In the concluding part of a two-part article, FOOD AND WINE contributor Mei Chin explores how Irish terroir effects wagyu.
Thirty years ago, my aunt Yen, a food chemist at Procter & Gamble, was charged with bringing her two babies – namely Haagen Dazs ice-cream and Pringles – to the UK, Japan, and Ireland. She was armed with her recipes, or formulas, that had been tested back in the US down to the last joule. “In Japan,” she says, “no matter what we did, the ice-cream tasted like [expletive] fish!” (The dairy cattle in Japan were raised on a feed that was mixed with fish flakes). About Irish grass-fed milk, she says, “Yeah, I know it tastes great. But it totally [expletive-d] my sour cream and onion Pringles.”
I was reminded of Yen’s Pringle escapades when I was delving into Irish Wagyu. Both narratives open up a fun metaphor on immigration or what happens to something (or someone) when it is cultivated in a different country. The make-up might be identical, but you can always taste the difference in terroir.
READ MORE: Dublin's Global Beats: Japanese Wagyu Part 1
Irish Wagyu has been available in this country since 2009, when Pat Whelan, who was entranced with the flavour of Wagyu when he was in Japan, began importing his first Japanese Wagyu. Japan does not allow the importing of actual cattle, so therefore Pat and other Irish Wagyu retailers had to rely on frozen embryos from Australia. John Hourigan from Ridgeway produces a cross of Wagyu and Angus with a purebred Wagyu in the works for Christmas.
Wagyu farmers in Japan treat their cattle like children. The same can be said about Pat and John; it’s just that they are Irish parents. Ireland has loads of grassland – it informs the flavour of both the beef and the cream. Despite their Japanese genetics, Wagyu in this country are Irish to the core. Whelan keeps genetically Japanese steer nursing for as long as possible, weans them gently, and then sets them free to graze. In other words, he keeps them close to their mammies, and then allows them to run around rainy pastures like teenagers in a GAA club. John from Ridgeway starts his cattle on grass but moves them onto grain and also high-fat olives. (Note: I love eating meat that has been raised on olives, just like I favour meat that eats windfall apples, chestnuts, and acorns. It could be psychosomatic, but I don’t care).
High levels of vitamin A in grass inhibits marbling, so precious in Japanese Wagyu. As an American-born Chinese, I can spot East Asians reared in Western countries. We are healthier, stouter, taller, brought up as we are on different diets and climate. Similarly, the Irish Ridgeway and Whelan Wagyu beefs are markedly different from Japanese Wagyu.
Ridgeway, the Japanese-Irish cross, might be a bit like my half-Irish, half Chinese cousins, who run marathons, drink gallons of milk, and are six feet tall. John and Pat’s Wagyu is bred towards more Irish palates, with a focus on a beefy taste. Perfect Japanese Wagyu is about a 50 percent marbling, whereas Irish consumers want more meat as opposed to fat. Pat ages his beef, John does upon request but doesn’t think that it is necessary, and Japanese Wagyu is not aged at all, because the meat is velvet-tender upon the slaughter. Why mess with Irish beef, which so many people in this country have said that it is the best?
Pat and John, who also cultivate Angus, are delightfully nerdy, educated, and plainspoken. They love the truly great beefs in this world, and while they have no problem with the native product, they are excited in bringing something foreign into the mix. I personally have swooned over the beef in Argentina, Tuscany, Ireland, and Wisconsin. In Pat’s opinion, currently, the magic of the Irish Wagyu is not in the meat itself, but in the flavour of the fat, which has a creamy, nutty savour.
The Ridgeway and Whelan Wagyu I have seen looks far more like Irish beef than its Japanese counterparts, in that it is dark crimson rather than rosy. It is also about half the price. There is a beautiful cap of white fat over it, and the threads of fat throughout the meat are more pronounced. I have been making a lot of Ridgeway steak, and it is delicious, beefier than Japanese wagyu, but different than Irish Angus.
Like Jack Sprat’s wife, I eat the fat, and my Irish partner eats the lean. Each ethnicity of beef brings their special, individual something. For Pat and John, the magic is when they cultivate another country’s beef in their own terroir. Didn’t I say that inherent in Irish Wagyu, there was a gorgeous metaphor about immigration?