For Steven Velthuis, his adventure with Japanese purebred Wagyu began a few years ago at an expensive restaurant.
“I was at a baseball game, a Blue Jays game in Toronto, and I took a few colleagues with me,” recalls the Osgood farmer. “And we went to a restaurant and I said, ‘Whatever you want on the menu, I buy.'”
That’s when a friend pointed out an eight-ounce Wagyu steak with sides, Velthuis said — all for just $150.
“And I said, ‘Anything but that!’
After that fateful meal, Velthuis, who raises dairy and beef cattle on about 800 hectares in rural southern Ottawa, became one of the few Ontario farmers with a herd of prized Japanese wagyu, known in culinary circles for its marbled texture and rich taste. , the decadent taste of their steaks.
Details are hard to come by, but Velthuis and his son Brendan say the number of Wagyu farmers in the province is in the double digits.
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And it may not rise sharply anytime soon, as Japan declared wagyu cattle a national treasure in 1997 and no longer exports live animals or their DNA to overseas markets. However, about five years ago, Velthuis, along with a farmer from Quebec, went to a cow named Naomi, whose ancestry goes back to Japan, and his entire herd of about 50 animals now consists of her descendants.
Currently, Velthuis sells mostly by word of mouth, from high-end restaurants to sports bars, all expressing interest in having something “special on the menu”.
“Just two days ago, a friend of mine was in town 15 minutes away and a three-quarter pound Wagyu rib steak was selling for $80. like selling meat,” Velthuis said.
“If you like good wine, if you like good scotch, good cognac, good cigar, you will like wagyu beef.”
DNA registration is important
When it comes to the terminology associated with Japanese beef, there are a few things worth clarifying.
Wagyu, literally “Japanese cow”, refers to the four types of cattle raised in the country for beef production: black, brown, polled, and shorthorn. Perhaps the most recognizable Japanese brand, Kobe beef is a special type of wagyu grown to exacting standards in one particular region.
Then there’s the American wagyu, which you might see on a hamburger box in your grocery store’s frozen meat section or, increasingly, at fast food restaurants. It is a hybrid between the Wagyu and other breeds such as the Angus or Hereford.
There is also “snow beef”, a cross between Wagyu heifers and Holsteins, which has become a niche product in Canada.
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Velthus said his herd is a genuine wagyu, not a hybrid, and he can prove it: his genetics have been documented by the wagyu associations in both the US and Australia (the Canadian Wagyu Farmers Association disbanded a few years ago).
According to him, this is important in order for customers to be satisfied that they receive the real thing.
The DNA registration process for a purebred Wagyu herd is “pretty intense,” says Hannah Ostrowski, director of research, education and programs for the American Wagyu Association.
“We have a fairly robust database that verifies these animals. And it’s really important for our producers and consumers to understand what they’re buying,” said Ostrovsky.
“We all want to make sure you get what you pay for.”
According to Ostrovsky, wagyu’s popularity has skyrocketed over the past three to five years, especially as more chefs add it to their menus.
“If you go to the grocery store, you will see Wagyu now. There’s just more. We ride this train, we continue to grow, and we are also trying to help our manufacturers with this growth.”
Velthus said his animals are fed a special diet of ground corn and hay and slaughtered at a local slaughterhouse at 30 to 36 months of age, later than other beef cattle, to get the full marbling effect. All this contributes to a higher price, he said.
As for serving juicy steaks, Velthuis suggests cooking them medium to medium rare with a good glass of red wine. And if you like well-done steaks, Wagyu is definitely not for you.
“I’ll tell you – if you have people you want to invite [for dinner]and if you tell them that you serve the Wagyu, chances are they will come on time.”