By Pete Goffe-Wood.
Legend has it that Kobe cattle from Japan, in their final months before slaughter, are massaged daily by maidens and fed a diet mainly of dark beer. Now I don’t know about you, but there are far worst ways to meet your maker – we’re all going to die sometime but not many can say that their last days were spent in such a state of bliss.
So what is it about this fabled beef that’s so damn impressive and expensive?
Let’s first get some clarification in terms of nomenclature – what is the difference between Wagyu beef and the fabled Kobe beef ? Wagyu beef simply translated means “Japanese Cow”, nothing sexier than that I’m afraid, and refers to cattle from one of six areas in Japan – of which Kobe is the most revered. So, much like Champagne, if it isn’t reared and slaughtered in Kobe, it can’t be called Kobe (although I’m reliably informed the maidens are allowed to come from surrounding areas, as is the beer).
What we know as Wagyu around the world has been bred originally, either directly or indirectly using sperm or fertilized ovum from these beasts. But this is where it gets a little complicated, thanks to some less scrupulous operators who have been muddying the genetic waters, so to speak.
Generally, a full-blooded Wagyu male is bred with a local breed, like an Angus or Bonsmara. The offspring of this union, some would have you believe, are now Wagyu and the meat is sold as such. However, this is what is referred to as an F1, and this calf would need to breed with the Wagyu male again to achieve F2, and so on down the generations until F6 is achieved and only then do you have a full-blooded Wagyu. This also begins to explain why the meat is so expensive. Only 3000 cattle a year qualify as Kobe: to put this into perspective, a large local feedlot like Karan beef slaughter about 2000 cattle per day. So this goes some ways to explaining the reason that Harrods in London sells Kobe at R11 250/kg.
Personally, I had always thought that all the fuss and bother that surrounds Wagyu Beef was a lot of hot air and marketing, or all mouth and no trousers, as we like to say. All of that changed recently when I was invited by Andries Schutte of Platinum Beef to cook at the first SA Wagyu Auction held in Modimolle, Limpopo province at the Castle de Wildt auction facility.
Previous to this I had only ever eaten Wagyu beef once or twice. I have to admit it was pleasant to eat, but was it worth the song and dance and taking out a mortgage on your home for a hamburger? I had never worked with it so I was naturally intrigued and jumped at the chance. The brief I was given was hand held food for 200 VIP guests. I had all sorts of cool ideas and about fiddly canapés, but was brought back to earth by Andries who reminded me we’d be feeding hungry and inquisitive cattle farmers, so not to get my head buried too far up my own arse.
So I toned it down somewhat but still wanted to have an element of something special. The fabulous people at Platinum Beef had four beasts slaughtered for the occasion and I got pick and choose which cuts I wanted to play with.
The menu I settled on in the end consisted of:
Bresaola (Topside), Rocket, Pink Grapefruit & Shaved Parmesan
Smoked Fillet, Tomato, Cumin & Chilli Chutney
Wagyu Con Carne Quesadillas, Tomato & Coriander Salsa
Seared Rump & Dijon Mustard Roosterkoek
Smoked Brisket & Onion Marmalades Roosterkoek
Pulled BBQ Brisket, Corn Bread & Salsa
Milk Stout Braised Short Rib & Samp.
I have been fortunate enough to travel all around the globe cooking and one of the pleasure of these travels are the people. I have been blessed to come across some inspiring, committed, talented and passionate people and I am all the better for having met and worked alongside them, and this trip to Modimolle was no different.
In addition to Andries and his Platinum Beef team, a number of other local Wagyu farmers were also present: Chris Purdon from Purdon Wagyu in the Eastern Cape, Georgina Jeurissen from Rising Sun Wagyu in Dwaalboom and Stefan Terblanche from Fredricksberg Wagyu in Franschhoek. Their passion for Wagyu and the way forward for their beef in this country is palpable.
The auction itself was a huge success – the top two lots were a bull and a heifer that went for R350 000 and R400 000 respectively. The final sales for the auction were close to R10 million.
But the man who made the entire trip worthwhile was Oom Frik – Frik Le Roux, to give him his full name. Oom Frik is an old block man and we’re talking proper old school here, probably in his seventies, gnarled arthritic hands, thick magnifying glass type glasses, khaki shorts and shirt, big leather boots. We hit it off instantly, and the first thing that he tells me is that he has fallen on hard times due to his own appetites for gambling, drinking and women and now for his sins he makes biltong and droewors for a local deli.
But oh, what biltong and droewors – his wet wors is legendary in these parts, and the praise is warranted.
He shows me into the cold rooms where the Wagyu carcasses hang and we start going through the various cuts that I’ve ordered. Turns out that Oom Frik hasn’t worked with Wagyu before either and we are like the proverbial kids in the candy store and between the two us we are getting so excited that everyone around us is convinced we must be on crack cocaine.
For me the first thing that comes to mind is why doesn’t Oom Frik whip up a batch of his magnificent wors using some of the Wagyu, and it all goes downhill from there.
Andries arrives to break our reverie but only to throw fuel on the fire – he wants to know what cuts I fancy braaing that evening.
I have petrolhead friends who, if given the choice of driving any car in the Aston Martin showroom would be as paralysed as a shoe fanatic told they could choose any pair from a Jimmy Choo boutique. This is how I felt being told to braai whatever I fancied while standing in a meat locker filled with about a million rands worth of the sexiest beef you’ve ever clapped eyes on.
I was only cooking for 10 people so I figured I’d only need what I could carry, and I now understand how a rush of adrenalin can help a mother lift a car to save a trapped infant!
Suffice it to say that that night we tucked into some magnificent rib-eye, rump, skirt, flat iron, denver, and of course some of Oom Frik’s magical Wagyu wors.
Perhaps now would be a good time to discuss what the actual fuss is about Wagyu. We’ve talked about the time and money invested in the cattle that make them so expensive, but what is it that makes them so tasty?
It’s all in the marbling – marbling is the intramuscular fat that you find in meat, you will all have seen the tiny white flecks in a raw piece of meat, this fat then melts when the beef is cooked and is the source of beef’s magical flavour. The level of marbling in Wagyu is off the charts, so much so that they have a chart all of their own. Intramuscular fat is measured by chemical extraction of lipids from the rib eye muscle and rated on a scale from 0-9. Full blooded Wagyu are expected to score in the 8+ region.
The ratio of monosaturated fat to saturated fat is much higher than regular beef, which actually makes it healthier as it has high concentrations of essential fatty acids and a higher percentage of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol.
So not only is it delicious and healthier than regular beef, but it’s also healthier from a practical point of view – because of the ridiculously high marbling the beef is incredibly rich (and expensive – local Wagyu wholesale prices are about R850/kg for the primal cuts), so portions tend to be much smaller: a 150-180g steak is more than enough, even for a meat-vacuum like myself.
While the braai was an absolute delight, my favourite cut of the entire week was the brisket. We braised half of it slowly with Mexican style flavours (garlic, chilli, tomato, red wine, cumin and all spice), shredded it and warmed it through with the gloriously rich braising liquid before serving it on toasted corn bread. We soaked the other half in brine overnight and then rolled it in a spice rub of ground coriander, cumin, smoked paprika, garlic powder and instant coffee, and left it overnight in a smoker at 110 C to do its thing. We sliced that up straight from the smoker and served it on roosterkoek with a sweet onion marmalade – absolute heaven.
I’m now a complete Wagyu convert, and taking into consideration our obsession with beef and that South Africans are the some of the largest red meat eaters in the world, beef of this delicacy (and price) certainly has a future here.
All that is left is to bring on the maidens and crack open some of that dark beer!