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No mincing words in a beef that goes against the grain

The recipe called for half a kilogram of wagyu beef, and about half that of boneless short rib, which would then be ground up and made into burgers. I found a piece of this fantastically rich (and fantastically expensive — R400 a kg) meat at the Braeside Butchery in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, though they call theirs Kobe-style beef for trademark reasons.

There are many legends about Kobe beef, including the often told tale that the cows are massaged, or that they’re fed beer.

The way Braeside Butchery owner Caroline McCann tells it, wagyu (Japanese cattle) were imported into Japan at least a thousand years ago. They were taken from the port of Kobe inland and put to work on farms. McCann says they were treated with “love and care” and fed a high-carbohydrate diet. She says the owners apparently warmed saké in their mouths and spat it on to the animals’ coats. Cuts from wagyu cattle are known as Kobe beef.

The meat has extraordinary marbling, or streaks of fat, which makes it rich and tender.

The wagyu burger recipe comes from the United States quarterly food journal Lucky Peach and was entered in the annual Burger Bloodbath competition in New York State by chef Wylie Dufresne, who owns the highly regarded wd-50 restaurant in Manhattan.

To the challenge of the perfect “beach burger”, Dufresne thought, “What’s more beachy than seaweed?”

In his recipe, strips of dried kombu are soaked, rinsed and then simmered with soy sauce, vinegar, saké, mirin, sugar and water.

The kombu is chopped finely and ground in with the meat (as well as non-fat milk powder, which he says makes for a “tighter” burger). The kombu mixture is boiled down to become really syrupy, and this provides the kick of umami. Strangely, you can’t taste the seaweed.

The burger didn’t win the competition. That honour went to someone called Mo Koyfman, who made a burger that included shredded lettuce, American cheese, a tomato slice, pickles, a secret sauce and a 225g beef burger on a toasted potato hamburger bun. But Dufresne said all his seaweed burgers were devoured.

The beef is delicious raw, which is how I served it first to my guests. They declared it perfect. We then devoured our cooked burgers, which were certainly the tastiest I’ve ever eaten.

On occasion, Braeside will also make miniature Kobe-style burgers — they call them “sliders” — with nothing but salt and pepper added. And, says McCann, customers still ask for tomato sauce.

The art of butchery
Braeside is a small shop and butchers in aprons hustle back and forth. There is a long glass display cabinet at the front of the shop in which trays of fillet, steaks, sosaties, chicken, chops, mince and wors, among other meats, are displayed. There’s also a cheerful strip of kitsch plastic grass on top of the cabinet, and at least six employees slicing various meats at counters. Someone carries in a whole goat carcass. A scale with two meat hooks is swung out from a wall. The goat is weighed (21.7kg) and carried off to the cold room.

Butcher Willem Richardson is preparing skilpadjies (little tortoises) from netvet with a certain glee. Netvet is caul fat, a translucent, fatty membrane that surrounds the inner organs. He spoons a fine mixture of liver, kidney, lamb shank, onion, celery and salt and pepper on to the membrane and then rolls it up into a fat sausage.

The cold room is like stepping into a Francis Bacon painting. It smells of dried blood and what I imagine to be fat. A huge Kobe-style side of beef hangs at the back. It weighs about 600kg and is white with fat. There is also a pig’s carcass from Randfontein, still with its head, but missing its intestines.

McCann plans on moving some of the operation — such as deboning — to her other butchery in Linbro Park, which will clear some space at Braeside so her customers can experience what she calls the “theatre and art that is butchery”. She’s planning to install ageing cabinets so that customers can order a cut and then visit to watch it age (for at least two to three weeks on the bone) before it is deboned.

The only meat (besides the chicken and pork) in the butchery that isn’t grass-fed is the Kobe-style beef and McCann said she wrestled with the decision to stock it. But she trusts the farmer, coincidentally named Brian Angus.

Speaking on the phone from his farm between Kroonstad and Bethlehem, Angus says someone had managed to “smuggle” some embryos out of Japan and that he had then got hold of some of “the genetics”. The microscopic embryos were transplanted into surrogate Anguses.

Demand for the meat, and the cows, “has exploded”, says Angus, adding that he and his family were “just farmers. We bit off more than we could chew.”

He recently held an auction and sold five cows for R127 000 each, while a bull went for R225 000.

He supplies the Pick n Pay in Hurlingham in Johannesburg, Braeside, and has a private distributor in Cape Town.

Getting the balance right
He slaughters the animals when they’re about two years old, which is one reason why the meat is so expensive. Angus says 60% to 70% of South African beef is slaughtered young — “12 months and they’re gone”— while he still has to pay for a year of feeding. They’re fed silage and maize, and he doesn’t use antibiotics or growth stimulants.

He says he and his family now find it hard to eat beef in restaurants as they’re used to Kobe-style beef. They also make burgers and sold 1 400 at the recent Cape Good Food and Wine Show. All they add to the meat is salt and pepper (11g of salt and 2g of pepper — one gram each of white and black) per kilogram.

Angus says his Kobe-style beef contains too much marbling for the South African consumer, who is more used to lean meat. So he mates his wagyu bulls with Angus cows for leaner meat. He now has about 150 pure-bred cows and 300 calves, from which he produces about 10 or 15 carcasses a month.

Chef Coco Reinarhz, who has the Sel et Poivre restaurant in Sandton, said Kobe-style beef was “mindblowing”. Reinarhz buys his stock from Braeside and McCann led me to him.

“This type of meat, the less you play with it the better. I serve it just plain grilled, with a sauce on the side,” Reinharz says.

“The thing is you don’t have to use powerful sauces because the taste of the meat is very sweet. So you don’t want too many sauces that will kill all the flavour. The other thing is that it melts in your mouth — it just melts — like butter on your tongue. I cook it very quickly and caramelise it on the outside to seal it and keep all the flavours inside.”

Kobe-style beef costs R600 a kg from the Butcher Shop & Grill in Sandton, which imports it from Australia. General manager Daryll Keenan has heard “the real stuff” from Japan costs R2 000 a kg.

They also prepare it plainly, cooking it “a little further than medium”, certainly no more than five minutes on the grill. “It’s a new product and people don’t understand how to eat it. Because of the fat content, a thinner cut is better.”

Insatiable appetites
The debate about which meat — grass-fed or grain-fed — is tastier or more tender is an old one. Young  animals, or weaners, are sold to feedlots when they reach between 160kg to 220kg, and then need to be fattened up, or “finished”.

About 70% of the animals slaughtered in South Africa are fattened in feedlots for 90 to 110 days. Cattle fed on grass take longer to reach the abattoir and are then older and, perhaps, a little tougher.

South Africans have an insatiable appetite for beef, eating their way through 815 000 tonnes of beef every year, of which we import about 100 000 tonnes.

For Professor Eddie Webb, the head of the department of animal and wildlife sciences at the University of Pretoria, the challenge for the red meat industry is to produce a product of consistent quality, or “reduce variation between animals at a carcass level”.

He says the local beef industry needs to increase production by about 11% — or 20 000 to 30 000 tonnes — a year over the next decade to keep up with demand.

McCann says meat grown in feed-lots has a “distinct colour, a fake colour, and a distinct feel, like old jelly”. She rails against some feedlots, saying some use growth stimulants and admits she is not “well liked” by those in the industry.

Dave Ford, the executive director of the Feedlot Association of South Africa and chairperson of the Red Meat Industry Forum, says that there are simply different production systems for different consumers and, although some preferred feedlot beef, others liked range-fed.

“Some say range-fed is too tough, it’s old, or it’s got yellow fat. Beef is beef. You’ve got different people eating different products. Everybody can make their own choice and it’s unfair to send out a message [for either kind].”

McCann says at her blind-tasting events between 80% and 90% of her guests prefer grass-fed.

“At the tastings, people say it tastes like Sunday roast with gran, which is how it used to taste before we started manipulating it,” says McCann.

Webb says, with grass-fed animals, there is a “psychological” belief that the meat is of better quality. “Some people are happy [with grass-fed]. Some won’t buy it again because of too much variation.”

He says, in the case of feedlots, “you know exactly what goes into the animal” and that the animal is fattened over a very short period of time.

Webb’s view is that the difference in flavour is a relatively minor matter.

“My gut feeling is that the feedlot system is more beneficial and you have a consistent end product.”

McCann takes exception to Webb’s use of the word “psychological” in determining the difference between grass- and grain-fed, and offers to cook me one of each.

McCann sends a driver to Pick n Pay, who returns, coincidentally, with a piece of Angus’s grain-fed rump steak. She then picks a piece of grass-fed rump from Mooi River from her fridge and cuts them into perfect squares. The grass-fed piece is dark red, the fat yellow (stained by pigments in the grass), while the other is paler. An electric cooker is set up on a counter and the steaks are placed side by side in the pan.

The steak from the grass-fed cow tastes meatier, richer and more tender than the steak from the cow who was fed on grain.

Curiously, the grain-feed steak continues to leak a thin, bloody serum, while that of the grass doesn’t. McCann believes this is because feedlot animals are perhaps thirstier and there is more moisture in the meat, which then leaches out after cooking.

Webb says feedlot beef has an intensive finishing, or fattening phase, which is the only reliable way to meet the demand for protein.

“Whether you like the system or not, there’s no other option available. There’s definitely a market for grass-fed animals, but to try and discredit one system is not doing animal production a favour and it’s not doing the consumer a favour.

“If some artist says, ‘I don’t eat meat’, it takes a long time for the industry to recover from those comments. Any statement, like what we’re hearing about meat substitution, has a serious effect on the economics of meat. It takes a long time to recover,” Webb says.

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