The meat is more caressed than cooked. The farmer reaches over the littleyaki-niku grill, clasps a dainty slice with a pair of tongs and places it on my plate. He nods in approval as I take it in my chopsticks and lift it to my mouth. The flavour booms on my palate. A rush of umami greatness, made all the more intense by the butter-soft texture and creaminess of the flesh.
It’s almost too tender and yielding, disintegrating into atoms like a first love’s broken heart. The flavour oozes, but I’ve no idea if it has a long finish. I’ve already taken a second slice, then a third and fourth. In my rapturous state, I almost forget that I’m sitting in the simple little pinewood restaurant at the edge of the Takara Ranch, a wagyu beef farm inShiga Prefecture, western Japan.
With me are the farmer and founder, Yoshihiro Tawara, and his chief beef inspector, enigmatically referred to simply as Mr Iba. On interpretation duty is David Dojo, the main distributor and marketing brain behind Mr Tawara’s beef. But there’s no need for words right now. Aside from the the occasional “mmmm”, the message on my blissed-out face is unlikely to be lost in translation.
It’s the best beef I’ve ever tasted. The kind that renders words impotent. So what else is there to do but keep on eating?
This is Ohmi beef, from the quiet rural settlement of Ohmi-Hachiman on the banks of lake Biwa. For many beef connoisseurs in Japan, it is more revered than even the beef from Kobe or Matsusaka. It’s from the legendary wagyu breed of cow (wagyu means Japanese cow), which are surely among the most pampered cattle in the world - and the most sought after in fine-dining restaurants.
Wagyu is prized for its extremely high fat content, which can be seen in thesashi or marbling of the meat. It sounds unhealthy, but since this is monounsaturated fat, it melts at very low temperatures. Much of the fat disappears in cooking, leaving incredibly tender and tasty meat.
Wagyu cows can be reared anywhere in the world, from Australia to the US, but according to Mr Tawara, only the unique terroir of Japan can produce such a high quality product. «It’s good that they can make wagyu over there in Australia,» he says. «But you can’t say it’s real wagyu.»
I look around the farm and see miles of rolling green fields, baby blue skies and cream-puff clouds. The air from the surrounding mountains is as clean and fresh as the natural spring water the cows drink. All is quiet but for the playful twitter of birds.
In the cow sheds, the wagyu cattle are contentedly chewing the cud, two per pen. «Before we ship them out at 30 months old, we change the diet five times at different stages of growth,» says Mr Tawara. «That way we can monitor them individually, see how they eat and if they are too stressed.
A happy wagyu cow is a healthy wagyu cow. And a fat one. The aim is to make the cows as relaxed as possible in order to give them a bigger appetite. It’s given rise to all kinds of practises, such as massaging the animals to feeding them beer or sake. But not at Takara. «We don’t feed the cattle beer at this ranch,» says Mr Tawara. «We’re halal certified for the UAE.»
Mr Tawara takes me outside to where a very special cow is waiting. It’s a fine female specimen, huge, with a glossy hide and an elaborately embroidered red cotton coat. There’s a golden eagle stitched onto the coat, and a name: HH Sheikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It’s a prizeOhmi cow, selected especially for the Abu Dhabi Sheikh and billionaire owner of Manchester City football club. It comes as no surprise that he has expensive tastes.
«When I started in 1970, I paid $100 or $200 for a cow,» says Mr Tawara. «Now I might sell a single cow for around $10,000, and the good ones go up to around $20,000. But when I sell to the UAE, it’s not about money, it’s about loyalty. It makes me proud as a farmer that they trust me and that my Ohmi beef is served to the royal family of Abu Dhabi. It’s the best thing in life.»
Beef of all grades is exported from Japan to the Middle East and the US, but the Sheikh’s cows are especially pampered. First Mr Tawara assesses the genetics of the cow, which is where Mr Iba comes in. Mr Iba has been selecting cows and recommending feeding programmes for over 40 years. He picks out the right calf, which is then placed in a paddock with a special dietary programme. The cow is monitored closely, and only the very best ones make it to the Sheikh’s palaces.
Around these parts, it’s believed that Ohmi was the original royal beef. The consumption of beef in Japan was outlawed until the Emperor tried Ohmi, and in 1872 the ban was lifted. «It’s the Japanese Emperor’s beef,» says Mr Tawara. «For the royal family of Japan, Ohmi is the beef. Of course, Kobeand Matsusaka is very famous in Japan, but for the royal family Ohmi is the best.»
Not only is Mr Tawara’s Ohmi beef fit for an Emperor and a Sheikh, but he has another potential customer in mind - the Queen of England. «I’m working with the British Embassy, and waiting for the EU to allow exports of Japanese meat into the UK,» says Mr Tawara with a twinkle in his eye. «You know Angus and Hereford beef - it’s kind of hard to cut. It’s tough. That’s good too, in a way, but Ohmi is very easy. The texture is so tender. Once the Queen tastes it, she will stick with Ohmi.»