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Old beef, new tricks: ageing meat with Gareth Ward

Tom Shingler 19 July 2018

There’s dry-aged beef – and then there’s Gareth Ward’s incredible 300-day-old dry-aged Welsh Wagyu beef. Tom Shingler pays the boundary-breaking chef a visit to see how he’s using traditional techniques to take meats to the next level at his unashamedly meaty restaurant Ynyshir.

It’s hard to keep up with the innovative, slightly crazy things Gareth Ward is doing with food at Ynyshir, a Michelin-starred restaurant-with-rooms in Wales’ Dyfi Valley. Since I visited the truly unique, incredible place he’s already installed a Saltan Himalayan salt chamber – one of the only restaurants (quite possibly the only restaurant) in the world to do so, which he believes will make his prized ingredient better than it already is. That prized ingredient is beef, reared by Ifor Humphreys fifty miles away in Montgomery. But this isn’t any ordinary beef. It comes from Welsh Wagyu cattle, known for their high marbled fat content, which results in more flavour and better texture. These particular cows are reared on a diet of local beer and even get the occasional massage. It’s the kind of life I long for.

Gareth goes one step further, however. The beef itself is already better quality than what most chefs can get their hands on, but to do it justice he dry-ages it, which brings out its natural flavour and improves its texture. With Ifor not able to do it for him and being located in a remote Welsh valley, Gareth knew if he wanted dry-aged Wagyu, he would have to do it himself.

‘I’d never aged anything before coming to Ynyshir, but I quickly realised I would have to adapt to my environment,’ he tells me as we walk over to his ageing room. ‘There’s no such thing as next day delivery round here – it’s next week delivery at best, so if you forget to order something you’re fucked. We hold a lot of stock and you have to be organised to make sure you never run out of something, so we end up doing a lot of stuff ourselves rather than relying on others.’

When Gareth first took over Ynyshir five years ago, he was adamant that no beef was going to be on the menu, regarding it as a ‘boring’ ingredient. But that all changed when Ifor brought him a sample of his Welsh Wagyu. ‘It was the best beef I’d ever tasted in my life, and I knew it had to go on the menu because it’s a local product. It’s great fresh but I wanted to age it, and it soon became clear I’d have to do that on-site, buying lots of beef at a time to ensure a constant supply.’

Gareth started researching ageing methods which didn’t require any expensive equipment or dedicated ageing fridges. He eventually settled on the fat-ageing technique where you take all the suet from the animal, render it down and paint a whole joint or cut with it, creating a wax-like protective seal. ‘You leave the skin exposed so the meat can breathe, but the meat doesn’t start tasting harsh or gamey because it’s protected by the fat,’ he explains. ‘The skin absorbs all the off flavours, so when it’s ready to cook you just cut that off and you’re left with perfectly aged meat that’s just unbelievably good.’

Over the years Gareth added a dehumidifier and fan, which keeps the room his meat ages in dry, and a UV filter, which kills any unwanted bacteria in the air. The room is kept dark and cool at all times, and Gareth only goes in once a day to ensure the environment is as sterile and clean as possible. It’s this, combined with the high fat content of Wagyu beef, that allows him to age beef for over an amazing 300 days. His Himalayan salt chamber is the latest improvement to the process, and he believes it will push the flavour and texture of his meat to the next level.

The question remains, however – why age meat for so long? We’re used to seeing steaks in the supermarkets that boast being aged for around twenty-one days, so why spend so much time and energy in leaving them for almost a year? ‘After twenty-one days beef is only just getting out of rigor mortis and starting to loosen up,’ says Gareth. ‘When you pick it up it’s flopping about and it leaves blood on your hands. There’s nothing wrong with that but the difference once you age it for longer is huge. When I pick up a piece of my aged beef my hands are covered in fat; it’s like having a block of butter in your hand. The texture is so soft and tender when it’s cooked, and the layers of flavour that build up are just indescribable. It’s hard to put into words just how good it tastes – you just have to try it.’

Hearing Gareth talk so passionately about his aged beef was certainly making my mouth water (particularly his description of it being like a block of butter) – but I had my reservations. I’d eaten beef before that was dry-aged for several months, but it had a strong, cheesy flavour that proved a bit too gamey for my liking. Surely, if that was a bit too intense for my tastes, then beef that was getting on for a year old would be even worse?

Not so. Thanks to Gareth’s fat-ageing technique and the use of a UV filter to eliminate unwanted bacteria, there were no off flavours whatsoever in the portion of beef he cooked for me. After a long, slow cook in a water bath and a quick sear on the plancha, Gareth’s beef wasn’t funky or strong-tasting. Instead, it was simply the beefiest beef I’ve ever eaten, with a texture that makes eating butter feel like chewing on gristle. It was astonishing; the richness of the meat was amplified tenfold, with waves of umami hitting my taste buds with every bite. Safe to say, it was the best piece of beef I’d ever tasted, and I instantly understood why Gareth goes to such lengths to create it.

While beef is the main focus at Ynyshir, Gareth uses his ageing technique on every kind of meat he can get his hands on. ‘We don’t age anything for as long as the beef, but we experiment with everything,’ he says, taking an aged pig’s head off the shelf. ‘We age deer for three months, but it has to have at least half an inch of fat across the top to protect it. The flavour difference is just insane – it takes on this slightly acidic taste that boosts that natural venison flavour. We serve it with pickled black beans because it has the strength to stand up to it.

‘We do lamb for three months as well, and take duck liver to four weeks, which changes it a lot,’ he adds. ‘We get Aylesbury ducks from Fishguard and age them for three weeks just to get the moisture out of the skin so it really crisps up, and we’ve even aged chicken for two weeks which turned out beautiful.’

All this aged meat can sound a bit scary, and Gareth has certainly had to fight a few battles with HMRC to prove he’s not just letting meat rot in a room. But despite never having aged meat before he came to Ynyshir, he’s only ever had to throw away one sirloin. ‘I gave it a sniff, thought it was a bit odd, then cooked a little bit and it tasted bitter, so I had to throw the whole thing away. I cried when that happened – I’d spent 200 days looking after it!’

Gareth has been at Ynyshir for five years now, but he says it’s only in the last two that he’s been confident in his cooking. And while his menu is full of preserves, ferments and Japanese ingredients such as miso and soy (which he prefers to use instead of salt), it’s clear his incredible aged meat is the main focus. It’s rare to find someone creating something completely unique in the world of food, but Gareth is doing just that. Much like Nathan Outlaw, who showed us the possibilities fish and seafood can have, Gareth is doing the same with meat. Ynyshir might require a bit of a journey to get to, but if you’re after some of the best food being cooked in the UK right now, make a booking and eat there before it gets the recognition (and resulting long waiting list) it deserves.

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