It is possibly the most expensive steak ever seen in Australia. A perfectly trimmed tile of ruby red flesh interlaced with white marbled fat. This is wagyu. Japanese wagyu. Wagyu bred, fed, grown and slaughtered in Japan. The A5 wagyu, known in the meat business as the Rolls-Royce of beef, is part of a shipment air-freighted into Australia by Sydney butcher Clayton Wright, of Clover Valley Meat Company, in recent weeks. The finest cuts of this luxurious melt-in-the-mouth beef are selling for an eye-watering $500 a kilogram.
"I am a purist," says Wright. "I wanted to give the Australian beef industry a benchmark."
Wright is the man who helped change the way Australians perceived preserved ham when he introduced the Joselito brand of Spanish acorn-fed Iberico jamon more than a decade ago.
Recent changes in trade agreements between Australia and Japan opened doors for the importation of Japanese beef. Wright and his team worked closely with Biosecurity Australia for the past four months to make sure his Sydney premises were a certified quarantine facility.
The wagyu Wright is importing has been raised and processed for Itoham Foods. The animals are Kuroge Washu, or black wagyu, and of the very specific Tajima bloodline, progeny of which have the remarkable ability to create intensely marbled meat.
The Japanese recognised the importance of this breed to their culinary heritage and agricultural economy, banning export of animals, semen or embryos in 1997 to stop the flow of genetics to countries such as Australia. The A5 grading is a Japanese system – the A meaning the carcass yield is the highest possible and the numeric rating relating to beef marbling, colour and brightness of the flesh, its texture and colour, lustre and fat quality. A5 is the highest mark wagyu can score. In Japan A5 beef is so highly regarded it is given as corporate gifts, for special occasions, sold only in exclusive department stores and eaten by middle class Japanese perhaps once every few years.
After breed, the next most important factor in meat quality is feed.
"That is a pretty guarded process," says Wright. "Japanese wagyu producers don't let on their secret feed recipes but most feed their animals wheat, corn and silage (fermented grass)," explains Wright. "Some farmers will give certain naturally occurring herbs to aid digestion. If they are close to a brewery they may feed them spent grain. There is one grower who feeds them olives."
When asked about the story of wagyu cattle being given beer to drink, Wright laughs and says, "The Japanese farmers say it is them who drink the beer, not the cattle."
The meat is vacuum-packed and shipped in quite intricate cardboard packaging complete with a certificate that traces the individual animal's history from birth to the date of slaughter. The certificate also includes the animal's nose print, which is as individual as a human's fingerprint.
The Japanese wagyu we taste at Hanabishi Japanese Restaurant in Melbourne is from a steer 28 months old, born in Kimotsuki-cho, on the southwest tip of the island of Kyushu, and slaughtered in Shibushi-shi in Kagoshima prefecture, 25 kilometres further south.
The product is sublime. The flesh is quite beautiful, with thick threads of fat running through the deep red muscle, giving it a lustrous quality. A small piece, lightly grilled, has a rich, deep beefy flavour. This is quickly followed by a sensation of sweetness just before your mouth is flooded with a smooth, clean buttery sensation as the fat melts from the warmth of your tongue. What you then really notice is the umami, a strong sensation of deliciousness that builds with each bite.
It is pure and clean, without the popcorn nuttiness you sometimes find in Australian grain-fed wagyu. It is a completely different beast.
"You only want a small amount of this," says Hanabishi chef Bobby Yap. "This is so good you don't need anything with it. Perhaps a bit of salt and pepper. Perhaps just the salt."
Japanese A5 wagyu is available for retail sale in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide and in restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. At Matilda 159 in South Yarra, Scott Pickett is serving it raw, in exceptionally fine slices with buckwheat crackers, a little port and wine reduction and sea salt.
"I have been to Japan a few times and this is the best wagyu I've tasted," says the chef. "It's definitely the best wagyu I've seen in Australia."
Japanese Itoham A5 wagyu is distributed in Victoria by Gamekeepers Meats.
Butchers include: Peter Bouchier, Armadale; Gary's Quality Meat, Prahran Market; Wright's the Butcher, Alexandria, Sydney.
Restaurants include: Hanabishi, Old Crystal Jade and Quanjude, Melbourne; Minamishima, Richmond; and Matilda 159, Steer and Wagyu Ya South Yarra; Tetsuya's, Bea at Barangaroo, Black at Star City, Sydney.