If you visit Michael Wilhelm in the high-alpine world of Windachtal above Sölden (Ötztal, Tyrol), you immediately understand that running a hill farm has, only in the rarest cases, anything to do with romance and picture-postcard weather. In fact, it’s generally back-breaking work that simply doesn’t garner the respect it deserves. Grazing and growing here in Windachtal, as well as thousands of other areas of alpine pastures in Austria, are breeds of livestock that are indigenous to the Alps, creatures that represent a great genetic as well as culinary treasure. They are the “antithesis” of the cattle, whose meat we all too often encounter on restaurant menus: that turbo-fattened, chronically medicated, high-output beef brought to us by the New World.
Here at the Windach, his animals manage to apportion the alpine grazing areas perfectly. Bustling around in the somewhat lower regions at around 2,000 meters above sea level are Tux cattle, some crossed with Wagyu, on lush green meadows that produce an enormous diversity of plant species and outstanding food for the cows. His racka sheep and yaks also manage to find the calories they need, in this case on the rocky mountainsides in the upper section of this high valley. Michael has even tracked down his animals at elevations as high as 3,000 meters.
“Because they are continually on the move while they graze, their muscle meat becomes more compact and must be allowed plenty of time to hang after slaughter”, he explains, and then begins to rave about the quality of the Tux beef he produces: “It is an intensely flavorful, coarse-grained beef with a beautiful texture. The way beef used to taste. Nowadays, for many consumers the meat can’t be soft enough, and a distinctive flavor isn’t desirable either. Sadly, the star of the table is often BBQ sauce.” Tux beef, on the other hand, definitely took center stage at the Paris World’s Fair in 1889. Small and even dainty with a slender head, they are truly beautiful, especially the calves. The Russian czar was so taken by them, he purchased an entire herd, which he had driven from Zillertal to Moscow.
Today, chefs like Andreas Döllerer in Golling are among Michael Wilhelm’s customers: “Meat with deep Alpine roots, and the kind of flavor I truly prize.” His Tux cattle are allowed to grow slowly and not slaughtered until they are at least three years old, in ways that cut the stress on the animals to an absolute minimum, either out in the field or by “personal appointment” with a slaughterer he trusts. The meat then hangs for up to 9 weeks, with meat fans anxiously awaiting their delivery from “Michl”.
That includes James Baron of Hotel Tannenhof in St. Anton, who has also taken a liking to the racka sheep: “In Michl’s products, you clearly taste his unconditional passion and deep understanding for the nature of his cattle and sheep. His work produces absolutely splendid quality.” At the Koch.Campus Chef´s Table at the Siegerlandhütte, he grilled up heart of racka, which he had marinated in Dirndl juice for four days beforehand, rolled them in an einkorn wrap, and garnished with a Dirndl crème, goat cream cheese and sorrel. Michael’s grandfather brought the first of the sheep from Hungary back in 1922, and gave them a new home right here.
Twenty years ago, Michael added his first yaks and finds it fascinating to work with them: “They behave just like wild animals and survive in this high valley perfectly well alone. If it gets too warm for them, they like to cool off in the glacial lake just above the Siegerlandhütte”, comments the man known in these parts as “Yak Michl”, convinced as he is that yaks are in their element here in Windachtal. Their meat is grainier than Tux beef, somewhat reminiscent of wild game – a truly special product, that he mainly sells to private customers.
No wonder, then, that “Yak Michl” doesn’t swim in the mainstream of the otherwise rather commercialized Ötztal, and is very much regarded as a maverick. “I would love for our restaurants to have a greater demand for good regional products. After all, they are an important part of our identity. It goes without saying that it costs more than mass-produced imported meat, of course. But with 2.5 million overnight stays annually, surely it’s doable.”