WHAT'S your beef? If you're truly discerning and have the means, your first choice is probably Wagyu steak. With its extensive intramuscular marbling (it's called "white beef" by some), Wagyu beef is richer, tastier and more buttery than any other. That's why, after he first tried it years ago, Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen, owner of Oak Valley farm near Elgin, decided to raise a herd of Wagyu cattle in South Africa.
"I was on holiday with my brother in Australia and, while shopping for something for dinner one day, we came across Wagyu beef in a butchery," he says. "Intrigued by its deep red colour and vast marbling, we asked the butcher how to prepare it (lightly seared is most recommended) and took it home. I'd never tasted anything like it and began thinking about breeding Wagyu at Oak Valley."
Because the breed, which originates from Japan, is tightly controlled by the Japanese government and the genetic pool is relatively small, it took Rawbone-Viljoen a while to settle on the best strain of Wagyu for South African conditions. Finally, in 2007, the first imported fertilised Wagyu embryos arrived from Australia, which boasts some of the finest Wagyu genetics outside Japan.
The embryos were implanted in the large red and white Simmentaler cows, which made up the farm's beef herd at the time. In 2008, the first 100% Wagyu calves were born in Elgin and, two days before my visit to the farm late last month, two more calves were delivered, bringing Oak Valley's herd to 29.
The breeding was recently stepped up with the introduction of a super-ovulation programme, which involves harvesting embryos from the Wagyu heifers, implanting them in Simmentaler cows and, through artificial insemination from select Australian bulls, impregnating the surrogates.
This year's calves - some born to the first generation of Wagyu heifers bred on the farm in 2008 and others carried by surrogate Simmentalers - are as cute as any calf I've known, but also, markedly different.
While they're predominantly black like Angus (there are a few red lines of Wagyu), the Wagyu's face is longer with a moose-like quality. And, unlike most other breeds of beef, its forequarters - considered the prime cut of the Wagyu - are more muscular than its hindquarters.
This is because the breed was initially raised in Japan in the second century to pull carts and ploughs. Cattle with high intramuscular fat were favoured as they have more energy than breeds with fat concentrated outside the muscle, hence the evolution of the intense marbling in the Wagyu.
Eating meat from four-legged animals was forbidden in Japan for more than a thousand years before 1868 and only when Emperor Meiji lifted the ban did the Japanese discover Wagyu was an excellent and tasty source of protein. Even so, it took a while to catch on and meat is still considered a delicacy in the country.
That's not to say Wagyu beef isn't highly valued the world over. The meat retails at an average of R1500/kg worldwide and, in a recent livestock transaction in South Africa, Brian Angus of Woodview near Arlingon in the Free State (the only other known breeder of Wagyus in South Africa) sold Compagnie Richemont executive chairman and CEO Johann Rupert a pair of Wagyu heifers for R186000 each.
"It's not just that the Wagyu tastes exceptional and is exclusive, it also takes longer to raise," says Rawbone-Viljoen. "Whereas other beef cattle are ready for slaughter from 15 to 30 months, Wagyus take up to 36 months until they're at their prime."
And what about the careful diet that includes a beer a day and the administering, by hand, of Sake massages, which legend has it the Wagyu demands? Unluckily for South African Wagyu, beer, which is traditionally added in small measure to their diets in Japan to stimulate their appetites during oppressively humid summers, is unnecessary in our climate. But the massage is indeed available to Oak Valley's Wagyu. A special Wagyu massage device, which rather resembles the kind of large roller brush found at a carwash (except the bristles on the Wagyu massager are stiff and coarse) is positioned and shaped to comfortably accommodate that animal's body. When a Wagyu steps onto a metal plate below the brush - and why wouldn't it, if the brush was a little less coarse, I'd do it too - the brush begins rolling, providing a satisfying scratch, brush and rub-down all in one.
The idea of the massage is to improve the distribution and softness of the intramuscular fat. Marbling is graded on a scale of one to 12 with 12 the highest - "but eight is the sweet spot".
It's important to note, Rawbone-Viljoen points out, that the marbling on Wagyu beef is unlike the fat in other beef. It has a higher percentage of mono-unsaturated fat and even the saturated fat is different; consisting of 40% stearic acid, it is said to have minimal effect on raising cholesterol.
So, Wagyu beef is tender and tasty, and possibly healthier than other meat? But don't take my word for it: try it for yourself. Oak Valley, which is also a major producer of apples, pears and fresh cut flowers and makes increasingly sought-after wine (particularly Pinot Noir), takes its first foray into the restaurant and deli business with the opening of The Poolroom at Oak Valley this spring.
The new venture, which is a partnership between Rawbone-Viljoen and former co-owner of Icon and Cilantro restaurants in Johannesburg, Nicole Precoudis, is situated in the beautifully renovated poolroom adjacent to the original farmstead.
The proposed menu not only includes Wagyu steaks, tartar and burgers but also pork dishes courtesy of Oak Valley's pigs, which are fed, Spanish-style, on the acorns harvested from 4500 oak trees on the farm. Precoudis has also developed a range of charcuterie and meat products, including pancetta, coppa, salami, saucisson, hams, terrines and sausages, which will be on sale in the deli.
The idea of opening a restaurant was that of Rawbone-Viljoen's son, Christopher, who recently settled back on the farm, having completed his studies and travels. The idea, concedes father, is somewhat nerve-wracking for a farmer. "But, if people fall for Wagyu like I did years ago, I can't see how we can wrong."