Healthy Butcher


Keith Gordon
Special to the Star

Fancy food can affect people oddly. Even in these straitened times, gourmands drift into reveries contemplating succulent tidbits that step into Essential Food Experiences – foods to try before you die.

Beef’s leading contender in the class hails from Japan. Wagyu beef, a breed rarely seen on North American tables, has garnered a reputation as the ultimate in taste and texture. And price.

But Wagyu beef is now easier to get, with local producers offering several variations.

Yet it still costs … well … a lot.

Is it worth the money?

Brian Knox, a Formosa, Ont., Wagyu farmer, describes it as “succulent, rich. It epitomizes what you think of as quintessential beef flavour.”

Harbour 60 restaurant, in Toronto, will serve you up a 12-ounce rib-eye of authentic Japanese Kobe Wagyu for a mere $265. For the home chef, Pusateri’s Fine Foods will hook you up with the renowned Kobe-beef version of Wagyu for a mere $135 a pound (cooking tips included).

Canadian versions sell for less than the Japanese imports – Cumbrae’s meat shop offers its purebred, local rib-eye for $49 a pound. A cross between a Wagyu and a red Angus yields a version that thrives in Canada. Exceptionally hardy, disease-resistant and quicker to mature, it sells at several outlets, such as The Healthy Butcher, for the same price as organic beef: $25.99 per pound.

Raised in Ontario for less than 20 years, Wagyu cattle are now the focus of four ranches in the Formosa area and another near Jarvis, Ont., where lush fodder and old-school farmers combine to produce some interesting beef. More ranches are expected, so the price is likely to come down. There are only about about 200 breeders in North America.

The Japanese cattle’s lineage dates back to the early 1800s when they were bred to pull plows through rice fields.

That translated into exceptional amounts of fat distributed throughout the flesh in a delicate web. It assures all the benefits of great marbling (rich flavour, tenderness and moisture) without large, solid fatty chunks.

But it’s more than just breeding.

“Feed makes a tremendous amount of difference,” says Stephen Alexander, of Cumbrae’s, where they’re into their fifth generation of purebred Wagyu production. “We’re doing barley, grain, alfalfa, red clover hay and sileage, and not one drop of hormones or antibiotics.”

He also takes advantage of the beef’s exceptional marbling to extend dry-aging to a minimum of seven weeks. Dry-aged beef sheds moisture as it hangs, yielding a more intensely flavoured, tender beef. Twenty-eight to 35 days is the dry-aged standard.

At Pusateri’s, the imported version is certainly expensive. “If you’re going to have it, you might as well have the real thing,” general manager John Mastroianni says.

“It’s an education process we pass on to our customers. It cooks very briefly, and comes out fork tender.”

Well-done and Wagyu don’t go well together.

Waygu’s most famous incarnation – and most expensive – is Kobe beef. Authentic Kobe is a very specific animal raised in the Kobe Precinct of Japan, of pure Wagyu stock, and treated to a variety of special feeding and husbandry techniques (most notably warm Sake massages, and rice beer as a food supplement).

Like Champagne wine, or Parma Ham, the designation is zealously guarded. Exports of Wagyu bloodstock, and even semen, are restricted by the Japanese government to protect the Kobe name and standard of quality.

Manhattan’s priciest burger, at $41 (U.S.) features Kobe beef (and foie gras, of course) at the Old Homestead restaurant. In Toronto, one patty from the Healthy Butcher will run you about $8.

“White linen” restaurants world-wide feature Kobe in money-no-object dining adventures.

It’s an expensive, time- and labour-intensive breed to raise. Costly feed supplements help deliver superior fat and flavour. The breed comes into its prime later than most beef cattle, with 2-1/2 to 3 years being the ideal age (in Kobe, three years is minimum).

North America imposes the “30-month” rule to minimize the risk of humans eating BSE-infected beef by preventing cattle older than 30 months from entering the food chain.

Still, even 30 months is nearly a year older than most standard beef cattle.For what it’s worth, Wagyu is the best beef I’ve ever tasted; a soft, rich, savoury morsel that left a sweet coating on the tongue, with lingering herbal and aromatic overtones.

Weigh your budget against the date of your likely demise. The larger the former, or nearer the latter, the more likely Wagyu’s for you.

Keith Gordon slings meat at The Healthy Butcher.