I love veal, and for years I’ve been looking for a way to eat it without apologizing to the staff of Animal Planet. Veal has become a guilty pleasure for most, the needle on the PC meter dropping with every chop we consume. Worse than the anti-mink-coat people, the anti-veal people have blasted us with photos of forlorn baby calves, torn from their mama’s teats, growing up in dark, constrictive cages, iron-deprived and stuffed with antibiotics, restrained and immobilized so that their flesh will be succulent and white when we slice into a thick chop, a crisp schnitzel, or a juicy saltimbocca. And every one of those upsetting images is accurate. But thanks to a group of vets and food producers in Massachusetts, there’s a new approach to livestock farming that could transform veal consumption into a patriotic act.
Dr. George Saperstein, a large-animal vet from Tufts Veterinary School, partnered with Dole & Bailey, a familyowned Massachusetts wholesale-food supplier. Together, they’ve created a line of veal that diners can feel good about eating. The meat is pinkish rather than stark white, because the animals are permitted to frolic in the sunlight, sipping milk, eating grass and corn, and doing other fun things that keep their blood circulating. The brand name of the new veal is Azuluna, and while you can’t yet buy it yourself at the market, the product is starting to become available to restaurant chefs in our area.
Azuluna veal is raised on local farms, it’s delicious, and if the concept flies, it will offer struggling family dairy farms a revenue stream for what used to be considered a waste product. Sorry, boys, but dairy farmers have always considered male calves “waste products.” Why? Male dairy cows don’t get pregnant (duh) and therefore they don’t produce milk (double duh) — and milk, after all, is the primary revenue source for a dairy farmer. Secondly, given the natural profligacy (or efficiency) of males, one dairy bull can easily service many females. From the dairy farmer’s perspective, extra males are annoyances — expensive boy toys with big appetites who are a distraction to the girls. Traditionally, farmers have separated the surplus male calves from their moms and shipped them off to veal Valhalla just days after taking their first wobbly steps.
John Stowell, the director of fresh meats and sustainable programs at Dole & Bailey, in Woburn, is the closest thing we in Massachusetts may ever see to an old-fashioned cowboy. He grew up in Colorado farm country around horses and cows, and has an abiding passion for maintaining the connection between the food we eat and the people who grow it. (When Stowell talks about “the animals,” his eyes take on the tenderness you see when men take little kids to Disney movies.) Stowell explains that the Azuluna concept is to return to an oldfashioned kind of animal husbandry, where male calves can be kept at home to mature with mom before being sold on the market as freerange veal for a pretty price — instead of as 25-cents-a-pound mystery meat. It hasn’t been easy to get local dairy farmers to take a chance; there’ve been several years of cajoling and convincing farmers to get on the bandwagon. But Dole & Bailey has been subsidizing the effort through its Northeast Family Farms program as part of a long-term mission to support local family farms in New England. Its patience has been rewarded: now a number of local dairy farms are raising veal calves in this very European tradition, nursing on their mother’s milk.
In a nutshell, farmers are encouraged to select one of their less-than perfect female specimens — a cow just shy of being over the hill, say — and turn her out to pasture with three or four male calves, including one of her own. (She needs to be a nursing mother.) Mama cow is encouraged to feed the calves her milk and teach them to eat grass and feast on other yummy cow delights. When the calves are sufficiently mature, they go to their destiny without having lived a sorry day. “This is pasture- raised veal, natural and organic, and it lets the cows and the calves do what they were born to do,” says Stowell. It’s still a pilot program, having raised only a few hundred animals this year, but the plan has true promise to create a profitable revenue stream for small farming communities in New England. The veal is “rosy — not bright red like beef, but it’s not stark white like the classical Italian veal,” Stowell says. “It’s a meat that people can feel good about eating and chefs can feel good about serving.”
At a recent lunch at Oleana, chef Ana Sortun cooked an all-Azuluna meal for several other local chefs — Tony Susi, Chris Douglass, Chris Schlesinger, Paul Sussman, Marc Orfaly — who’d heard about the product but hadn’t yet had a chance to taste it. The verdict was positive and powerful. “It’s exactly the kind of product my Cambridge customers would love,” Chez Henri’s Paul O’Connell says. Everyone agreed that the flavor was wonderful yet unique — without the blandness of traditional veal that is a foil for any sauce, but not strong enough to fight with any classic recipe.