The farm where cows eat chocolate
It’s the only flight I’ve ever been on where the attendant walked down the narrow aisle holding a notepad asking, “Does anyone need a taxi booking for when we land?”
As introductions go to this quiet corner of South Australia, it speaks volumes. This is a part of the world where friendliness comes as standard, where people will do anything for a neighbor — or a stranger. At the tiny regional airport of Mount Gambier, where only a handful of flights come and go each day, it also stretches to ensuring no one waits too long for a cab on arrival.
Mount Gambier lies almost halfway between the cities of Melbourne and Adelaide. It’s the biggest town around for more than 200 miles but has a population of fewer than 30,000.
That means that there’s an awful lot of countryside and coastline, providing the perfect backdrop for award-winning local produce including Coonawarra wines, rock lobster and the much sought-after sea snail known as abalone, the world’s most valuable shellfish.
The region’s most famed culinary export, however, is high-end Wagyu beef from cattle that are partly fed, toward the ends of their lives, on an unusual mixture of sweet treats: chocolate, candy and cookies.
You read that right. It’s a distinctive but successful approach, imparting a unique taste to the super-premium meat from Mayura Station that draws fans thanks to its remarkable flavor and lineage.
Mayura Station — ranches are known as stations in Australia — sits in picturesque and gently rolling green hills that are frequently carpeted in yellow flowers. It’s located just a few miles from the coast, meaning cooling sea breezes offer welcome respite from the often intense heat.
An aquifer provides water purified through natural filtration through limestone caves and caverns that act as large natural filters. Combine that with the cleanest air you can imagine and consistent weather patterns, and you can see why there’s a real sense of terroir. That’s the French term for a location’s particular ecosystem which helps make wines — or other things such as beef — so distinctive.
Mayura Station has been farmed in some form since 1845, but today only 20 people work across the entire property of more than 3,000 hectares. It’s tiny compared with some Australian cattle ranches, such as Anna Creek Station, which covers a mind-blowing 6,000,000 acres — roughly the same size as Israel.
“Wagyu” translates simply as “Japanese cow.” The animals trace their lineage back to beasts of burden used for heavy labor, often in rice paddies. There are two main types, black and red, with black known as being the highest quality. Mayura Station’s cattle originally came from Shogo Takeda, seen as Japan’s foremost breeder and someone who has more than 50 years experience behind him.
At Mayura the cattle are full-blood Wagyu, single source, meaning that both parents are 100% Wagyu blood. If they don’t breed it on the farm, they don’t sell it.
The key difference, however, compared with beef anywhere else in the world, is that for the last two months of their lives Mayura feed their animals around 2 kilograms of chocolate, cookies and candy every day.
They grow more than 70% of their regular feed on site, a mix of wheat, hay, rye grass, maize and broad beans. But the sweet mixture comes from recently expired or imperfect batches from factories, including the popular Cadbury’s brand.
Up close, it smells great — good enough to eat.
Mayura Station owner Scott de Bruin tells me to take a few bits between my fingers and try it. I assume he’s kidding. But no — and it’s surprisingly moist, subtly sweet. A bit dusty, but otherwise not bad.
“When I first started feeding it to the cattle, people would say, ‘your beef has this really unique flavor, we love it,’ ” de Bruin says. “I always thought it was due to the region here, or because people hadn’t tried full-blood Wagyu.
“They both contribute to the taste — but the sweet mix is undoubtedly the biggest part. The cattle just love it. They definitely know when it’s feeding time!”
By the time the cattle get to eat the sweet mixture, they’ve stopped growing and are no longer putting on weight, so the feed is 100% about the flavor.
This is borne out in The Tasting Room, the simply named restaurant at Mayura Station open three days a week. The restrooms are labeled “heifers” on one door and “bulls” on the other, while cabinets on the wall feature beautiful selections of knives belonging to repeat diners.
A huge range and grill is the main draw and home to Chef Mark Wright, clearly in his element preparing some of the world’s best meat. As he explains:
“From one carcass there are 32 different cuts of meat that all have very different flavor profiles and textures, so they need different styles of cooking or butchery.”
He plates up a succession of breathtaking dishes including a a sublime carpaccio, faultless tartare, but most of all the greatest cut of beef I’d never heard of. It’s known as a “blade” or, in the industry, “the butcher’s cut” — because they know more than anyone else about the very best eating.
The whole animal is used at Mayura, in one way or another. From a 700 kilogram beast they produce approximately 300 kilograms of meat, only 30 kilograms of which are the top end cuts.
That goes some way to explaining the exclusivity — and price — which can reach upward of $300 per pound for their top-of-the-range Signature label. Genetics determine the all-important intense marbling that makes the beef almost more white than red, rich in omega 3, omega 6 and unsaturated fats. Not to mention the most tender you’ll ever eat.
Diners and chefs agree. Some 70% of Mayura’s annual production is exported, notably to China, as well as to Dubai. Hong Kong is another key market and restaurants including Otto e Mezzo, Arcane, Serge et le Phoqueand Caprice all serve it.
It’s one thing to have cows eating candy, and some may dismiss it as cute marketing, but what does it really taste like? The last word goes to Chef Andrea Accordi at Hong Kong’s Four Seasons Hotel:
“I’ve tried a lot of marbled meat, but sometimes the flavor isn’t present. Mayura, however, gives a perfect balance of fat and meat. It’s a very interesting and unique flavor, very nutty, and I feel the hint of chocolate.
“We cook it in The Lounge at Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong between two layers of cedar wood.
“We grill it slowly until the wood starts to burn which gives a light, sweet smokiness to the meat. When you eat meat it should always have some bite, meaning not totally melting in your mouth. Mayura has a great bite balanced with great tenderness.”
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