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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 goodquality 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. 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 Superlative Flavor
“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.
Text /JQR editorial department Photos /Satoru Naito