From Sustenance to Delicacy: The Wonderful World of Steak

Hugh Thomas
wagyu steak

Originally, beef was seen as a reliable concentration of iron and protein, best source of energy, and little else but basic sustenance to the human diet. In modern times, more often than not, there’s so much more to steak than the primitive chunk of meat you see on your plate. It has been cultivated and engineered from farm to fork, cooked (you’d hope) to the nearest degree of perfection, and rigorously assessed for a high standard of quality.

Believe it or not, your freshly cooked steak started life in a field. Which field exactly is dependent on how or where the restaurant sources their beef. The ever-popular Hawksmoor, for example, obtain their meat exclusively from British grass-fed cows. On the other end of the scale, M Restaurants bring in steaks from across the globe, whether they’re from Japan, Australia, US, South Africa, or Argentina.

But what difference does location make to the taste? Well, a lot of it comes down to the cattle’s lifestyle. In Argentina, cows are typically as free range as they get. They receive more exercise than, say, some of their French counterparts, and such little stress contributes a long way to cultivating more tender meat.

The same goes for many countries that have the luxury of space. Though Britain is not one of them, the British countryside does have the virtue of generally being less arid and more luscious, meaning grass-fed cows get more from it. Though grain-fed cows are easier to sustain when grass is in short supply, compromises are made on the quality of the eventual product. Simply put, cows cannot convert grain into protein (therefore meat) as effectively as they can convert grass to protein.

wagyu cattle

Selecting a good steak also comes down to what breed it’s going to come from. Hereford, for instance, mature into adulthood slowly, meaning they are only selected to be slaughtered at a time when their meat has reached a point of exquisite tenderness.

Then there’s Aberdeen Angus which, when bred correctly, lives up to the hype it’s often billed. The meat is naturally marbled with fat, meaning flavour is kept within the muscle fibres rather than on the outside. Japanese Wagyu are similar, though marbling is more emphasised on Wagyu than most other breeds, and the meat is of a greater quality because of this.

As coveted as Wagyu may be, obscure methods have been implemented to further increase the taste of of the meat. The addition of vintage red wine to some herd’s feeds has been reported in Australia (even the most expensive bottles pailing in comparison to the price of a cut of Wagyu), while farms in Japan have been known to play classical music to cows as they eat.

15585456435_2524b491c1_zcredit: Walter Schärer

Bizarre though these practices sound, competition is always high to come out with the best steak any given person has ever tasted. But it often drives the price up exponentially. The ban on Japanese beef because of Mad Cow Disease has only recently been lifted, meaning high quality Wagyu has only recently been introduce to the British market. Not only that, Kobe, a cut from a particular breed of the Wagyu family, is rare in whichever part of the world you’re in anyway.

In order for meat to be rightfully called Kobe, certain criteria have to be met, from the marbling ratio of the meat to the stipulation that cattle should be born and raised in the province of Hyōgo only. Strict conditions not only help assure the quality of the meat, but make it that much more difficult to obtain. Perfect Kobe is the only Kobe, and a steak fillet will cost you in the region of £150 in a Kobe-certified restaurant.

Prior to 2012, exports of Kobe simply did not exist. Now, only a select handful of restaurants outside of Japan have such an authentic option on the menu. Next to caviar and Tahitian vanilla, Kobe has become a much coveted delicacy – quite an achievement seeing as Japan only started eating its cattle 100 years ago.


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