”A thin slice of boneless meat, often beaten even thinner for quick cooking.” -- www.bbc.co.uk/food/glossary
The word “escalope” is French. It first appeared in cookery terminology late in the 17th century as a dialectal expression in the northeast of rural France : veau à l’escalope (veal cooked in the style of an escalope).
In those days an escalope was doubtlessly always veal. Today it can be any of the “white” meats (veal, pork, chicken or turkey) as opposed to the “red” meats (beef or wild game). “Escalope” has even crossed into seafood recipes, as in “salmon escalope with a sorrel sauce”. Perhaps it sounds a bit more upscale to a food writer than “salmon fillet”, yet the same writer will refer to “veal cutlets” rather than “veal escalope”.
The most famous recipe using veal escalope is “Veal Cordon Bleu”, and its various look-alikes such as the Italian “Saltimbocca”, where the same cut of veal is known as scaloppine. The dish is basically a veal sandwich with the escalope serving as the ”bread” and the filling being ham and cheese. This is then floured, dipped in beaten egg yolk or milk, then in bread or cracker crumbs, and cooked in a pan with butter or, sometimes, oil. In the case of Saltimbocca only one slice of veal is used and the resulting “open-face sandwich” is rolled before being enrobed and cooked.
There are many variations of this, mainly involving the type of cheese, but it is quickly cooked in less than ten minutes. The success of the dish depends on the thinness of not only the veal, which is why an already thin slice of meat is further flattened by pounding, but also the cheese (often shaved rather than sliced) and the ham.
The escalope was not originally presented as haute cuisine. The cordon bleu style of preparing escalope evolved over a long period of time. In its early beginnings veal escalope was restricted to the spring months of the year and was family fare.
The term veau à l’escalope originated in dairy country, the cheese-producing mountainous regions of northeast France: the Jura and France-Comté, the Alpine regions of Savoy and the Dauphiné. This is harsh land. Pasturage is limited, winters are long, and hay must be stored to carry the herds through the winter. Unnecessary grass eaters are an unaffordable luxury.
Nearly all bull calves are slaughtered within a week of birth. The females are kept a bit longer but they, too, have their ranks drastically reduced once the herds are turned out to pasture. The flesh of these young females can be marketed as “milk-fed veal”. The best veal roasts and chops are milk-fed. The flesh of a newly-born bull calf does not have the same commercial value.
There is not enough fat on the carcass of a newly-born calf to permit turning the meat into sausage. A suckling pig can be roasted, a young lamb can be turned into delicate chops, but this first culling of a herd was a total loss for the dairy farmers of that era. The farmer and his family ate as much of this meat as they could.
The escalope was a quick dish for a busy farmer’s wife. Pounding the meat even thinner reduced the cooking time still further. Adding a crunchy crust of bread crumbs gave texture and additional flavor to what is essentially a bland dish. Much of the veal escalope eaten in France today is cooked in this fashion, l’escalope de veau paneé (prepared in a frying pan). For some reason this is also called méthode l’anglaise (“The English Method”).
In the other northern corner of France, in and around the historic region of Touraine, several recipes for veal escalope developed using the other springtime product of dairy farms : thick, rich cream. Escalope normande is basically an escalope cooked in the paneé method and then covered with a rich cream sauce before being served.
The Italians, great lovers of French veal, have developed another twist to pan-frying escalopes. In Italy the outer layer of the coating is often parmesan cheese. In France this is known as escalope de veau à la Milanaise.
And, finally, one last evolution of the word “escalope”. French golfers today call a divot, the thin slice of turf sometimes lofted into the air by a golf club, an “escalope”.
“The Food of France” – Waverley Root – Vintage Books Edition, October 1977