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South Australian cattle station debuts tasting room
There was a time when Wagyu beef was eaten by only the most sophisticated of travelers. True Kobe beef is from Wagyu cattle that are raised in a very specific manner in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. Okay, technically Wagyu is the Japanese term for all cattle, and Kobe beef comes from a strain known as Tajima, but this isn't a genetics class.
Kobe Wagyu receive massages to reduce stress and muscle stiffness, a summer diet supplemented with beer as an appetite stimulant, and regular brush-downs with sake (which is supposed to soften their coats, not act as some bizarre form of on-the-hoof marinade). At anywhere from $200 to $300 a pound, Kobe beef is the most expensive in the world.
Wagyu have been raised in the U.S. since the mid-seventies, but the market really took off in the nineties. Today, it's not unusual to find "Kobe" steaks and burgers on menus, but it's a bit of marketing hyperbole. It's actually "American Wagyu," or "American Style Kobe," or "Kobe American Style." It's still great meat, but it's not Kobe beef, and most American Wagyu are crossbred with Angus cattle.
What has all this to do with a South Australian cattle station, you ask? Australia has its own burgeoning Wagyu industry, and in May I visited Mayura Station, a full-blood Wagyu operation just outside the Coonawara wine region. I'm a longtime advocate of the farm-to-fork concept, and Mayura produces some of Australia's best Wagyu beef, supplying an impressive roster of restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, Penfold's Magill Estate in Adelaide, and the Ritz-Carlton Singapore. As it happened, I'd tried Wagyu for the first time the week prior at Penfold's, and it was delicious. But it was also obscured in sauce, and I didn't have a real sense of what the big deal was. I was a bit skeptical, to be honest, so I made the trek out to Mayura to find out more.
Gallery: Mayura Station
Mayura is owned and operated by the entrepreneurial de Bruin family, who first brought over live, full-blood Wagyu from Japan in 1998. Today, they have a sustainable operation that produces award-winning beef from one of the largest (1,700 head of breeders) full-blood herds outside of Japan. Most of the meat is exported to Southeast Asia and the UAE, but their newest business concept is likely to create a larger domestic fan base.
In May, Mayura debuted its tasting room, a professional demonstration kitchen equipped with a long counter in front of the flattop range. Visitors from all over the world can now let their tastebuds decide why Wagyu is such a big deal.
Explains manager Scott de Bruin, "We felt there was a strong need for visitors and valued clients to experience various cooking styles from a simple tasting ($80AUD/pp), through to a full degustation paired with local wines ($120AUD/pp). The tasting room is a serious take on the "paddock-to-plate" concept, designed to mirror a state-of-the-art Teppanyaki bar."
I visited Mayura as part of a Limestone Coast excursion for Tasting Australia. The country's largest food and wine festival, it's held in Adelaide every other year. While there's an emphasis on South Australia, which produces most of the country's wine in its 16 growing regions (including designations within), it's generally a celebration of all things edible and Australian. For one hedonistic week, there are tastings, pairings, classes, tours, dinners, seminars, demos, and a riverside "Feast for the Senses" with dozens of food stalls.
En route to visit some wineries, a group of us had arranged to visit Mayura and do a vertical (head-to-tail) tasting. The tasting room accommodates 14 to 40 guests by appointment (self-drive required if you're not with an organized group, so call well in advance to see if you can fit into an existing booking). All visits include a tour to visit the cattle, so guests can learn more about the breed, industry, and Mayura's animal husbandry practices. You can even buy packaged beef on-site, for domestic travel.
We were greeted by de Bruin and on-site chef Kirby Shearing. Our group of 14 lined up in front of the place settings running down the length of the demo area. A huge overhead mirror provided a bird's eye view of Shearing, as he showed us the various cuts of beef we would be tasting, in order: tongue, flank steak, filet, bresaola (thin slices of air-dried beef), and strip loin. Then de Bruin gave a truly fascinating talk about Mayura's history and the Wagyu industry.
The reason Wagyu is so tender (not accounting for feeding practices, which includes extra finishing time on a blend of specific grains) is because the cattle have a higher percentage of marbling, due to selective breeding practices over thousands of years. Most of the fat is monounsaturated, the meat high in conjugated linoleic acid, and Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Wagyu beef actually has myriad health benefits similar to those found in grass-finished beef. It isn't aged the way some American beef is, because the fat will break down. The fat also dissipates throughout the meat as it cooks, making it more forgiving to work with.
Japanese beef is graded on a scale of one to five (highest), based on marbling, yield, meat color, firmness and texture, and fat quality. Wagyu should be at least 25% marbled fat (by comparison, USDA Prime meat must have six- to eight-percent, and our grading system doesn't include a classification for Wagyu). Thus, Japanese A-5 Wagyu is considered primo, top-of-the-line. It should be tender, with lustrous fat and a sweet, fine flavor, even when eaten raw, as with a carpaccio.
Shearing started us off with a tasting plate of tongue that had been brined and poached. It was silky and mild, practically melting in my mouth. Next came flash-seared cubes of flank, a lean cut that is usually marinated, and cut across the grain to make it more tender. Not this steak. It was unctuously fatty, in the best possible way. Buttery. Juicy. Addictive. More, please.
Filet is already a rich cut, so I was especially curious to see how Wagyu compared to Prime.
The meat fell away at the touch of Shearing's knife, it was so tender. Absolutely delicious, but as with regular beef, I prefer a ribeye or New York steak, because they have more flavor and a bit of chew to them. The flank steak had a little more complexity to it.
The bresaola was made from eye of round, and my least favorite, only because I'm not a big fan of the preparation. But the strip loin that concluded our tasting knocked all of us out. While Wagyu is undeniably more subtle in flavor than standard grain- or grass-finished beef, this was deeply flavorful, and just slightly toothsome. Yet it still retained that glorious, fat-infused richness. Paired with a side of Shearing's crisp, airy onion rings (his secret weapon: adding gin to his beer batter...those Aussies!)...foodgasm.
Our visit concluded with de Bruin taking us out to look at one of the open barns where some of the cattle were being finished on grain. They're pretty things, stocky, black, with short horns that slant upwards the slightest bit. I was also duly impressed by the barn and other parts of Mayura's property we saw on the tour. Trust me on this, it's easy to tell when you're dealing with a facility not on top of its sanitation or animal husbandry practices.
So here's the thing about Wagyu...or Kobe beef. It's pricey as hell, but get the good stuff, and it's so intensely rich, you can't eat more than a few ounces. I wouldn't drop the cash, even if I could afford it, but I now understand why Kobe beef, and the cattle it comes from have such a reputation. Actually, scratch that. I'd throw down for an ounce of A5.
A little Wagyu goes a long way.
The Limestone Coast is located in the southeastern part of the state. It's a diverse mix of remote beaches and sand dunes, pine forest, ancient caves (including Naracoorte World Heritage Fossil Site, worth a visit, especially if you go caving), and farmland and vineyards. The adorable seaside town of Robe, in particular, is a great place to spend a weekend and feast upon the crayfish (actually spiny lobster) the town is famous for.
Of the Limestone Coast's six wine regions, Coonawara is the most famous (primarily for its Cabernet Sauvignon). It's a one-hour flight from Adelaide to the pleasant town of Mt. Gambier, famed for its stunning Blue Lake, which is actually a volcanic crater. Mayura, which is located just outside the town of Millicent, is a thirty-minute drive away (you can rent a car at the airport). The Barn in Mt. Gambier makes a good overnight base for Wagyu- and wine-tasting excursions. Just in case you return still hankering for a ribeye and a glass of red, The Barn Steakhouse wine list has over 400 selections from the region. .
Qantas and the South Australia Tourism Commission are giving away unlimited flights for two from Los Angeles to Adelaide for one year, in a contest running through December 31st, 2010. To enter, visit unlimitedflightstoaustralia.com.
Tasting Australia 2012 will be held April 26-May 3.