There was wagyu aplenty in London last week, as Chef Yoshihiro Narisawa arrived in town to showcase a special variety of Japanese beef. The chef, whose eponymous Tokyo restaurant has two Michelin stars, laid on a lavish dinner at the Zetter Hotel in trendy Clerkenwell to champion the culture and cuisine of Gifu Prefecture - and in particular its prized Hida beef.
Narisawa’s visit comes after the European Union re-opened its market to imports of wagyu beef from Japan, which was banned following an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2000. Since the all-clear, connoisseurs from France to Finland have had the chance to taste some of the world’s finest beef on European soil.
Hida beef is set to hit London’s vibrant food scene soon. For a sneak preview, the likes of St. John’s Fergus Henderson and Chiltern Firehouse’s Nuno Mendes were in attendance to sample such Hida beef delights as ‘Ichibo tartare’ and ‘sirloin hobayaki’ on a menu entitled Evolve with the Forest. But Narisawa was keen to stress that it’s not all about the beef. The chef, whose cuisine encapsulates a philosophy of ‘sustainable and beneficial gastronomy’, told Fine Dining Lovers he intended to demonstrate the harmony between food, its producers and the natural environment in this special region of his home country.
Gifu Prefecture lies at the heart of Japan, between Kyoto and Nagoya, and is known as the ‘kingdom of clear waters’ thanks to its clean rivers and streams. Takayama, in the Hida region of Gifu, has the perfect environmental landscape or ‘satoyama’ to rear high-quality cattle. “It’s surrounded by mountains and forests and has a very close connection with nature. It’s that relationship with the natural world that I’m interested in, and it’s very strong in Gifu Prefecture. It’s the environment which gives the beef its quality,” said Narisawa.
Hida beef, like all authentic wagyu beef, is renowned for its rich marbling and intense flavour. Wagyu means ‘Japanese cow’ and refers to any of four breeds of cattle: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn and Japanese Polled. Like the famous Kobe, Ohmi and Matsusaka beef, Hida is a kind of wagyu brand from a specific region; so while not all wagyu is Hida, all Hida beef is wagyu beef.
The beef has a high fat content which melts at a low temperature, giving the meat a rich flavour and unique tenderness. It’s certainly very special, but all those stories you’ve heard about farmers feeding cows beer and massaging them with sake are just myths, as Chef Narisawa was quick to point out. “What’s really important is the rancher, the actual producer of the beef itself,” he said.
The true secret of fine Japanese wagyu lies in a combination of genetics and environment, as the chef went on to explain: “With the Hida cow there’s a very important pedigree that goes back to one specific bull. But it’s also about the environment and way it’s being raised. What’s very important is the cows live in a very open and relaxed atmosphere, with rivers and streams all around.”
The bull Narisawa refers to was called Yasufuku, a Japanese black-haired stud who is believed to have sired in excess of 40,000 offspring since the early 1980s. Sadly, Yasufuku is no more, but it’s largely thanks to him that the luminaries of London’s food scene could taste Chef Narisawa’s multitude of Hida creations, from ‘menchi katsu’ deep-fried beef croquettes, to tenderloin aburi resembling semi-raw nigiri sushi that’s only partially grilled.
“One thing about Japanese beef is that you don’t have to eat a whole lot of it to feel sated,” said the chef. “The best way of cooking it for me is the hoba-yaki sirloin, where it’s served on a magnolia leaf. Here there’s a mix of shabu-shabu and sukiyaki cooking styles. You dip the thinly-sliced beef in and it cooks lightly. There’s a slightly sweet sukiyaki-style sauce on top. The cooking styles in this dish are really something you can’t find outside of Japan.”
Nevertheless, as expected from a French-trained chef who once worked under Joel Robuchon, Narisawa’s menu had a noticeable European twist. But he insisted his dinner wasn’t about promoting Hida beef to European audiences.
“For me what’s most important is eating and enjoying local ingredients. It’s about the ways in which you can enjoy Hida beef, but more importantly, it’s a way of showing what we have in Gifu Prefecture - this place that’s very much connected with its environment. It’s a chance to get people interested so they’ll want to go to Gifu and see it for themselves.”