South Australian cattle station debuts tasting room

Australian cattle stationThere 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.

%Gallery-108549%

Australian cattle station

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.
Australian cattle station
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.
Australian cattle station
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 unlimitedflightstoaustralia.com.

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

Daily Pampering: new San Francisco restaurant debuts $390 truffle dinner

It’s truffle season again. In the Perigord, grizzled Frenchmen scour the forests using specially-trained female pigs or dogs to sniff out the rare black fungi growing from the roots of various tree species. In Piedmont, Italy, a similar hunt is under way for the even more esteemed white truffle. According to The Daily Beast, these little buggers can fetch an average of $3,500 a pound in a good economy (in ’09, the price for white truffles dropped to $1,800 to $2,500 a pound), making them one of the most expensive ingredients on earth.

In celebration of all this fungal goodness, Alexander’s Steakhouse in San Francisco is offering a nine-course truffle dinner for $390, through early 2011. Inside Scoop SF also tells us that for another $110, the restaurant will pair the wines for you. The Japanese-inflected meat temple opened last month in the buzzing SoMa neighborhood, but the sister location in the Silicon Valley is offering the same special.

Why are people willing to spend so much cash on a glorified foraged mushroom that smells like male pig pheromones? Gourmands will tell you the essence of the homely truffle elevates everything from scrambled eggs to pasta to euphoric levels. And truffles are supposedly an aphrodisiac (the scent of swine sex hormones, and all). Fortunately, a little of the pungent fungi goes a long way, and Alexander’s uses a total of 15 grams (roughly half-an-ounce) of black and white truffles on its special menu.

Dishes include elegant offerings like bonito sashimi with salsify, garlic chips, celery, curry foam, and black truffle; binchotan-roasted bone marrow, black garlic panko, citrus jam, and white truffle, and Japanese a5 Kagoshima ribeye cap [in plain English: expensive cut of top-grade imported Wagyu beef] with parsnip puree, butternut squash, chestnuts, and white truffle. Are you feeling randy yet, baby?

Want more? Get your daily dose pampering right here.

[Photo credit: Flickr user cyclingshepherd]

Minibar makes a memorable hotdog in Boston

I was surprised that fellow Gadlinger Melanie Nayer was willing to be seen in a restaurant with me. She generally covers the good life, and when it comes to culinary, I rush for the lowest common denominator. After kicking back martinis at the Fairmont Copley’s Oak Bar – and old haunt from my White Collar Travel days – we circled the Back Bay looking for an upscale alternative to the stuff I’d normally chomp in diners. We landed at minibar in the Copley Square Hotel, an establishment also recommended by @LuxeTiffany, who, as you can guess from her Twitter name, has tastes that tend to run higher than mine.

In this fine establishment, where we were looking to pick up some sliders, Melanie nearly shouted at me upon opening the menu, “They have hotdogs!” No, not for her of course. She’s seen that I look for a dog everywhere I go, however, and knew that a luxe dog from Boston‘s sexiest hotel was a must. So, still buzzing with vodka – not to mention the Pepin Garcia cigars and port I’d enjoyed earlier with Chris Lynn (@colonnade) of the Colonnade Hotel – I prepared to sink my teeth into a Kobe beef dog at minibar.I’ve always been skeptical about Kobe beef. In burgers, for example, the extra fat which delivers the flavor burns off in the cooking process, delivering far less of a Kobe experience than you’d find with a steak. So for hotdogs, I had no idea if the meat from the laziest cows on Earth would make a difference. I still don’t. Maybe it was the Kobe beef … or just the fact that Minibar knows how to find a damned good hotdog. I can’t be sure. But, the Kobe hotdog was nothing short of delightful.

Though my palate was fried with liquor and cigars, I was able to detect an interesting balance among the hotdog roll, the mustard (I missed much of the flavor here, I suspect) and even the roll, which was toasted to perfection, recalling the experience I had with Montreal foodie Katerine Rollet back in September.


For years, I steered clear of the upscale hotdog world. Even with my unrefined (perhaps obliterate) sense of taste, I could still appreciate the sorts of dishes that define an excellent restaurant, and I preferred to get my dogs from the “experts” stands and beside carts on the street. Yet, minibar has confirmed for me what I first began to sense in Antigua last summer: even the stylish can put together a hell of a hotdog.

“Bizarre Foods” on the Travel Channel: Asia potpourri

Location: Tokyo and Kobe Japan; Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Penang, Malaysia. (This episode was a repeat of a previous season. I missed this one the first time, so I was happy to catch it.)

Episode Rating: 4 Sheep Testicles (out of 4) using Aaron’s system that certainly works well for this episode–if you trade sheep for pig.

Summary: After watching this episode, it might seem like there is nothing but bizarre food in Asia. I can attest that the eating is among the finest. I’ve been to all three countries and promise there’s food to suit most people’s palate. Being an adventurous eater helps. What Andrew Zimmern honed in on is foods that are thought to give power. Feeling a bit blah? There’s nothing like some frog meat.

In Japan, frog sashimi is a real health pick me up. Sashimi is usually raw seafood–unless it’s frog. Chase it down with some lizard sake and you’re good to go. The lizard was leaning out of the glass like a garnish one might see at a Halloween party. Even more macabre, but maybe that’s just me, is eating the frog’s beating heart. Zimmern proclaimed it “not bad…not a lot of flavor.” To eat a beating heart, I’d need a bit more than “not bad.” See the YouTube video for the full effect.

Suppon, a soft-shelled turtle has been eaten in Japan for 450 years. In Japan, turtle is mega power food. It gives men extra get up and go, if you know what I mean. For women, it’s supposed to do wonders for the skin. The soup version looked tasty, if one ignored the detail of Zimmern gnawing on the turtle leg. Watching the turtle bleed beforehand, though, was a big ick. Zimmern downed some turtle blood mixed with rice wine before he dug into the soup. I’d like my rice wine plain, thank you.

Another bizarre dish Zimmern tackled was fugu, poisonous blowfish. I’d pass on it. First of all, 100 people a year die from eating fugu when it’s not prepared correctly. Secondly, even when it’s prepared correctly, there’s enough poison in it to make your mouth numb. See Matthew’s post that gives more specifics.

The detail about Kobe beef was interesting–those are some happy cows, and I got a kick out of the yakitori contest when Zimmern and a Japanese pal had dueling moments of eating chicken part skewers. Evidently, not all chicken parts are tasty. “I’d rather be tied naked to an ant hill than eat the rest of this,” Zimmern declared.

Once Zimmern left Japan for Thailand, it was market browsing past ant larvae, grubs, beetles, grilled frog on a stick and a host of other taste treats. I have eaten bird’s nest soup, however, and thought it not bad–for swallow nests. Zimmern went shopping and pointed out that swallows’ nests cost up to $1,000 for a package of 12 of the finest.

Outside Chiang Mai, Zimmern ate street food which were hits and misses. One miss was some sort of red sausage that was a mix of pork and organ meats. A real gag with that one. He also downed spirulina, a drink made from live algae that’s supposedly one of the healthiest foods. It’s gotta be good for you. It’s green. Plus, he said it smelled like the bottom of an aquarium. You can get it in pill form if you want.

Although visiting a hill tribe in Thailand is a wonderful experience, the bat eating is something I’d do without. Those fruit bats, when stir fried, look like fruit bats stir fried–perfect for that Halloween party with the lizard sake chaser.

When Zimmern hit Penang, an island of Malaysia, I had flashbacks to some awesome meals. Sambal, the sauce made from shrimp paste is good–I wouldn’t eat buckets of it, but it’s good. Zimmern ate the fiery version and in between fanning his hands in front of his face, asked, “Is their steam coming out of my ears?” Penang is also a wonderful place to spend time. One thing I appreciated about this segment was the inclusion of Indian food. Indian food in Malaysia (and Singapore) is superb. I ate Indian food in Georgetown myself.

The food that Zimmern spit out was durian, the smelliest fruit on earth. It’s so smelly it’s not allowed on public transportation in Malaysia or Singapore.

Although this episode was a repeat, it was a good one for a trip around high points of places I’ve been. Next week, Zimmern’s back with a new episode. Stay tuned for India.

For Gadling recaps of this season: