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Raised in tranquility above the placid waters of the Seto Inland Sea, the cattle on Shodoshima are as mellow as the setting. It’s an island that operates at its own pace, as you’re likely to find once you’ve disembarked from the one-hour high-speed ferry ride from Takamatsu.

That is not to say Shodoshima is a bucolic rural backwater. As the second-largest island in the Inland Sea, it has a population of about 28,000, and has long supported a thriving tradition of farming and food production.

For 400 years, the temperate microclimate in this corner of the Inland Sea has proved ideal for brewing shoyu (soy sauce). While the number of producers on the island has dropped from 400 to around 20, those that remain continue to uphold the long, slow fermentation methods of old, with many still using traditional wooden barrels.

In more recent times, Shodoshima’s main claim to fame has derived from the olive orchards that can be seen dotted across the coastal landscape. First introduced in the early 20th century to produce oil for Japan’s burgeoning canning industry, the trees have now rooted themselves as a key component of the island’s identity — there’s a reason it’s often called “Olive Island.”

Groves: Olive trees have rooted themselves as a key component of Shodoshima’s identity — there’s a reason it’s often called “Olive Island.” | GETTY IMAGES
Groves: Olive trees have rooted themselves as a key component of Shodoshima’s identity — there’s a reason it’s often called “Olive Island.” | GETTY IMAGES

Within the last decade, however, a third major food industry has come to the forefront, thanks to the efforts of local farmer Masaki Ishii. He was inspired by two separate strands of the island’s food culture — raising cattle and the ubiquitous olive industry — and brought them together to create a premium brand of wagyu beef with a reputation expanding far beyond Kagawa.

Ishii, now in his 70s, is still based in the modest ranch his family set up some 50 years ago in the island’s unspoiled hinterland. These days, he has about 25 head of black-coated wagyu cattle, including three breeding mothers (and, currently, one very young calf). Kept in spacious pens, they are calm and unstressed, inquisitive, healthy looking and, by all appearances, happy.

From the start, he fattened up his cows for sale on the mainland, both in Kagawa and the Kakogawa Market in Hyogo Prefecture. But he quickly became frustrated by the wide difference in price his cattle commanded compared to those produced under the local Kobe beef brand. Although his wagyu achieved the same quality grades, they sold for up to ¥1,000 less per kilo. It was the head of the market who spelled out the situation for him.

“Instead of using the generic Sanuki (an alternate name for Kagawa) label,” Ishii recalls, “he said we needed to create our own brand if we wanted to compete, one that had its own distinct local identity.”

The idea of using the lees from Shodoshima’s olive oil production came to Ishii immediately. However, getting the cattle to actually eat these leftovers from the pressing process turned out to be more problematic. The mash was too oily and astringent — as off-putting to the cows as it would be to humans.

Prize-winners: Komame Shokudo serves Olive-fed Wagyu Beef; the brand has won awards at the five-yearly national competition known as the “Wagyu Olympics.” | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Prize-winners: Komame Shokudo serves Olive-fed Wagyu Beef; the brand has won awards at the five-yearly national competition known as the “Wagyu Olympics.” | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Eventually, he came up with a process of drying and roasting the olive remains to caramelize the sugars, and then grinding them into a black powder that has an appetizing, lightly sweet aroma. After getting the bovine equivalent of a thumbs up, he then worked out how much of the olive powder should be used to supplement their feed, landing on up to 200 grams each per day, given along with the regular feed, for the last two months before they are shipped to market.

This matters when it comes to the taste. The high oleic acid content in the olives is transferred to the cattle, imbuing an extra edge and lightness to the flavor of their fat. When Ishii gave the market president a blind tasting, the reaction was immediate, and positive.

“That was the first time anyone had praised the taste of my beef,” Ishii says. More than just vindication of his efforts, this success was reflected in his bottom line. The olive-fed beef commanded an extra couple of hundred yen or more per kilo — not yet up to Kobe beef levels, but a distinct improvement from before.

Soon, other farmers on the island wanted a piece of the action. From the start, Ishii was keen to share his know-how and help create a wider market presence for the entire island. In 2010, the Olive-fed Wagyu Beef brand (Orību-gyū in Japanese) was created. By 2017, Shodoshima cattle were winning awards for fat quality at the National Competitive Exhibition of Wagyu, a five-yearly national industry competition often nicknamed the “Wagyu Olympics.”

It wasn’t long before enquiries started coming in from overseas markets such as Hong Kong, Thailand and the U.S. With wagyu all the culinary rage, the olive-fed beef sold at a premium in New York, valued as much for its extreme rarity as its flavor.

Even inside Japan, olive-fed wagyu can be hard to track down, with little available as yet in Tokyo. But within Kagawa, there are around 60 restaurants that feature it on their menus. These range from simple local diners such as Komame Shokudo, a beautifully converted rice storehouse in the hills of Shodoshima that serves excellent olive-fed wagyu burgers, to more sophisticated eateries in Takamatsu.

At Nakamura Honten, a sleek yakiniku grill in the prefectural capital, owner-chef Naoki Nakamura is a big fan of the local wagyu brand, which he says has a lighter flavor that makes it easier to digest — and order more of. Besides all the standard cuts, he likes to keep some of the rarer parts for his favored customers, such as haraki (outside skirt) or habaki (heel). Seared quickly over charcoal and served simply with a ponzu dip, these are strictly connoisseurs’ cuts.

Back on Shodoshima, Ishii is more than happy to talk about how good his beef tastes. But his other point of pride is the way olive-fed wagyu contributes to the island’s environment. With around 2,500 head of olive-fed wagyu now being shipped each year, that means more than 50 tons of olive residue is being used as feed rather than overwhelming the island’s limited available space for composting.

“The olive lees are a waste product; what we don’t use just gets thrown away,” he points out. “At the same time, the waste from our cows goes back to the olive orchards as fertilizer.”

It’s a balanced cycle that is both local and sustainable, and the potential is massive.

For more information, visit olivefedbeef.jp.

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