps foie gras, veal is the least PC food there is. We’ve all heard the stories: calves kept anemic and confined in cages to keep their meat white and tender. Otherwise omnivorous eaters that I know avoid any veal dish at home or on a menu. It doesn’t have to be that way. Humanely raised veal, dubbed rose veal or natural veal, comes from animals that are pastured, eat grass, and are treated better than most commercial meat animals. Whether or not they are certified as organic, natural veal calves all roam freely and, after weaning, are grass-fed. In this article, I’m referring to all sustainably raised veal as natural veal.
In America, we tend to be pretty removed from the sources of our food, especially meat. Even the words that one uses to describe processing of meat animals are not pretty euphemisms: slaughter, butcher, etc. These words clearly describe the process of turning a cow, a pig, a lamb, or a chicken into steaks, roasts, and cutlets. However, the process does not have to be cruel. When you buy local, sustainably raised meat, you can be pretty sure that the animals were treated well up to and including their death.
One can always become a vegetarian, but aside from a 36-hour stint in college, this has never appealed to me. Without arguing the pros and cons of the case here, suffice to say that I, like many, have chosen to eat meat. My good friend Jeff used to have a sign in his kitchen that read “A chicken ill-cooked has died in vain.” Humor aside, if you’re going to eat meat, you need to acknowledge what you are eating and respect it.
Dairy cows need to give birth in order to keep their milk flowing. Usually, the female calves are kept to replenish the herd. Male calves were typically sold since a dairy operation does not need many bulls. In fact, in these days of artificial insemination, a dairy may have no bulls at all. A male calf used to fetch $200 at action. At the current prices of $20-$50 per calf, farmers lose money raising them long enough to bring them to auction.
Many local farmers synchronize their breeding so that their calves are born in the spring. For these farmers, veal is a seasonal product. Their cows calve in the spring. In the beginning, calves drink milk and are kept in barns. At their peak, each calf can consume the entire milk supply of one cow. Sometimes, a “nurse cow” will provide the milk. This is a cow whose milk production is slowing or is otherwise unsuitable for dairying. Pamela Robinson, from Robinson Farms in Hardwick, pointed out that if the calf nursed entirely with its mother, the mother’s milk supply would regulate itself according to the needs of the calf. In other words, as the calf grew and needed less milk, the cow would produce less. This is not the best situation for a dairy.
As soon as possible, the calves are turned out into pasture where they eat grass. Mike Austin, of Austin Farms in Belchertown, who doesn’t synchronize his cows’ birth schedules, will supplement feed in the winter time, but pasture his cows as soon as the season permits. Veal calves are typically slaughtered after four months. The farmers fill out cutting sheets, which detail which cuts they want, and receive the meat frozen and wrapped.
The meat is stored and sold frozen. Greenfields Market tried defrosting it and selling it thawed, but the turnover was too slow and the quality suffered. These days, if you want to buy local veal, you’re going to get it frozen. Thaw it in the refrigerator overnight or on the counter for four hours or so before you use it.
The veal that most people know is veal cutlets (scaloppini), veal chops, and osso bucco (braised veal shanks). Other cuts typically available are stew meat and ground veal as well as calves liver. Ground veal, alone or as a mixture with beef and pork, is a time-honored ingredient of meatballs (polpette) and meatloaf (polpettoni).
I was slowly gathering information for this article, when I saw an article by Jane Black in the October 28, 2009 Washington Post. She detailed a lot of what I had found and covered the larger D.C. area’s producers, many of whom sold to D.C. restaurants. The Pioneer Valley is considerably smaller and I have not found any restaurants who regularly serve natural veal. However, in our area, you can talk with the producers directly at local farmer’s markets. So, I set out to see how our local veal arrives at our table.
In many ways, the story of local natural veal is the story of local farms’ survival. I spoke with the owners of three area farms: Jeanette and Mark Fellows of Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, Mike Austin of Austin Farms in Belchertown, and Raymond and Pamela Robinson of Robinson Farms in Hardwick. Each owns farms that have been in their families, some for more than four generations. All three farms were originally dairy farms and all three found that the price of milk simply couldn’t support the farm. In diversifying their farms, each began the process that ended up with natural veal.
Mark and Jeanette Fellows met in college, while Mark was in the Agricultural School at Cornell. They came back to take over Chase Hill Farm (www.chasehillfarm.com), Mark’s parents’ farm, in 1984. Although it was a conventional farm at the time, the Fellows had always grazed their cows. Mark and Jeanette went seasonal in 1991 and became certified organic in 2001. Like many dairy operations, they found that selling milk was not profitable. Their solution was to make raw milk cheese. The operation grew and now there is a cave, actually a small building, housing a climate-controlled aging room and another where Jeanette makes the cheese.
Their cows calve in March and are turned out to pasture as soon as possible. The Fellows milk daily during the summer and fall, which is also cheese making time. During the first few months, their cows’ milk production is at its highest and the veal calves consume some of the surplus. Later, when the milk production slows, the calves are turned into the pasture with the milking herd and eat grass. They typically raise two or three veal calves each year.
Their cows provide milk for their cheese. They raise four pigs who consume the whey that remains after the cheese curds are pressed. Manure gets spread on the fields. They harvest hay during the summer for winter feed. They are in tune with the rhythms of their farm and it would be tempting to see their lives as idyllic if you glossed over how hard they work. They put in long days seven days a week during milking season. Everyone gets a chance to rest during the winter.
Most of their cheese and meat is sold at farmer’s markets in Amherst and Greenfield. A peek into the cave in February shows dozens of wheels of cheese aging, but all the meat has been gone for months. “I don’t want to keep it frozen all year anyway,” says Mark. All the meat is sold retail; they don’t have enough to supply a restaurant. They do keep meat for their own use during the winter.
Austin Brothers Valley Farm (www.austinsfarm.com) is a 130 year-old dairy farm in Belchertown. Mike Austin is the fourth generation to run it. When I asked him whether he’d gone to an ag school, he laughed. “You could say I’m community trained.” He grew up on a working dairy and he watches, talks to other farmers, and, “listens to the animal.”
Austin Farms’ story is a common one. The 130+-year old farm was a dairy operation until 2007. With milk prices declining, there simply wasn’t enough money in it. The Austins had always raised a steer for their own meat and, in October 2007, the farm switched over to raising meat. They raise cows and pigs and tried chickens, but, Mike says he can’t figure out how to do it profitably. Judging from the lack of local chicken for sale, it doesn’t look like many others have figured it out either.
He also raises two or three veal calves per year. The main difference between his farm and Chase Hill is that he does not synchronize his herd. This means that he will often have calves during the winter months, when pasture is not an option. He hays, and also uses corn silage, which is a whole plant product and not the kernels demonized by Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. During the warm months, his herds are pastured. His meat is raised without antibiotics, hormones, or steroids.
Austin Farms is a larger producer of meat, judging by their freezers full of beef and pork and the list of farmer’s markets from Amherst to Cambridge in which they participate. This year, they started a meat CSA for the winter months, when it isn’t as easy to find their meat at a farmer’s market or truck down to the farm in Belchertown.
I first heard about Pamela and Ray Robinson’s Robinson Farm (robinsonfarm.org) from my friend Bob Page who also lives in Hardwick. A serious and enthusiastic cook, he told me about some veal stock he’d made from bones supplied by his neighbors. “They sell to anyone?” I asked, wondering whether this was a private deal among friends. “Sure,” he said. “They sell veal.” I never managed to make it to their farm, but kept it in the back of my mind. Organic veal stock? What could be better?
A fourth generation dairy farm, Ray and Pamela downsized to 40 cows in 2005. They recently received organic certification. Their solution to the price of milk was to sell raw milk, milk that has not been pasteurized. It is a hot topic in the world of natural food and the Robinsons are passionate about it. Due to state regulations, raw milk must be sold only at farm in which it is produced. A key issue is bacteria and the Robinson Farms’ milk is continually tested and consistently comes in well below the legal limits.
While many tout the health benefits of raw milk, and there appear to be many benefits, for me the key selling point is that the cream is not removed. I spent one weekend at NRBQ’s farmhouse in upstate New York a long time ago. They had two bottles of raw milk delivered daily. Every morning, there was a race to be the first to get to the milk and the top quarter of each bottle, which was pure cream. I have to say that the rest of the bottle tasted pretty good, too.
The Robinsons turned to selling beef and, from that, to organically-raised veal. Like all the farmers I spoke with, veal is a smaller part of their operation. In addition to their passion for raw milk, they will gladly talk Holstein, Jersey, Normand, and Brown Swiss crosses for milk versus Hereford, Holstein and Devon crosses for meat and all the permutations within. They raise about five calves for veal each season and are looking to increase this to perhaps nine. That, of course, is dependent to some extent on how many males are born.
Like most local farmers, they have diversified. Their raw milk operation has expanded into yoghurt and kefir. They sell certified organic eggs. They are building their cheesemaking operation.
The closest slaughterhouse is Adams Farm (www.adamsfarm.biz) in Athol. Operating as a farm and a slaughterhouse since 1946, it is run by three generations of the Adams-Mundell family. Burned to the ground in December 19, 2006, it was rebuilt as a state of the art facility. It is USDA certified as well as halal certified. Halal, like kosher certification, mandates quick and human killing and prohibits using sick or dying animals and is in many ways a more stringent standard than the USDA. This is not a factory like those in the Midwest, but a smaller scale operation better suited to the needs of local and sustainable farmers. They are professional butchers and will wrap and freeze meat and even smoke it. The nearest other USDA certified slaughterhouse is Lemay and Sons Beef, in Goffstown, NH.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, local meat, cheese, and dairy operations were the norm. Over time, we have lost many of these traditions. People like Ricki Carroll (www.cheesemaking.com) have been instrumental in helping revive some of these arts and the farmers I interviewed are all establishing new standards that fit with our tastes. The Robinsons are eager for feedback on the cuts of their meat. I was pleased to hear that Bob Page had suggested thicker chops since my chief complaint about natural meat is just that.
So how does it taste? Armed with veal from several producers as well as some traditional white veal cutlets from Frigo’s in Springfield, I conducted some tests.
Veal fricassee is a common European stew made with chunks of veal simmered in stock and usually finished with cream.
I made some veal fricassee using the stew veal. After browning, I simmered the meat in stock, homemade veal stock, as it happens, from Fellows’ veal. I reduced the stock, added light cream and served it over noodles. The meat cooked up firm and flavorful. My wife, who happened to be out the night I made it, found it in the refrigerator the next day. “I had some for lunch,” she said, “What did you put in it? It was delicious.”
In order to distinguish it from traditional white veal, natural veal is often called rose veal. Even raw, it is darker than conventional meat. Because the calves can move around, they develop more muscle than penned animals. But how does it taste?
I’ve always thought that the chops from organic meat were cut too thin. Pamela Robinson said they started having theirs cut thicker after a friend recommended it. I’ve braised and grilled the chops. Because there is little fat in veal, you have to be careful not to let it dry out. Wrapping the meat in bacon or prosciutto is certainly one way to keep it moist.
And finally, the cutlet. In a good Italian or German restaurant, veal cutlets are milky white and tender. I wondered how rose veal would stack up. My first thought was to cook them in identical sauces side by side, but I ended up cooking one dish, half conventional and half natural.
I bought four cutlets from Frigo’s, in Springfield, and used Austin Farm’s cutlets. I pounded the natural cutlets until they were the same thickness as the white veal. Then I breaded and fried them in mixture of olive oil and butter and finished them all in a lemon and caper sauce with a little reduced white wine and stock.
The verdict? When you tasted them side by side, the white veal was clearly more tender. If you were expecting white veal, you’d probably have thought that the natural veal was tough. But, if you were expecting natural veal, you’d have noticed the meat had more flavor and, though chewier, it was still good. If you had the cutlet rolled and braised, like a bracciole or saltimbocca, the difference would be even less noticeable.
I asked some local restaurants about their veal. Because local veal is seasonal and not produced in restaurant quantities, it is hard for a restaurant to offer it regularly. Italian restaurants want the white veal because their customers expect it. Munich House, in Chicopee, uses mostly pork cutlets for its schnitizel, except for a wierner schnitzel made with veal. Michealangelo [ ] from Gypsy Apple told me he wants to offer local meal, but needs too much of it every week so he offers local meat as a special.
It is an inescapable fact that in order to eat meat, we need to slaughter an animal. Most of us don’t want to think what goes into the plastic-wrapped cuts of beef or chicken that fill our markets’ refrigerator cases. Michael Pollan, of Omnivore’s Dilemma and [ ] fame, might argue that this willful blindness contributes to the quality of meat that agribusiness provides us. Omnivore’s Dilemma chronicles the production of organic chickens and the myth that free range bird actually run free in the barnyard.
However, buying your meat from local farmers offers you a chance to buy meat that was humanely raised. Each of the farmers I spoke with has a respect for their animals. “I like to buy the sick, dragged out looking calves [from other farmers] and treat them humanely,” Mike Austin told me. When they say their calves run free, both in the barn and in their pastures, they mean it. Both the Fellows and Mike Austin laughed when they said that sometimes this can create some havoc in the barn, but no one suggested they were going to pen the animals.
In her article, Jane Black quotes Sandy Miller of Painted Hand Farm in Newburg, Pa., who says,” If you consume dairy, you should eat veal.”
Even foie gras has a chance. In 2009, the winner of the French foie gras [ ] was [ ], a Spaniard who neither pens nor force feeds his geese. Instead, he provides food, water, and herbs in such quantities that he says that rather than lose geese who fly away, he often finds additional geese have added themselves to his flock. A quiet revolution is underway and locally, we can participate.