The Yorkshire Wagyu Company - slow reared, quality beef from Driffield
PUBLISHED: 18:33 10 May 2016 | UPDATED: 18:33 10 May 2016
Jo Haywood charts the rise of Yorkshire wagyu
Despite his distinctly ovine name, Jonathan Shepherd has been a dedicated cattle man for 20 years, battling it out in an increasingly difficult beef industry in which taste all too often loses out to price.
And he could quite easily have continued in the same vein, but then, six years ago, he had an epiphany.
‘As soon as I tasted it, I knew,’ he said. ‘It was different to anything I’d ever come across in my 20-year career. A complete game-changer.’
The ‘it’ in question was wagyu beef. While other breeds are reared for speed of growth and efficiency, wagyu are bred solely for eating quality and flavour.
This fascinating meat movement began in Japan with kobe beef, traditionally produced by wagyu cattle fed on beer and given daily massages. Famed for the high level of marbling in the meat, it quickly became known as the premium beef on the market.
Though booze and massage were undoubtedly pleasant distractions for bored beasts looking for a good time on a wet Wednesday in Hokkaido, it was soon revealed that neither had any real effect on the meat. Indeed, the intricate marbling and unmistakable mouth-melt were actually part of a genetic flavour bomb ticking quietly away in the animals themselves.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why Jonathan Shepherd, who farms on the outskirts of Tibthorpe, just a few miles west of Driffield in East Yorkshire, was so blown away. So much so, in fact, that he decided to take his own beef operation in an exciting, if potentially precarious, new direction.
He began importing embryos from Japan five years ago with fellow farmer Jim Bloom, slowly building a herd of full-bloods (100 per cent Japanese breeding stock) and F1 animals (wagyu crossed with premium British breeds like Aberdeen Angus).
‘It was a case of trial and error – mainly error – at first,’ he said. ‘We gave them our usual feed, but they wouldn’t touch it. The calves tend to be born light as the gestation period is shorter, and their metabolism is much slower, so they can only cope with a very specific – and totally different – mineral package.’
As farmers, Jonathan and Jim also had to come to terms with the fact that wagyu grow slowly and don’t actually start to lay down fat until about 22 months, making the calf-to-table cycle about twice as long as for standard beef cattle. Inevitably, this means higher prices for the consumer.
‘The long, slow process is our weakness but also our strength, as that’s when the flavour develops,’ said Jonathan. ‘It means, of course that our wagyu beef is 40 per cent more expensive to reflect the increased costs of looking after the animals. But, I’ll be honest with you, demand is outstripping supply. People have really bought into it.’
A fact clearly reflected in the order books. When Jonathan and Jim set up The Yorkshire Wagyu Company three years ago, they had one customer. Now, they have a strong online customer base; work with a host of popular local restaurants like Tickton Grange near Beverley and the Blue Bell at Weaverthorpe; enjoy product partnerships with neighbouring businesses like Wold Top Brewery and Pucketts Pickles in York; have their own mobile catering unit – the WOW Wagon (Wonders of Wagyu); and have just opened the country’s first dedicated wagyu butcher’s counter at the Balloon Tree farm shop near Stamford Bridge.
‘We’re not interested in working with big supermarkets because the quality is always going to get diluted and the prices bargained down to the basement,’ said Jonathan. ‘We’re based in Yorkshire, working in partnership with other northern farmers, and that gives other Yorkshire businesses the confidence to put their faith in us.
‘I’d like to think that was what got us in the door with Matthew (Machin, managing director of the Balloon Tree), but actually it was the beef itself. Within two hours of first tasting our wagyu, he was up here at the farm discussing supply.’
And it’s proved to be a canny bit of business. The Balloon Tree now has the first wagyu butcher’s counter in Britain (manned by a Yorkshire Wagyu Company expert every Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and increased customer footfall, while the Field House Farm team has the perfect product testing ground and a lucrative outlet for its stock.
Jonathan is, quite rightly, enjoying the steady upturn in sales and the growing reputation of his business. But, we have to ask, if his relationship with the beasts themselves is fruitful and, not to get too agriculturally technical about it, if wagyu are a fun crowd to work with?
‘They’re quite small and sleek with an amazing coat that shines even in winter,’ said Jonathan. ‘And they’re very quiet animals; really placid and happy to follow you about. They don’t herd very well, but they do follow, especially if you have some molasses on your shoulder.’
Well, who wouldn’t follow a farmer with molasses on his shoulder? Or, indeed, a farmer with access to some of the best tasting beef known to man.
The deep flavour of wagyu, a meat naturally high in monounsaturated fats and omega 3, 6 and 9, is in that all-important marbling, laid down by the animals as part of their ultra-slow maturing process. Full-blood wagyu is incredibly rich. Perhaps, as yet, a little too rich for western tastes?
‘I don’t think the British palette is quite ready for full-blood wagyu yet,’ said Jonathan. ‘But the step up from standard steak to F1 wagyu is so huge, it works well for us and for our customers.
‘Some people are still a bit scared of fat – which is basically what the marbling is – but that’s where all the flavour is. It doesn’t matter how sceptical someone is though, as soon as they take a bite, their concerns just fall away. You can actually see it in their eyes.’
The Yorkshire Wagyu Company has come an incredibly long way in a very short time and is not looking to slow down anytime soon. As well as launching its pioneering butcher’s counter, it’s also working hard to take its products to new levels with a range of charcuterie and a box scheme, possibly starting this summer with a barbecue box.
‘This is special stuff we’re dealing with,’ said Jonathan. Wagyu was only fed to emperors in Japan, but we’re determined to make our Yorkshire wagyu a treat everyone can have.
‘This is just the start of our journey and we’ve got a long way to go yet. But, you know, every step is worth it.’ Even if he has to make those steps with molasses on his shoulder.