In Japan, ‘Wagyu’ is synonymous with great meat — quite literally. In the country’s native tongue, ’Wa’ translates as ‘Japanese’ and ‘Gyu’ as ‘beef’. And prime cuts of their rarefied meat, with its uniquely tender texture and rich, buttery flavour, are sought after the world over. Exports are high, quality is higher and the Japanese people take this majestically marbled, beefy business very, very seriously.
When calves are born on the slopes of Japan’s northern prefectures, they are given names rather than numbers. They get birth certificates, thermal jackets and five-star treatment from the moment their cloven hooves hit the ground. They are massaged daily with rice wine to accentuate marbling, given ice cold beer to keep them stress-free and played symphonies of calming classical music. It’s a coddled life for the cattle, but they’re worth the investment: the meat can sell for up to $400 per kilo.
And now, these cash cows have come to Britain. Far from the verdant farms of Japan’s Kobe region, where some of the most expensive meat on earth can be found, Highland Wagyu is rearing its own world-beating beef on the Falkirk-Perthshire border. Blackford Farm, on the Burnside Of Balhaldie, is owned by the husband and wife team of Mohsin Altajir and and Martine Chapman — a couple who spend their days tending to cattle from the three main genetic lines of Wagyu: Tajima; Kedaka and Fujioshi.
“Quality, not quantity is our motto,” says Chapman, whose husband hails from the Highland Spring mineral water dynasty. “We never wanted to produce anything but a high quality product, and we built the brand on this.”
Back in 2011, Chapman and Altajir bought nine cows. Within two years, their cattle herd had grown to 300 — and will exceed 5,000 in the next decade.
“We handle all of our cattle with care and attention,” explains Chapman, detailing the bovine bliss enjoyed by Highland Wagyu cows. “Every one is hand raised and hand-bedded — we don’t use machines. We add a little organic seaweed to their diets to keep them naturally healthy, and we give them back rubs. They are very spoilt!”
Truly, no expense has been spared. On the rolling hills between Stirling and Gleneagles, Highland Wagyu cattle are brushed daily, have their hay cut to shorter lengths to minimise chewing, and are sheltered in three huge zen-like buildings, affectionately known as ‘Wagyu Central’. These structures are no normal stables — with each boasting serene lighting and piped mood music to create a suitably stress-free environment for every pampered animal.
“And we do not slaughter any of our cattle until they are over three years old,” adds Chapman, “which is a lot longer than most beef on the market. Some of our Wagyu are five years old at the time of slaughter.”
So has the investment been worth it? How does Highland Wagyu compare to the celebrated sirloins and silversides found in the far east? “I’ve been told by some Japanese visitors,” says Chapman, “who actually come from the Wagyu industry over there, that we beat them on flavour. So I take that as a great compliment!”
This article first appeared in our Sept/Oct issue. Subscribe here…