Around this time every year - when the weather turns from grey to springtime bloom - I start craving a good barbecued burger. After spending the winter cooking indoors, nothing is better than the smell of warm smoke from a hot charcoal grill. For me, the burger is the king of spring comfort foods.
But I'm not talking about just any burger. A few years ago, I discovered the incredible flavour, texture and quality of Canadian Wagyu beef. Since then, the meat has appeared on my menus at both Nota Bene and Splendido. Prized by chefs and epicures alike for its exceptional marbling, beef from the Wagyu breed is unparalleled in flavour, richness and taste. The value is not just seen in primary cuts (such as strip loin or tenderloin) either. The omega-3-rich, partly monounsaturated fat also appears as fine, speckled marbling in secondary cuts such as the short rib, brisket and flank. And its oleic-acid-rich fat lends itself well to an exceptionally savoury, juicy burger.
Originally bred for plowing fields and pulling field carts, ancestral Wagyu cattle were brought to Japan from the Asian mainland for work. After centuries of breeding and genetic adaptation, and spurred by a revival of beef consumption in Japanese culture during the mid 19th century, crossbreeding and export bans on specific Wagyu breeds were put in place in the 20th century. This monopoly was lifted briefly to allow the export of pure-bred bulls to the United States, Australia and, eventually, Canada.
My butcher, Stephen Alexander of Cumbrae Farms, is already into the fifth year of his Wagyu beef program at his farm in Haldimand County, Ont. By bringing in 100-per-cent pure Wagyu bulls from a breeder in Saskatchewan, Stephen has maintained the cattle's genetic purity while adapting the herd for local climatic conditions. Constant improvements to the feed program, lifestyle and genetics have produced a great product raised with care and diligence. At the Haldimand farm, these docile, beautiful animals feed on pasture grass for their first year before moving to a generous mix of alfalfa and red clover hay, barley and molasses.
Some people make the mistake of dismissing Wagyu because of its price. But it's important to understand what makes Wagyu so special. It takes Wagyu cows a significantly longer time to achieve the same market weight as other breeds, such as Angus. Due to their relatively small frame, Wagyu cattle require more food, longer feeding schedules and higher overhead for the farmer. In addition, because of the rarity of their genetics, breeding is expensive and difficult, requiring a good deal of experience, knowledge and investment. The payoff comes when you have the good fortune to savour the fruits of the farmer and butcher's handiwork.
This burger is important to me not only in terms of flavour, but also because the meat is locally reared and processed. I'm a firm believer in purchasing high-quality ingredients that showcase the ingenuity and hard work of local artisans.
Don't approach a burger made with Wagyu beef the same way as you would a regular patty. Simple seasoning with salt and pepper is all you need. I personally enjoy it with some crispy French-style onion rings or hand-cut fries on the side.
CANADIAN WAGYU BEEF BURGER
9 ounces single-ground Wagyu beef
Salt and pepper
Cornichons, split lengthwise
One fresh hamburger bun
Preheat grill to high. Lightly mix the ground beef in a bowl and form into a patty. Avoid overworking the meat in order to achieve a looser bind. Season both sides well with salt and pepper. When grill is hot and oiled, place burger at the hottest part. Flip after three minutes. For medium-rare, cook approximately 3-4 minutes more. Remove from the grill and allow to rest briefly. Place on bun and top with cornichons. Serves 1.
Chef David Lee is co-owner of Nota Bene in Toronto