Tonight, for the first time in his tenure as chef at Gather in Yarmouth, Colin Kelly will serve veal. He’s put a veal roulade, seasoned with roasted garlic and herbs, on his New Year’s Eve menu, alongside celery root confit and topped with a proper demi-glace sauce reduced from stock made from the very same animal’s bones, a calf that was both local and whey-fed. Until now, Kelly has avoided serving the tender, sweet protein because of the veal industry’s reputation for animal cruelty.

But as the calendar rolls over into 2018, Kelly is buying what a growing number of Maine farmers are selling: the notion that veal can be raised humanely and sustainably. In fact, veal proponents argue that if you regularly enjoy drinking milk and eating value-added dairy products – cheese, yogurt, ice cream – the green thing to do is also to consume a critical byproduct of the dairy industry: bull calves born to dairy cows.

Female dairy cows – like Jerseys and Holsteins – need to deliver a calf about every 15 months in order to maintain milk production. Female calves can grow up to join the milking herd. But the males, it goes without saying, can’t, and farmers can’t afford to raise them to adulthood for their meat because both the yield and quality pales in comparison to that of cattle breeds like Angus and Hereford. Veal is the only profitable market for these bull calves.

Raising them for veal used to entail pulling them from their mothers at days old and confining them to solitary crates so small that the animals could not move, a method devised to keep the eventual meat extremely pale and very tender. Under this system, veal calves ate a nutritionally inadequate diet of nothing but milk. The calves often suffered from anemia, resulting in a high incidence of digestive disorders and infections, which, in turn, necessitated the frequent administration of antibiotics, according to “Veal: Evolving from ‘Cruel Meat’ to Ethical Choice,” a report published this year by Euromonitor International, a London-based market research firm.

The American Veal Association says that even in large-scale veal operations in the West, these cruel practices have been eradicated. Instead, the calves live in large, clean pens, where they can socialize with other calves. To ensure proper nutrition, they’re fed whey – the liquid left over from the cheese-making process – that is fortified into a liquid much like infant formula, as well as grain or grass.

Three cheese veal meatballs with ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan. Staff photo by Brianna Souku

In Maine, a half-dozen small-scale dairy farmers are raising their veal calves on whole milk or whey left over from their farmstead cheesemaking processes and on pasture, as they graze alongside their mothers. They are still brought to the abattoir at a young age – between 3 and 6 months – but the argument is that they lived a happy, albeit short life. This local product is often referred to as rose veal because grazing on pasture means that their muscle do develop some color.

The veal that will be served at Gather was once a young Jersey male called Buddy. Kelly bought this side of veal from cheesemaker Allison Lakin of Lakin’s Gorges Cheese in Waldoboro. Lakin has racked up many accolades for her cheese-making skills since opening her business in a leased space in Rockland in 2011. She’s only recently moved to the East Forty Farm with the intent of establishing a herd of eight to 12 Jerseys to produce the milk she needs to make cheese. But for now, Lakin has just one cow, as she’s got her hands full getting the on-site cheese-making facility fit and ready for inspection. That cow, Darla, has birthed just one calf, Buddy, who frolicked happily around the farm until he was slaughtered for veal. Lakin can only hope that most future calves will be female so she can grow her herd more quickly. But if nature gives her bull calves, she’ll raise them for their meat and sell the veal in her farm shop next to the farm-raised pork products and farmstead cheeses.

Winter Hill Farm in Freeport makes one of my favorite local cheeses. Frost Gully is an aged bloomy-rind cheese similar to a French Camembert made from the milk that farmers Steve Burger and Sarah Wiederkehr draw from their herd of Jerseys. Altogether, their girls bear about 25 calves a year; Burger raises and sells about half of those as veal calves. They are processed after three or four months when they hit about 200 pounds. From each calf, Burger gets between 105 and 120 pounds of loin and rib chops, scaloppini meat from the round, ground meat from the shoulder, and 2-inch round shank pieces from the legs. Burger sends some of his veal to Rosemont Market in Portland, where the butcher keeps a list of local eaters who are interested in buying it. But he retails most of his veal at the Brunswick Winter Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, where at least one other outfit, Eastern River Farm from Dresden, also sells veal.

“I get some pushback from shoppers who don’t understand how raising veal has changed in the last 30 years. But that pushback fades with a little education,” Burger said. In terms of sustainable farming practices, “raising bull calves to be veal is making the best use of an animal that gets produced as part of our farming process,” he said.

Katia Holmes of Misty Brook Farm in Albion milks 30 cows; 12 to 15 bulls are born on her farm each year. She raises them for veal on pastureland that also feeds beef cattle, sheep, chicken and pigs. Holmes says she’s had to work very hard to find a market for her rose veal here in Maine, much harder than she had to work to sell it when she was farming in Massachusetts. While she has two dozen retail outlets that regularly carry her milk, cream, eggs and other meats, only Axis Natural Foods in Auburn, Rising Tide Natural Foods in Kittery, and Farmer’s Gate Butcher locations in Wales and South Portland regularly carry Misty Brook Farm veal.

Holmes is quick to say that many of the other retail outlets that carry her products will special order her veal for customers who ask. “Customers just need to realize that it’s no longer taboo to ask for veal,” Holmes said.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

 

 

Ground veal from Misty Brook Farm in Albion bought at the Farm Stand in South Portland. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

VEAL AND THREE CHEESE MEATBALLS

These meatballs can be made with any type of ground meat or poultry, but the veal gives them a very velvety texture. I’ve included quite a bit of cheese to illustrate the point that eating veal is the responsible thing to do if you eat dairy products.
Serves 4 to 6

2/3 cup fresh bread crumbs
1/3 cup milk
1 pound ground rose veal
1/2 cup freshly grated hard, aged cheese (like Lakin’s Gorges Morgan or Parmesan)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves, plus four sprigs to use in sauce
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
3 cups tomato puree
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup fresh ricotta cheese
1/2 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, torn into bite-sized pieces

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Combine the bread crumbs and milk in a large mixing bowl. Let sit for 5 minutes. Add the veal, grated cheese, chopped thyme leaves, salt and pepper. Mix gently to combine ingredients but do not overwork the mixture or your meatballs will be tough. Form the meat into about 18 (1½-inch) balls and put them in a cast iron skillet large enough to hold all of them with about a 1-inch space between them.
Bake until they are slightly browned and cooked through, 12-15 minutes. Remove the meatballs from the oven. Stir in the tomato puree, wine and thyme sprigs. If you have time, let the mixture sit for about an hour on the counter or longer in the refrigerator so that the flavors get to know each other. About 20 minutes before serving, plop spoonfuls of ricotta into the sauce sitting around the meatballs. Sprinkle the torn mozzarella around the meatballs as well. Return to the oven and bake until the mozzarella is melted, the sauce is bubbling and the meatballs are warmed through, 12-15 minutes.
Remove from the oven and serve hot with crusty bread.

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