Wagyu beef

Wagyu beef

Justin North
5 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Steve Brown

A chequered heritage

Wagyu (meaning ‘Japanese cattle’) cattle were introduced to rural Japan from the Asian mainland during the second century and used to pull ploughs in rural areas.

The Meiji Restoration (1868–1912) was a movement towards independent living characterised by a more powerful military, an educated public and a lifestyle relieved from the restrictions of feudal Japan. Prior to the Restoration consumption of milk and beef had been largely outlawed; the cow had been a valuable farm worker – certainly not a source of protein – for some 1200 years.

During the Meiji Restoration the Japanese government encouraged the import of foreign breeds of cattle in an attempt to broaden the local gene pool, but this was abandoned in 1910 as the cattle being produced didn’t possess the qualities desired.

A strict line-breeding scheme commenced in 1959, using four Wagyu strains displaying superior traits. The result of the scheme was an increase in meat quality and an increase in milk production, as both milk and beef had crept into the Japanese diet at this time – largely a result of returning servicemen who had been fed meat on the battlefield to give them strength.

Only twice in the past century have live cattle and cattle genetics been exported from Japan. The first time was in 1976 when the University of Colorado received four Wagyu bulls for research purposes. These bulls were bred with American cattle, to make what is now known as American Purebred cattle. They are quite different from Japanese full-blood Wagyu cattle which can only be called so when both a Japanese heifer and bull are used in breeding.

One of Japan’s premier breeders, Shogo Takeda, went to great lengths to export Wagyu cattle on another occasion, and in the 1990s 110 cattle were exported to the United States. This included the only live female Wagyu cow ever to be exported from Japan. For this indescretion Takeda was expelled from the Japanese Wagyu Association and has since been the target of much criticism from irate Japanese farmers keen to see their traditions remain in Japan.

Three strains of Wagyu are combined to create a breed hardy enough to withstand the harsh Australian conditions: Tajima, Shimane and Tottori. Tajima is the most famous, for providing the most dense marbling of all Wagyu beef. In Japan this beef is known as matsuzaka (female) or kobe (male) beef. The problem with farming Tajima in Australia is that they’re small (bred for hilly terrains) and don’t produce much milk (which makes a financial difference when you’re feeding young). So the strain is mixed with the hardier Shimane cattle, which have larger stomachs and produce more milk.

Wagyu farming in Australia

A charismatic businessman and fifth-generation farmer, David Blackmore was the first to import Wagyu cattle to Australia, in the 1990s. He imported the cattle through the United States as there was no established trade protocol between Australia and Japan at the time. Wagyu were a source of pride and there was intense pressure to retain the genes solely in Japan. ‘It’s their culture and heritage,’ explains Blackmore. ‘The Japanese still wish that the export had never happened.’ Blackmore managed to obtain semen and embryos from the disputed export stock from Shogo Takeda and from those he introduced the first Wagyu genetics to Australia.

Blackmore now exports cattle to Japan, to meet the demand caused by increased beef consumption and a decrease in young Japanese entering the farming business. He also exports to the United States, Korea, Hong Kong and China.

Only Wagyu cattle that have a 100-per-cent pure bloodline from Japan are considered full-blooded Japanese cattle. And it is this beef that commands premium prices in Australia and around the world.

Blackmore is the pioneer of refining Wagyu genes in Australia. The Australian climate can be too harsh for the Wagyu’s sensitive disposition, and Blackmore has undertaken extensive research in order to compensate for this. In addition to being kept in a covered and ventilated feedlot, Blackmore’s cattle stand on sawdust, which is gentle on the hooves and thus reduces stress. ‘Stress will give you bad beef,’ claims Blackmore, ‘so I want my herds to be as comfortable as possible’.

Blackmore won’t be talked into divulging his secret recipe for the feed on which he rears his herds. He does, however, reveal one ingredient: beer. ‘Stout is better as it contains more yeast,’ he explains. ‘It gets the bacteria in the stomach going.’ While it might appear Blackmore tends the most spoilt herd of cattle in history, everything he does to ensure the animals’ comfort is underpinned by a stern business objective, and Blackmore has made a profitable business providing what chefs, diners and farmers agree is the best eating beef on the market.

Some believe that Wagyu beef from southern parts of Australia is of a higher quality than that of beef from the north, mainly because the climate is gentler on the cattle with its cooler temperatures and lush pastures to nurture the delicate animals.

According to Blackmore, there are four pillars of quality Wagyu production: genetics, farm management, feed, and how the catttle are handled at the abattoir. Blackmore continues to benefit from ongoing support and advice from Mr Takeda, the Japanese farmer who first exported live Wagyu cattle to the United States.

Wagyu the product

Wagyu beef is prized for its succulent texture and flavour, a result of the mono-unsaturated white fat throughout the muscle, which is commonly referred to as marbling. Marbling quality and density is what determines the grading of the beef, on an Australian scale that ranges from 1 to 9. In comparison, Angus beef generally marbles at a score of 2 or 3 on this scale.

Wagyu cattle are fed on special ration rather than grass, to ensure the milky white appearance of the intramuscular fat. The chlorophyll in grass can give beef fat a yellow tinge, and darken the colour of the meat. Given that sunlight also has a pigmenting effect on fat, Wagyu cattle spend most of their time sheltered from the sun. Wagyu cows feed on the by-products of beer brewing and popcorn production, as well as straw. The special diet promotes low levels of subcutaneous (outside) fat and higher intensity of intramuscular fat (marbling). Feeding the animals in such a way as to gain weight gradually – at a rate of about 800–900 grams per day rather than up to two kilos a day for some cattle breeds – increases their intramuscular fat levels. This bonus is twofold: the intramuscular fat is unsaturated, as opposed to the saturated fat found in subcutaneous fat; also, the fat is part of the final weight of the carcass, while subcutaneous fat is removed, so a higher price is paid.

The optimal age for processing an animal is thirty-four months. At this age it has matured sufficiently for the best qualities of the beef – the taste and the texture – to be enjoyed.

How this translates to your plate:

Marbled fat starts to melt at 7°C, creating the tenderness that makes eating Wagyu beef such a pleasurable experience. The fat in Wagyu beef is a combination of two alpha lipoic acids (known as ALA): stearic acid and oleic acid. They are different from the cholesterol palmitic acid found in lean beef, and are recommended by the Heart Foundation as being good for heart health.

As the fat is marbled throughout the flesh, when it melts it does so back into the muscle itself. The flavour is flooded through the meat – fat being where any meat’s flavour comes from. Wagyu experts place a piece of refrigerated meat on the back of their hand, to see how long it takes for the fat to start to leave a little melted slick on their skin. This tends to happen within ten seconds.

Marbling alone, however, is not an adequate way to judge the quality of a piece of meat. A farmer could cross an Angus cow with a full-blood Wagyu, slaughter the calf at twelve months and it could still be called Wagyu beef. What Blackmore’s experience has shown is that maturing the animal slowly to more than thirty months develops the flavour in the beef. ‘There’s a real Japanese flavour,’ says Blackmore. ‘I’ve got them to Japanese standards.’

David Blackmore is certainly leading the way in the science of Australian Wagyu breeding, and even struggling to keep up with the demand.

Recipes in this Chapter

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