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Sheep ≠ Sheep

An Exploration in Taste at the Koch.Campus

06.04.2020

“Powerful, fresh and dense with delicate notes of fresh hay” — “beautiful balance of fat, meat and flavor with full-bodied texture.” These are just two of the descriptions cooked up by a circle of experts to define the taste profiles for several different breeds of sheep. The fascinating experiment at the Koch.Campus put the focus squarely on domestic Austrian sheep breeds and the impact of raising them on the high alpine terrain. The study ultimately produced three taste profiles intended to help chefs decide which types of mutton best fit their dishes.

Koch.Campus 2020 Experiment Schaf – Alpinmanufaktur / Tiroler Bergschaf / Texelschaf / Zackelschaf © Helge Kirchberger
The comparison covered ten different breeds of sheep — including these Tyrol Mountain, Texel and Racka sheep © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus 2020 Experiment Schaf – Andreas Döllerer & Michael Wilhelm © Helge Kirchberger
The masterminds behind this exploration in taste: Andreas Döllerer and Michael Wilhelm © Helge Kirchberger

The Question

“Sheep instinctively head towards high alpine terrain,” reports Michael Wilhelm. His company “Alpinmanufaktur,” based in Sölden, specializes in the cultivation of alpine breeds. His renowned meats are purchased by high-end restaurants, including prize-winning chef Andreas Döllerer in Golling. “Mutton from mountain sheep allowed to move freely among the high alpine meadows is especially delicately marbled with a firm texture and extraordinarily elegant aromatics,” gushes Döllerer, who has made a name through his “Cuisine Alpine.” An interesting question arose during a lively exchange between the two quality fanatics, both members of the Koch.Campus: How broad are the potential taste markers for mutton and what is the influence of breed and captivity style?

An Exploration in Taste

They sought to find answers through a large-scale taste experiment. Michael Wilhelm arranged for eleven similarly aged young sheep from different breeds to be brought to his meadows in Windachtal in June 2019. There they roamed freely in high alpine terrain stretching up over 2,000 meters, until October 2019, when Wilhelm drove ten of them back to his stall. One of the sheep had not survived its stay in the mountains. The animals spent the winter in the stall, eating hay from the alpine meadows. This period of quiet and the mineral-rich hay, essential oils and spicy alpine herbs lent a firmer texture and delicate aromatics to the quality of the meat.

Koch.Campus 2020 – Windachtal © Alexander Lohmann
Paradisaical conditions - the 4,500 hectare meadow in Windachtal, in the Ötz Valley. © Alexander Lohmann
Koch.Campus 2020 Experiment Schaf – Alpinmanufaktur © Helge Kirchberger
Hearty sheep at Michael Wilhelm's farm © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus_Schlachtung Schaf_Michael Wilhelm_Alpinmanufaktur © Jürgen Schmücking
Humane slaughter © Jürgen Schmücking
Koch.Campus_Geschmacksexperiment_Schaf_Reisetbauer_Reitbauer_Dorfer © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus members at work: Hans Reisetbauer, Heinz Reitbauer (Steirereck) and Thomas Dorfer (Landhaus Bacher) engaged in expert discussion. © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus 2020 Experiment Schaf / Flight 1 © Helge Kirchberger
Flight # 1: Alpines Steinschaf, Île-de-France and Swiss Black-Brown Mountain Sheep in direct comparison. © Helge Kirchberger

The animals were then slaughtered on February 10 and delivered to Andreas Döllerer in Golling on February 16. A group of 30 experts, including members of the Koch.Campus and several other of Austria’s finest tasters, convened on February 17 for an intensive comparative tasting. The ten sheep and two interlopers (a Blue Goas ibex and mouflon) were then evaluated.

The experts were instructed to grade the presented meat using a 10-point system and then to provide a sensory description. First, the animals’ necks were evaluated for aroma, build, fat cover, marbling, color and structure. The haunches and racks of the twelve animals were then served tartar-style as well as lightly roasted for analysis.

Results

The appetizing findings from the tasting: the mountain sheep breeds delivered a notably characteristic mutton that impressed through strong fat cover, lovely marbling, good structure and especially delicate aromatics. The domestic races, with their generally milder taste profile, also gained in distinctiveness as a result of their alpine excursion.

Koch.Campus 2020 – Schaf Experten Gruppe © Helge Kirchberger
The experts — even for trained palates, assessing the mutton was no easy task. © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Alpines Steinschaf © Helge Kirchberger
Alpines Steinschaf © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Ile de France © Helge Kirchberger
Île-de-France © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Swiss Black-Brown Mountain Sheep © Helge Kirchberger
Swiss Black-Brown Mountain © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Racka © Helge Kirchberger
Racka © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Jezersko Solcava © Helge Kirchberger
Jezersko–Solčava © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - German Merino © Helge Kirchberger
German Merino © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Suffolk © Helge Kirchberger
Suffolk © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Texel © Helge Kirchberger
Texel © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Tyrol Mountain © Helge Kirchberger
Tyrol Mountain © Helge Kirchberger
Koch.Campus - Valais Blacknose © Helge Kirchberger
Valais Blacknose © Helge Kirchberger

Documentation

Precise details about the methodology for the experiment, as well as in-depth tasting notes, can be found in the sheep project documentation (German only) from the Koch.Campus.

The process was also documented by photographers Helge Kirchberger and Jürgen Schmücking. A collection of the best photos is available here.

PICTURES (downloadable)
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