LUMA – After the Mold Comes the Luxury

 

 

On their quest to produce beef of consistently high quality, two young Swiss entrepreneurs, Lucas Oechslin and Marco Tessaro, developed a new maturation procedure in which meat is hand-sprayed with a special mold that gives it an incredibly tender texture and a distinctive flavor. Before long, gourmets and top chefs discovered Luma beef for themselves, and it has become a sought-after luxury product.

In the meat branch, as in most trades, it’s rare that someone strays from the beaten path. Not so, Lucas Oechslin and Marco Tessaro. At first, it was more of a hobby for the two young men: With almost boyish inquisitiveness, they scrutinized current practices in the business and “just tried out different things with meat.”

The two have been friends since childhood and both became mechanics before going on to pursue different professions. “Having known each other for so long makes working together really easy,” Lucas says, recalling how it all started. “We were watching TV when Marco suddenly asked me why some meat is more tender than others. At the time, I was studying biotechnology and working on my thesis, Genetics in Cattle Breeding.” Marco had already begun a career in business administration. “From that point on, the question continued to play in our minds, probably because we both really like eating good meat. The idea to turn the results into a business venture was Marco’s idea, of course,” says Lucas with a smile. “He’s the more business-minded of the two of us.” At the time, they were sharing an apartment in Zurich. After Lucas graduated and found a job as well, they spent their free time experimenting on different procedures. “We didn’t have anything to lose, so we tried out different things. All of a sudden, we found ourselves in the middle of this business,” Lucas explains.

I always wanted to run my own business, not follow someone else’s orders. Working with Lucas is the perfect solution.

In a small village on the lake of Zurich, butcher Fritz Morach taught them the tricks of the trade. “That was a very interesting period and we learned a lot about the business. In the tiny storage space we had at the butcher’s, we also cultivated and tested our first mold strain.” Finding the right mold for the maturation process was the most difficult part of the entire operation. “We were looking for a type of mold that develops quickly because this shortens the maturation period of the meat. Also the mold couldn't be toxic, had to have certain kinds of enzymes, contain no fibers, and develop below 5°C. Based on these criteria, they then developed a matrix. “In the end, around ten different kinds of mold fulfilled the criteria and we worked with them.”

Lucas found the perfect strain in nature; yet, in order to achieve the purest possible form, the mold is now cultivated artificially in the Luma laboratory in Zurich. Extracted from the original mold strain, a fresh culture is developed time and time again. Before it can be sprayed on the meat, it has to be made liquid. It is then sent in flasks to Neuhausen am Rheinfall, in the canton of Schaffhausen, where the business premises of Luma Beef are located. After receiving the patent for the maturation process in summer 2011, events accelerated. “Suddenly we had all this here,” Lucas says, and his gaze sweeps across the large halls. Marco looks up from behind his laptop and says, “I always wanted to run my own business, not follow someone else’s orders. Working with Lucas is the perfect solution.”

“To be honest, we thought we’d probably work in an old butcher’s shop,” Lucas tells us. “But we couldn’t find anything that complied with the regulations of the health department.” Their startup is a combination of cold storage rooms, butcher’s shop, office, and skateboard park. A distinctive aroma hangs in the air. The office spaces have a lot of windows and are separated from each other only by a glass panel. A green military-style coat, a baseball cap and a bright blue backpack hang over the back of a chair. Pencils and pens are arranged in a coffee mug with the logo of Marco’s previous employer. Their laptops are decorated with stickers like In-N-Out Burgers. “Somehow we still have too much space,” Lucas remarks cheerfully as we pass a mini skateboard ramp and even a barbecue that looks a bit forlorn in the large space. The halls are located next to a small forest, not far from the Rhine Falls. “The Canton recognized our potential and gave us financing that we don’t have to repay as long as our company is based in Schaffhausen for at least five years, and on the condition that we create jobs.”

At present, the company has seven employees, all of them young men. Three pictures of the mold hang on the wall just by the entrance. Lucas uses the pictures to explain what happens in the cold storage rooms. Glancing sideways at us he says, “Some people think mold is ugly. I really can’t understand that. It looks just like a magical forest, don’t you think?”

In the cold store, the fine cuts of meat are arrayed on metal racks. The meat is dry aged and matures for several weeks on the bone. Prior to this, the liquid mold is sprayed on the meat with a type of paint gun. “We’re the only ones doing this,” Lucas tells us. The patented procedure allows the mold to grow until a thick layer covers the meat. The spores penetrate the meat and partly dissolve the collagen that encloses the muscle fibers – making the meat tender. After the maturing process, the mold is removed and the meat is shock frozen until it’s ready to be cooked.

Some people think mold is ugly. I really can’t understand that. It looks just like a magical forest, don’t you think?

Luma Beef supplies private customers, top chefs, and restaurants. Where until recently only Argentinian or Wagyu beef could be found on the menu, now Luma beef is often also available. “We’re very pleased,” Lucas says. “We kept on asking ourselves why we couldn’t elevate Swiss meat to the same high quality of American or Argentinian steak.” Instead of continuing to mull over the question themselves, they contacted a number of top chefs and asked them. These replied that the problem lies in the inconsistent quality of Swiss meat. “We managed to eliminate that problem by letting the meat mature up to the optimal point and then flash freezing it. That way the quality is always consistent and excellent meat is guaranteed. That’s what makes our product special,” Lucas says.

It will take a while, however, until clients accept that deep-freezing does not automatically equal a loss of quality. The quicker the meat is frozen, the better. But, according to Lucas, a lot of communication work is necessary. “The problem with freezing is that – if done too slowly – the cells in the meat get damaged when the product thaws. Slow freezing causes relatively large ice crystals to form and these damage the cell structure.” This can lead to loss of juiciness when defrosting. Flash freezing at -40°C, as Luma does, eliminates this problem and guarantees succulence, flavor, and even a longer shelf life. “But that is unfortunately not in everyone’s interests,” Lucas points out. “Because it would mean that supermarkets would throw away a lot less meat than they do now.” If that were the case, meat manufacturers would sell less because the demand would sink. “A vicious circle that really should be broken,” Lucas feels. He takes down a large piece of wrapped meat from the shelf and proudly shows us the fine marbling of the meat. “Every piece will always have this high quality – the high quality that distinguishes us,” he says. “With our products and procedure, we want to take at least one step in the right direction. Not only by educating people about the long-term benefits, but also by providing the best meat for a barbecue.”

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