Japan was banned from selling beef in the European Union until last year and all imports of Wagyu beef were from Australia, New Zealand, America and the United Kingdom. Restrictions have been removed and now the Japanese are keen to reclaim the marketplace.
There's no denying you'll not get your pure-breed Wagyu beef confused with cuts from a hybrid cow when it comes to cost, because you'll be paying a whole lot more for the Japanese import. When it comes to look and ultimately taste, there's an acute difference.
The contents of this chiller cabinet are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, authentic Japanese Wagyu beef on display at the Japanese Embassy in London to mark the first import of the beef to Europe.
Forget what you've heard about pure-breed Wagyu being fed beer-soaked grain and being massaged each day for up to 8 hours. It's simply not true these days. They're weaned soon after birth and fed milk replacer by hand. Some farms give their calves handmade jackets when the weather gets colder and when they're being fattened up they're kept in cattle barns and given individual names. Breeding and pregnant cattle are put out to graze. The marbling occurs from the diet, the cows are fed grass and rice straw and the cattle are fed whole crop silage, essential for white colour fat and marble development.
Here's the Japanese Ambassador, His Excellency Mr Keiichi Hayashi, giving his address. He's standing in front of the Universal Wagyu Mark which was established in 2007 and is proof of authenticity.
Aldi is selling New Zealand grass-fed Wagyu sirloin at a very reasonable £30.79/kg and a rib-eye for the same price (only 2 per customer) which is a bargain compared with Japanese Wagyu which retails at around £200/kilo. This meat is as a result of crossing the Wagyu breed with Holstein cattle. The meat is generally less marbled and fatty than that produced in Japan.
The Japanese Wagyu beef registration system dates back to the early twenties and each cow which is due for slaughter is given a ten-digit ID code which enables the meat to be traced back to the farm of origin. The cattle provenance can be tracked too which ensures purity of breed.
There are four Wagyu breeds indigenous to Japan.
Raised in the Kinki and Chugoku regions, this breed was used as work cattle. Improved as a result of cross breeding with foreign breeds, it was certified as an indigenous Japanese beef cattle in 1944 and and is raised and fattened in all parts of Japan. More than 90% of Wagyu is from this breed.
Also known as red cattle, this breed is raised primarily in Kumamoto and Kochi prefectures. Again, improved by crossbreeding Simmental with Akaushi, certified as indigenous Japanese beef cattle in 1944.
Crossbred with imported Aberdeen Angus and the Japanese Black in 1920. Certified as an indigenous Japanese beef cattle in 1944
Certified as indigenous Japanese beef cattle later than the other breeds in 1957. It's raised mainly in the Tohoku region of Japan. Improved by crossbreeding the Shorthorn with the indigenous Nanbu cattle.
All Wagyu eat is graded dependent on four points: its 'sashi' or marbling, colour, shine of meat, firmness and texture and fat colour and shine. The beef carcass is judged at the cut surface between the sixth and seventh ribs. Carcass are put into the following categories; A for above average, B for average, C for below average. The meat grades are; 1 for poor, 2 below average, 3 average, 4 good, 5 excellent. The best grade judgement would be A5.
The traceability system from breeding farms to fattening farms, slaughterhouse to auction and processing is strictly monitored. All beef cattle raised in Japan are given a 10-digit individual ID number. The government is responsible for managing the numbers and the National Livestock Breeding Centre offers information on the calf date of birth, sex, breed, history of mother, relocation history, fattening period, slaughterhouse information and date of slaughter. The system confirms production and breed and prevents false labelling as well as full traceability.
We're reminded of the strict controls adhered to by the producers and the Parliamentary Secretary of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Mr Ozato tells the audience that if the Japanese grading system was used on Australian Wagyu, it wouldn't even be considered middle class.
We were also told of the health benefits of the beef, Wagyu fat is known to have a high content of oleic acid, or Omega-9 which enhances its taste. It also has the ability to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels in the body.
Guests were treated to a range of dishes using Japanese Wagyu.
Like British beef, the fillet accounts for just 2% of the entire dressed carcass and is the most expensive cut of beef available. The sirloin, similar to the fillet is considered a high-quality cut. It holds its shape and cuts well which makes it ideal for steak.
Thinly sliced cuts of the beef are simmered with vegetables in a pot in dishes like sukiyaki (a one-pot meal cooked at the table) one of the best known Japanese dishes in the world. A mixed sake, soy sauce and sugar mix or Warishita is added to a sukiyaki pan, along with the beef and other ingredients. The cooked elements are dipped in egg before eating. Cuts include Sirloin, Ribloin, Chuck roll, shoulder clod, 2 rib short rib, short place, gooseneck round and the knuckle.
Shabu shabu (made famous in the film Lost in Translation) is where meat is dipped in a choice of simmering stocks and served with noodles and vegetables. Its origins are traced back to the Chinese hot pot which used mutton. The quality of the ingredients are vital for such a simple dish. Cooked meat is normally dipped in a sesame or pon-zu sauce (soy with a citrus-infused vinegar) before eating. Recommended cuts for this dish include sirloin, ribloin, chuck roll, top-round, gooseneck round and knuckle.
Seiro-mushi translates into "beef and vegetables cooked in a bamboo steamer" and is a low-calorie meal. Wagyu pieces are put on top of vegetables and steamed. Sirloin, ribloin and chuck roll are ideal for this dish.
Wagyu releases its aromas when heated to around 80 degrees after dry ageing. Once the aroma has been released, it stays within the meat and is released again when chewed so Wagyu retains its flavour even when it's cold.
The Chefs from the Japanese Embassy - Makoto Nishikawa and Junkiiko prepared the canapes.
Barbecue grills were being fanned furiously to cook various cuts of the beef.
Chefs from Umu, including Yoshinor Ishii their executive chef had prepared a vegetable terrine with a sesame sauce and served it with straw-cooked Wagyu. The blocks seen here are Himalayan salt blocks where the beef was rested.
The Greenhouse team were led by Arnaud Bignon who had created a delicate carpaccio of the beef with aubergine, coriander and tomato. Aubergine had been rolled and covered in a very thin Wagyu covering, served on a dash of tomato sauce.
And, Yannick Lalle from Mortons was plating up roasted Wagyu, Pickled girolles with watercress and horseradish.
The Embassy's own chefs had created the delicate canapes, a Wagyu Beef and Mozarella tart, a raw beef and green pepper combination and a most delicious Wagyu beef tartare with shaved truffle.
All photos taken by Rebecca Williams