Wagyu's mouth-wateringly high steaks

18 Mar, 2015 01:00 AM
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David Blackmore with his herd, and inset: the Instagram post spruiking Victor Churchill's tasty $450/kg morsel.
I get nearly double the price by selling carcases than I would from selling bulls
David Blackmore with his herd, and inset: the Instagram post spruiking Victor Churchill's tasty $450/kg morsel.

THE broad category of meat that is “Australian beef” got stretched today - really stretched - to include a rarified substance retailing for $450 a kilogram.

In truth, “beef” poorly defines the special Blackmore Wagyu carcase being sold through the “Fine Family Butcher”, Victor Churchill, at its Woollahra, Sydney, shop.

A photograph of the offering posted on Instagram shows a snowy ripple of fat and meat that promises mouth-melting bliss to anyone who knows what to do with it.

Presumably, those who shell out $450/kg for some slices of what Victor Churchill is proclaiming as “the best Wagyu beef ever produced in Australia” will have a handle on how to cook it. For most people, the offering will be either outrageous or laughable, or both. But most people aren’t foodies.

David Blackmore, the Alexandra, Victoria, Wagyu pioneer who supplied the carcase being elevated to foodie superstardom, understands foodies better than most.

They are the cognoscenti who support Victor Churchill’s regular $170/kg Blackmore Wagyu offering, and also the occasional $250/kg special cuts which, after the $450/kg offering, may seem a little less special.

They are the people who eat at restaurants like those of British superstar chef Heston Blumenthal, a user of Blackmore’s Wagyu beef, who has just opened a Melbourne outpost, the Fat Duck restaurant.

The “tasting menu” at the Fat Duck costs $525 per person, before wine and tips.

Interest in the restaurant ran so high before it began its six-month season in February 2015 that it allocated tables through an online ballot.

The ballot received more than 89,000 entries, equating to nearly 270,000 people at an average three per table. Only 14,000 diners will eat at the Fat Duck in the six months it is open during 2015.

Mr Blackmore has been aiming at this demographic since he imported some of the first Wagyu genetics into Australia 28 years ago.

Carving out the niche

Mr Blackmore has been aiming at this demographic since he imported some of the first Wagyu genetics into Australia 28 years ago.

Usually, the pioneers of a new livestock sector make their money selling genetics to others who want entry into the business. Mr Blackmore decided early on that he was in Wagyu to produce high-end beef.

These days, he said, “I get nearly double the price by selling carcases than I would from selling bulls”.

Mr Blackmore’s skills in extracting the best from the Wagyu breed began to reach their apex in a happy concidence of timing with the rise of the affluent foodie, a demographic that collects dining experiences like sheiks collect Rolls-Royces.

The carcase being offered by Victor Churchill is a descendent of Aizakura U100, Blackmore’s most important foundation breeding cow, now 16 years old and destined for a peaceful end in the paddock.

More than 3000 descendants of the cow have been born in the Blackmore operation, thanks to embryo transfer technology. The sire is bred from the only cow line outside Japan with 100 per cent Tajima genetics, and in Mr Blackmore’s view represents “the next generation” of Australian-bred Wagyu.

The carcase of the progeny of these two auspicious bloodlines, an animal named Aizakura H178, stood out in the chiller.

“In Japan, they have what they call a ‘snow carcase’,” Mr Blackmore said. “To me it’s a fluke, but as soon as I walked into the cool room I saw this was one of them.”

Deep data

Mr Blackmore’s marketing skills helped Aizakura H178 reach foodie greatness - and 20 export destinations - but behind the gloss sits a far-sighted drive for genetic gain.

A genomics project that Mr Blackmore is working on with La Trobe University has the spectacular advantage of having DNA samples from every animal bred on the Blackmore farm, and the first animals Mr Blackmore imported.

Three decades ago, nobody was thinking of collecting hair samples for genomic analysis, because it hadn’t been invented yet. But Mr Blackmore was impressed with paddock-to-plate tracking systems he saw in Korea, and began collecting hair samples with some sort of DNA traceability in mind.

As well, he has collected deep data on every carcase that ever left the property, including the Ausmeat grading score on 3000 fullblood carcases.

Some of the data he’s been collecting, like AI percentage rates, doesn’t fit into commercial databases, and so family members built a special database that is now bulging with records from 28 years of intensive performance recording.

The Australian Wagyu Association has embarked on its own genomics project, and some of the data from the two projects will be pooled for the common good.

But Mr Blackmore will also keep control of the findings from his own herd data so his operation - which is being transferred to his children - can maintain its hard-won advantages, and build on them.

The challenge for the Australian Wagyu industry, he said (in agreement with AWA), is that it still relies heavily on genetics from bulls born 30 years ago. In that time, the Japanese have forged ahead on metrics like eye muscle area.

The challenge for Australian Wagyu breeders is to leap across those three decades as quickly as possible, and then work on getting ahead in a business that keeps redefining what it means to eat beef.

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My total income is from livestock production in WA as a 1 man operation and I agree completely I
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i was 15 years old when I went up to liveringa station in 1961.with j.drakebrockman . the old