We Tried It: Olive Wagyu, the World's Rarest Beef
I love steak. I'm definitely a meat eater who cares about where it comes from, which is why I've taken on the philosophy of eating less meat of higher quality. I stumbled across Crowd Cow a few years ago and really appreciated its initial approach to selling meat: It offered up a cow for sale, described the ranch it lived on and how it was brought up, and listed all the cuts for purchase, including organs, bones, and sometimes tallow. When each piece was sold, the cow was "tipped" and customers became "steak holders." They've since grown out of that model and into one that includes more small ranches selling what is essentially "craft beef," or as their website states, "beef produced by small-scale, independent farms with an emphasis on unique flavors and high ethical standards." Their prices are higher, but I'd rather pay more to know what I'm getting – I've seen enough food industry documentaries showing the cruelty and filth in beef production to be wary of what's being sold at the grocery store.
I've seen the mysterious Olive Wagyu pop up on the Crowd Cow website from time to time and after an initial pause to marvel at the thought of olive-eating cows and drop my jaw at the hefty price tag, I'd scroll past thinking this sort of thing was out of my league. So when the opportunity to try one of these steaks came my way (have I mentioned that I love my job?), I didn't hesitate to say "YES!!!"
Life is good for Wagyu (which simply means "Japanese Cow"), known for the craft and care that goes into raising them. There are four breeds of cattle native to Japan, going back thousands of years. The kuroge washu became known for their inter-muscular fat, or "marbling." Though steak wasn't a part of the traditional Japanese diet, it was foreigners living in Japan in the early 1900s who demanded the meat and soon learned of how special it was. Fast forward to the 1990s when Japan banned the export of the live kuroge washu, increasing their exclusivity. (As a result Most American wagyu is actually Angus crossed with wagyu and is quite different from what comes from Japan.) The Olive Wagyu, whose bloodline dates back to over 1,300 years ago, inhabit a small island in Japan where olive trees thrived and became know for their olive oil. In the early 1900's, one farmer wanted to repurpose the byproduct of olive oil production as feed for his cows. The animals' manure fed the trees, so why not have the trees feed them?! He spent three years figuring out a way to turn the leftover olive pulp into food for his cattle. He found that a roasted and caramelized mash became palatable to the animals, and so the cows began their Mediterranean-ish diet.
There are only about 2,000 of these cows in the world and only a few are harvested per month, making this beef extremely rare. Their unique diet benefits their meat and those who eat it, with a higher content of oleic acid – a good fat – and antioxidants. The meat is also "softer" and more flexible, with a bigger umami experience than other Wagyu.
Once the 13-ounce, $145 New York Strip Steak arrived, my inferiority complex returned. I mean, I can totally eat this meat, it's just the cooking part that gave me the jitters. I can cook a steak to perfection, but I was afraid I'd turn it into a leathery well-done mess. These cows were raised "in a philosophy of managing stress to zero," according to Crowd Cow, where animals who don't get along are separated and daily brushing is the norm – I didn't want to be the clod that massacred them in the afterlife.
Luckily, Crowd Cow anticipates the anxiety that plagued me and has videos instructing best practices for their wagyu selections. Watching them eased my mind as I learned that with this type of beef, simplicity is key. Barely any prep and a short cook time greatly reduced my fear of mistreating this well-treated former cow.
As soon as I got my frozen package, I could see this wasn't like other steaks. Its marbling was an intricate pattern throughout, almost resembling leopard print. I defrosted in the fridge and let the meat come up to room temperature, I took time to admire the marbling again. It was truly remarkable; beautiful actually. When I went to cut the raw meat, my knife slid through it as if I was cutting through butter. I was impressed.
I heated my pan and sprinkled the steak with my beloved black salt (Crowd Cow recommends grey salt). As the steak hit the hot surface, the fat from within began to turn to liquid, giving the appearance that the whole steak was melting. The outside of the meat formed a nice sear and a little over two minutes later I had a perfectly cooked (well, to my eyes at least) wagyu steak. This was one time when letting the steak sit so the juices distribute totally made sense.
Japanese Olive Wagyu
When it was time to cut the cooked steak there was no rough jerking of the knife; instead I slowly slid the utensil across the surface like I was taking a bow to a violin, splitting the meat like a dream. I plated the wagyu alongside some creamed spinach and roasted potatoes for the full American steakhouse effect and soon enough, I realized that was a wasted effort. The meat is a star and deserved to stand alone, far away from my tasty sides, which now just seemed goofy and unsophisticated by comparison. Even my black salt, which in my opinion makes everything better, only got in the way of what the Olive Wagyu was trying to express.
This steak made me believe that all would be ok in the world, that life is beautiful, angels do sing, food has no calories, and the weather forecast for the rest of eternity was going to be sunny and 78 degrees. Ok, so maybe I'm exaggerating a teensy bit, but this steak was something else. My teeth slid into it like tofu (yes, a weird comparison, I'm aware) and as that happened the trapped melted fat released, disguised as a perfumed oil. Regular steak is delicious, but there is that fleshy feel, bloody, meaty taste, and gelatinous fat sometimes laced with gristle, even when enjoyed at a fancy steakhouse. That stuff cannot possibly be from the same animal as this, where the sense of soft and round fatty deliciousness almost felt like it popped in your mouth. There was so much flavor. Beyond the familiar meat taste, this was more powerful yet delicate – it really makes you understand the whole umami thing. It's the ballerina of steaks, looking all soft and delicate but filled with power and strength. You don't think about "mouthfeel" with steak, but with this, you appreciate it. I wanted to eat this slowly and savor it, sipping on a nice wine for a refreshing wash of light acidity after each bite.
So the answer to the question of "is it worth it?" is a resounding yes. But like anything rare and cultivated in this way, it's a special-occasion treat for seekers. Eating it should be treated as an experience, verging on a ceremony and though that sounds horribly snobby, it's one you can do in your pajamas and share with other appreciative food hedonists who can live with you in the spectacular moment.
Crowd Cow, through its work with the founding farmer of Olive Wagyu and the Japanese government, is the only legitimate way to obtain authentic Olive Wagyu. To order or get on the waitlist, click here.