Japanese cattle in the Swiss alpine foothills
‘Excuse me, where is Mühlemann’s farm?’ I asked a man tending his garden. ‘Which Mühlemanns are you looking for?’ he questioned. ‘The ones with the Wagyu beef,’ I answered. ‘Ah those ones,’ the man replied and gave me directions. Thomas Mühlemann’s farm is well known in the region. He belongs to just a handful of Swiss farmers who breed and market Wagyu cattle.
The beef from these cattle which originally come from the Kobe region in Japan is considered worldwide to be an exclusive food source. The speciality being that the muscles in the meat have thin specks of fat running through them. This marbling is a characteristic of the physical appearance of the meat tissue.
It is also these fat cells which melt during cooking and give the meat the unmistakable nutty taste connoisseurs and meat lovers alike are willing to dig deep into their pockets for.We ourselves had never had the opportunity to try this valuable meat variety. This fact and the chance of meeting a farmer who introduced this product to his traditional dairy farm in order to gain a new market segment, led us to a picturesque region just above the town of Thun, southwards from the Swiss capital of Bern to the Mühlemann’s family farm.
Scratching the bull behind the ears
Not long after arriving Thomas Mühlemann leads us into the bullock and bulls paddock. An action not to be taken lightly around other breeds of cattle but which works perfectly well in this case. The animals eye us up sceptically at first but then quite soon come closer in order to be petted. ‘Wagyu cattle are extremely tame,’ explains Thomas. But also divas, ‘Just one fly can make them flip out.’ And so after a short time we were surrounded by eight male bullocks and bulls while being curiously watched by the cows in an opposite field. ‘At the moment besides eight males we have ten females and twelve calves,’ Thomas summarizes his herd. It didn’t end there. Further up grazing are fifteen traditional dairy cows. ‘Like most farmers in the area we have been producing milk for years,’ says Thomas. Until about ten years ago the family managed a herd of 25 dairy cows, which is for Swiss circumstances a middle sized farm.
The embryo from the manure pile
Just like everywhere in Europe, dairy farming is no longer proving profitable. Due to this fact in 2007 the Mühlemanns decided to step-wise reduce their number of dairy cows in order to make room for the Japanese cattle. However it was a stony start. ‘I bought on the off chance six Wagyu embryos in Holland,’ recalls Thomas. Four of his own cows were to be the surrogates. But the first attempt failed completely. None of the four cows carried the embryos. So then followed the next attempt with the remaining two embryos. ‘As the vet was pulling the first tube with the embryo out of the nitrogen container it burst and fell onto the dirty ground,’ says the Wagyu owner. Quickly the embryo was washed and implemented into the uterus of the prepared cow. And what would seem impossible became a reality; out of this embryo developed the first bull for Mühlemanns. The family had continued luck. ‘From the last embryo a female calf was born,’ reports the farmer. This was the basis for their first own herd.
Good feed instead of massages
The small fat deposits in the muscles are supposed to be the reason for the unmistakable taste of Wagyu meat. Rumour has it too that a daily massaging of the animals with beer and other essences helps to improve the flavour. Do the Mühlemanns perform daily massages on their ruminants? ‘Definitely not. In the best case it helps to impress some tourists,’ winks Thomas laughing. The flavour is besides genetics far more dependent on what the animals eat. Some farmers give them beer spent grains, others swear by their own special mix, and Thomas? What is your secret? ‘Our cattle are fed grass, hay and minerals.’ Thomas does not put all his cards on the table, after all the competition might be reading.
A respectful approach until the end
There are two other aspects that the farmer places a great deal of value on: ‘Animal friendly free-range farming and a humane slaughter.’ The first is fortunately implemented by law in Switzerland. Slaughtering intails Thomas driving only a few kilometres to a small slaughter house. Here he insists that on arrival and unloading his animals are killed immediately and do not have to wait in the slaughter house. ‘If they smell the blood from their fellow species you can see how they become nervous and stressed. I don’t want this.’ says the Wagyu owner determinedly.
After slaughtering the carcasses are hung for 28 days before they are assorted and vacuum packed. Already before slaughtering the Mühlemanns inform their private customers and restaurateurs. In this way the biggest amount of meat can be sent cooled to the meat connoisseurs. Remarkably ‘Except for the skin we use everything.’ The bones are collected by a sauce producer and the fat which is about 15 kilograms per animal is boiled down and filled into jars as a first class lard for cooking or as a spread for bread.
The self-test is convincing
As would be expected filets and steaks sell best. Mince-meat inspires professionals and amateurs to make extraordinary Wagyu burgers. Sausages and dried meat are affordable for every day consumption as was on this evening. After a detailed tour of the farm, we were invited to have a tasting in the historical farmhouse. Thomas had prepared a plate of dried meat and sausages of Wagyu beef and some local cheese. What we had previously often heard convinced us too, the meat does taste unique. Naturally we could not leave without buying two entrecotes directly from the farm. These landed on our barbeque the very next day under the instructions and advice from Thomas to just add pepper and garlic to taste. The end result can only be described in one word: Wow!