THE REAL DEAL ABOUT VEAL
Worldwide, there is currently a strong movement towards the ethical farming of veal, which is why we sought out Renier van der Westhuizen - one of South Africa's foremost veal farmers - to talk to us about his unique approach and how he hopes to open the minds of South Africa's leading foodies.
Interview by Helène Ramackers
Photography by Daniela Zondagh and Joe Dreyer
The last decades of the 20th century saw a big decline in the consumption of veal, not only because of its concerns about its industrial production but also as a result of mad cow disease. Consumers' appetite for veal was also stunted by die scandal of calves pulled up with hormones that would allow meat to shrink in the frying pan due to high doses of antibiotics administered to animals and the way they suffered in industrial pens.
To top this, consumers also preferred veal that was white and tender, unlike coarse and bloody beef. So when people did eat veal, it was most likely to be a disappointment. Thankfully, some veal producers had an awakening, changed their methods and now raise animals whose flesh is delicious, succulent, tender and delicate all at once.
Veal is the meat of an unweaned cow, anywhere up to one year old. Naturally raised veal is what you are looking for - know where it comes from. The UK and Europe has banned veal crates and in its place, you can find a high-quality "rose" veal, which animal campaigners consider totally acceptable to eat.
It’s a Friday morning at Middelvlei Wine Estate in Stellenbosch. I’m scheduled to meet Renier van der Westhuizen to chat about his catapult to fame at the tender age of 26. What is he famous for you might wonder? Actor? He could easily pass for a model, but no, this beloved farm boy has the corner on the very exclusive milk-fed veal market, supplying the demand for this melt-in-the-mouth delicacy.
His passion for animals started when he was about eight years old. "I told my Dad I was going to be a shepherd in the field. I had no ambition, but if it revolved around animals I would do it."
Rewind twenty years when a rambunctious Renier would visit the Mombergs at Middelvlei with his parents. The two families formed a kinship, with the Mombergs regarding Renier as their third son. This close relationship has led to an immense level of respect and a close working bond with the Momberg family. He lapped up the intricacies of farm life and in 2014, decided to start his own project. "I started buying and selling rose veal calves from a farmer in Villiersdorp. I sold to Butcher Shop and Grill in Mouille Point and did relatively well. But I wanted to take it further."
Renier was at a crossroads in his life and needed to reach a decision on what he wanted to do. In June 2015, he packed his bags and headed to Bali for a month. Upon his return, he knew that Middelvlei was where he was meant to be.
"I saw the dilapidated shed at the back and approached Tienie Momberg, the winemaker, and I told him 'I want that shed – I want to do something with it.'" With a limited budget that grew extensively, Renier had to do proper market research and flew down Sean Morris, who builds feeding stations for cattle. He slowly started developing the project and discovered that there definitely is a market for veal. Not just veal - milk-fed veal.
With excitement brimming and a glint in his eyes, Renier continues: "We hit a lot of hurdles in the beginning – they broke into my project four times in one week. I had to teach myself how to work with cattle and also did a short veterinarian course on how to inject them if they got sick. I got my first cattle from Wrench Louw at Roulou. He’s been a tremendous help and without him, I wouldn’t be here."
Milk-fed veal doesn’t come without challenges – they get fed three times a day – at 6:00, 11:30 and 16:30. "Calves are very pedantic little things. I feed them Blossom, one of the best milk surrogates you can get on the market, but with that comes quite a bit of science."
With the assistance of Reniel Claassens from Blossom and veterinarian Cilliers Louw from Wellington, the trio struck gold. “They came up with my milk feeding programme that has the perfect ratio of milk powder to water.” According to Renier, this formula is the highest milk replacement surrogate you can get – and it is much pricier than normal milk. So yes, it is Milk Fed Veal.
He soon realised that the calves developed an affinity for their straw bedding, which they started ingesting. With milk-fed veal, their abomasum (milk stomach) gets stretched so that they can accommodate more milk and their other three stomachs stay small.
"When a milk-fed cow ingests any roughage, you call it the scratching factor. It means their rumen is starting to develop and they start getting hungry for roughage. There’s nothing you can do about it and then they’re not milk-fed veal anymore. So it’s very technical."
Since he learnt about the scratching factor, he started using untreated stone pine wood shavings from a company in Pniel, just outside Franschhoek. "It works like a dream, literally! It absorbs the urine, there’s no smell and they don’t want to eat it! And they get new 'bedding' every single day. Along with that, we introduced heaters to keep them warm, so it’s a constant 28 degrees inside there. Each calf gets groomed once a day, they get mineral water and three meals a day.
"The hygiene levels are also of incredible importance to the health and safety of the animals, which I encountered first hand. You can either dip your shoes in the bucket containing Blue Mountain hygiene products – even Bella had her paws dipped or you can opt for surgical booties." Having a Dad as a reconstructive plastic surgeon has taught Renier a lot about hygiene, something he practices every day.
As a farmer, Renier takes great care of his animals. Raising the calves from three days old, it is not easy to have them slaughtered. This is done in the most humane and technologically advanced way, ensuring no suffering for the animal.
"It’s a mindset," he says. "Because I’m with them every single day, I learn their traits and personalities and I know which one to look out for – when they’re hungry, they’re grumpy, then they start kicking. I do get attached to them. When they’re sick, I sleep at the project – I bring my sleeping bag, disinfectant (to keep the area sterile) and pillow - and I sleep in the hay loft just to make sure that they are all right and get the best care possible. You have to detach yourself."
His excitement is evident when he speaks of expanding his project this year. "We’ve got eleven calves now, but my capacity is for 30. We are expanding this year to house up to 50 or 60 calves. That’s quite a jump. The calves are raised to 100 kg, which takes between 110 and 120 days. My calves pick up anything between 500 grams and 3 kilograms a day."
TIPS ON VEAL
- Good veal is smooth, firm and fine grained, almost like silk with a fat that is very white and scarce.
- In France, the best veal comes from Normandy and from the centre of the country.
- Pan-fry small pieces of veal, like chops and escalopes, for best results. Escalopes is not a part of the animal but rather a cut. Is is simply a think slice which is best taken from the round roast.
- Veal rack is stronger and is therefore better for roasting.
- Medallions are carved like tournedos and seared to finish off in the oven.
- For sauced dishes and stews, use the breast, shank, rib, neck or flank.
- Do not soak veal in cold water before cooking, some people do to get the meat white but it only results in loss of flavour.
- Cook veal slower and at a lower temperature because the fat content is so low.
- Pan-fried or grilled, the meat is ready when it has a pink-tinge in the centre.
- Cook veal with sensitivity and care.
"There’s definitely a market for milk-fed veal, which I want to grow. When I started the project, there was no market in South Africa for milk-fed veal. It’s evolved into something a lot more caring. It is a niche product and clients must know I only have 30 calves and I do not put stress on the calves at all. I don’t like stress on myself either.
"I invite anybody and everybody out to come and see the calves. I give chefs the opportunity to pick their own calf, like Chef Bertus Basson. Walk through the herd, pick your calf and I will raise it for you. I also send updates of the calves. They are just as interested – Bertus called his calf little Bertus. He visited him, helped with grooming and feeding, that’s the whole ethos behind the project. I want the chef back in touch with meat; not just meat that they buy, but that they know where it comes from.
Work with me and watch it grow – I’ll do all the hard labour and they can reap the rewards. It forms a bond with chefs in that they have pride in the carcass that has just been delivered. They know where it comes from and when a chef has that bond with the carcass that I facilitated, they discover true love to work with that meat and the opportunity to discover and explore what they want to prepare for the night.”
Contact Renier at Middel Vallei Meat Distributors on 072 130 1730 or e-mail him on firstname.lastname@example.org