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Keep calm and eat Wagyu beef as the SA industry breaks new ground

Keep calm and eat Wagyu beef as the SA industry breaks new ground
A part of Jacques le Roux's herd at his Kalharoo operation at Karoowaters farm near Cradock in the Eastern Cape. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

It’s the monarch of meat, the benchmark of how perfect beef can be. Once the preserve of the Japanese aristocracy, the Wagyu beef that originated in the Kobe district of Japan’s Hyogo prefecture has travelled the globe in recent years. Now, the South African Wagyu industry is poised to flex its well marbled muscles.

Success hasn’t come easy for the South African Wagyu beef industry, a notoriously difficult arena to operate in. Ever since 1997, when Japan designated its Wagyu breed of beautifully marbled, tender beef a national treasure and banned its export (if a Japanese farmer exports it, there are dire consequences involving jail time), beef farmers elsewhere, notably Australia and the US, have scrambled to climb into the market.

A Black Wagyu herd enjoying brunch at Karoowaters farm near Cradock. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

The South African Wagyu industry had begun in 1999, with one sole farmer in the Free State breaking ground on an industry that has taken two decades and more to begin to really take off. But it was only in 2014 that there were enough South African Wagyu farmers to begin working together to form a society and subsequently a buyers’ group so that they could work in unison to feed the market and develop the necessary protocols.

Most recently, a certain pandemic has slowed what looked like being the takeoff point for the industry in 2018. Shuttered restaurants are not an ideal scenario for the meat business. And South African Wagyu is still fledgling. To say the industry was embryonic in 2014 can be taken quite literally. That was when Jacques Le Roux of Kalharoo, one of three Wagyu farmers in the Eastern Cape who are members of the Wagyu Society of South Africa, imported embryos from Australia, just 15 as it happened. He has a herd of 300 today, but imagine the effort and time (and cost) to get to this point. A handful of other farmers in various parts of South Africa had by then also entered the fray.

A river runs through Karoowaters, the Le Roux family farm. The Fish River no less. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

As Le Roux, who farms at the family’s Karoowaters farm just 27 km from Cradock (other Eastern Cape Wagyu farmers are at Alexandria and Cathcart), puts it: “So if we started in 2014 you first had to impregnate the animal, and it takes nine months for that animal to calve. So now we’re in 2015 but to get that animal to the point of being slaughtered takes at least three years.”

This brings us to 2018, with the industry finally poised to market the beef in the market. “It’s very new,” says Le Roux. “So in 2018 we started to get enough Wagyu beef to go to market but we all know that in 2019 Covid started and suddenly all the restaurants closed. Just when we were ready to go to market, suddenly the market was gone.”

After two years of treading water, and in an industry of this kind the overheads are massive, local Wagyu is in leading supermarkets including Woolworths, Pick n Pay and Spar and exports have kicked in to markets such as China and Saudi Arabia. Until now, there hasn’t been enough Wagyu beef to supply Woolworths, Pick n Pay and other giants, so farmers like Le Roux were supplying some individual Spars and outlets, but no chain stores.

The hiatus caused by pandemic did give the industry a breathing space to be well prepared. “We (he means the Wagyu Society of South Africa) had to write protocols, put all the regulatory stuff in place,” says Le Roux.

A couple of years ago a group of farmers got together to form a buying group in South Africa, called Protea, providing one way of trading in Wagyu. 

Le Roux engages with a key arm of the local Wagyu business through Wagyu Direct, owned and run by Garth Angus, brother of Brian Angus, the Free State farmer who pioneered South African Wagyu in the 1990s. Brian has since sold up and relocated to Texas and Garth Angus ran a small business doing historical, cultural and township tours until two years ago. “That came to a grinding halt with Covid and suddenly I had no income and two kids at Stellenbosch University,” he says.

That surname begs an obvious question. When I ask him, Garth Angus replies: “Entirely coincidental, Tony. The Angus breed used to be called Aberdeen Angus, hailing its Scottish origin. In recent years, driven by the Americans, Aberdeen has been dropped from the breed’s name. (My family originally came from the Aberdeen area, coincidently, arriving in the Cape in the 1830s.)”

His father Llewellyn Angus had started up an Aberdeen Angus stud on their farm Woodview in the Free State in the 1950s near a town called Arlington, close to Senekal. “My brother Brian took over the farm in the mid-1990s and introduced the Wagyu breed into SA in 1999 by importing 34 fertilised Wagyu embryos from an Australian Wagyu breeder and implanting them into Angus cows. Their progeny was 100% Wagyu. Through cross breeding and artificial insemination, the Woodview Wagyu herd was developed.”

This path was to be trodden by Jacques le Roux at Kalharoo years later. So Covid, in a way, brought Garth Angus and Jacques le Roux together.

Note the marbling of these simple cuts (silverside and topside) intended for biltong for a client. They make the biltong on the Le Roux family farm. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

“As the Wagyu breed progressed,” said Garth Angus, “new breeders were able to buy local Wagyu bulls and locally drawn Wagyu semen for AI to develop their own herds.”

Brother Brian Angus set the SA Wagyu ball rolling by introducing the breed and “working to get it recognised, and finally registered it as an official breed in South Africa”, Garth says.

“Brian suggested that I buy some freezers and start selling Wagyu in Cape Town. That’s when I started up Wagyu Direct in September of 2020, shortly after the Rugby World Cup. I bought whole carcasses from Brian, who had built an export quality deboning facility on the farm in the Free state. He deboned, portioned, vacuum packed the Wagyu for me into a variety of steaks, burgers, biltong etcetera and sent the meat via a refrigerated truck to Cape Town.”

He found during the early months of Covid what he calls “a definite swing by consumers towards supporting hustlers like Wagyu Direct, who were selling direct from farm to table”. 

“I contacted some friends, told them what I was doing, and asked them to tell their friends. The response was amazing. Within months I had a database of over 200 home buyers. I take orders via WhatsApp and use my touring minivan to make free deliveries of frozen Wagyu products, direct to homes in and around Cape Town and the Winelands.”

Brian Angus sold Woodview farm in December 2020, selling some of his herd and moving the rest to KwaZulu-Natal where his herd is merged with another on the Mount Verde Estate, and he is now helping a Wagyu owner in Jacksonville, Texas with his herd’s genetics. This is where Cradock’s Jacques le Roux enters the story.

“I needed a new supplier and my brother suggested Jacques. And that’s how my relationship with Jacques started. I visited him on the farm to have a look at his facilities and his herd. I decided a long time ago that I only do business with people I like, and I immediately liked the “salt of the earth” family I met at Kalharoo.”

Cutting topside from a round at the farm butchery, intended for biltong for one of Garth Angus’s Wagyu Direct clients. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Jacques le Roux, then, is the successor to Brian Angus in context of his relationship with Garth Angus. When I arrive at Kalharoo central 27km out of town, Jacques takes me into his butchery where his blockman, having weighed a “round”, as the massive joint of beef is called, is breaking down a carcass for Garth, slicing off the topside and silverside to be turned into biltong, which is cured on the farm. “He’s got an order for a whole Wagyu carcass. I think his client is going to smoke it or slow cook it,” Jacques says. 

Slow cooking type smoking is becoming more popular, says Garth Angus, “favouring cuts like Wagyu brisket and short rib. A wonderful guy, Rudi Ramage (intothewoods.co.za), found us and bought a brisket. Rudi has a business selling wood for Texas-style cooking like oak, mesquite, cherry, avocado etcetera and he’s a keen smoker [of meat]. He posted some pics on his Instagram account, intothewoods.za of some of our smoked Wagyu brisket and short rib, and suddenly we had a new and growing market for these highly marbled, flavoursome but tough cuts. However, after 6-8 hrs of low heat slow cooking these cuts are fall-apart tender, juicy and have amazing flavour, especially when smoked.

“Because I buy the whole Wagyu carcass from Jacques, I’m able to keep my prices competitive by bypassing the retailer. I buy only the higher marbling score animals to ensure quality of product, Jacques and his staff do a great job in the butchery on the farm and in Cape Town and surrounds we deliver to your doorstep. On specific days we do free deliveries to specific suburbs.”

You’re looking at Wagyu rib-eye at the top end of this forequarter of a Black Wagyu carcass. Note the fat cap. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Le Roux has a farm-to-plate approach. “The whole idea is to do the whole animal, from the farm to the plate. To do that, you want to distinguish yourself from the normal beef market. So the only way to go was to prove that you’ve got better beef, but how do you do that?”

The only way was Wagyu. And that meant importing Australian embryos. They had invested millions in a massive beef betterment scheme and developed a grading system to ensure the highest standards. The Japanese had the best beef in the world, bar none, in the Japanese Black (Tajima) Wagyu beef from Kobe in the Hyogo prefecture. Only the meat of that breed can be certified as Kobe Beef in terms of rigorous assessment for marbling, weight and quality. If you want to buy true Kobe beef in South Africa you will pay thousands of rand per kilo for it. 

Wagyu (or Japanese Black) come from three Japanese prefectures: Tajima, Shimane and Tottori. The three other breeds are Japanese Red or Brown, Japanese Polled, and Japanese Short Horn. Black Wagyu is the breed that Jacques le Roux farms. The Australians had spotted a key factor that was to change the game: Japan had a grading system for beef, not a classification system such as South Africa has. The latter only grades the beef by age, so A class beef is younger than B, which is younger than C. But in a grading system, the A, B and C are assessments of quality, not age. Each of those categories is numbered from 1 to 6, representing the degree of fat, especially the outer fat cap. “So 6 means lots of fat,” says Le Roux. “Wagyu is B4 up to B6. Fat is very important.”

The Wagyu Society of South Africa imported a highly specialised camera from Japan at a cost of R1.2-million which takes a picture of the Wagyu cut such as rib-eye and sends it to Japan where it gets graded and that grading is sent back. The society meanwhile came across an alternative Australian camera that brings Le Roux’s cellphone into play so that he can get the grading from that camera to show his clients.

A heathy environment with stress-free living promotes the quality of the beef, its marbling and its tenderness. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Protocols: now that’s a thing with Wagyu, as we all know. Or do we? If there’s one thing we’ve all heard about Wagyu, it is that the beasts are massaged ever so gently in order to ensure beautifully marbled meat that is supremely tender. But no, says Le Roux, who throws his head back laughing when I ask him about all that. That may have happened in Japan “a long time ago”, he says, “maybe two, three hundred years”, but no, he doesn’t spend his nights massaging black Wagyu cattle under a crescent moon to the haunting strains of Japanese hōgaku music. But there are rules in terms of the relevant regulations. “So there’s a protocol. For every 100 km that we drive [when transporting Wagyu cattle to the abattoir; they’re not slaughtered on the farm] there must be an hour’s rest, in a kraal. What I do is I load the animals here, drive them to town the previous day and the next morning they’re slaughtered. You don’t want to stress out the animals.”

Jacques le Roux admiring a member of his extended Black Wagyu family. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

Kalharoo strives for a non-stressful environment, with no growth hormones and “a non-force feed system”. He has his own feedlots on the farm with a “long-feed” programme that is costly but ensures less stress for the animal. Everything pursues the delicious target of the Black Wagyu fat melting point, the Holy Grail of Wagyu farming. Which means that everything is about that marbling, the “delicate white lacy fat that permeates Wagyu beef” and the fat cap on cuts such as the rib-eye. It has such a low melting point and supreme butteriness that quite literally melts in the mouth. (If you don’t believe me, you should have eaten the Wagyu rib-eye I cooked the other day. Just sublime.)

And it needs to be cooked rare. Just as the industry and the beasts themselves are rare, elite, of a quality that sets it apart from all other beef, even the finest Angus. Consider that of the world’s 1.5 billion cattle herd, only 3,000 cattle are certified as Kobe beef each year.

As a result of all this effort and years of slog, we can expect to see much more Wagyu in South Africa. “Previously people didn’t eat that much of it, they didn’t know the product, but they’re getting familiar with the taste, they want to start eating it and now they want more,” says Le Roux. “Let’s say 10,000, maybe 15,000, are under feedlot in South Africa at the moment; female breeding cattle animals might be about two to three thousand, it’s not much. The whole cattle herd in SA is about 14 million, so we don’t even have a patch.

“You have to get it on the shelves, and people must start buying it; it must be presentable and a different kind of beef, so the grading system must be 100 percent in place so that when you buy Wagyu tonight to braai for your friends it must be of a state that we are telling you.

“In South Africa we are allowed to say that Wagyu is tender and tasty, we are allowed to make the claim. Tender and tasty. We can guarantee it, we have proved it, so we can guarantee that the marbling will make a tender and tasty steak.”

And that, when it comes down to it, is what it is all about: that elusive perfect steak; guaranteed to be tender, every time. That it comes at a hefty price cannot be argued with. Wagyu is mightily, even frighteningly expensive. But Wagyu delivers what any other steak cannot guarantee: tenderness. And that’s not marketing speak. That’s a fact. DM/TGIFood

Kalharoo www.karoowaters.co.za 082 320 2808

Wagyu Direct does farm to home deliveries in the Cape. See Wagyu Direct or email [email protected] or call 083 452 1112

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Champion 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is available in the DM Shop. Buy it here

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks. Share your versions of his recipes with him on Instagram and he’ll see them and respond.

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  • Brian Kritzinger says:

    I find it ironic that the Daily Maverick highlights all manner of environmental issues and concerns under “Our Burning Planet”, but then hosts an article such as this. Beef production, and particularly this type of beef, is easily the most wasteful, environmentally harmful and morally questionable food production method conceivable.

    • Theresa Avenant says:

      I definitely agree that people should eat less meat and dairy produce on a global scale but I would support an initiative like this where farm animals are traditionally farmed and not factory farmed. I think factory farming should be banned world wide. This way people would be forced to introduce more and more plant based nutrition into their diets which would certainly be better for the environment. I am in my sixties and way too dyed in the wool as a foodie to give up meat. However I have cut down drastically and only consume meat and (mostly) fish two or three times a week. The rest of the time we eat vegetarian and sometimes even vegan. The younger generations are far more accepting of plant based diets (my adult child is a vegan) and the retail stores are really coming to the party in terms of variety in plant based meals. I say hats off to S A farmers who produce meat by means of natural farming. Much of the land in S A Africa is farmland, a large portion of which can only really be used for livestock. Thank you Tony for your article and, as usuall, I will try your recipe which I know will be successful.

      • Brian Kritzinger says:

        Just in answer to your point about a lot of SA not being “useable for anything else” – the fact is such land isn’t suitable for raising cattle either. In 95% of cases (in South Africa) these cattle end up in feedlots being “rounded off” on grain-based diets that are largely made up of soya beans and maize. Cultivation of soya beans in particular (to feed cattle) is the single biggest driver of Amazonian deforestation. It takes 16-20kgs of feed to produce 1kg of meat.

        But, by all means, lets continue eating meat and promoting modes of agriculture that are demonstrably unsustainable. Our kids can deal with the runaway-greenhouse effect and ecological collapse.

  • Fiona Ballantyne says:

    Not rare. Needs to be cooked medium so the fat gets a chance to render. As the meat is so tender cooking to medium doesn’t make it tough and the flavour is much better. Try it!

  • Lesley Young says:

    Haha! I ate Kobe beef at Sol Kertzner’s 60th birthday party at Sun City. I own that beautiful green valley on the N2 next to the Buffalo Bay turnoff where I breed Aberdeen Angus cattle , free ranging on grass, no drugs, no hormones, pure grass fed beef. They taste just as good as Kobe beef.

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