South Australian cattle station debuts tasting room

There was a time when Wagyu beef was eaten by only the most sophisticated of travelers. True Kobe beef is from Wagyu cattle that are raised in a very specific manner in the Hyogo Prefecture of Japan. Technically, Wagyu is the Japanese term for all cattle, and Kobe beef comes from a strain known as Tajima.

Kobe Wagyu receive massages to reduce stress and muscle stiffness, a summer diet supplemented with beer as an appetite stimulant, and regular brush-downs with sake (which is reputed to soften their coats, not act as some bizarre form of on-the-hoof marinade). At anywhere from $200 to $300 a pound, Kobe beef is the most expensive in the world.

Wagyu have been raised in the U.S. since the mid-seventies, but the market really took off in the nineties. Today, it’s not unusual to find “Kobe” steaks and burgers on menus, but it’s a bit of marketing hyperbole. It’s actually “American Wagyu,” or “American Style Kobe,” or “Kobe American Style.” It’s still great meat, but it’s not Kobe beef, and most American Wagyu are crossbred with Angus cattle.

What has all this to do with a South Australian cattle station, you ask? Australia has its own burgeoning Wagyu industry, and in May I visited Mayura Station, a full-blood Wagyu operation just outside the Coonawara wine region. I’m a longtime advocate of the farm-to-fork concept, and Mayura produces some of Australia’s best Wagyu beef, supplying an impressive roster of restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney, Penfold’s Magill Estate in Adelaide, and the Ritz-Carlton Singapore. As it happened, I’d tried Wagyu for the first time the week prior at Penfold’s, and it was delicious. But it was also obscured in sauce, and I didn’t have a real sense of what the big deal was. I was a bit skeptical, to be honest, so I made the trek out to Mayura to find out more.


Mayura is owned and operated by the entrepreneurial de Bruin family, who first brought over live, full-blood Wagyu from Japan in 1998. Today, they have a sustainable operation that produces award-winning beef from one of the largest (1,700 head of breeders) full-blood herds outside of Japan. Most of the meat is exported to Southeast Asia and the UAE, but their newest business concept is likely to create a larger domestic fan base.

In May, Mayura debuted its tasting room, a professional demonstration kitchen equipped with a long counter in front of the flattop range. Visitors from all over the world can now let their tastebuds discover why Wagyu is such a big deal.

Explains manager Scott de Bruin, “We felt there was a strong need for visitors and valued clients to experience various cooking styles from a simple tasting ($80AUD/pp), through to a full degustation paired with local wines ($120AUD/pp). The tasting room is a serious take on the “paddock-to-plate” concept, designed to mirror a state-of-the-art Teppanyaki bar.”

I visited Mayura as part of a Limestone Coast excursion for Tasting Australia. The country’s largest food and wine festival, it’s held in Adelaide every other year. While there’s an emphasis on South Australia, which produces most of the country’s wine in its 16 growing regions (including designations within), it’s generally a celebration of all things edible and Australian. For one hedonistic week, there are tastings, pairings, classes, tours, dinners, seminars, demos, and a riverside “Feast for the Senses” with dozens of food stalls.

En route to visit some wineries, a group of us had arranged to visit Mayura and do a vertical (head-to-tail) tasting. The tasting room accommodates 14 to 40 guests by appointment (self-drive required if you’re not with an organized group, so call well in advance to see if you can fit into an existing booking). All visits include a tour to visit the cattle, so guests can learn more about the breed, industry, and Mayura’s animal husbandry practices. You can even buy packaged beef on-site, for domestic travel.

We were greeted by de Bruin and on-site chef Kirby Shearing. Our group of 14 lined up in front of the place settings running down the length of the demo area. A huge overhead mirror provided a bird’s eye view of Shearing, as he showed us the various cuts of beef we would be tasting, in order: tongue, flank steak, filet, bresaola (thin slices of air-dried beef), and strip loin. Then de Bruin talked about Mayura’s history and the Australian Wagyu industry.

The reason Wagyu is so tender (not accounting for feeding practices, which includes extra finishing time on a blend of specific grains) is because the cattle have a higher percentage of marbling, due to selective breeding practices over thousands of years. Most of the fat is monounsaturated, the meat high in conjugated linoleic acid, and Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Wagyu beef actually has myriad health benefits similar to those found in grass-finished beef. It isn’t aged the way some American beef is, because the fat will break down. The fat also dissipates throughout the meat as it cooks, making it more forgiving to work with.

Japanese beef is graded on a scale of one to five (highest), based on marbling, yield, meat color, firmness and texture, and fat quality. Wagyu should be at least 25% marbled fat (by comparison, USDA Prime meat must have six- to eight-percent, and our grading system doesn’t include a classification for Wagyu). Thus, Japanese A-5 Wagyu is considered primo, top-of-the-line. It should be tender, with lustrous fat and a sweet, fine flavor, even when eaten raw, as with a carpaccio.

Shearing started us off with a tasting plate of tongue that had been brined and poached. It was silky and mild, practically melting in my mouth. Next came flash-seared cubes of flank, a lean cut that is usually marinated, and cut across the grain to make it more tender. Not this steak. It was unctuously fatty, in the best possible way. Buttery. Juicy. Addictive.

Filet is already a rich cut, so I was especially curious to see how Wagyu compared to Prime.
The meat fell away at the touch of Shearing’s knife, it was so tender. Absolutely delicious, but as with regular beef, I prefer a ribeye or New York steak, because they have more flavor and a bit of chew to them. The flank steak had a little more complexity to it.

The bresaola was made from eye of round, and my least favorite, only because I’m not a big fan of the preparation. But the strip loin that concluded our tasting was a unanimous hit. While Wagyu is undeniably more subtle in flavor than standard grain- or grass-finished beef, it was deeply flavorful, and just slightly toothsome. Yet it still retained that glorious, fat-infused richness. Paired with a side of Shearing’s crisp, airy onion rings (his secret weapon: adding gin to his beer batter).

Our visit concluded with a tour of the open barns where some of the cattle were being finished on grain. They’re pretty things: Stocky and chocolate brown, with short horns that slant upwards. I was duly impressed with the property we saw on the tour. As a food and agriculture writer, it’s easy to tell when you’re dealing with a facility not on top of its sanitation or animal husbandry practices.

So here’s the thing about Wagyu…or Kobe beef. It’s pricey as hell, but get the good stuff, and it’s so rich, you can’t eat more than a few ounces. I now understand why true Kobe beef, and the cattle it comes from, have such a reputation. A little Wagyu goes a long way.

Getting There

The Limestone Coast is located in the southeastern part of the state. It’s a diverse mix of remote beaches and sand dunes, pine forest, ancient caves (including Naracoorte World Heritage Fossil Site, worth a visit, especially if you go caving), and farmland and vineyards. The adorable seaside town of Robe, in particular, is a great place to spend a weekend and feast upon the crayfish (actually spiny lobster) the town is famous for.

Of the Limestone Coast’s six wine regions, Coonawara is the most famous (primarily for its Cabernet Sauvignon). It’s a one-hour flight from Adelaide to the pleasant town of Mt. Gambier, famed for its stunning Blue Lake, which is actually a volcanic crater. Mayura, which is located just outside the town of Millicent, is a thirty-minute drive away (you can rent a car at the airport). The Barn in Mt. Gambier makes a good overnight base for Wagyu- and wine-tasting excursions. Just in case you return still hankering for a ribeye and a glass of red, The Barn Steakhouse wine list has over 400 selections from the region. .

Qantas and the South Australia Tourism Commission are giving away unlimited flights for two from Los Angeles to Adelaide for one year, in a contest running through December 31st, 2010. To enter, visit

Tasting Australia 2012 will be held April 26-May 3.

Three Intrepid Travel deals for Mother’s Day

Are you standing in stores, staring at shelves and scratching your head? Figuring out the perfect Mother’s Day gift is always tough. In the end, you can’t afford what you want to get her, buy her something that sucks instead and try to look like the thought is really what counts. Every year, you go through it, and the outcome is the same. Until 2010.

Make this the year you do something different for your mother, giving her the chance to get away from her kids for a while. Here are three deals for Mother’s Day (which is May 9, this year) from Intrepid Travel:

1. The Kimberly
You can save 20 percent – that’s $338 – on Intrepid’s eight-day “Spirit of the Kimberly” excursion in northwestern Australia, which includes the Mimbi Caves, crystal clear pools, rare fossils and ancient rock art.
New price: $1,352

2. Grand China
Send your mother down the Yangzi River as part of a 21-day trip focused on cruising the most famous rivers in the world. Mom will get to enjoy the culture, countryside and archaeological sites offered up on this trip, and you’ll save 20 percent ($711).
New price: $2,844

3. Rome to Istanbul
Mom will spend her day on the Greek island of Santorini, relaxing because of her children – not despite them. This is only one of the 16 days on this trip, which includes Italy and Turkey, as well … not to mention a $558 savings.
New price: $2,232

Check out our other Mothers Day coverage here.

Dispatch from China: The time I befriended a fossil smuggler

The Imperial-styled strip mall may look like a relic of the past, with its clay tiles, ornate sidings and those Chinese New Year red lanterns, but like much in China, it’s spanking new. Yet relics of the past are good business here. In one of the mall’s countless stores, apron-clad Zhang Lijie is chipping away the rock around a 120 million-year-old fish fossil that she plans to sell for $3. Zhang, 38, went from selling vegetables a decade ago to hawking fossils on a street corners. Now, she owns her own store, The Treasure Mansion, which stocks the fossilized remains of ancient fish, trees, plants and insects – but no dinosaurs, which are officially illegal.

“Business is OK,” she says with a blush of modesty, after reluctantly admitting she earns 10 times what she did as a farmer, and now lives comfortably in an airy loft above the shop.
Here in Chaoyang, an impoverished northeastern Chinese city surrounded by cornfields where farmers still use horse-drawn plows, prehistoric bones have jump-started the economy in a way no free-trade zone or joint venture could have done. The region shot to fame in the mid-1990s when paleontologists began discovering feathered dinosaurs and other well-preserved fossils. They eventually logged at least 500 new species in the area. Good news for scientists, but even better news for an entire generation of farmers, dealers, shop owners, and even local officials who profit from a flourishing underground trade in priceless fossils.

Most fossils find their way to Ancient Street, the pedestrian boulevard that, despite its name, opened only last year, boasting over 60 stores that make it by far the biggest commercial fossil market in the world. There’s a noticeable hierarchy here, with the newly minted dealers competing with each other, as well as peddlers of gaudy flowers and pirated books, out on the street. More established dealers set up booths in a crowded three-story building. Only the shrewdest, like Zhang, can afford the stand-alone storefronts.

Trade can be slow, and a gaggle of bored shopkeepers sit around a table sipping tea as a couple of college-aged students browse for gifts for their professors. Most customers buy fossils for others, as gifts or bribes. After an initial rush, shopkeepers say, demand has leveled out, although their stores remain open. “It’s normal to go a month or two without a sale, because there are so many other shops,” says one dealer. But she didn’t seem worried, explaining that selling just the occasional $300 petrified tree stump or $600 marine lizard will keep her business afloat.

Ancient Street is for the casual fossil buyer, of course; Chinese moguls and Western collectors head instead for dealers like Wang Facai (literally meaning “fortune”), whose store called Rare Stones, carries no precious jewels, just some dusty Ming vases (likely fakes) and cheap fish fossils scattered on the shelves. The bulky Wang, in a muscle T-shirt, glances around before beckoning me into one of two back rooms. From a secret closet behind a mirror, he pulls out a slab of rock which contains the profile of a half bird, half dinosaur, Confuciusornis sanctus, whose discovery in 1994 helped scientists develop the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

“Everyone wants this bird,” he says, trying to convince me the $8,500 sticker price is a steal. Wang also shows me pictures of a $1,500 dog-sized dino (uncanny resemblance to the pet dino in The Flintsones) and a $25,000 unidentified feathered dinosaur.

Although sales of dinosaurs are strictly illegal, local officials tend to look the other way. “The middlemen and authorities are in bed together,” says a retired reporter for the Chaoyang Daily, who has investigated the local fossil trade for the past decade. “The officials receive money, and even fossils, so they ignore the situation.”

As fossil collecting becomes the next big thing for China’s nouveaux riches and even Hollywood leading men – Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage reportedly recently got into a bidding war over the remains of a $276,000 Asian T-rex – the paleontological paradise of Chaoyang is under threat. Farmers and dealers are hard at work disturbing potentially valuable sites in the race to find specimens to sell. In a cornfield outside of town, farmers have sliced open an entire hill. Layers of earth, each covering deposits millions of years old, protrude naked, leaving only broken slabs of rock. Along the road back into town, farmers ride bicycles with shovels lashed to their backs, returning home after a hard day’s treasure-hunting.


Bizarre dinosaur on display at National Geographic Museum

The fact that until about 65-million years ago dinosaurs dominated our land is as fascinating as it is unfathomable.

For anybody even remotely interested in the evolution of life forms on our planet that goes back 230 million years, understanding how dinosaurs existed is enthralling. This is why National Geographic’s latest exhibition that displays original fossils of the Nigersaurus — one of the most bizarre dinosaurs ever, is worth checking out.

Remants of which were first discovered in 1993, the Nigersaurus was bizarre because it had a long shovel shaped vaccum cleaner type muzzle that sucked up plants with its 600-teeth full jaw — hence dubbed by some as the “mesozoic lawnmower”. If broken, these teeth could regenerate rapidly as each tooth had 10 replacement ones behind them. It grazed like a cow with its head down, this was unusual as dinosaurs are known to eat from trees with their necks up long and high. At 30-feet long, you can imagine its bulk, but funnily it had fragile feather-light bones — some of which are transluscent.

The exhibition will feature a life size reconstructed skeleton of the animal, a flesh model of its head and neck, and a cast of its brain.

The exhibition “Extreme Dinosaur: Africa’s Long-Necked Fern Mower” began yesterday at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall (1145 17th Street, N.W., Washington D.C.), and will run until Tuesday March 18, 2008; admission is free. For more information you can visit

Famous Fossil ‘Lucy’ to Visit U.S.

The first time I’d heard of Lucy was at this afterhours spot in LA. A friend of mine had taken me there promising I’d love the reggae music and low-key atmosphere. I did. Red, ites, and green paint coated the walls crying out RAS-TA-FAR-I. Posters of Selassie, famous Reggae stars and the Lion of Judah were pasted up over much of the paint and red lighting tinted the rooms. Everyone paid attention to no one in particular. They did their own thing. They minded their own business. While I swayed to the sounds of Bunny Wailer on the dance floor, they found dreamlands through their ganja. That was their business and none of mine. What I didn’t know was that it was a place full of intellectuals.

I made my way to the door to stand for a moment – to gather some fresh air. Just as I tried to peel my eyes away from an older man who had been high for hours and noticed my presence, it was too late. It was then that he put me onto Lucy and her greatness. “You from the bone of Lucy?” he asked me. Huh? Who? I hadn’t a clue what this strange man wanted to know. “The first ape-man bone found in E-ti-o-pia. You from the bone of Lucy?” he repeated. Was he saying I looked Ethiopian? Like an ape-man? Still no clue, but he went on to talk about the bone of Lucy, Ethiopia and other things I could not make out. I listened, nodded my head and took off for home when my friend had finally returned.

Something about Lucy stuck with me that day and for days after. Was the wise high fellow trying to relay something about me I didn’t know about myself? Probably not. Lucy is one of the world’s most famous fossils. Unearthed in Ethiopia back in 1974, the 3.2 million year-old Lucy skeleton could never be an ancestor of mine. Or could it?

In any event, I recently heard news that Lucy will be displayed in the United States for the first time ever next year. According to this piece the Ethiopian public has only seen Lucy twice and the real Lucy stays locked tight in a vault, while a replica stays on display in Addis Ababa. The tour is scheduled to kick off next September and will run for six-years, traveling through Washington, New York, Chicago and Denver. Those who are lucky enough to check Lucy out will also be able to view 190 other fossils, relics and artifacts traveling with the ancient skeleton. I’d say this is an amazing opportunity for some of our museums here in the U.S. and that anyone with even the tiniest interest in the early beginnings of man should make sure to go to the exhibit. I personally, will make it a priority to attend one showing, but of course I have a special connection to Lucy.