Impressive to Behold, Shockingly Expensive to Buy, and Needless to Say, Incredibly Tasty
Matsusaka Beef, the Ultimate Wagyu: a Visually-Arresting and Delicious Work of Art
Japan has over 200 beef cattle brands competing in terms of quality.
The three most famous are Matsusaka, Kobe, and Omi beef.
Of these, Matsusaka beef cattle are painstakingly fattened just a few head at a time by feedlot farmers.
Read on to find out what makes these particular cows so special.
Text: JQR editorial department Photos: Satoru Naito
I setan in Shinjuku, Tokyo is a well-known luxury department store, and its bustling basement food hall offers a tempting array of ready-made dishes and bento boxes, dried goods, and confections both Japanese and western, plus regional specialties from across the country, and imported delicacies from around the world. The refrigerated meat cabinets occupying part of the fresh food section run for over twenty meters along the aisle. Strolling along and taking in the lineup of famous meat brands, one arrives at a sign proclaiming “Matsusaka beef” and a counter devoted to exactly that. This is the only butcher’s shop I know of that specializes in a single brand of meat. Great chunks of Matsusaka sirloin have been placed almost reverently in the cabinet, their vivid scarlet flesh shot through with delicate veins of fat. The attractive display contains ranboso (part of the rump), oyster blade steak, aitch bone, and fillet. This is indeed a high temple of beef, an art gallery of bovine delectableness. The shop only deals in A5-grade Matsusaka beef, and aged beef at that, which makes for some eye-wateringly high prices: top-grade sirloin, for example, might sell for ¥10,800 per 100 grams (including tax). Even so, the massive hunks of meat visibly reduce in number day by day, and it isn’t long until the display needs to be completely restocked.
Matsusaka beef is brand beef in a class of its own. It is the flesh of Japanese Black cows who have not yet been in calf, fattened in a specific region of Mie Prefecture, and the term “Matsusaka beef” or “Matsusaka beef cow” applies only to cattle registered on a “Matsusaka beef unit identity control system” that contains information on bloodlines, birth, shipping and distribution. For the Japanese, Matsusaka beef is an aspirational meat, a treat for special occasions. What is less widely known is that there is another, even more special category of Matsusaka beef: “premium (tokusan) Matsusaka beef”.
Hyogo Cattle are Fattened Longer to Become Premium Matsusaka Cows
After procuring a calf, beef-fattening farms will typically keep it for about 600 days before shipping it to market. However, premium Matsusaka beef cattle must be kept for 900 days or more, or about 10 months longer than usual, the idea being to age the beef while it is still on the well-fattened hoof. For the feedlot farmer, this longer period naturally carries greater risks. There is a chance the animal will stop eating, suffer an injury, or possibly succumb to the condition known as fat necrosis. Fattening farms are especially diligent when it comes to livestock health management, and caring for the cattle is a full-time job, whether it be taking them out for walks on fine days, brushing their coats, or performing myriad other tasks. Such individualized care means a single feedlot cannot support many stock.
Apart from the longer fattening period, to qualify as “premium” the animal must be a calf from Hyogo. If both of these conditions are met, the result is a premium Matsusaka beef cow, a designation that applies to only about percent of all Matsusaka cattle, or fewer than 300 head annually, making them a rare beast indeed.
Matsusaka beef cattle were originally calves from Tajima broken in in Wakayama, and brought to the region by livestock traders to till the fields. Animals retired after working for three or four years used to be kept for a year or so then sent to be slaughtered for meat. This humble background shows us that raising Matsusaka beef cattle has not always been a matter of sacrificing economic efficiency in order to produce a luxury product.
Each one a splendid specimen with a shiny coat: en masse a magnificent spectacle
Cattle assembled for judging. Animals are escorted in and out several times to discern their merits and weaknesses. Do the farmers recall the long days spent raising their prize charges as they while away the long waiting time?
Matsusaka beef is characterized by its deep red flesh and high-quality, quick-melting fat.
Matsusaka Beef Unit Identity Control System
You can use the “Matsusaka beef unit identity control system” to find out more about the Matsusaka beef you have purchased.
- Start by finding the 10-digit number on the Matsusaka beef sticker.
- Then go to the Mie Prefecture Matsusaka Shokuniku Kosha website (http://www.mie-msk.co.jp) and enter the number in the “Search beef unit ID number” box.
- This will bring up “stock unit data”, “farm data” and “slaughter/shipping data”.
Japanese beef consumption dates back only as far as the Meiji era. After Emperor Meiji dined on beef in 1872, the meat quickly gained popularity, and as a producer of good-quality cattle the Matsusaka region began sending its livestock to other parts of the country in response to demand.
Today, “Matsusaka beef” is managed as a brand by several related bodies, starting with the producers’ organization – the Matsusaka Ushi Kyogikai (Matsusaka Cattle Council) – and the majority of the meat is sold at stores belonging to the Matsusaka Nikugyu Kyokai (Matsusaka Beef Cattle Association). These stores display an “Association member’s certificate” or “approved Matsusaka meat retailer certificate”, with the “Matsusaka beef” sticker placed in front of meat in the chiller cabinets. The sticker serves as proof of the meat’s provenance. This level of control, right down to the level of individual cuts, is to guard against cheap meat being sold to consumers under false pretenses as “Matsusaka beef”.
To prevent this kind of dishonest practice, in August 2002, a step ahead of the national authorities, the Mie Prefecture Matsusaka Shokuniku Kosha public corporation introduced an ID system for individual Matsusaka cattle. Matsusaka cattle on feedlot farms are assigned a 10-digit number and tracked all the way from farmer to slaughter, and then to distribution. Consumers can visit a website and enter the number shown on the Matsusaka beef sticker into the “Matsusaka beef unit identity control system” to find out everything from the animal’s name to its date of birth, place of birth, where it was fattened, its bloodline back three generations, plus the feedlot name and number of days the animal underwent fattening (see box at left). The date the cow was slaughtered, date of shipping, address and telephone number of the purchaser of the carcass are also included, providing reassurance regarding the safety of the meat purchased (only available in Japanese).
Why is the Matsusaka beef brand protected in this way? Because quite simply, it tastes so good. This is due to:
1. Its delicate marbled fat (shimofuri) and tenderness
2. Its sweet, full-bodied, refined fragrance
3. The low melting point of its fat, making for excellent mouthfeel
This delectableness is the subject of research by the Mie Prefecture Livestock Research Institute. According to senior researcher Takeo Miyake, the wonderful melt-in-the-mouth quality that sets Matsusaka beef apart is due to unsaturated fatty acids.
Unsaturated Fatty Acids and Inosinate the Secrets to
“Unsaturated fatty acids have a low melting point, which makes the meat more tender, and the fat melt more readily in the mouth.” Miyake explains that for each extra month a cattle beast is fattened for market, unsaturated fatty acid content rises about 0.5 percent, which is why the meat of premium Matsusaka beef cattle fattened for longer periods is especially tender. Even when kept thoroughly chilled in the refrigerator, the fat will be about as soft as your earlobe, and at room temperature, virtually translucent. This makes it hard to capture the white of the fat in photographs.
“You have to chill premium Matsusaka beef really well before photographing it, or the marbling will not show up as that vibrant white, but just look sticky.”
The meat also acquires a more intense wagyu aroma the longer the animal is kept, and is sweeter as well. Amino acids and inosinate are essential components of this umami quality, but surprisingly, premium Matsusaka beef contains only low levels of amino acids, but tends to be rich in inosinate.
Research has only just begun, and is still at the data-gathering stage, but scientific proof of the secret to Matsusaka beef’s superlative flavor is doubtless not far away.
The Matsusaka Beef Cattle Competition is held every November in order to find the best Matsusaka cow. A huge event, it attracts crowds of spectators not just from Matsusaka, but also nearby Tsu, Ise and elsewhere to the Matsusaka Agricultural Park Bell Farm where the competition is held. Last year (the 66th competition) there were 88 cattle entered in the preliminary round of judging, 50 of which advanced to the main competition. Following rigorous judging, a “queen” is chosen from among these premium Matsusaka beef cattle, which have been fattened for almost three years and are the pride of their farmers.
Cattle start arriving at the site just after seven in the morning, and proceed to the massive marquee that serves as a standby area. Each weighs around 650 kilograms. One might be hesitant to approach these large, powerful-looking creatures with their splendid horns and rugged features, but their big round eyes hint at great gentleness. Apparently, despite their appearance, cattle are timid creatures. It’s true that things are tranquil in the tent: one would never imagine there were 50 cows tethered here.
Nine o’clock struck, and judging finally started. A number is called over of the megaphone, and the cow in question is led into the judging arena by the farmer who raised it. There are six judges, joined by six assistants to make a total of 12 on the judging panel. First they check things like the animal’s size, whether it has an even covering of flesh and thus tidy proportions, its coat, and the shape of its fetlocks.
According to deputy chair of the judging panel Takeo Miyake (the senior researcher at the Mie Prefecture Livestock Research Institute mentioned on the previous page), “The benchmark is basically that for breeding cows: a healthy body with just the right amount of muscle. Ideally a fattened beast has flesh on top of that.” The judges move unhurriedly among the cattle, scrutinizing them from all angles. Occasionally they crouch down and peer up from underneath, checking for any scratches or skin blemishes around the belly. Even the slightest swelling inside the legs will be noted.
Once the first round of judging is complete, the cow returns to the marquee, before being called out again a short while later, this time to determine its merits by comparison with a handful of others. Judges have the animals line up for comparison, reposition them, and then study them again. This process is repeated several times to allow the judges to identify even tiny variations in quality.
Under the watchful eyes of the crowd, judging continues in order to find which animal has earned the top honor
“With that kind of money riding on it, the judges have to be sure,” says Miyake. By “that kind of money”, he means the price at auction. The difference between first and second place is enormous. For example, on this occasion the top-placed cow sold for just over 33 million yen. The runner-up came in at 6.7 million, a difference of over 26 million yen. This is fifteen times the value of the average cattle beast, and the reason why the judging must be scrupulously fair.
As the judging progressed, eventually only the finest examples of Matsusaka cattle remained in the ring.
By this stage, to the amateur eye it was hard to discern any obvious differences between the cows, and the farmers, swallowing hard, kept their gaze fixed firmly on the conferring judges. At last a consensus seemed to have been reached, and Mie Prefecture Livestock Research Institute senior researcher Toshihide Okamoto, chair of the judging panel, stepped up to the microphone. For a brief moment the tension in the arena was palpable. Okamoto gave a brief and informative outline of the judging process, before declaring the winner to be entry number 15, Momomiya. The crowd erupted, cheers rang out, and winning entrant Yukinari Kitamura and his prize cow were immediately mobbed by reporters seeking interviews.
The Matsusaka beef cattle competition, launched in 1949, is a high point of the calendar for the farmers who fatten premium Matsusaka cattle for market. Every one of them strives to achieve a win in the competition, which in turn helps to maintain the superlative quality of premium Matsusaka beef.
At the award ceremony, which began at noon, the winner was congratulated by the governor of Mie Prefecture, the mayor of Matsusaka, and other luminaries. This was followed by a public auction that started at 1 p.m. Numbers lit up the electronic display as the auctioneer made his calls. 3,700,000-, 3,800,000-, 3,900,000-…at
4,000,000- spontaneous applause broke out. In 2002 the top cow sold for 50 million yen. The Matsusaka Beef Cattle Competition is a huge event that encapsulates the spirit of the Matsusaka beef brand.