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Japan's wagyu beef is now recognized internationally, and beef from Matsusaka is particularly prized, due to its marbled, delicately-textured flesh and delectable, melt-in-the-mouth fat. We asked Futoshi akamura, head of the local butcher shop Marunaka Honten, to explain just what makes Matsusaka beef so t asty, and the best ways to fully appreciate that taste.
The city of Matsusaka occupies the plain stretching from the mountains adjoining Nara Prefecture to the ocean at Ise Bay. During the Edo period it was part of the Kishu Domain, a town of commerce and home to a sizeable population of the well-known “Ise merchants” that ranked alongside the traders of Osaka and Omi in their dominance of Japanese commerce. As the city developed over the centuries, its geographical position bestowed upon it the benefits of both the mountains and the sea. By the Meiji era, Matsusaka merchants were selling the cattle they no longer needed for agricultural use, and today the city is a renowned center for beef farming.
Matsusaka beef first entered the national consciousness in 1935 with the awarding of an honorary prize at a national beef cattle exposition in Tokyo, and has maintained a reputation for superlative flavor and quality ever since as a leading wagyu brand.
According to Mr. Nakamura, "In Matsusaka, cattle have been raised on small family farms ever since beef cattle farming began here. Rather than cramming large herds into sheds, farmers keep only a few head, allowing them to closely monitor the condition of each animal, and the cattle are raised with the greatest of care. Stress on the animals is minimized by providing the best feed and keeping sheds scrupulously clean. The result is meat of the finest quality.” In the post-war years, farmers experimented with different ways of producing even higher-quality meat, including giving the cattle beer, coating their bodies with shochu liquor, and taking them for walks.
So how does the perennially popular Matsusaka beef, one of Japan's top three wagyu brands, differ in flavor from other wagyu meat?
According to Mr. Nakamura, the difference lies in the fat. “It's incredibly sweet, and with a low melting point, runs off readily. Plus the flesh has a delicate texture and is very tender." Sure enough, sink your teeth into a piece of Matsusaka beef and the first thing that strikes you is the incredible umami flavor. The more you chew, the more you then begin to sense that wonderfully fragrant quality unique to premium beef.
Even after swallowing, the experience continues: Matsusaka beef has a clean, non-greasy after-taste, due to the way the sweetness of the fat and the flavor of the meat dissipate so readily in the mouth.
Stocking As Fresh As Possible Matsusaka Beef Tempts Customers
At Marunaka Honten, in order to maintain the innate flavor of Matsusaka beef, Mr. Nakamura's forebears contracted exclusively with a local armer to raise cattle on feed such as straw, wheat bran and corn, upplemented by crystal-clear, spring-fed water.
To sell the best meat at lower prices, Marunaka Honten's head says the shop needs to have its own farm. The Marunaka Honten farm supplies "premium Matsusaka beef" from heifers sourced from Hyogo Prefecture and raised for over 900 days, and "Matsusaka beef" from heifers ourced nationwide and also raised for over 900 days. The shop sells mainly A5- and A4-grade meat, plus meat from Japanese Black cows and adymade cooked items.
Marunaka Honten was established in 1948 by a butcher employed at the time by Matsusaka specialist beef butcher Wadakin. This butcher wanted to open his own shop after the war with the aim of “Giving more people access to top-quality meat at the lowest possible prices". Third-generation owner Futoshi Nakamura grew up watching his grandfather and father running the business, and having eaten Matsusaka beef from a very early age, is twice as sensitive as most when it comes to its flavor. Despite his upbringing, he says he initially had no desire to inherit the family business. Instead he acquired a university degree and a corporate job, in part because he found it hard to picture himself behind the counter of a butcher's shop. It was not until his father fell ill that he decided to return home, quitting his company employment at the age of 30 to assist his ailing father in the shop. Now, he chuckles, he's Matsusaka beef's biggest champion.
Friendly shop staff happily answer customers' questions, advising them on the best cuts for particular dishes and explaining cooking techniques. Out back, master butchers swiftly cut up meat for display. CEO Nakamura's desire to help people get the most out of Matsusaka meat is reflected in the bustling atmosphere of the shop.
Expensive Does Not Always Equal Best: Knowing the Right Meat for the Dish is the Key
On this afternoon, like most, a steady stream of customers pass through the doors of Marunaka Honten, some splashing out on Matsusaka beef by the kilo, others popping by for freshly-cooked croquettes or rissoles for their evening meal. The shop sells an impressive 2,000 croquettes every day. Mr. Nakamura explains that even items such as the croquettes and rissoles use Matsusaka beef offcuts, placing them a cut above the rest. "Even the croquettes assail your taste buds with that rich meaty flavor from the first bite."
After a recommendation like that, who could resist? I duly bought a croquette and devoured it. He was right: there is something different about these. Yes, they have the smoothness and sweetness of potato, but it is the powerful fragrance of the meat that dominates, its umami gradually manifesting as you chew. This was the meatiest croquette I had ever eaten. And at only 86 yen … now I understood why people were buying ten or twenty of them.
As Mr. Nakamura says,"Chateaubriand at 3000 yen for 100 grams does indeed have a very special flavor. But who can afford to eat meat like that every day? Saving the best meat for special occasions makes sense: boneless short ribs for yakiniku and mincemeat for hamburgers are fine for everyday meals. Even short ribs and mincemeat taste better if they're Matsusaka beef. Knowing just how much better means knowing top quality when you taste it."
So which cuts are actually best for which dishes?
Mr. Nakamura explains. "Cuts like chuck, loin and ribeye are great for sukiyaki and shabu-shabu (meat and vegetable hotpot). Shabu-shabu cooking gets rid of the fat, so it suits even those who prefer leaner meat. Fillet and sirloin are suitable for steaks or grilling. For steak, go for a generous chunk rather than a small one. Once the outside is browned, wrap the meat in aluminum foil and rest it on a stainless steel tray or similar to gradually cook it through. The result will be a tender, succulent steak retaining all its juices. Delicious just seasoned with salt, or wasabi for extra zing. Red meat cuts such as round are best used in roast beef. Sinewy meat can be stewed, and offal savored in yakiniku."
At the height of the mad cow disease and foot and mouth scares, he adds, the business struggled as customers stayed away. He also has concerns for the future, including the potential impact of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) espite his worries, he still believes in the importance of carrying the Matsusaka beef rand into the next generation: these are the sentiments that help sustain the rich and distinctive culinary culture of Japan.
Photos/ Shingo Shiokawa Text/ Shinobu Nakai
Text / JQR